The Little Humanist Lexicon
Death: The point at which decision-making and its consequences cease, along with the opportunity to acquire virtue, act in conformity with reason or to invite blame for failing to do so. As a self-conscious and anticipated reality, death has a special purchase on human imagination because it gives rise to the concept of “mortality,” whose root mors defines humanity in a teleological way: being toward death.
Masquerade: (1) The celebration of the Eucharist by a faithless priest. (2) Neol., A performance of piety contrary to conscience and common sense, especially prevalent in political life.
Complacency: (1) The opposite of tranquility (qv), complacency is passivity in the face of choice rather than philosophical resignation to consequences over which we have no control. (2) A false sense of the security of the status quo, based on ignorance or willful misunderstanding of causes, situations and solutions. In this sense, especially applicable to fictional characters like Jay Gatsby and British royals in the twenty-first century.
Tranquility: (1) Philosophical satisfaction involving a balanced sense of the both the possibilities and limitations of existence.
(2) The opposite of wealth.
Indifference: (1) One of the primary attributes of a discriminating mind, consisting in the belief that some things, ideas, people and movements are not worth caring about. For the true humanist, indifference is related to objects and not categories: for example, relative indifference to possessions does not entail a positive assessment of poverty. Indifference to particular ethical systems does not require complete cynicism towards morality. (2) Not many things are worth doing at all, let alone worth doing well.
Reverence: (1) An attitude of respect that entails personal, social and environmental (natural) objects and is rooted in the evolutionary and developmental history of the human race. Reverence does not necessarily entail respect for the supra-personal or supernatural except as “images” of natural things, misconstrued as objects of devotion (qv). (2) A fundamental summary of humanist ethics (Schweitzer: Reverence for Life) based on the belief that “good consists in maintaining, assisting and enhancing life, and to destroy, to harm or to hinder life is evil.” Not to be confused with the Roman Catholic theological principle enunciated by Pope John Paul II in Evangelium vitae (the Gospel of Life).
Mystery: (1) The unexplained or unknown, not the misunderstood or hypothetical. (2) A natural sense of humility (qv) in the face of an intellectual horizon that can only be crossed, and then only imperfectly, by imagination. (3) A feeling that can range from elation to fear based on the quantum of discovery (fascinans: Otto), vastness (tremendum: Otto) or difficulty with which an event confronts us. (4) “Nostalgia for Paradise” (Eliade); “Choose Something Like a Star” (Frost).
Faith: In its non-theological sense, unsupported or provisional confidence in the reliability of unexamined propositions, states of affairs, or reports. In the epistemological sense, faith is a form of trust and as such not a step in a “reasoning process” grounded in the experimental world. It is different from “belief” in historical terms (e.g., Aquinas) as often being cited as a source of knowledge or wisdom and thus an alternative, or even superior, to such process.
Ethical Idealism: In the popular sense, the belief that we can construct noble and universally recognizable standards (norms) of behaviour based simply on rational principles. Modern discussion actually derives from ancient speculation, e.g., Cicero: “How are such virtues as generosity or love of country, or the desire to do good to your fellow man or gratuitude possible? All of them spring from the fact that we are by nature impelled to love one another.”
Altruism: An idea invented by Auguste Comte in the nineteenth century but anticipated in the ethical teaching of some religions, especially Christianity. Based on the belief that it is possible to intend to “do good” without promise of reward or fear of punishment, the concept properly belongs to evolutionary biology and behaviouralism rather than to theology. As an ethical ideal there is nothing in humanism that makes altruism an inappropriate symbol for personal conduct.
Revelation: (1) Metaphorically, the light of human reason: a capacity to know what is true. (2) Theol., The archaic doctrine that a divine being speaks through agents (prophets, seers, holy men, etc.) in order to communicate his will, laws, or intentions (“divine” or “particular” revelation); in this form, often associated with sacred books and practices.
Falsifiability: (1) A quality of statements of fact valued by reasonable women and men; (2) As a rule of thumb, a way of testing whether an event, entity or state of being existing in nature is generally true by limiting the domain of reference to what can be finitely observed to refute it. As an instance, the statement “God exists” is unfalsifiable (not false) because it cannot be refuted through finite observation or experimentation. (Cf. Verification)
Inspiration: That point in solving an equation, writing a sonnet, concluding an experiment, contemplating a difficult passage in philosophy, or listening to Beethoven’s Pastoral when the real purpose of being human becomes momentarily obvious.
Curiosity: (1) A healthy mental disposition towards discovery, satisfaction and understanding when accompanied by temperance (qv) but the source of uncertain consequences when pursued as mere experimentation. (2) Often used synonymously with “care” (worry) as a killer of cats.
Wit: (1) Knowing < wissen, archaically “having your wit(s) about you,” but more generally, exercising your intellectual powers. It can be found in wordplay, japes, quips, and off-the-cuff remarks. Never in a memorized joke, which is its opposite. (2) An intuitive perception that most apparently serious events, such as illness, stardom, pregnancy, or election to high office, are temporal and dull.
Ingenuity: (1) To create ethical or pragmatic solutions to situations that have arisen for an individual without a precedent in experience or learning. (2) Clever Clogs.
Empathy: The ability to derive from the joy or suffering of another a lesson for the self that results in a passionate response.
Hope: A fantasy permitted the humanist when combined with realism (qv), but never to be allowed when defined as “faith” or “chance.” (2) An Essay on Man, Epistle I, 1733.
Hedonism: (1) Physical, intellectual and spiritual contentment pursued as harmonious ends in their own right; (2) A joyous utilitarianism: “An introspective attitude to life based on taking pleasure yourself and pleasuring others, without harming yourself or anyone else.” (Michael Onfray)
Piety: (1) A completely secular term meaning loyalty or devout attention to responsibility, thus devotion to family, or to a vocation, or to the state. (2) As appropriated in philosophy and religion, doing what the gods desire (e.g., Euthyphro 12d, where it is defined as “a kind of justice.”)
Honesty: (1) Purity (qv) of intention as expressed in thought and action; the desire to do what love requires. (2) “Honesty has such scent; fresh-mown grass and rose perfume, fused with a warm Summer’s breeze.” (Fresh Cement, Dan Brown)
Indecision: (1) As a temporary state, the only defensible position for an intelligent woman or man confronted with the facticity of existence. It is not the same as “Choice” (qv) which is an action rather than a state of mind. It is not the same as “free will,” which applies to conditions rather to virtue itself. (2) As a chronic state of mind, a crippling inability to tell truth from fiction and to equate reality with physical options.
Exuberance: (1) An intense response to beauty in nature, and its reflection in art, music, literature, and, especially, conversation; (2) Wordsworth, Prelude (Book XI, ll. 258-278).
Pleasure: (1) Affirmation of the sublimely physical but not of the merely temporal, experimental, or casual. (2) A mental state; (3) Illusory happiness based on physical intensity.
Zeal: To desire what is good, to need what is good, and to be passionate about getting what is good: as such a determination to separate what is a true object of desire and what is not.
Heroism: A fiction invented by glorifiers of war, religion, and politics to ensure that practitioners of those professions would seem important to women and men of real accomplishment.
Education: (1) A formal route to learning in certain branches of knowledge, but not to wisdom. (2) The path that leads away from credulity.
Mindfulness: To be aware that you are not the steward of a world made by God or the gods; that stupidity always has consequences; and that the cure for stupidity is to learn all you can about the world.
Godliness: Acceptance of the principle that the responsibility for the choices you make cannot be appealed to a higher court.
Self-reliance: Learning to acquire in maturity a child’s outspokenness and indifference to criticism.
Gratitude: A sense of privilege, based on those moments when feeling the right way and doing the right thing coincide in action.
Apathy. The gift of being unmoved by stupidity, unneeded humour, or emotional excess.
Reticence: Practice in discerning those occasions when to act would mean to act unwisely.
Skepticism: (1)The intellectual tendency to regard all beliefs as provisional and all provisions as dubious. (2) A putative source of wisdom when not practiced to excess.
Concern: A virtue whose extreme form is piety and intrusiveness, but in its moderate form results in a desire to act toward the welfare of others, not only the self.
Pride: (1) The knowledge that fate is created in the image of free decisions and actions. (2) (Hist.) A theological vice thought to be an affront to the status of a divine being; formerly reserved for fallen angels and Greek tragic heroes.
Despair: The appropriate attitude toward the educational systems of the world as they relate to the acquisition of knowledge and the encouragement of curiosity.
Individualism: (1) The exhilaration of being certain for the first time that there are not now, and never have been, heroes. (2) Freedom from imitation.
Culture: (1) The opposite of what passes for political idealism, progress, innovation, entertainment, patriotism, and popular music. (2) A stirring of the soul (qv).
Reading: (1) The defining activity, together with writing, for which the human person is morally accountable to his soul. (2) Learning.
Manipulation: (1) Not to be confused with “teaching,” those strategies through which a wise man or woman persuades others that knowledge is superior to ignorance. (2) Republic 514A-520A.
Intolerance: (1) A position toward honesty, learning, and wisdom in which proponents of democracy and populism are exposed as Troglodytes and jackals. (2) Irascibility.
Soul: A mythical but iconic state of human personhood in which the self as a whole recognizes and reacts to the stimulation of excellence in any domain but the sexual.
Reason: Like the soul, a mythical but essential aspect of intelligence that points us toward truth and trains us to despise falsehood in every area of life.
Knowledge: (1) The only worthy object of gain because it cannot be commodified; (2) What happens to facts when they are understood.
Scientific Spirit: Used in moderation, a concern for fact and a desire for truth; used to excess, a narrowing of vision that excludes beauty, mystery and imagination.
Goodness: (1) A quality naturally present in most wolves, rarely evidenced in humans without adequate education in virtue. (2) Coll. Doing what you are told under fear of threat or punishment.
Solitude: The opposite of privacy, which is merely attitudinal; an ability to find pleasure in thinking without the distraction of conversation.
Happiness: (1) A temporary and inexplicable sensation of well-being; (2) (Arist.) The result of reflection and self-awareness, often associated with excellence in the arts, sciences or ethical practice; (3) (Cyn.) Delusion.
Criticality: Contempt for what is not deserving of praise or attention, thus especially applicable to American political life, Roman Catholic religious reform, new fields of study and theory introduced to university curricula after 1949, and all attempts to restore society to an imaginary status quo ante pre-1949.
Savoir-faire: Every humanist should know how to do something without its seeming too much trouble, hence with a kind of effortlessness that takes hold only in the competent individual. Cases in point are: making a normal martini, starting a car in the Canadian winter, knowing by heart at least one monologue from Shakespeare, eating a boiled egg without demolishing the shell, and telling the Mormon missionary at the door that he needs to consider what he’ll be doing in thirty years.
Temperance: Giving the appearance that you are cool, steady and unaffected by a comment, injustice or an unfortunate event when you are secretly plotting your revenge on the perpetrator.
Conservatism: (1) A sense of history that reminds the educated woman and man that not everything has been wrong or we would still be marvelling that rock is harder than water. (2) Consideration of the ideas and values of the past which, while free of idolatry, does not lead us to believe that the future is the only reality.
Liberalism: (1) Freedom from the inherited superstitions of the past, and at its best a willingness to take risks and accept truths that may have been falsehoods before they were subjected to scrutiny. (2) The ability to tolerate what is new without glorifying it as an end in itself.