Introduction and Meaning
Liberal Humanism or Humanism Literary Theory or Humanism in Literary Theory are all coined as the same. They refer to a belief that values based on humanity are more important than religious dogmas or creeds and desires of human beings. It is also called British Humanism.
Herbert Read introduced this concept in 1941, but before that, it was put forward by thinkers such as Matthew Arnold and William Wordsworth. Many other writers are considered the founders of liberal humanism, but these three were some of the earliest proponents of this literary theory.
British humanism was primarily a movement of scholars interested in different ways of reading, interpreting, and understanding literature. British humanists believe that this approach to literature does not only focus on studying facts from texts but also involves interpreting readers’ responses to the text.
The humanistic movement then took place during the 17th century. The prominent leader of this was Thomas Nashe. British liberal humanism has evolved into a humanist literary theory, which encompasses a belief that values based on humanity hold utmost importance.
Liberal Humanism as a Literary Theory
This literary theory uses the idea of reading response as opposed to textual interpretation to interpret literary works. Virginia Woolf’s essays Modern Fiction (1919) and Mr. Bennett and Mrs Brown (1924) are the most well-known examples. In these essays, she introduces the concept of the common reader to offer an account of new methods of reading.
According to Woolf, this common reader combines an old sensibility with a new one: they are sensitive to what she calls fine writing while having no patience for antiquated forms like pastoral romances. Consequently, it becomes difficult for them to appreciate writers like John Bunyan, whose style contradicts his contemporary writing tendencies.
British humanism unfolds that progress can be made through science and scientific discoveries. However, there is also an understanding that even when these advancements come along, morality’s principles should not be overlooked. George Watson first identified it as a movement in his A History of English Literature. He explained that it took its root in two different schools of thought. The first was empirical philosophy, and the second was Neo-platonist philosophy. They both had in common their aversion to medieval scholasticism (A History of English Literature). Their goal was to liberate themselves from what they saw as a superstition which had grown out of Christianity.
The best way to better understand this literary theory is to read some books considered humanistic texts. Examples include Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. These texts are often taken as examples of existentialism because they stress the dignity and autonomy of the person or the self. Other prominent authors who have written work seen as liberal humanists include Thomas More, T.S. Eliot, Aldous Huxley, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Toni Morrison, Virginia Woolf and so on.
Liberal Humanist Books and Authors
A look into what literary theory Humanism Literary Theory entails can be done by examining its key authors. Some prominent authors include Matthew Arnold, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, Charlotte Bronte, John Stuart Mill and George Elliot. All of these writers deeply understood the role of art in human life and grappled with such questions as how to evaluate different aspects of human life: reason or passion, soul or body. In addition, they questioned whether culture was worth cherishing or destroying. In other words, they were liberal humanists.
Knowing only the authors or pioneers of this theory may not serve the purpose entirely. The best way to get a better idea about liberal humanism theory is to go through the writings, which are considered humanistic texts. Some famous books based on this theory are Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. These texts are often taken as examples of existentialism because they stress the dignity and autonomy of the person or the self. Other prominent authors who have written works as liberal humanists include Thomas More, T.S. Eliot, Aldous Huxley, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Toni Morrison, and Virginia Woolf.
Simply put, Liberal Humanism is the opposite of fundamentalism, whether religious or scientific, where both allow humans to be free from dogmas and live according to their principles and desires, as opposed to having their lives and beliefs dictated by religious or scientific dogma.