Humanism as the Ideology Behind Nazism

Cicero: The Founder of Humanism (1)

The Radio Four program, In Our Time, explores the key ideas of our century and of our existence; it is also a fantastic resource for students, because it covers topics from Philosophy to Shakespeare, and being an English student with an interest in Philosophy, consider it to be one of the corner stones of research. Today, I was preparing for an essay with a grounding in humanism and oppression, and so turned to the website and found The program, including the writer of one of the most important humanism texts, Tony Davies, went on to completely change my perception of humanism. It covered the complete history of the ideology from the founder, Cicero, to the somewhat convoluted version we have today.

Humanism is essentially the study of the self, and of human behaviour, and sought to change religious external ceremony from being entirely focussed on a higher authority to focussed on reflection and the understanding of the internal self. Cicero, who was a Roman politician, philosopher and academic in his own right, translated Roman texts alongside the Greek ideologies, and produced a less rigid, dogmatic approach to literature. He sought to produce a model of education that was complete and rounded, and focussed on the study of the self in relation to everyone else. He focussed on the study of poetry, philosophy and even gymnastics. He therefore created the Ciceronian tradition; however this wasn’t an easy, because as a part of this, he had to redefine terms such as “humanitas” to mean something pragmatic, that the Roman psyche could understand. Nevertheless, he managed to associate this new ‘humanist’ approach with a political basis, and thus formed the basis of Renaissance humanism. His published letters regarding the subject created the ‘public’ approach the classical education that he sought; and therefore brought the new style into a public arena.

The rediscovery of Cicero’s letters in the fourteenth or fifteenth century can be considered the motor of the Renaissance movement across Europe. The movement was composed of teachers who declared they were in support of the Ciceronian education. They alluded that this would lead to a more sophisticated man and a thoughtful individual, who can obey and support the political system promoted. Italian humanism was increasingly mystical and allegorical. In Northern Europe however it takes on a more Roman character, and the development of an active civic humanism. It produced a sense of belonging to a nation and to humanity as a whole, which was particularly important in the early age of empire.

Our human need to constantly reinvent tradition and investigate our genealogy led to the German fascination with Ancient Greek society; they constructed their own narrative, their own history, and their own education in line with the Ancient Greek tradition. Preserving the integrity of the person and self-reflection led to the perception of humanism among German academics as being very much about preserving the perfect world. However, at some point in the 19th and 20th century, this became far less focussed on the preservation of yourself as opposed to the preservation of humanity as a whole, and in the case of Germany and Nazism, in preserving the ‘perfect’ race.

At this juncture we can suggest that there would have been two approaches here; either to go back, and examine each person, reinforcing a philosophical, Ciceronian education so that they can react from an intellectual viewpoint to culture and influence, thus creating an intellectually sound race, or to eliminate those who they thought would threaten the ‘purity’ of such a nation. And at this point, Nazism became a dominant political ideology and felt that the destruction of perceived threats would be the most efficient way to preserve the nationalistic narrative that they had created for themselves.

It is possible to suggest then, that Humanism was corrupted by genocide in the 20th century. However now, after de-nazification, and the general rejection of Nazism as a viable political system, we can take the idea of humanism back to its roots, simultaneously confronting the tainted history it now carries (or that we can allude to it carrying) and return to the idea of the individual, a philosophical education, and perhaps most importantly of all, the independence of the mind. It is this that is perhaps the most defining feature of “pure” humanism which differs radically from that of Nazism; that humanism promotes independence of the mind. It is however this independence that leads to the politicizing of any educational ideology; it is inevitably linked to power structures because through education comes the new leaders, and therefore education cannot ever be mutually exclusive to politics.

I think I shall be spending much more time listening to radio four instead of Ed Sheeran, because I seem to like to absorb strange thoughts such as this. With thanks to

If anyone is wondering what to do on the long winter evenings, try listening to In Our Time on BBC Radio Four; there’s a topic I think for everyone (there’s literally hundreds!)