On Being Human Interpretations of Humanism from

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On Being Human

Interpretations of Humanism from

The Renaissance to the Present
Salvatore Puledda
Translated by Andrew Hurley

Foreword by Mikhail Gorbachev
New Humanism Series

Copyright © 1996 Salvatore Puledda.

English translation copyright © 1997 TWM. All rights reserved.

For information on the New Humanism Series contact Latitude Press

www.latitudepress.com • P.O. Box 603, Cardiff, California 92007-0603.

This limited-distribution version is being circulated for translation comments.

Praise for On Being Human

“Dr. Puledda’s book is a notable and important event, a contribution to the spiritual struggle to heal the current crisis of civilization and the search for a path of development that corresponds to the essence and needs of the human being.”

— From the foreword by Mikhail Gorbachev

“We live in a period of transition: the basic concepts elaborated by Western thought from the pre-Socratics to the present have to be reexamined. Between these concepts figures humanism with its connotation of values and freedom. Today, even in the hard sciences, we are going away from a rigid, deterministic picture of nature to descriptions that leave place for choices....the book by Salvatore Puledda is therefore most timely...makes fascinating reading and I recommend it warmly.”

— Ilya Prigogine, Nobel Laureate

“This important book is a vital contribution to our understanding of the 21st century.”

— Joan Halifax, Founder, Upaya

“This book gives an account of the roots of humanism designed to discover some common ground between those who have been nurtured in very different cultures, under very different religious, political and historical influences.”

— Right Honourable Tony Benn, MP (UK)


A Prerequisite For Survival

You have before you a book, On Being Human, that will certainly cause you to think, not only because it is devoted to the timeless topic of humanism, but also because, by setting this topic in its historical context, this book can help you see how a new humanism is the most valid approach to facing the key challenges of our time.

The author, Salvatore Puledda, rightly notes that humanism, in concept and content as well as in the actions it inspires, has a long and richly complex history that has ebbed and flowed like the oceans’ tides, at times coming to the fore and occupying center stage in the history of humanity and then at other times seeming to “vanish.”

Not that humanism has ever actually vanished altogether. Rather, it has simply been pushed into the background by those forces that noted author on humanism Mario Rodríguez Cobos (Silo) quite properly characterizes as “anti-humanist.” And during such periods of eclipse it has often been subjected to the most crude distortions. Anti-humanist forces have frequently donned a mask of humanism in order to pursue their monstrous deeds under its cover and even in its name. Yet despite this, the true idea of humanism has persisted somewhere deep in human consciousness and in the minds of our best thinkers as an ideal, a goal, a desirable direction for social endeavor.

Dr. Puledda is certainly correct when he asserts that humanism, both past and present, has been subject to myriad and even quite contradictory interpretations. Furthermore, different types of readers will likely perceive the content of this book in different ways, depending on whether they agree or disagree with its conclusions. In fact – and this is an important characteristic of the work – Dr. Puledda does not claim that he possesses the ultimate truth; he reasons and invites the reader to reason with him.

As for me, I am convinced that On Being Human is a book that is both timely and relevant. It is my belief, as well as that of others in the foundation I head, that we are in the throes of a crisis that is shaking the very foundations of modern civilization, in the process nearly exhausting its potential. You could say this is a crisis of the human being, of humanity itself.

Everything that is happening – certainly the greater part of it – seems like nothing so much as an attack on the human being. So many things are arrayed against us: the numerous consequences of the ways that scientific-technical progress is applied (which with other approaches to using its fruits could make life for all people better and more dignified); the related and profound crisis in society’s relationship to the rest of nature; upheavals in the sociopolitical sphere; the exacerbated contradictions between the human being and society, between the human being and the powers that be; the impasses reached in developing education and culture. While I could go on, I will instead refer all who are interested in the ideas of contemporary humanism to Silo’s Letters to My Friends: On Social and Personal Crisis in Today’s World (Cartas a mis amigos). I recommend this work because it treats these problems in detail, and specifically from the standpoint of a new and authentic humanism; Silo and I share very similar views on the current crisis facing both society and the individual.

The problem of society’s relationship to the rest of nature has today reached tragic proportions. The solution to this problem cannot be purely anthropocentric, however, for just as human beings are the highest development of conscious life, they are also at the same time a part of nature. The task, I am convinced, is not to try to ensure society’s dominion over nature (as has been proposed for centuries), but instead to create conditions for their harmonious, mutually dependent development. Humanity can secure all it needs from nature only if it sees to nature’s needs and helps to restore and maintain the seriously disrupted balance of the biosphere.

Surmounting the crisis that has overtaken civilization, I believe, implies a transition to a new paradigm of human existence, a new civilization based on the importance and dignity of human beings and directed toward the full realization of their most ample characteristics – in other words, a transition to a civilization that is truly humanist, one that not only overcomes the current dangers and threats to the existence of the human family, to the very survival of our species, but also creates the necessary conditions for the dignified existence of current and future generations. It is only a slight exaggeration to say, summing things up in a few words, that we are talking about the need for a humanist “revolution.”

Revolution might not seem the appropriate word here if one considers only the way it is perhaps too widely understood today. I will therefore add that we are speaking of revolution by means of evolution, through gradual transformations and reforms, a converging consensus among various currents of thought and action. Naturally, this approach does not obviate the need to resist the forces of anti-humanism should they mount a counterattack. In principle, however, a humanist revolution implies humanist means that correspond to its content, for otherwise its very essence would be lost.

Something more is clear as well, I think. A humanist revolution will never come to pass – or will become only another manifestation of anti-humanism – if it takes the form of some imposed “universal leveling” or uniformity, that is, if it leads to stripping individuals, peoples, and nations of their freedom of choice. Silo is entirely correct when he asserts in the sixth letter of Letters to My Friends that “humanism is based on freedom of choice.”1 The entire history of humankind, which to this day has largely meant the suppression of freedom of choice, teaches us that it will take a humanist revolution to guarantee this freedom to the human being, to allow room for the intrinsic diversity of human existence.

Over ten years ago in the Soviet Union we undertook the transformations that came to be known as perestroika, which were intended to bring about a thorough and multifaceted humanizing of all spheres of life. First and foremost, our task was to accomplish the transition from totalitarianism, by its very nature an anti-humanist regime, to democracy. On the whole I believe we succeeded, although not everything that we planned was able to come to fruition as we wished.

In August 1991, anti-humanist forces, clinging to the old ways, organized a coup attempt, thereby undermining much of what we had contemplated. And what happened in December of that year – the dissolution of the Soviet Union – has carried its successor states down paths that in large part have meant a departure from the values and mission of perestroika. For Russia, then, as well as the other states that came into being through the breakup of the Soviet Union, the task of building a human life for its people remains largely unrealized to this day.

At the level of world politics, from 1985 on we vigorously directed our foreign policy toward facilitating cooperation with other nations in order to humanize the life of the world community, putting an end to confrontation and moving toward the peaceful and constructive collaboration between states and peoples that constitutes the precondition for accomplishing this task. Much was achieved along these lines: of paramount importance, bringing the Cold War to an end and shifting from the nuclear arms race to nuclear disarmament, from relentless accumulation of new types of arms to reducing weapons stockpiles. Explicit standards of human rights were finally recognized on a world level, and the crisis in the relationship between society and the rest of nature was mitigated though not resolved.

In all these areas we still face tasks of enormous magnitude and scope. We have a long way to go if we are to make the life of the world community more human and to overcome the surviving remnants of the confrontational past (and present in many ways as well).

Dr. Puledda is correct when he observes that our era is increasingly marked by an eclipse of traditional humanism. Nonetheless, it seems to me that we have now reached a stage where the age-old lack of humanism can finally be remedied.

The affirmation of a new humanism – a humanism not only of contemplation and compassion but also of action and cooperation – is the fundamental imperative of our time: it is the prerequisite for humanity’s survival. In this context, the publication of Dr. Puledda’s book is a notable and important event, a contribution to the spiritual struggle to heal the current crisis of civilization and the search for a path of development that corresponds to the essence and needs of the human being.
Mikhail Gorbachev


Who are we, these fascinating and restless creatures called human beings? Is there a fixed “human nature” predetermining our lives, or does human existence encompass the freedom to make choices within an ethical dimension – to choose to change the direction of our lives, or to change society as a whole?

These are more than abstract philosophical questions, for as events in our world accelerate in directions hard to foresee, all of us face difficult choices that affect both our own lives and those around us. And agreement about human nature and freedom is far from unanimous – all major political and religious movements have answered these questions in their own, often divergent ways.

In North America, readers are likely most familiar with definitions of humanism associated with debates such as those between evolutionists and creationists, or more generally between science and fundamentalism. In these sometimes heated arguments, humanism typically appears as a rationalist, naturalistic, and secular philosophy.

It is interesting that the debate concerning what it is to be human and humanism is far broader on a world scale. On Being Human approaches these questions on two levels that richly interrelate. On one level Puledda proves an open-minded and informative guide on a tour of some of Western civilization’s keenest minds as they probe the question, “What is it to be human?” In a very readable survey of such writers as Pico della Mirandola, Marx, Maritain, Sartre, Heidegger, Lévi-Strauss, Foucault and others, the author brings these sometimes intimidating figures to life through primary references that give the reader a firsthand experience of these thinkers grappling with a surprising range of approaches to the central questions of human life. Concluding with more recent proposals, including those of Gorbachev, Frankl, and the New Humanism of Mario Rodríguez Cobos (Silo), the author addresses the need for a new kind of humanism that must be, more than an idea or a philosophy, a human attitude in daily life that can resolve the paradox of building a society that embraces diversity while unifying people within a shared sense of their common humanity – a universal human nation.

On Being Human also acts on a second and more personal level by engaging readers in a helpful meditation on their own lives, on how they can be more fully human. Whether implicitly or explicitly, each of us follows inner models of desirable human qualities and behavior, and this book helps us become more aware of the models in our lives. As we think for ourselves anew on these questions, this forms a healthy antidote to today’s corrosive cynicism and apathy that deny change is possible for ourselves or society.

A refreshing broadening of traditional discussions on the human condition, On Being Human along with the Appendix extend the dialogue beyond today’s prevailing and increasingly unquestioned conception of the human being as nothing more than a “biochemical machine,” rendered ever less free, ever more insignificant by determining factors. Because this work goes beyond the traditional dialectic that places what it is to be human and humanism at odds with the subjective, with each person’s own experience of his or her existence, On Being Human is well-placed to stimulate renewed debate on the status and freedom of the human being at the close of the twentieth century.

The Editors

Translator’s Note

In beginning this book, the reader sensitive to issues of gender – as growing numbers of people are – will soon see that in this regard the book’s style is not consistent. The problem in question is the long-standing and nearly universal use of the word man and the various masculine personal pronouns to indicate all individuals of the human race. While the author, translator, editors, and our respective colleagues have grappled at some length with the problem, we have, unfortunately, not been able to find a satisfactory solution.

Contemporary language itself (and not only English; every European language) resists expressing the ideas that are central to the humanist position, among them that every human being, woman and man, possesses, at least in potential, the supreme value of the whole species. Every language from which this book takes its sources uses a masculine human-noun to designate all the members of the race; every one uses a masculine singular third-person pronoun as the “inclusive.” And there are no other nouns and pronouns available: even if one chooses to say “the individual,” there is still no gender-inclusive personal pronoun.

Faced with this continuing historical, linguistic, and human dilemma, our approach to the problem has been this: when a source such as Sartre or Heidegger uses the word man or the masculine inclusive pronoun he, the book simply quotes that source without attempting to “amend” history. Similarly, in speaking generally of the Renaissance, for instance, which tended to use those forms habitually, or when directly commenting on or summarizing a passage that has used one of the masculine-inclusive forms, this book may simply continue to use that form. But whenever it is logically possible to summarize a source in more gender-inclusive forms, or when it is the author, Salvatore Puledda, who is speaking about the human race and the individual members who comprise it, then the book uses humankind, humanity, the human being, and so forth, or sometimes the more personal locution he or she / him or her and its related forms. Thus, there are two languages, and no doubt two realities, at work in this book; therein the seeming stylistic inconsistency.

Ideally, our languages would permit the full inclusion of every member of the human race. But they do not, at least not now, and that, too, must be part of the program of New Humanism.


Today, the word humanism is understood in the most vague and indeterminate ways, and not infrequently it is employed by people of differing viewpoints in contradictory senses. Thus, in this survey I believe it is important to reconstruct the various ways in which the word humanism has been interpreted throughout its history, and to review, at least with respect to their essential features, the historical and philosophical contexts within which these interpretations arose. Frequently we find the term humanism used to indicate any current of thought that affirms the centrality, value, and dignity of the human being or that manifests a primary concern or interest in the life and situation of the human being in the world. Such a broad definition has allowed philosophers and observers to use and interpret the word in a surprising variety of ways, thereby giving rise to considerable confusion and misunderstanding. The designation “humanist” has been adopted by numerous philosophers who – each in his or her own way – have claimed to possess a knowledge of what or who the human being is and of the correct path toward the realization of those potentials that constitute an important part of being human. It is noteworthy that every philosophy that has called itself “humanist” has put forth a conception of the “nature” or “essence” of humanity. From its idea of “human nature,” each “humanism” then derives a series of consequences in the sphere of practice, always taking care to point out what human beings should or must do in order to fully manifest their “humanity.”

When used within a particular historical framework, the word humanism has a second meaning that is more limited and precise. In this case, the word is used to designate the complex and multiform cultural movement that several centuries ago produced a radical transformation of Western civilization and brought to an end the Christian Middle Ages. The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in Italy, where this fruitful “mutation” began, are known as the Age of Humanism, while the next hundred years, in which this transformation spread like a shock wave across all of Europe, is known as the Renaissance. Used in this context, the word humanism unequivocally indicates that specific cultural movement in the West, its forms and temporal limits historically defined.

In more recent times, a new interpretation, reformulating the concept of humanism and known as New Humanism, has appeared. Reflecting the current age, which is beginning to glimpse the first lights of a new and planetary civilization, this line of thought sets the concept of humanism within a historical perspective of global dimensions. It recognizes that the humanism that appeared in Europe during the period called the Renaissance was implicit in other cultures as well, cultures that in fact contributed in decisive ways to the formation of Western civilization. Seen from this perspective, humanism is not a geographically or temporally limited phenomenon but one that has arisen and taken shape at various times and in various parts of the world and that can, precisely for that reason, bring into confluence diverse cultures that now find themselves thrown into contact on a planet made ever smaller and more unified by mass media. Adding weight to that view are the profound direct and historically demonstrable contributions to historical and Renaissance humanism in the West from the cultures of the Middle East and the similarly substantial indirect contributions from the cultures of Asia. For the emerging movement known as New Humanism this is a point of utmost importance, though it is beyond the scope of this work and deserves to be dealt with in extenso in a work of its own.2

In this work we will begin by examining the aspects of Renaissance humanism that we view as essential to an understanding of its specific historical characteristics and its innovating energies. In this examination we will make a special effort to clarify the meaning of the ideal of humanitas, which was the emblem of Renaissance humanism, and we will review the new image of the human being and the natural world that Renaissance humanism constructed in opposition to the image that had prevailed throughout the Middle Ages.

We will then offer brief descriptions of major philosophical currents that have been called humanist in our own century. We will review Marxist, Christian, and existentialist humanisms, as well as humanisms of even more recent coinage such as New Humanism, attempting to cast light on the conception of the human being, explicit or implicit, held by each current. We will also give some space to the points of view of those who have directed radical criticisms against philosophical humanisms or taken programmatically anti-humanist positions. The first case is that of Martin Heidegger; the second includes the “structuralists,” represented here by the figure of Claude Lévi-Strauss, and also Michel Foucault.

We shall see in the course of this survey that while the philosophical currents of the nineteenth century exhibited a renewed interest in humanism, they arrived at radically divergent interpretations of it. In distinction to the Renaissance, then, in the twentieth century we find not a single unified current of humanism that is homogeneous in spite of its complexity; what we instead find is conflict among various humanisms, plural. And this is how, as we said at the outset, the meaning of the word has gradually been lost in a confusion of tongues and interpretations.

But the voices of this “Tower of Babel” have suddenly fallen silent. After the pronouncements of the “philosophers of existence” at the end of the 1940s, the debate over humanism apparently faded away. Today few voices (and those largely unheeded) are raised to propose to human beings a new understanding of their “humanity.” Indeed, while one hears much talk about “human rights” (often systematically trampled upon), “human nature” (described in vague and contradictory terms), and the proper place of the human being in the natural world (especially in light of the critical environmental problems now facing the world), it is clear that our day is witnessing an eclipse of humanism. This is not surprising, of course; humanist currents, which have appeared since the beginning of Western civilization, have displayed a behavior that is wave-like – appearing in certain periods and later fading from view, only to reappear once again. This is what happened with the humanism of antiquity, which developed in the Greek and Roman schools of philosophy and was then blotted out for ten centuries by medieval Christianity, only to arise once more with great vigor in the Renaissance. Renaissance humanism, in turn, gradually lost impetus until it was displaced by the anti-humanistic philosophies of recent centuries. If this is the way things are, then surely it is not utopian to anticipate the resurgence of a new current of humanism able to counteract the crisis of our own age, which includes our loss of the sense of what it is to be human – a crisis made all the worse by the prospect of global catastrophe in all its terrifying aspects.

Renaissance Humanism

1. The Return to the Ancients and the Ideal of Humanitas

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