Humanism and republicanism: shared values and common goals

Humanist, republican and Green Party candidate Mark Summers shares his thoughts on the relationship between Humanism and republicanism. This guest blog post coincides with the eve of a Royal wedding and the annual Leveller’s Day celebrations in Burford. Mark who is also a Shelley expert and parish councillor for Long Lawford can be found at @New_Leveller on Twitter and

“If someone claims that in an earthly government things can go on perfectly well without the king’s ordering or dealing with anything, we can reasonably suspect him of wanting to get rid of the king altogether. Similarly, anyone who maintains that the world can continue to run its course without the continual direction of God the supreme governor has a doctrine that does have the effect of excluding God from the world.”

Exchange of papers between Leibniz and Clarke – Clarke’s first reply (26 November 1715)

This literary exchange between Isaac Newton’s close friend, the philosopher Samuel Clarke (1675-1729) and German natural philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) illustrates a fundamental historical link between republicanism and humanism. Viewed as a twin threat by the traditional ‘King and Church’ establishment they shared a common notion that facts and social structures should be determined by reason, being open to contestability and revision.

Modern republicanism and humanism were born in the same intellectual space. Inspired by the ethical and political writings of the classical world, especially the Greeks Aristotle and Polybius and the great Roman senator and lawyer Marcus Tullius Cicero they share a common heritage in the Renaissance. Indeed, Classical Republicanism was often used as a synonym for Civic Humanism. Since these beginnings in the Italian City States of the 15th and 16th centuries, republicanism and humanism have drifted apart slightly in terms of their objectives, with modern republicanism placing the advancement of liberty in political and constitutional terms as its central concern. This allows members of religious groups such as Quakers to espouse republicanism but not humanism.

So what were the historical commonalities and how are they reflected today? Central to the concern of Renaissance thinkers such as Niccolo Machiavelli was the provision of a public space as an environment for human fulfilment. Living in tumultuous political circumstances, Machiavelli was principally concerned with power and the responsibilities of those who wielded it to build a safe and secure society for all citizens. But during the seventeenth century, especially in England and Scotland, republicans started to build a case focusing on rights, albeit on the same foundation of public spaces.

Along with a concern for individual rights came an eagerness to question assumptions, to accept no authority as sacrosanct. As J.G.A. Pocock put it:

“…the Enlightenment generally [was] based on a complete rejection of prophecy, revelation and the Hebrew mode of thought at large.”

J.G.A. Pocock (1975) The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition

Putting together the related issues of human rights and a rejection of uncontested authority provides a core set of shared republican and humanist values for the modern world. The Humanist UK main webpage (retrieved March 2018) features the following definition of humanism from the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy:

For a Humanist the crucial factor in deciding whether an action is moral is the welfare of humanity rather than the pursuit of the will of a deity or a sacred text.

There are two aspects of this statement which is reflected directly in republican thinking. Firstly, the word ‘deciding’ implies freedom of individual action, to weigh up evidence and come to a conclusion based on that evidence. Such an ability, free from coercion and the possibility of being punished in some way is part of the explicit goal of republicanism.

Secondly ‘welfare’ implies an interest in the general health and well-being of a group. This is a recurring republican theme, with thinkers such as Montesquieu emphasizing that a well-functioning republic requires widespread civic virtue, by which is meant the active participation of citizens united by a concern for the common good.

Over the past two decades political philosopher Philip Pettit has been instrumental in developing a modern view of Republicanism both as a theory of freedom and a system of government. Pettit has put forward what he calls the ‘eyeball test’ as one indicator of the level of freedom in a society. The test states that in an ideal society any individual should be able to look another squarely in the eye without fear or prejudice. This is yet another fundamental principle which the republican shares with the humanist, that each person should show respect to his or her fellows irrespective of class, political, racial or religious background.

Although republicanism encompasses a much broader view than narrow antimonarchism, it is still a touchstone issue for the principles I have briefly outlined. But with a British Monarchy apparently tightly constrained by custom and statute is the republican concern with rights in such a constitution relevant to the humanist? I believe it is, for the following reasons. Consider, for example, the Royal Prerogative, an essentially accountable power which can be used to bypass Parliament and the judicial system. Though today mostly exercised by Cabinet Ministers this dangerous appendage to the monarchial system must be dismantled and the powers controlled as Parliament sees fit. This is before we consider the status of the Monarch him/herself as Supreme Governor of the Church of England with its enshrined right to have 26 Bishops in the House of Lords is taken into account. Likewise the fact that all legal and executive authority derives from one single source means that the monarch is above the law and cannot be prosecuted or called as a witness in a criminal trial. To do so would effectively mean the Queen prosecuting herself or possibly giving evidence against herself! The existence of a person above the reach of the law not only causes a fundamental problem of accountability but certainly fails the eyeball test.

As both republicans and humanists argue for a society based on open communication, discussion, criticism and unforced consensus, the fact that the Monarchy not only enjoys exemption from Freedom of Information but also forces the media to sign restrictive contracts effectively handing editorial control of any interview material to the Palace presents us with further problems. Finally, that one particular family are kept in a privileged position in perpetuity without being subject to accountability cannot be regarded as promoting the common good.

I have aimed to show that while the modern ideas of republicanism and humanism have diverged in some ways the root concepts of open rational-based decision making, contestability and respect are fundamental core values. The enlightenment which began in the sixteenth century was powered by a willingness to contest ideas and when necessary replace them with new, better or more appropriate ideas. Both Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz lie at the foundation of the rationalist enlightenment programme. That they equated republicans to atheists in a heinous category shows just how far we have come in the last three centuries. The fact that we retain a state religion while British republicans are still viewed with suspicion and occasional hostility shows how far we have yet to go.

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