The best books on humanism from a life long humanist

The Books I Picked & Why

Howards End

By E.M. Forster

Book cover of Howards End

Why this book?

I’m recommending this wonderful novel but it really could just as well be any of his novels (or his essays or broadcasts or any of his writing at all!) All his work is suffused with his humanist values (he was an active member of UK humanist organisations as well as all his other activist and intellectual connections) and Howard’s End in particular contains the immortal line “Only Connect!” which is a manifesto not only for connecting with others but also living an integrated life within yourself.

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By George Eliot

Book cover of Middlemarch

Why this book?

A novelist and essayist of the era before Forster and his true ancestor in terms of values and beliefs, George Eliot’s humanist approach runs through all her work. The richness of characterisation in Middlemarch means you understand every person’s point of view and the empathy and enlargement of sympathies that follows from this develop the moral imagination that humanists so prize. The interconnectedness of human lives is also a theme and the novel’s final lines contain an epitaph that is almost universal for any human life: “But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

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The Humanist Revolution

By Hector Hawton

Book cover of The Humanist Revolution

Why this book?

Editor of the New Humanist magazine, Hawton was a leading humanist activist of the mid-twentieth century. But this book is not an activist work. The Humanist Revolution is more of a social and cultural history. It powerfully identifies the basics of a humanist approach to life but then illustrates how the ‘humanist turn’ is a central moment in western and global history. In a sense, there are two humanisms. There is the conscious humanism of the self-identifying humanist but there is also the bigger humanism, which is a set of implicit ideas in the western mind. This book is a good account of the latter.

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The Unity of Mankind in Greek Thought

By Baldry

Book cover of The Unity of Mankind in Greek Thought

Why this book?

Today it has become quite fashionable for people (especially Conservative Christians) to claim that a lot of the ideas that humanists value have their origin in Christianity. There are many reasons why this is largely nonsense, but this old (and slightly academic) book by Baldry outlines one of my favourites, by telling the story of how the concept of universal humanity grew and developed in pre-Christian Hellenic civilisation. This book opens your mind to the long history of ideas and reminds you that there’s nothing new under the sun…

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The Conquest of Happiness

By Bertrand Russell

Book cover of The Conquest of Happiness

Why this book?

This is a self-help book with serious depth and substance. Although some of it is dated, the timeless reflections that Russell draws from the humanist tradition of which he was a part contain wisdom that can transform your life. He is strongest on the ingredients of happiness and the last chapter, on the happy person, is still a go-to for me to remind myself of what matters most. 

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