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The Ideas Underlying the European Humanitarian Movement                        

Introductory Outline   
                                  Enlightenment rationalism
                                  The Enlightenment idea of reform
Evangelical salvation
                                  The part played by the ethic of active compassion
                                  Individualism and spiritual equality
                                  The ideas underlying humanitarianism -- a summing up
                                  Social action – from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century



                                 The European Enlightenment - the idea of reform

                          The Catholic Church and the Humanitarian 
The Historical Sources of Humanitarianism - Professor Herbert Butterfield                             


The Ideas Underlying the European Humanitarian Movement,
An Introductory Outline


It is arguable that the humanitarian movement of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries represents Europe's greatest contribution to the ethics of civilisation. During the nineteenth century slavery was abolished; criminal punishments became more enlightened; laws were passed to prevent cruelty to children; treatment of the insane was humanised; working conditions were made almost tolerable and cruelty to animals became punishable.

In the previous century, the achievements were different in kind but no less important. Conflicting religious belief became tolerated to a degree unthinkable one hundred years before. Witchcraft disappeared. Torture was abolished.

 The humanitarian movement is 'humanitarian' in a somewhat special sense. The primary meaning of  'humanitarianism' is the relief of suffering and hence we identify it with philanthropy,charity and social welfare. But the humanitarian movement was not a movement directed to philanthropy and must, in any historical analysis, be distinguished from it.It is a source of some confusion that  at the same time as some of the social actions of the humanitarian movement took place, charitable bodies had grown up and were in active operation. During the nineteenth century the suffering, squalor, and, in some cases starvation of the industrial proletariat crowding into the new cities of England led to an energetic christian philanthropy. The Salvation Army was founded by Charles Booth in 1865 to relieve poverty in the slums. Christian youth bodies such as the Young Mens Christian Association belong to this period. The medley of charitable bodies which grew up at this time were brought together by the Charities Organization Act 1869. The aim of these bodies was the relief of suffering.Their concern  was not the wrongness of the conditions producing it. As Ernst Troeltsch wrote, " their aim was a new spirit, not a new society."* Organised philanthropy  directed at the relief of suffering was not concerned with whether the state of inequality or social conditions which caused the suffering was wrong. Philanthropy was indifferent and even hostile to the Enlightenment spirit of social reform. Concerned with the relief of suffering it deprecated reform to remove its causes as 'political'.

The diversity of the reformers makes it difficult to isolate the ideas underlying the humanitarian movement. The movement was carried forward by a mixture of devout christians and Enlightenment rationalists. The christian humanitarians comprised two groups -- Quakers such as George Fox, the founder of the Society of Friends, William Penn, John Woolman and Elizabeth Fry and evangelicals such as Wilberforce, Clarkson, the Buxtons and the Earl of Shaftsbury. The Enlightenment humanitarians can be divided into philosophes and utilitarians. Among them were Voltaire, Beccaria, Bentham and John Stuart Mill.

In the light of this diversity an important question arises whether the humanitarian movement was underpinned by any unifying idea or ideas. Differences between christians and rationalists over, say, biblical truth does not of course necessarily mean they cannot share a common humanitarian idea. In his Social History of England Professor Trevelyan suggested that they did and that the humanitarian movement was a product of the influence of rationalism upon puritanism.  "The rationalist movement had shaken the persecutor's sword from the hand of faith, and religion had been to school with her rival reason. From Milton to Wilberforce the road lay through Voltaire." He thus thought a unifying idea had been produced by the interaction of these two forces. And it is true that in  many fields of action -- the abolition of slavery is but one example -- social action united  all  humanitarians  notwithstanding their differing underlying beliefs. But in other areas unity of actionwas affected. Thus the natural right of property and liberty of contract were invoked against the humanitarian protest  over nineteenth century working conditions. The christian doctrine of sanctity of marriage inhibited relief from oppression suffered by married women in Victorian England. These effect of these differences are examined in later essays in which each of the humanitarian social actions is described but also in essays specifically concerned with the relationship of the humanitarian movement to the natural rights movement.

The humanitarian movement originated in the eighteenth century and came to fruition in the nineteenth. It is natural, if not strictly logical, to look to that period in order to identify some of the ideas behind it. Certainly Europe was transformed in the eighteenth century by the Enlightenment. Only the century before, European society was not merely cruel but justified cruelty. In the century following Luther's challenge, Europe was torn asunder by religious wars. The rack, defenestrations, the massacre of women and children were inevitable accompaniments to the espousal of any form of christian belief.  And yet by the nineteenth century 'christian cruelty' had ceased and religious toleration was widespread.

The Enlightenment had its genesis in France and England and swept through the rest of  Europe and from there to America. Locke and Newton in England became its patron saints. Bentham became its greatest reformer. David Hume and Adam Smith in Scotland; Goethe and Schiller in Germany; and Beccaria in Italy, all belonged to it. In America Enlightenment ideas ran through the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Of European countries, the only nation unaffected was Spain, whose universities continued to teach Aristotle in preference to Newton.

The humanitarian movement was by no means a simple product of Enlightenment ideas but the importance to it of the primacy of reason and the idea of reform is undeniable.

Enlightenment rationalism

The importance of reason, which the Enlightenment introduced, had its origins in 17th century science. With the new science came a new idea of causation. Events were seen to result from the operation of physical laws uniformly applicable throughout the universe and not from irregular and unpredictable interventions by the deity which were explicable, if explicable at all, by some supposed disobedience to scriptural command. The physical laws which science now taught governed the universe were to be ascertained by Baconian observation and experimentation and generalisations inductively derived from these (2).

The first consequence, significant for our purpose, was the decline of cruelty in Europe. Cruelty is the deliberate infliction of physical pain and mental anguish without justification. Rationalism removed the apparent but spurious justification for cruelty which religion had hitherto provided. The idea of an intervening God sustained a belief in the deity's retributive character. This belief was most evident in Calvinism. God punished sinners or the non-Elect by denying them Grace and consigning them to everlasting damnation. With the new rationalism the belief in Hell which throughout the Middle Ages had underpinned much cruelty lost its terrifying reality.

Rationalism was thus the chief moral agent which led to the cessation of religious persecution and the cruelty accompanying it. Religious toleration followed. Beginning with the half-hearted English Toleration Act of 1689 it culminated in the dismantling of the restrictive laws on dissenting belief. Their abolition took place shortly before or just after the French Revolution. These laws were passed in the name of a free conscience which the protestant sects had proclaimed and in the name of autonomy and which, following Kant, had increasingly become the battle cry of the Enlightenment.

Rationalism had an indirect influence on the christian reformers. A retributive God is aided by a literalist construction of the Bible with its categorical commands and prohibitions. It was inevitable that once reason was acknowledged to be an alternative source of truth scripture itself would be freshly examined and old interpretations questioned. A rationalist approach to scripture leads to a humanising of God. The forgiving God of Love of the New Testament tended to replace the Jehovah of the Old. Perhaps the most striking evidence of this was the different and liberal construction which Pierre Bayle placed upon the text - 'Compel them to come in' --which for centuries had provided biblical justification for persecution. More generally it directed christianity to the ethic of active compassion most notable in the New Testament. It was to influence the evangelicals who were seeking a puritan revival in the Church of England.

The Enlightenment idea of reform

The humanitarian movement sought to achieve its objectives through social and legal reform(2).This key element united all the various elements in the humanitarian movement.  It is not easy now to recognize  novelty in the idea that mankind could be improved by deliberate social change and not just through each human being living a christian life of inner purity-- poverty  being only capable of relief by 'good works'.

For all intents and purposes social and legal reform was a product of the Enlightenment.

Its origins lay in the dominance of reason and the belief that 'man' was perfectible if only the social conditions in which he lived would allow it. Most Enlightenment thinkers believed 'man' to be fundamentally good: "he was once free but is now everywhere in chains". Voltaire in his Portable Dictionary said that "all men would necessarily be equal if only they were free from needs. It is want that subjects one man to another". Mankind would be perfected by knowledge -- hence the great Encyclopaedia of Diderot and D'Alembert. Helvetius (1715-1771) made this philosophy very popular, particularly on the Continent. He believed human character to be a product of social environment.  Accordingly he taught that by acquiring knowledge of what he is and what made him so, 'man' would acquire an almost unlimited capacity to reform the species. The chief instruments enabling this to be done would be education and legislation. There thus grew up a demand for legal reform. If 'laws are good, morals are good' said Diderot.

The goal in almost every field of social action carried on by the humanitarians required changed social conditions which could be brought about largely through legislation. This was true of the hours children worked in the factories or of women in the mines, the abolition of slavery or the reduction of the death penalty. Or it may, as in the case of prisons, require reformed social conditions.

More than any other work Beccaria's study of punishment Of Crimes and Punishment embodies the spirit of reform which was essential to humanitarianism. It was pure Enlightenment thinking and could never have been produced in a previous era. Published anonymously in 1764 it passed through 6 editions in 18 months and was subsequently translated into 22 European languages, Voltaire writing a preface to the French edition. In his concluding remarks, Beccaria stated the then novel proposition that "in order that punishment not be invariably an act of violence committed by one or many against the citizen it must be essentially public, prompt, necessary, the least possible in the given circumstances, proportionate to the crime and in accordance with law."

Evangelical salvation

 Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries evangelicals engaged in an array of humanitarian activity -- tireless campaigning for the abolition of slavery (Wilberforce and the Saints);reform of criminal punishments; prevention of cruelty to children and treatment of the insane(Lord Shaftsbury(1801-1885); prevention of cruelty to animals (Wilberforce and Fowell Buxton).

Cardinal Newman once said of evangelicalism that it had "no internal idea, no principle of unity, no theology". There is a measure of truth in this but nevertheless it is possible to understand the basis for evangelical humanitarian activity.

The starting point is a recognition that evangelicalism was a reaction against latitudinarianism in the Church of England. Latitudinarianism is a long forgotten  movement of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries which allowed latitude or tolerance for differing religious beliefs and insisted upon the use of reason in interpreting the scriptures.

Evangelicalism began with the Wesleys.

On the face of it John Wesley wished to bring about a puritan revival in the Church of England. He believed in the reality of sin. He also believed in a literal interpretation of scripture.  In his sermons which he preached to the masses in the new industrial cities he brought back Hell as an ever present reality.

Had this been all, Wesley would simply have brought back puritanism to the Church. But Wesley differed from the older puritans in a number of ways.

He repudiated in the most vehement terms predestination and the calvinist doctrine of the Elect.  "God willeth all men to be saved", Wesley said, echoing the Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius.  "No scripture can prove that God is not Love, or that his mercy is not in all his works; that is whatever it proves beside no scripture can prove predestination."

The uniqueness of the evangelicals lay in their belief about the nature of salvation . The doctrine of salvation had had a generally negative influence on the evolution of the humanitarian idea. Chiefly, this was because salvation took place only after death and therefore did nothing to encourage humanitarian activity in this world. Calvinism did not differ in this respect from the orthodox view of salvation except perhaps incidentally because of its doctrine of the Elect. The Elect, aware in this world that they were predestined to be saved, tended to conduct their lives ascetically in accordance with biblical commands and were duly rewarded with worldly wealth which for the possessor became something of a badge that he belonged to the Elect.

Salvation for the evangelical was very definitely not postponed to the next world. It came to the believer as it came to the Wesleys on that evening at Aldersgate on the 24th May 1738 as a sudden conversion, an instant liberation from sin. As Wesley described it, "an assurance was given me that he had taken my sins ... . and saved me from the law of sin and death."

For Wesley salvation did not result from 'good works' but from faith and faith alone.  But the fact remained that the erstwhile sinner, now 'saved', was living in this world and the question was how a sinner who had attained Grace should live. The answer given by the evangelicals was that he or she should live a 'holy' life. Here came a clear departure from Calvinism. A holy life was not worldly asceticism with Calvinism's harsh attitude to the poor who were predestined to everlasting damnation. A holy life was a life of active benevolence.

The philosophy of benevolence which arose in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had its origins in the ethic of Lord Shaftsbury (1671-1713) and the Cambridge Platonists. Francis Hutcheson (1694-1747) held that sympathy is the internalised sense which enables us to feel the suffering of others. God comes into the picture only by having ingeniously created human beings who actuated by sympathy are able to live harmoniously with each other. The influence of seventeenth science is evident. The ethic was detached from religion and was based upon humanity's moral sense. The underpinnings of this philosophy would have been repellent to Wesley but its conclusions accorded with the New Testament idealisation of compassion and with Wesley's deeper feelings. "I love the poor ",he wrote, "in many of them I find pure genuine Grace'.

It is thus not difficult to see why evangelicalism took the step of identifying a holy life with a life of benevolent activity.  It is also reasonably clear what led the evangelicals to go further and associate benevolent activity with legal and social reform. The evangelical reformers could not help but absorb the current and popular belief in reform first advocated by the Enlightenment. It was part of the air they breathed. Another and more adventitious reason was that many of the evangelicals were members of Parliament. Wilberforce, Clarkson and Lord Shaftsbury to mention only some of them. It was natural for them to seek the removal of abuses through legislation. 

The part played by the ethic of active compassion*

As we have noted in connection with philanthropy, the humanitarian movement did not depend upon compassion. Suffering gives rise to compassion but it does not imply any claim about the conditions causing it.

The suffering of the slaves was not the rationale for the abolition of slavery. Cruelty was by no means invariable. Throughout history masters have treated their slaves with kindness. In Rome many clerks, tutors, bailiffs occupied respected positions. Cato never failed to provide his slaves with sheets, blankets and mattresses.

But the status of slavery places the slave within the master's dominion. The master is thereby able, at his will, to subjugate the freedom and autonomy of another human being. It is the claim of the person to personal freedom which makes the status of slavery wrong ab initio. If the master is also cruel to the slave the slave's suffering will provide an overt basis for humanitarian intervention. But we condemn the institution of slavery on humanitarian grounds even if no slave is actually suffering in the ordinary sense of the word. It is the claim to freedom of the person which is the basis for humanitarianism.

Nevertheless it would be facile to draw a sharp distinction between recognition of the wrongness of the causes of suffering and compassion in relation to it. To understand the connection between the two we must begin by accepting that suffering does not necessarily give rise to compassion in society on the part of those observing it. Society seems able to accept the infliction of pain if it has the ostensible support of current social values. Thus for centuries the suffering of witches and heretics being burnt at the stake failed to arouse a compassionate response, nor did such brutal punishments as boiling to death and whipping. Placing a man in the pillory to be jeered at by the mob was a frequent punishment. Great crowds gathered to witness public executions. Until the nineteenth century visitors would go to Bedlam as if to a zoo. Bear baiting and cock fighting were enjoyable occupations.

Because compassion depends upon social values a change in them can end community indifference to the infliction of pain and suffering. Suffering will then for the first time be seen to be wrong. The medical explanation of insanity advanced by Pinel enabled the insane to be looked at through a quite different lens and reveal them to be sick human beings. Thereafter lunatics were no longer chained, flogged or half-drowned in wells. And once crime ceased to be viewed theologically as sin, the necessary infliction of pain involved in criminal punishments no longer provided an excuse for sadism.

In these instances, although suffering had for long been witnessed, it was only when rationalism enabled the insane and criminals to be seen as human beings that the causes of their suffering was recognized as wrong.

In situations such as this compassion can become the catalyst for humanitarian social action. Harriet Beecher Stowe's moving description of the treatment of slaves in Uncle Toms Cabin, published in 1852, led her wide international readership to recognize, in some cases for the first time, the cruelty and oppression of slavery. Charles Dickens' novels were read by a large public. The researches of humanitarian reformers like Lord Shaftsbury in the case of working conditions and John Howard in the case of prisons became readily available to legislators and then to the public at large.

Individualism and spiritual equality

Individualism is the underlying conception of the humanitarian movement. The idea that every human being has independent and equal significance was the essential principle which united all humanitarians and underpinned every field of humanitarian social action. It was essentially European.*

It is not necessary to explore in detail the historical origins of western individualism. But it is necessary to go some distance if we are to understand why it was that the humanitarian movement came about when it did.As Alfred North Whitehead explained in relation to the abolition of slavery, " the strands of thought ...in the (final stages) of the destruction of  the iniquitous slave-foundation  of civilization, there is interwoven the insights and heroism of sceptical humanitarians, Catholics, of Methodists, of Quakers. But the intellectual origin of the movement is to be traced back for more than two thousand years to the speculations of the phiolosophical Greeks upon the human soul"[italics added].

The importance of the individual was Greek in origin* but it is to the specific school of Greek philosophy, stoicism, that we owe the conception that the significance of the individual was shared, common and, above all, equal. The stoics attributed a divine quality to the human soul but they did so because it possessed reason. It was not divine because it was immortal -- and indeed the stoics did not believe in immortality. Reason as the basis of the soul's significance meant that the idea of the individual was open to secularisation and could, centuries later, easily become allied to science. Finally, the stoics bequeathed to us the law of nature for, although it originated with Aristotle, it was the stoics who embodied the ideal of equality in natural law(which Aristotle did not). The stoic legacy did not come to us directly. The Church transformed it. The individual soul remained of the utmost significance but that significance came to depend upon its immortality and capacity to be saved from damnation. It followed from this that what happened to a human soul in this world was irrelevant except insofar as it would enhance the soul's capacity to be saved in the next. Salvation required faith - adherence to the Church's doctrines and observance of its sacraments. This insistence upon correct belief and, in practice, the coercion of belief, led to persecution, religious intolerance and much cruelty. The irrelevance of what happened to the soul in this world in conjunction with the institutional power and wealth of the Church resulted in the acceptance of social inequality and its endorsement by medieval natural law. The stoic ideal of equality was deflected into the equal capacity of every soul to attain posthumous salvation.

 But the christian twist to stoic individualism and natural law was not wholly negative. The doctrine of salvation gave the individual soul terrific significance. The idea of equality, although in a distorted form, was preserved.  It was never suggested priest, noble or King had any privilege in the attainment of salvation. And natural law was preserved. Whatever the nature of its content, its supremacy over positive law was not questioned.

Anticipating somewhat, we may say broadly that it was the submerging in the centuries following the reformation of the negative considerations mentioned above, and the secularisation of the positive factors, which crystallised the ideas of the humanitarian movement.

The protestant reformation resulted in the denial of the Churches' claim to exclusively define God's will, to interpret his Holy Word, and to dispense salvation.For Luther and Calvin God's Word was laid down in the Bible. But in declaring that to be so, neither was intending to permit every person to form his or her own judgment upon its meaning. The protestant reformers had though without recognizing it relied upon a principle which would eventually undermine their own authority. If one were free to reject the Pope, why should one be bound to accept the authority of a Luther or a Calvin? It was a short step from this to christian individualism but this was the individualism of the sects and outside of mainstream protestantism.

The principle of a free conscience which ultimately emerged was expressed by Milton. "No man, no synod, no session of men though called the church can judge definitely the sense of scriptures to another man's conscience". Religious persecution completely contradicted such a principle.

The Quakers believed God spoke to each human being through his or her conscience. George Fox [1624-1691] taught the 'light of Christ was in every person'. He based this message upon the Gospel of St. John that "in him was life and the life was the light of men". Contact with the Divine was to be found in the silent contemplation of one's inner conscience.

This extreme belief in the primacy of conscience posed difficulties for the Quakers in reconciling it with the authority of the Bible. After much debate and under the leadership of William Barclay the importance of the Bible was recognized but the primacy of conscience was re-affirmed. The Quakers followed the logic of this and for that reason even accepted the conscientious belief of non-christians as being equally a response to God. Above all it meant that if God were in every person, every human being should be treated humanely.

 The Quaker contribution to the humanitarian movement was based upon the 'inner light'. It was very considerable. William Penn and Fox himself took a leading part in the fight for religious toleration; John Woolman and others in the struggle against slavery and Elizabeth Fry in prison reform.

It would have been consistent with the beliefs outlined above for the Quakers to have turned to a life of inner contemplation and there were tendencies in that direction, but contact with the evangelicals and the spirit of reform resulted in them turning to energetic social action.

To sum up,in the eighteenth century individualism  re-emerged with a different foundation. At no point had the protestant reformers questioned the importance of salvation. Calvinism was pivoted upon it. For a thousand years within the Church, or within mainstream protestantism, the significance of the individual had depended on the capacity to attain salvation. Seventeenth century science had now changed that. God remained but was detached. Hell declined in importance. Salvation-based individualism and Church-based natural law ceased to be dominant forces in Europe.

The claims made in the seventeenth and eighteenth struggles against the Crown throughout Europe and in the American war of independence, were based upon the law of nature. Grotius, the great Dutch jurist, de-theologised natural law and reverted to human reason as a new and substituted foundation for its supremacy. Natural law had thus returned to its stoic origins. The enormous influence of John Locke on thought during this period not only in England but in France and America turned natural law in the direction of the natural rights of the individual.

The humanitarian movement is distinct from the natural rights movement (1). Its tendency is to emphasise natural law and duty rather than natural rights. But both movements intersected. This occurred at the point when denial of autonomy became inhumane.  This would be so particularly in the case of status, where, on grounds of gender or race, a group was persecuted or discriminated against  and the common humanity of those belonging to the group was thereby denied. 

The ideas underlying humanitarianism -- a summing up

It is useful at this point to attempt a summing up and assume provisionally a single set of ideas underlie the humanitarian movement.

The central idea was that every person has, by virtue of his or her humanity, moral significance. It is the disregard of that significance which is what is meant by a humanitarian wrong. One instance of this is when a person is used inhumanly by another, including the State, as a means to an end. The inhumanity of the means will often be evidenced by cruelty and suffering. But the true criterion is the disregard of the person's significance as a human being.

Examples of wrongs which gave rise to humanitarian social action initially were slavery, cruel punishments, torture and inhumane working conditions. Contemporary examples are genocide, medical experimentation on human beings without their consent and the other newly defined crimes against humanity.

An instance of a humanitarian wrong flowing from the central idea is the persecution of, or discrimination against, a class of human beings on grounds of race, colour, religious belief or sex or other grounds having no rational basis in the differentiation of human beings and which is designed to stigmatise the class in question. Discrimination is brought about by a status which imposes upon the class a range of disabilities different from those in the rest of the community. Status is not necessarily adverse. It may be protective. In such a case the common humanity of the group is recognized but the rights and obligations of those composing it are modified to take account of their inherent weaknesses. In the case of the insane and children the humanitarian movement aimed to ensure that any modification of their rights and obligations was related to their protection and care.

A nineteenth century development was the extension of 'significance' to non-human animal life so that cruelty to animals has now become a universally recognized humanitarian wrong.

Historically, the sources of the central humanitarian idea were the stoic ideal of equality and natural law(secularised in the Enlightenment), the Quaker doctrine of the 'inner light' and evangelical salvation -- salvation which was open to all human beings equally and achievable in this life without ecclesiastical mediation.

Humanitarian social action was inspired by the idea of reform, an idea originating in the Enlightenment that human behaviour was the outcome of the social environment and that action should be taken, either through changes in the law or in the structure of society to achieve humanitarian outcomes.

Social action – from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century

Freedom of conscience and religious toleration were, with the exception of the abolition of withchcraft, the first great achievements of the humanitarian idea. They were the product of Enlightenment rationalism and the idea of reform. Religious toleration was, in the first instance, led by thinkers such as Locke, Bayle and Voltaire. Final legislative action emanated from the decrees of Enlightenment despots. Religious toleration came from above. It did not follow popular agitation. Indeed, popular feeling tended if anything in the reverse direction as it did, more clearly, in the case of the abolition of witchcraft. By contrast, the social action in the nineteenth century was in all cases greatly influenced by popular feeling and, in some instances, popular agitation. The initiating force remained with small groups of reformers.  These groups set about energising public opinion. This often became the immediate cause of legislative action. One reason for the change was the advent of democracy - limited though it was until well into the nineteenth century. Also, communications had become easier. The industrial proletariat crowding into the new cities made it feasible to hold the mass meetings such as those we associate with Wesley. The population was increasingly literate. Political pamphlets had first circulated in England during the civil war. By the end of the eighteenth century the number of newspapers had made it financially worthwhile to impose a tax upon them. In one form or another the written word was part of social action. In fiction, as has been mentioned, one thinks of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the novels of Dickens. This change of audience led to a change in the mode of approach which became less philosophical and more obviously emotive, fastening on the cruelty which frequently accompanied the inhumanity to which social action was directed.



*           E. Troeltsch, The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches, Allen and Unwin,1931,Vol I,    page 135.

*           We owe the ethical idea that active compassion should be the controlling ethic in human behaviour to the new testament. "The most interesting innovation offered by Jesus was that he did not insist too much on the negative side of the Judgement (the punishment of the wicked). Rather, he sought to open men's hearts to the hope of being spared and received into the new kingdom through faith in the generosity of God." Craveri, The Life of Jesus, Secker and Warburg, p. 38. This ethic was a transformation of the ethic of the Old Testament as was explained by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. It is true that similar ethical ideas were being proclaimed about the time that Jesus lived by Jewish rabbis such as Hillell (30 BC - 9 AD) and Ben Sirrach but its most elaborate presentation was in the New Testament. It not only represented a change in the Jewish world. It was also new to the Roman world. As Moses Finley has written, "fundamentally, however, 'blessed be the poor' was not within in the Graeco-Roman world of ideas, and its appearance in the Gospels - whatever the exegesis of the text - points to another world and another set of values. The nearest thing in Rome to Christian Love, philanthropia, was a much narrower thing, The Ancient Economy, The Hogarth Press, p. 38

*           It would have been possible to have derived this idea from the 'Good Samaritan' ethic of the New Testament, the pronciple of universal  Love taught by Jesus. But this is not what occurred. The early church united Jew and Gentile through the Pauline doctine of faith and in a common belief in redemption by the crucified Christ, not by the New Testament ethic of love for mankind.


The European Enlightenment - The Idea of Reform

Until the Enlightenment there was little idea of seeking human improvement through social action.  The ethic of compassion confined action to charity.  One did not seek to abolish poverty by eliminating the conditions causing it.  One alleviated it by ‘good works’ or, alternatively idealised it.  There were, it is true, a number of movements by christian radicals before the eighteenth century.  In the early fifteenth century the Bohemian Taborites endeavoured to set up a world-wide anarcho-community order in which taxes, dues and rents would be abolished and all property held in common.  In the sixteenth century the Bundscuh, in Germany, aimed to overthrow all authority, abolish all dues and taxes, distribute ecclesiastical property and establish the communal ownership of woods, waters and pastures.  In the same century egalitarianism was preached by such messianic figures as Thomas Muntzer.  These movements actuated by the christian ethic of compassion fell outside the Church and outside mainstream christian thinking and had no permanent influence. *

Reform as an influential European idea derived from a number of sources; the first was the idolisation of the ‘state of nature’ which gripped the eighteenth century.

In its early seventeenth century Hobbesian form, the state of nature was far from ideal or even desirable.  The life of man in such a state was, in Hobbes’ famous description, ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’.  Because of that mankind devised the ‘State’.  In nature ‘men live without a common power to keep them in awe’.  They give rein to their egoistic impulses.  Life, in a state of nature is thus wholly destructive. 

Locke’s view of nature - a view which prevailed throughout the eighteenth century - was decidedly more optimistic.  The human person was constituted, by the mind - the body being mere property owned by it.  The mind, although devoid of content - a ‘white sheet’ - had the capacity to receive impressions and to reflect and reason.  In a state of nature each person possesses that capacity equally and is free to exercise it equally,  a state of nature was defined as ‘men living together according to reason, without a common superior on earth, with authority to judge between them … .’  A state of nature implies ‘a state of perfect freedom (for persons) to order their actions and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature…  A state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another … without subordination or subjection …’.  Accordingly, the eighteenth century, as Becker has written, accepted as self-evident that a valid morality would be a natural morality; a valid religion would be a natural religion; a valid law of politics a natural law.

Voltaire followed the same thinking, using a kind of ius gentium approach to ascertain what law was natural:  ‘even though that which in one religion is called virtue, is precisely in another called vice, even though most rules regarding good and bad, are as variable as the language one speaks and the clothing one wears; nevertheless it seems to me certain that there are natural laws with respect to which human beings in all parts of the world must agree’.

The idea of the state of nature was thus used to justify the attacks which the philosophes made on non-natural revealed religion, the Church, feudal inequality and the artificiality of tradition and customs.  Freed from the encrustations of tradition and authority the natural man would emerge in Kants’ words ‘from self imposed infancy …  Infancy is the inability to use one’s reason without guidance of another.  It is self-imposed when it depends on a deficiency, not of reason, but of the resolve and the courage to use it without external guidance.  Thus the watchword of the Enlightenment is: sapere aude!  Have the courage to use one’s own reason’.

The second source of the ‘reform idea’ was the notion that Man was perfectible.

The perfectibility of man became one of the leading Enlightenment ideas particularly in the second half of the eighteenth century.  It also derived from Locke.  Because knowledge was the product of reason working upon impressions received by the mind, human beings could be transformed by the impressions they received.  Reform of human society would change the environment and thereby the impressions received by human beings.

The philosopher who proclaimed and embodied this most was Claude-Adrien Helvétius (1715-1771). Helvétius published his major work, D’ L’Esprit in 1758.  He was a superficial thinker but his work became enormously popular.  He purported to follow Locke by concluding that all human beings had, at birth, the same faculty of reason and that their differences were entirely due to environment, education and social circumstances.  (It was from a felt need to change social circumstances that the physiocrats began formulating the principles of political economy.) 

One Enlightenment philosopher - perhaps the greatest - did not succumb to the facile idea of the perfectibility of Man.  Kant had no illusions about ‘the crooked timber of humanity, from which you can never carve anything entirely straight’.  This was reflected in his proposals for peace.  He knew that the attainment of peace would involve a long process.  There was though a moral imperative to pursue it.*

A result of the reform idea was simply improvement in the physical environment.  Thus a public health program was initiated in England by Edwin Chadwick’s report on The Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population (1842).  General social improvements of this kind did not need Helvétius’s philosophy but they would probably not have come about without it.*  They were the result of two forces ‘set in motion during the eighteenth century.  The first was the development of modern science which made it clear that the forces of nature may be controlled by man; the second was the humanitarian movement, which gave a powerful impulse toward the application of such knowledge, first based on primitive empirical theories with regard to sanitation, the public health movement was given its scientific direction by the germ theory of Louis Pasteur and by Robert Koch’s isolation of the tubercle bacillus in 1882’. 

Enlightenment reform though went beyond general changes to the physical environment. 

The first characteristic truly distinctive of Enlightenment reform was the attempt to change the human condition by laws.  Social circumstances - particularly feudal restrictions in the case of land or mercantilist restrictions in the economy, could be changed by a change in the laws.  Bentham read Helvétius in 1769 and immediately decided to devote his life to the principles of legislation saying ‘what Bacon was to the physical world, Helvétius was to the moral…’.  It is not surprising in these circumstances that the Enlightenment should have initiated the great period of legal codification in Europe and eventually elsewhere ‑ the Prussian code (1794); the Code Civil (1804); the Austrian Code (1811) and so on throughout the nineteenth century.

Education was the second distinctive element.  At the time of Helvétius’s De L’Esprit, the encyclopaedists were in the course of producing their great work (1751-1765).  They welcomed Helvétius’s philosophy.  It enabled them to believe that the enormous resource of knowledge they were accumulating would not be restricted in influence to a small intellectual coterie but would be of benefit to all mankind.*

Education was intended not only to supply information but, in accordance with Lockean psychology, to produce a change in the way of thinking, “pour changer le facon, commune de penser”.  Thinkers like Johann Postalozzi (1746‑1827) advocated extension of education to the poor. The advent of Sunday Schools is an example of this tendency. General education became a reality, first in Prussia after its defeat at Jena. One of the most remarkable projects was the establishment of the National Education Commission in Poland in 1772-73 where the reformers had aproached Rousseau for his views.*  Eventually compulsory education was extended throughout Europe.


Thirdly, the philosophy of reform had a natural application to criminal punishment. And from the eighteenth century, led by Beccaria, theories of punishment became directed increasingly to the reform of the criminal.




*           The reform of which we are speaking is not related to the kind of idealised society or millinerian vision, whether future golden age or revival of mythic past, which for so long has characterised salvation religions. 


            There were however two ‘Utopias’, preceding the Enlightenment, which proclaimed social reconstruction as a means of human improvement.  These were Plato’s Republic (4th century B.C.) and More’s Utopia (1516).


            It may be that the visionary societies of Plato and More were never intended to be implemented. ‘The communism in Utopia was certainly a moral statement rather than a program of action’, R. Marius, Thomas More, Dent, p.186.  It would seem that Plato intended to gain acceptance for his views in The Republic through his teachings in the Academy (which he founded in 386 B.C. and where he spent the rest of his life).


            However, whatever was intended, the ideas on social reconstruction in the works never formed part of the thinking of their times.  Both works were and remain influential because of their abstract ideas as to what constitutes a ‘good society’.


            Plato’s utopia was not egalitarian.  More’s was.  Finley has explained that such a utopia was simply not possible in the ancient world and, inferentially in the world of sixteenth century England, ‘given the poor resources, the low level of technology and the absence of growth possibilities…’ The Use and Abuse of History’, Pimlico, p.190.


*           M. Howard, The Invention of Peace, Profile

*           as described in the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1958).


*           See J.B. Bury, The Idea of Progress, Dover p.162.


*           Davies, Europe, A History, Pimlico, p.608.


The Catholic Church and the Humanitarian Movement

The Church played no part in the nineteenth century humanitarian movement. It should be obvious from everything previously said, that this does not refer to the philanthropic activity which the Church fostered and in which it engaged. We are referring to the movement directed to the removal of suffering through reform as distinct from the relief of suffering by charity.

It is, on the face of it, surprising that the Church should not have played a significant part in the nineteenth century movement to abolish slavery. It is true that the Papacy only formally condemned slavery as late as 1462 when it was denounced by Pius II* but the Church had always acknowledged slavery to be 'against nature'. The early Church had treated all believers, whether slave or free, as brothers and sisters. It had opposed slavery in the Indies and endeavoured to mitigate its rigours. And yet it preferred to stand above the great abolitionist movement of the nineteenth century. It was not until 1838 that Gregory XVI (1831-46) issued a Bill prohibiting christians from engaging in the slave trade.  This proved ineffectual in Cuba.  An 1866 pronouncement by the Holy Office was equivocal.  Only in 1890, with Leo XIII’s encyclical, African Slavery, was a definitive condemnation made by the Church.

The reason for this self‑imposed exclusion was that there would have to have been acknowledgement of the part being played by the Enlightenment to which the Church felt unbending hostility.*

The Catholic Church had preserved the stoic idea of the person throughout the Middle Ages but social implications in the idea were submerged by the doctrine of salvation.  When these implications emerged during the period of the Enlightenment the Church hastened to deny them. The Church thought of the Enlightenment and the Revolution together and identified both with the Civil Constitution in France, the imprisonment of Pius VI and pervasive anti‑clericalism.

The most celebrated if most extreme instance of the Church’s antipathy to the Enlightenment was that of Pius IX’s ‘Syllabus of Errors’ although a clearer statement of the Church’s philosophic position is that of Pope Leo XIII in his Encyclical, Immortale Dei (1885): “That fatal and deplorable passion for innovation which was aroused in the sixteenth century, first threw the Christian religion into confusion, and then, by natural sequence, passed on to philosophy, and thence pervaded all ranks of society.  From this source, as it were, issued those later maxims of unbridled liberty which, in the middle of the terrible disturbances of the last century, were excogitated and proclaimed as the principles and foundations of that new jurisprudence, previously unknown, which, in many points is out of harmony, not only with the Christian law, but with natural law also.  Among these principles the chief one is that which proclaims that all men, as by race and nature they are alike, are also equal in their life; that each is so far master of himself as in no way to come under the authority of another; that he is free to think on every subject as he likes, and to act as he pleases; that no man has any right to rule over others.  In a society founded upon these principles, government is only the will of the people, which, as it is under the power of itself alone so is alone its own ruler.”

The Church was very much opposed to the Enlightenment notion that human improvement could come about by legal change.  The Church opposed any kind of substantial change in society and believed that human improvement could only come about by the moral improvement of each human being.  This position was stated by Pius XI in his Encyclical Quadragesimo Anno on 15 May 1931: “There must be first laid down as a foundation a principle established by Leo XIII: the right of property is distinct from its use.  That justice called commutative, commands sacred respect for the division of possessions and forbids invasion of other rights through the exceeding of the limits of one’s own property; but the duty of owners to use their property only in a right way does not come under this type of justice, but under other virtues, obligations of which cannot be enforced by legal action.”

Mankind suffered from original sin and could not be perfected except through God. The Church could thus not accept the notion of the perfectibility of Man. Perfection could not be achieved through reform of secular institutions. Salvation after death was obtained by divine Grace. Moreover, the Church could not accept the Enlightenment idea of autonomy; that the individual could and should escape from the 'tutelage' of superstition and religious belief by the personal exercise of reason.

It is to be remembered that the Pope was until 1870 a temporal ruler. The Popes felt acutely the rising demand of Italian nationalism and of liberalism both of which they identified with the Enlightenment. Certain Popes reacted harshly. It was said of Gregory XVI (1831 ‑1846) that he could be found ‘blessing his subjects one day and shooting them the next’. His successor, Pius IX (1846‑1878) was greeted as the liberal Pope.  Indeed Metternich was heard to murmur that the one thing he had not foreseen was a liberal Pope. But Pio Nono's liberalism was short‑lived. It was he who published the Syllabus of Errors.

Accordingly, theology and preservation of worldly power explain the Churches’ antipathy to the Enlightenment. 

Aside from these, the Church held a very different view of personal relations from those advanced by Locke and other thinkers of the Enlightenment.

The Church opposed social equality as the foundation of society. It saw social relations in hierarchical if not feudal terms. It did not regard social equality as necessary to brotherhood in Christ. Its view of relations within society was somewhat similar to that which one might have in a large family. Those in a position of hierarchical superiority owed moral duties to protect and help those beneath them. This same attitude pervades the encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891). Leo XIII insisted that private owners held their property upon ‘trust’.

In this respect the approach of the evangelicals was similar. Indeed, they acquired it from the Church of England which derived it from the historic Church. Both Leo and Lord Shaftsbury would have treated with contempt Gradgrind's remark in 'Hard Times' that 'the Good Samaritan was a bad economist'. It is likely also that each would have agreed with the observation of Karl Marx, that in the nineteenth century the capitalist had ‘pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his natural superior’ although both would have been troubled by the identity of the author. Neither the Church nor the evangelicals would have anything to do with the Lockean notion of the human person as an atomic isolate.

Despite a common functional view of society and distaste for a philosophy of 'rights' a gulf divided the evangelicals from the Catholic Church. The evangelicals accepted and were committed to humanitarian social and legal reform.  The Church rejected this entirely. As Pius XI said on the fortieth anniversary of Rerum Novarum (1931) social wrongs were not a matter ‘for legal action’.



*           The Catholic Encyclopaedia ( New York) 1912.  “Pius II … wrote on 7 October 1462 to a titular Bishop of Ruvo in Italy (who has assumed responsibility for Portugese christians in West Africa) in which he criticised the slave trade in terms which obviously applied to the Portugese in Guinea.  Taking a position somewhat different from that of his predecessors, Nicholas V and Calixtus III, Pius threatened severe punishments to all who should take new converts into slavery”, H. Thomas, The Slave Trade, 1997, p.71-21. Thomas adds that “the Pope did not condemn the slave trade as such; he only criticised the enslaving of those who had been converted, who had been brought back to Portugal" and he says that the New Catholic Encyclopaedia (1967, vol 13, p.264) is misleading in describing Pius II’s statement as a condemnation of the trade.


*           It was, however, the absolute monarchs, the ‘most christian King’ of France; the ‘most catholic’ King of Spain and the catholic rulers of Portugal, Naples and Parma who ousted the Jesuits from their dominions in the 18th century.


            In time the Church accommodated itself to the Enlightenment, particularly in protestant countries where it relied upon the separation of church and state to protect its own interests especially in the sphere of education.



The Historical Sources of Humanitarianism- Professor Herbert Butterfield

In his Riddell Memorial Lectures, 1951, published in ‘Christianity in European History’, Professor Butterfield advanced the view that Humanitarianism properly derives from medieval christianity and that it had become distorted by modern secular society:

            “Humanism and humanitarianism, liberalism and internationalism, then, emerge as a result of a tendency to translate into secular terms certain movements and aspirations which have characterised a Christian civilisation.  From 1660, however, they begin to change into secular ideals, and forget their origin, pretending to stand entirely on their own feet, and turning their back on the religion that had been their parent.”*

Professor Butterfield maintains that the original ideals had become ‘thin and attenuated’ in the course of that process, when compared with the Christian version of those ideals which had previously existed.

The key propositions he asserts are:

(i)         There was a christian version of the humanitarian ideal;

(ii)        A secular humanitarian ideal was derived from it;

(iii)       The christian version of the ideal is incomparably superior to ‘the imperfect secular substitute’ which is ‘thin and attenuated’ by comparison; and

(iv)       The imperfect secular substitute ‘arose after 1660 and, in particular, during the eighteenth century when the medieval religious parentage of the ideals was rejected.’

It is tolerably clear - although at times during the lectures Professor Butterfield wobbles on the matter - that what he means by ‘christian civilisation’ is the christianity of the medieval Roman Catholic Church before it was fractured by the Reformation.  We are however presented with a difficulty in defining the christian parent ideal from which the imperfect secular substitute is said to derive.  We seem to find this in the assertion that ‘the significance of human personality’ is christian in origin.

If this be so, Professor Butterfield is at once faced with the difficulty that freedom of conscience is a necessary corollary of the significance of human personality.  This though would seem to be what the ideal christian version denied and what the imperfect secular substitute allowed.  Professor Butterfield does not question the historical facts of christian persecution.  Indeed they are impossible to deny.  ‘Nothing’ he says ‘of twentieth century atrocity seems to be absent from the sixteenth century save the technical apparatus for generating cruelties and bringing them to the same colossal scale’.

What then is Butterfield’s explanation or reconciliation of this with the purer ‘Christian Version’ of the ideal?

The various answers he gives are that ‘christianisation according to the medieval system had not been sufficient’; ‘time and the advance of civilisation (were) necessary to co-operate with religion before gentleness can prevail’ and ‘in respect of freedom of conscience which is the foundation of other freedoms in modern history, we see christianity by its charity and its insistence on the intimate personal appropriation of religion, working for mundane good, while christians themselves and ecclesiastical systems were fighting against that good’.

The suggestion that it was christians and not christianity - christians detached, as it were, from church teaching and doctrine - who ‘ravaged and tormented Europe for over a century’ is contrary to historical fact.

It is of course, in the abstract, a valid proposition that neither the Church nor any other institution can be blamed for the incidental behaviour of its adherents even if done in its name.  The question in all cases is whether the conduct in question flows reasonably directly from the teachings expounded by the institution in question.  Such a view as Professor Butterfield advances would only be open if Church teaching had had nothing to do causally with persecution and cruelty - if, for example, persecution was contrary to church doctrine or at least if church doctrine were neutral towards it.

Persecution was not incidental.  It is unarguable that denial of conscience - to ‘compel them to come in’ - was inherent in Church teaching.  It is not just that one can point to the persecuting zeal of certain isolated Church leaders, catholic or protestant, such as Pope Urban II (who proclaimed the first crusade), Innocent IV (who established the Inquisition) or Jean Calvin.  The persecution by the Church was not a super-added inessential.  It derived directly from Church doctrine.*

Professor Butterfield accepts that ‘when we come to the eighteenth century it came to be held in matters of religion that the conscience of the individual should not be forced’.

We must conclude, therefore, that at least in respect of freedom of conscience - rightly described by Professor Butterfield as ‘the foundation of other freedoms’ - the secular ideal was not so ‘thin and attenuated’ as the christian version.

What Professor Butterfield describes as the desiccated secular ideal has achieved a great freeing of human beings.  He concedes that ‘the growing consciousness since 1700, that all men - even classes long oppressed, and even negro slaves - should be conceded that kind of liberty which gives a larger realm for the exercise of moral decision and personal choice’.  How then is it explained that the christian version of the ideal should throughout the Middle Ages have defended inequality?

Such a view is explained by Professor Butterfield as follows:

            “Finding itself in an hierarchical society which comprises serfdom the church may present to broad classes of people a spirit of subordination which, by preserving the whole order of things, is calculated to save them from more violent forms of subjugation still.”


This view is wholly insupportable.  There is not the slightest evidence that the medieval church ever looked forward to an ideal state of social equality.  It was itself intimately involved in feudal society.  It proclaimed a philosophy of social inequality and supported princes in upholding it.

Aside from these particular but important examples, Professor Butterfield’s error is more fundamental.

The notion of a christian version of the humanitarian ideal depends upon ‘the place which our particular order of things has come to accord to human personality’ being ‘christian in origin’ as Professor Butterfield asserts.  This is not true.  The significance attached to human personality was not christian in origin.  In Western civilisation it goes back from the stoics to the later Greek philosophers and thence to the Pythagoreans.  In origin it is a pre-christian contribution.  Although the idea was preserved by the medieval church, it was, in truth, preserved in an ‘attenuated’ form.  It was filtered through the doctrine of salvation so that it was to have only posthumous implications.* 

Professor Butterfield describes the ‘Age of Reason’ in polemical terms as ‘secularised christianity’; ‘a kind of hangover from the age of faith’ and ‘a by-product of christianity’.  Such descriptions cannot withstand historical analysis.

The Enlightenment followed the rebirth in seventeenth century science.  The conflict between religion was not, as Butterfield suggests, some regrettable and unnecessary inability on the part of medieval christianity at that particular time to accommodate itself to science, with which it was basically compatible.  The spirit of open rational enquiry and primacy of facts was fundamentally at odds with church authority and miraculous intervention.*  It was chiefly the scientific spirit which gave the eighteenth century Enlightenment its positive qualities of rationalism and tolerance and the value placed upon a free conscience. 

Professor Butterfield’s historical review must be judged erroneous and, indeed, partisan.  A more correct statement of the historical contribution of christianity is that given, without accompanying theological prejudices, by Albert Schweitzer in his ‘Autobiography’*:

“For centuries it (Christianity) treasured the great commandment of Love and merely as traditional truth without recognising it as a reason for opposing slavery, witch burning, torture and all the other ancient and medieval forms of inhumanity.  It was only when it experienced the influence of the thinking of the Age of Enlightenment (Aufklarung) that it was stirred into entering into the struggle for humanity.  The remembrance of this ought to preserve it forever from assuming any air of superiority…”*




*           Collins, p.40


*           The foundation of the church’s insistence upon conformity of belief goes back to the early church and the doctrine of faith.  By the time of Constantine the church had yet to work out finally the intellectual expression of christian faith.  Doing so led to internal discord, faction and persecution.  The belief, attributed in the New Testament to the Ethiopian eunuch, that ‘Jesus Christ is the Son of God’ was the source of endless disputation about the sense in which Jesus was both God and Man or one or the other.  Between the Council of Nicea in 325 and the Council of Chalcedon in 451 the church was racked with division over the Arian and Monosophyte controversies and it was not until the middle of the fifth century that orthodox doctrines on the Trinity and incarnation were at all settled.  That century was however to witness the fierce controversy between Augustine and Pelagius over the nature of original sin and there remained the deep and continuing argument over the filioque.  Controversy and argument, bitterness and acrimony led opponents to resort to exile and persecution in order to establish their authority.  It is superficial to imagine that the church’s attitude was a product only of the medieval environment. 


*           The Quakers, taking essentially the same idea, extended its application to total opposition to war.


*           The Church understood that its authority was at stake and thus burnt Bruno and tried Galileo.


*           p.257.  Professor Butterfield himself was a methodist, see Ved Mehta, Fly and the Fly-Bottle, p.209, George Allen and Unwin Ltd, p.275.


*           For a criticism of Professor Butterfield’s views from a somewhat different standpoint: see Bertrand Russell, ‘Why I am Not a Christian’, Unwin, pp.164-167.