Early Greek Humanism:  The Beauty of the Human Form and Essence

In the simplest terms, "humanism" refers to how Greek art and literature -- and art and literature in that tradition -- puts the human experience at the center of events, while in contrast the Hebrews and Christians put God at that center.  Note the Iliad begins and centers around one individual's emotion: "Rage!"

When we speak of "humanism" we are not talking about a philosophy or religion but rather how this type of literature and culture emphasizes the human experience in all its complexity.  Homer's treatment of both the Greeks and Trojans represents the best -- and perhaps the starting point -- of this tradition: Agamemnon is a great but flawed king;  Hector is the most honorable of the story's heroes, but Achilles, perhaps the least honorable, is really the center of the epic, and although at times dishonorable, he is still the greatest hero.  Why? Because despite his great, divine gifts, he must still achieve his own humanity, so while the Hebrews are interested in humans reaching for divine, Godly perfection, the Greek humanists are interested in how each of us must come to grips with, and make the best use of, our inherent human imperfection.

In other terms we mean the Greeks' emphasis on the human body: on Physical Beauty, Athleticism (contrast with Biblical Prophets, who are not really "heroes" but rather "chosen");  the Greeks see physical beauty as literally "divine", as godly.  Our own obsession with sports, and our culture's willingness to bestow massive economic benefits on athletes, comes directly from this legacy.  The original, Greek Olympics were also literally structured on the chapters of the Iliad and Odyssey that describe athletic events.

For the Greeks, all people can and do communicate with a god or gods; these gods exist very much in the real world, taking on the shape of humans (or even animals), and even often having sexual relations with humans etc.. These gods have a physicality that is increasingly missing in the OT god (and then returned in the NT god Jesus), and this physicality reinforces the belief that human physical qualities are themselves an element of the divine.  If the gods look like us, then we look like the gods; thus, our bodies are godly.

Effect on our culture: 
1) Heroism: our sense of heroism in our stories (especially superheroes, video gaming etc.)

2) Beauty Manifest in the Body: our ritualized worship of sports and, more to the point, athletes.  For example  Or this.

3) Humanism: An inherent respect for the dignity of all individuals regardless of their human shortcomings. Consider how often modern film/literary heroes are portrayed as flawed.

4) Seeds of Democracy and Philosophy:
We see in this story a willingness to engage in criticism and examination of those things that other cultures will not.  Both the Achaeans and the Trojans have gods on their sides (contrast to Hebrews, who write from the perspective of one God, on their side only).  The leaders consult one another in counsel and must weigh each others’ opinions democratically.  Both Achilles and the author is willing to criticize Agamemnon, without detracting from his overall status as leader.  Achilles is shown as faulty and yet still a hero.


The Artemision Bronze:

Zeus or Poseidon, Mid 5th Century BCE

Images from the Artchive:

Winged Victory of Samothrace (Nike)
Found on the island of Samothrace
Around 190 BC
Musée du Louvre, Paris


Belvedere Apollo
Roman copy of a Greek original from the fifth century BC
Pio Clementino Museum, Vatican

Man with Helmet
Bronze found in 1972 in the Bay of Riace, Calabria, Italy
The Greek original has been attributed to Phidias
Around 440 BC
National Museum, Reggio di Calabria