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The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 24, Number 6.
There is no word in the English language that adequately conveys the meaning of secular humanism. Secular humanism is not a religion; it represents a philosophical, scientific, and ethical outlook. I have accordingly introduced a new term, eupraxsophy, in order to distinguish humanistic convictions and practices from religious systems of faith and belief.
This term can be used in many languages. It is derived from Greek roots: eu-, praxis, and sophia.
Eu- is a prefix that means “good,” “well,” or “advantageous.” It is found in the Greek word eudaimonia, which means “well-being” or “happiness,” and it is also used in English terms such as eulogy and euphoria.
Praxis (or prassein) refers to “action, doing, or practice.” Eupraxia means “right action” or “good conduct.”
Sophia means “wisdom.” This word appears in philosophy, combining philos (“love”) and sophia (“wisdom”) to mean “love of wisdom.”
Eupraxsophy is designed for the public arena where ideas contend. Unlike pure philosophy, it focuses not simply on the love of wisdom, though this is surely implied by it, but the practice of wisdom. Moral philosophers should be interested in developing the capacity for critical ethical judgments. That is an eminent goal. But eupraxsophy goes further than that, for it focuses on creating a coherent ethical life stance. Moreover, it presents hypotheses and theories about nature and the cosmos that at any particular point in history were based on the best scientific knowledge of the day. Humanist eupraxsophy defends a set of criteria evaluating the testing of truth claims. It may espouse at any one time in history a particular set of political ideals. Eupraxsophy combines both a Weltanschauung (a worldview or personal philosophy of life) and a philosophy of living. But it takes us one step further by means of commitment; based upon cognition, it is fused with passion. It entails the application of wisdom to the conduct of life.
Eupraxsophers make choices—the most reasonable ones in the light of the best available evidence—and this enables them to act. Theologians, politicians, generals, engineers, businessmen, lawyers, doctors, artists, poets, and plain men and women have beliefs upon which they act. Why deny this right to the informed eupraxsopher-scientist-philosopher? It is our conviction, however, that one’s beliefs should be based upon reason, critical intelligence, and wisdom. This is what the suffix -sophy refers to. Wisdom in the broad sense includes not only philosophical and practical judgments, but also scientific understanding.
Intrinsic to this definition is a scientific component, for wisdom includes the most reliable knowledge drawn from scientific research and scholarship in the various fields of inquiry. Theoretical research is morally neutral. The scientist is interested in developing causal hypotheses and theories that can be verified by the evidence. Scientists describe or explain how the subject under study behaves without evaluating it normatively.
Humanist eupraxsophy, on the other hand, attempts to draw the philosophical implications of the sciences to the lives of men and women. It seeks to develop a cosmic perspective that is based on the most reliable findings discovered on the frontiers of science. It recognizes that there are gaps in our current knowledge that still need to be investigated. It is keenly aware of human fallibility about what we do and do not know, yet it boldly applies practical, scientific wisdom to life.
Accordingly, the primary task of eupraxsophy is to understand nature and life and to draw concrete normative prescriptions from this knowledge. Eupraxsophy involves a double focus: a cosmic perspective and a set of normative principles and values by which we may live.
Humanists do not look upward to a heaven for a promise of divine deliverance. They have their feet planted squarely in nature, yet they have the fortitude to employ art, science, reason, sympathy, and education to create a better world for themselves and their fellow human beings.
From the standpoint of the individual, happiness is achieved not by a passive release from the world, but by the pursuit of an active life of adventure and fulfillment. There are so many opportunities for creative enjoyment that every moment can be viewed as precious; all fit together to make a full and exuberant life.
What is vital in humanist eupraxsophy is that humanists are not overwhelmed by the tragic character of the human condition; they are willing to face death, sorrow, adversity, and suffering with courage and equanimity. They have confidence in the ability of human beings to overcome alienation, solve the problems of living, and develop the capacity to share the material goods of life with others and empathize with them. The theist often has a degraded view of human beings who, beset with original sin, are incapable of solving life’s problems by themselves and need to look outside of the human realm for divine succor. The humanist accepts the fact that the human species has imperfections and limitations, and that some things encountered in existence may be beyond redress or repair. Even so, he or she is convinced that the best posture is not to retreat before the unknown, but to exert intelligence and fortitude to deal with life’s problems. It is only by a resolute appraisal of the human condition, based on reason and science, that the humanist’s life stance seems most appropriate. The secular humanist is unwilling to bow before either the forces of nature or would-be human masters. Rather, he or she expresses the highest heroic virtues of the Promethean spirit: audacity, nobility, and developed moral sensibilities about the needs of others.
Humanists find exuberance to be intrinsically worthwhile for its own sake. This is usually identified with happiness. The Greeks called it eudaimonia, or well-being; this meant the actualization of a person’s nature, with pleasure as a by-product, not for the solitary moment, but in a complete life. This entails some moderation of a person’s desires. But I add that, in joyful exuberance, there is high excitement, the intensity of living, throbbing with passion, engaging in daring activities of enterprise and adventure.
Joyful exuberance is enhanced when we not only fulfill our needs and wants, but creatively express our goals and aspirations. It denotes some degree of excellence, nobility, even perfectibility, of a person’s talents and achievements. It comes to fruition for those who find life intensely worth living and at times exhilarating.
More than that, it involves a flowering of one’s personality in that person’s own terms. And in its highest reaches it expresses the fullness and richness of living.
This occurs when a person is able to realize his or her wants and talents, dreams and aspirations, and when a person is able to share the bountiful goods of life with others—children and parents, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends, colleagues and neighbors—within the various communities of humankind. This is most eloquently achieved when there is moral growth and development: a person is able to appreciate the needs of others; there is a genuine willingness to relate to them, to love and be loved, to share and even to make sacrifices for their benefit.
Joyful immediacies are experienced when there is a flowering of life. There are three e-words that describe this state: excellence, eudaimonia, and exuberance.
And there are five c-words that define it: character, cognition, courage, creativity, and caring.
This does not deny or ignore the pain and despair, defeat and failure, evil and tragedy that may befall a person, the unexpected contingencies of fate and fortune that may be encountered: intractable illness, premature death, betrayal, cowardice, dishonesty, or ingratitude.
The mature person has developed a reflective attitude that enables him or her to place these misadventures and setbacks, painful as they may be, in a broader context. He or she can compensate for the shortcomings of life by pointing to the times that he or she has overcome adversity; and he or she still finds life worth living because of poetry and profundity, laughter and delight, romance and love, discovery and ingenuity, enlightenment and success, and the times that he persevered and prevailed. If a person’s career and life is like a work of art, then we need to appreciate its full collage, its contrasts and highlights, tones and shades, colors and forms. Marshaling some stoicism in periods of anxiety, hopefully a person will find that the good that one experiences can outbalance the bad, the positive the negative, and that optimism can master pessimism.
The affirmative person may sum up his or her life and declare that, after all is said and done, it was worth living, that though one may have some regrets for what one could have done but did not, or for what might have been but was not, all told it was good. And, ah, yes! Although there were periods of pain and sorrow, these were balanced by those of pleasure and joy. What an adventure it was—far better to have lived and experienced than not to have lived at all!
Creating Your Own Meanings
The meaning of life is not to be found in a secret formula discovered by ancient prophets or modern gurus, who withdraw from living to seek quiet contemplation and release. Life has no meaning per se; it does, however, present us with innumerable opportunities, which we can either squander and retreat from in fear or seize with exuberance.
It can be discovered by anyone and everyone who can energize an inborn zest for living. It is found within living itself, as it reaches out to create new conditions for experience.
Eating of the fruit of the Tree of Life gives us the bountiful enthusiasms for living. The ultimate value is the conviction that life can be found good in and of itself. Each moment has a kind of preciousness and attractiveness.
The so-called secret of life is an open scenario that can be deciphered by everyone. It is found in the experiences of living: the delights of a fine banquet, the strenuous exertion of hard work, the poignant melodies of a symphony, the appreciation of an altruistic deed, the excitement of an embrace of someone you love, the elegance of a mathematical proof, the invigorating adventure
of a mountain climb, the satisfaction of quiet relaxation, the lusty singing of an anthem, the vigorous cheering in a sports contest, the reading of a delicate sonnet, the joys of parenthood, the pleasures of friendship, the quiet gratification of serving our fellow human beings—all of these activities and more.
It is in the present moment of experience as it is brought to fruition, as well as in the delicious memory of past experiences and the expectation of future ones, that the richness of life is exemplified and realized. The meaning of life is that it can be found to be good and beautiful and exciting on its own terms for ourselves, our loved ones, and other sentient beings. It is found in the satisfaction intrinsic
to creative activities, wisdom, and righteousness. One doesn’t need more than that and, hopefully, one will not settle for less.
The meaning of life is tied up intimately with our plans and projects, the goals we set for ourselves, and our dreams and the successful achievement of them.
We create our own conscious meanings; we invest the cultural and natural worlds with our own interpretations. We discover, impose upon, and add to nature.
Meaning is found in the lives of the ancient Egyptians, in their culture built around Isis and Osiris and the pyramids, or in the ruminations of the ancient prophets of the Old Testament. It is exemplified by the Athenian philosopher standing in the Acropolis deliberating about justice in the city-state. It is seen in the structure of the medieval town, built upon a rural economy, feudalism, and a Christian cultural backdrop. It is experienced by the Samurai warrior in the context of feudal Japanese culture, in the hopes and dreams of the Incas of Peru, by the native Watusi tribes in Africa, and in the Hindu and Muslim cultures of India and southern Asia. And it is exemplified anew in modern postindustrial, technological, urban civilizations of the present-day world, which give us new cultural materials and new opportunities for adventure.
Human beings have found their meanings within the context of a historical, cultural experience, and in how they are able to live and participate within it. Life had meaning to them; only the content differs; the form and function are similar. Life, when fully lived under a variety of cultural conditions, can be euphoric and optimistic; it can be a joy to experience and a wonder to behold.
Paul Kurtz is editor-in-chief of Free Inquiry, professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and chair of the Center for Inquiry. This article is adapted from Kurtz’s new book, Affirmations: Creative and Joyful Exuberance (Prometheus Books, 2004).