What is Humanism?

There are three discoveries that have significantly changed the modern world, that also have complimentary paradigm shifts for the tradition of magic.  First, the discovery of micro-organisms, that a tiny thing called a virus causes fever, or that hallucination was an ordinary behavior of the brain, and these were not in fact the result of demonic possession.  An enormous section of the library of magic (more than half) was dedicated to navigating the invisible origins of illness, which came, and went, and too often took life, with no decent explanation.   The most a magician could do was try and help the patient will themselves back into health.  Today, 9 out of 10 magicians prefer to see a doctor, than a peer, to address mysterious rashes and swollen lymph nodes.   Second, by studying animals and fossils, we have learned that most of life on earth has already come and gone, including millions of years when giants that did indeed roam the earth.  This is an eerie confirmation of magic lore, but is not quite what had been interpreted from the giant bones dug up by ancients when tilling the field, which were mostly hairy elephants and, from the farther trade routes, enormous lizards.  Third, the electromagnetic forces, bringing light and levitation and invisible transmissions, and many other traditionally magic miracles, have become so utterly ordinary few can imagine life in a world before them.

There are two ways magicians can take this. They can take it personally as a challenge to their beliefs, and become a bundle of conflict, trying to preserve a certain insistence on traditional miracles while also trying to be fairly educated and learn how to avoid electrocution… or they can take this all in stride, as our hero the Fool on Card Zero… and wonder at all that has come to pass in such a short time.  Knowing the history of magic makes it plain what wonders discovery brings, and what progress we have made, to make room for all the possibilities that ‘magination can bring.  So it is, that not only is the lore that of the impossible, the probable, and the prove to be quite accurate… it is the lore of improving the self, and the world, in the process.

As for the author, I can only say this much – there is absolutely something more, and there is definitely much more to discover.  Real magic is that which science has yet to uncover.  As you will learn in this book about cartomancy, so much of what we will deal with takes place in the realm of cognition, a country all to itself that is yet to be completely mapped, and a bit mischievous and magical as landscapes go anyway, changing in features from mind to mind.

In my book, yes this book, a humanist and a freethinker are one and the same.  They act out of freedom for themselves through consideration for the freedom of other.  The concept is simple – we dedicate our labors to the (however seemingly ludicrous) concept of common good, above our own beliefs if necessary, and the wheel creaks forward a bit.  Meeting this objective leads to a method of comparing knowledge that can grow; the scientific method was created with just as simple and revolutionary a seed as humanism itself.  The results of an experiment are true and evident when any other human, anywhere, is able to reproduce the same results exactly.  Slicing through the diverse chaos of the world, it takes but an ongoing succession of two humans and one experiment at a time to gradually reveal the truths of nature.

Humanism is a philosophy, it stands alone, and is not an embrace, nor a rejection, of religion.  But it is not a philosophy, in that it has no founder, it is not a theory to explain the world, or its origins, or how it all works.  It is an objective, an attitude, and an imposition on anyone that craves freedom for themselves and others.  What’s good for humanity is good for the human.

As some of the more vocal humanists today are secular humanists, who are staunchly against religion in any form, we often hear the term only in the context of Atheism.  But humanism itself is about setting aside conflicting beliefs so we can accomplish real tasks, and improve the lot of humanity. This means, of course, that religious humanists exist as well, and looking deeply, there are a range of shades of tolerance that naturally exist within every cultural framework.

It is said humanism began in the Renaissance, as a backlash against Ecclesiastical power, or from the desire for its reformation, making use of the re-evaluation of wisdom stories from Antiquity. But by this very indication, the needful re-opening of the diversity of the past, I think it makes more sense to consider humanists of the time as simply researching themselves in history.  It is now understood that the past, especially the familiar stories in the cards, didn’t need finding, as old stories were routinely presented among the new.  If it was not something that was discovered, or uncovered, perhaps it better to say it is thoughtfully compiled to form an ethos, and this is a traditional role of storytelling.

Many of the mythological elements the founders grabbed from history were already promoted by a previous wave of humanism, which took place in the centuries surrounding the start of the Current Era.

As a definition for humanism, the OED gives us this:

“An outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters. Humanist beliefs stress the potential value and goodness of human beings, emphasize common human needs, and seek solely rational ways of solving human problems.”

Meanwhile the American Humanist Association, whose tagline is “Good without a God” would seem to prefer the secular, but states right on its front page there exists an array of humanist flavors, acknowledging Religious Humanists among their ranks.

Luigi Sabatelli, Galileo demonstrates his telescope before the Venetian Senate, 1841
Luigi Sabatelli, Galileo demonstrates his telescope before the Venetian Senate, 1841  With an adjustable tube and two pieces of glass, the mountains of the moon took the place of all that cheese.

Most of us are taught to approach each other with definitions that distinguish and separate. It is very, very hard for cultures to overcome just language barriers alone, and recognize how common our brains, our body chemistry, and our ideas and ways really are. But there are a few things that cross those boundaries easily.  The games we play are one very old and established way. The Tarot succeeded in this aim so well, it has transcended time, delivering a curious document of Renaissance humanism into modern hands, showing in its appearance as artwork a flexibility (read as vital, engaged, rich aesthetic) that our modern humanist architects could benefit from observing.

A Hermetic Book

Here it is important to introduce the subject of the story presented in the cards, that of Hermes or Mercury, named patron of the Tarot, that has been present all along.  Though as you will see the tales are complicated and various, a general summary finds most legends presenting the character as the ‘original’ humanist.  When we mention the humanities, we are referring to the literary record of human existence, so humanism is closely tied to the practice of writing.  Hermes has this key role in myth, generously providing writing to the people, drawing the alphabet itself, and so is the Prometheus of humanist lore.  The original traveling businessman, an ideal for merchants, traders, and caravans.  When electricity was unveiled, it was added squarely onto his mythic shoulders, for its usefulness and speed, and interestingly not to Jove, Zeus or someone else who just squandered lightning bolts about in penalty.

We know that business benefits from having fewer ideological disputes, and that peace is what allows for prosperity.  We know that things get done better and faster when we believe our work contributes to the good.  We know that writing has changed the world and provided humans with access to knowledge, changing the nature of governance itself.  So this sort of traveller is very interested in our welfare, and is more likely to arrive disguise than to storm about mocking the ways of the various people encountered.  A good guest, accepting what is offered and taking what nourishment from this as can be.  Swift of mind, light of foot, and garbed in modesty.  The Tarot was created as a book to honor Hermes, which is just one culture’s name for what many cultures versions of the Great Human.  And given his reputation, we can trust that in some sense, this book was designed to teach something good about being human.  As a result, my interpretation has stretched in an unusual direction for the study of this lore… and I have managed to find a different tale for each major card, that could be related back to mirror images of this primal archetype of invention, creation and meaning.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Rudolf (II) painted as Vertumnus, Roman God of the seasons, 1591
Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Rudolf (II) painted as Vertumnus, Roman God of the seasons, 1591.  The Green Man is an expression of Hermetic character.

Modern critiques of humanism and the scientific enlightenment it brought about say that it is a philosophy that exalts rationality, and in doing so, fails to account for all our behaviors, our conditioning, and other non-rational factors that make up a whole, balanced view of a human.  This is an excellent critique of the Enlightenment time period, but not of humanism, which you’ll see is more about identifying useful analogues that declaring the past to be without all worth.  A curated inclusiveness of the ideas and works of other cultures and times is central to humanism, the goal to illustrate the timeless value of good will and service, and not perfected philosophy or to place a halo around modernity.  For each disease we conquer, it seems we come up with a new way to torment our fellows.   Modernity hardly guarantees benefit… while service to those in need, psychologically or spiritually, is proven to lift the conditions of life.

In this regard, our table is enriched by humanists across time, and they all seem to have that forward looking character that is more than simply the conquest of past error.  The image of the wheel implies that our errors are continual, and repetitive, and each newborn life is an opportunity to make the same mistakes in spectacular new ways.  We also know all too well that cruelty is a characteristic of humanity.  Unlike the wild animal that hunts to eat, and rarely even plays with its food, humans kill for sport, or worse, because they cannot agree.  Few animals even bother to threaten us, but our own neighbor might turn against us, simply because they dislike the way we speak.  We are the most dangerous predator on earth, and the results are quite visible in many places.  While it seems archaic to even discuss the possibility of humanism, those who study the science of our behavior possess new secrets that add to the lineage.  We have become more peaceful, on average, even as our weapons have become ever more costly, wasteful and excessive.  We have become better at keeping our social contract, our day to day peace, even as we have a long way to go towards being good neighbors.

One of the key objections Renaissance humanists raised, and the reason for my own passion on the subject, was corruption.  Nobles bought and sold positions of spiritual power, and the highest offices engaged in every crime that the powerful and corrupt are always known to enjoy.  The Reformation was as much to do with fighting organized crime, as it was doctrinal overhaul.  Humanists of the tarot’s time were concerned with traction.  Today it is common knowledge that certain Saints are but thin veneers atop heathen cults, and evolution is acknowledged as legitimate. But in those days, religious power was synonymous with warring families, its own armies fielded, fortresses built, even slaves and brothels were stocked to serve the leaders and the wealth of the church.  The humanist concerns also extended to lamenting the fate of women on the political, religious, and social stage, suggesting the broadness of its designers.  Indeed, there is a compelling theory that the themes in the tarot were ordered by a very powerful woman, in a world that could scarcely acknowledge the possibility.

Artemisia Gentileschi Susanna and the Elders, 1610
Artemisia Gentileschi Susanna and the Elders, 1610


X-Ray of Susanna and the Elders revealing an earlier version.
X-Ray of Susanna and the Elders revealing an earlier version.

It often looks like a race, between good and evil.  But the humanist story, however disappointing this may sound, is really not about a timeless evenly matched struggle between natures.  Its lore instead shows that only recently, and in great leaps, having much to do with increased availability of knowledge, have our significant improvements been made.  The great leaps are heartening in one respect, and disturbing in another, because we have not had them for very long, and ignorance remains far too abundant to make any gains feel particularly secure.

Still, looking to the past for figures of inspiration and examples of human good that could transcend time and place, the humanists in the card’s time had a clear understanding of why they had only parts of a prolific ancient world that had been lost, obscured, and transformed.  And so they had good motive to repeat stories they valued as a result.

With the aim of seeking an ideal society that treated its people better, a process of overhauling and inventing new cultural symbols takes place, along with the expected formation of secret societies to concentrate resources.  Being secretive, these generated their own offsprings of imitation, rumor and hoax over time.  Various incarnations of occultism, much of it pure fabrication, drew their own conclusions and laid the ground for part of our modern, non-religious spiritual culture.  This is not new, but having the literature of it, giving it a permanent place in the humanities, is quite new.  Going back further in time, all the clues left behind by mystery religions still leave us almost completely in the dark about them, and as a result, many of our ideas, the beautiful and the misunderstood, are largely the result of educated guesses within tiny libraries, made in these first days of the printing presses.   As a result, it has become difficult in the lore of modern magic to add new discoveries and nuances as they come along, or even to cooperate with the most brilliant child of that time, our science, because of this early speculative literature’s insistent archival presence.

Workshop of Guercino, Cena Mitológica - Cronos Admoesta Eros na Presença de Afrodite e Ares, 1626
Workshop of Guercino, Cena Mitológica – Cronos Admoesta Eros na Presença de Afrodite e Ares, 1626

For those accepting of absolutely anything in the New Age, we do in a sense have a kind of humanism that might resemble something of the distant past, but we also are not likely to pay blackmail to someone just to avoid having a curse placed on us.  It takes education to weigh the changes modernity has brought, and ultimately, it is in the magisterium, the place where memory and imagination meet, that these dreams of the past are actually taking place.  And there is a rule, that it is always easier to gravitate towards answers that are simpler to digest; but at the same time, a great deal of healing is learning to let go and settling for simplicity, for our own well being.  Resolving this conflict, so that we may participate in what improvements may be made without losing the magic in our lives, is a significant part of the work.  In the end, hopefully, we will have knowledge that we can feel confident and clearly about.  There are many conflicts to consider – for example, we may accept the evidence for evolution through natural selection, but feel certain that we are more different from, say, everyone we work with, than we are from a complete stranger that shares our astrological sign.  That said, consider the bat pack, whose birthdays though years apart all fall within one day of each other.  They clearly enjoyed the best of both worlds…

The Bat Pack – all born in late May.

The failures to build our utopias and the many hoaxes that prevail despite historic humanist presence is no more disappointing than the ordinary failures of many who claim to follow a religion to serve the poor and needy as they are instructed. It is nothing new for the philosophers of old to call for greater good, but fall silent when luxury rewards them with a cushy ceremonial role.   Despite these hoaxes, for earnest humanists nothing is detracted from the beauty of the transmission over time from its admirers, the gains obtained, and no context or symbolism of time and place will distract the ardent scholar from finding those moments when humans set aside conflicting dogma and competition for its own sake to come up with solutions that benefit humans in general.  As radical then as it is today, humanism has generated its own body of literature, its own tangled lines of transmission, and this is what I like to believe gave us the tarot.

There is no reason for good faith and true science to conflict, and conflicts are easily set aside when we are willing to work together to make a better, healthier world.  This is a humanist goal.

After François Boucher, Allegory of the Fine Arts. 18th C. Looks like three little love gods have got a plan.
After François Boucher, Allegory of the Fine Arts. 18th C. Looks like three little love gods have got a plan.