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

1) 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, in contrast the Hebrews and Christians put God at that center.  Note the Iliad begins and centers around one individual's emotion: "Rage!"

2) Both/And vs. Either/Or: to be human is to be both heroic and deeply flawed, self-sacrificing and selfish, competitive and giving...and that's beautiful. 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 moral and psychological 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 (and he is a Trojan, not a Greek), but Achilles, perhaps the least honorable, is really the center of the epic, and despite his flaws -- and maybe perhaps even because of these flaws -- he is still the greatest hero.  Why? Because despite his great, divine gifts, he must still achieve his own humanity, he must struggle toward it, overcoming his weaknesses. 

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. The Greeks see this struggle as fascinating and beautiful.

3) Greek Humanism also refers to the Greeks' emphasis on the human body: on physical beauty and athleticism;  the Greeks see physical beauty as literally "divine", as godly.  Our own obsession with hot movie stars and with sports, and our culture's willingness to bestow massive economic benefits on athletes, comes directly from this legacy.  As you'll read, the original, Greek Olympics were also literally structured on the chapters of the Iliad and Odyssey that describe athletic events.

Keep in mind that in Ancient times, especially cultures predicated on war, athleticism represents an actual military advantage: one's ability to run and throw objects is what determines who lives or dies, and "sports" is simply a means of military training.

Oddly, our culture has largely kept the ritual value of sports as prowess while abandoning in some ways its military value: today the highest paid athletes will never see combat but receive great public honor, while combat soldiers often return to a life of obscurity and poverty.

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.

Our Philosophic and Democratic Heritage
Along with giving our culture its definitions of humanism, heroism, and its obsession with the physical body, the Greeks also plant our dual seeds of both philosophy and democracy: w
e 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); for the Greeks, many gods speak to many people and this sets the groundwork for a type of humanistic democratic equality.  The leaders consult one another in counsel and must weigh each others’ opinions democratically because, like the gods, a plurality of ideas has a divine origin.  Both Achilles and the author is willing to criticize Agamemnon, without detracting from his overall status as leader because while one god may inspire Agamemnon, another may inspire Achilles. 

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