Man as the Measure of All Things?

See here for the Finnish version: Ihminen kaiken mittana?

An ideological dispute that might be particular to relatively modern times concerns the position of the human being at the centre of things. Should we defer to higher authority and tradition, or are we to trust our own “reason”, whatever that may be, in questions about things like science and ethics? It may appear that the latter position has already won out in modern discourse, but that is only a partial truth. As far as I can see, it only applies in part of the world, and even there, a less articulate part of the population has been left behind from that train, and has since organised to become more articulate about its dissenting views. Religious fundamentalism is the definitive example of this.

The more “modern” or “humanist” (which I will call it) view would have it that science based on observations and reasoning, its truths always subject to revision, is the way to find out how the world works. Further, in ethics, there are no absolute rules given from above, and what is held as sacred is the integrity of the human individual. This makes “man the measure of all things” in a way. The traditional view would measure things on a higher authority such as God. Applied to knowledge, it leads for example to the claim that the Bible makes accurate scientific claims. In ethics, there are sacred commandments to be upheld, and moral value isn’t inherent in people but the commandments.

Those thinking in the traditional way can be shocked at the way the others put themselves in the place of God and apparently think they can do and think anything they like. These are two fundamentally very different positions that have difficulty understanding each other, and I will not aim to bridge that gap here. But let me ask and then answer the question: Is it really the modern, humanist ethos that puts man in the place of God?

(Note: Below, I will make use of the silly sexist language where “man” and “he” stand for human beings in general, because to do otherwise would be clumsy especially here. Blame the language; there is no such problem in the Finnish version of this text. Also, I will speak of “the traditionalist” and “the humanist”. Understand that these are kind of ideal types. It does not mean that all I say is true of everyone who could be described by those words. These are two patterns of thinking that may apply to people or not, or apply only partially, and the claim I am making is only that there are some people for each to whom it applies at some point. I’m also using the words “humanist” and “traditionalist” in the specific sense explained here without claiming it is the definitive correct sense in which they should always be or generally are used.)

Start with the traditionalist position. One might take for granted that the traditions are true and authoritative. One might take for granted that what they learnt to believe in must be true. One might take for granted that their personal experience of the sacred reveals the purpose and structure of the universe.

But by now, man has seen that traditions vary in different places and that they are not as unchangeable as they are made out to be. He has seen that traditional beliefs are not guaranteed to be true of the world. He has seen that personal experiences differ and that the universe is much more vast than can be encompassed by anyone’s experiences. He didn’t decide to be God and then make up all these things; he looked at the world outside his community and his head and saw them. And it’s not hubris. It’s taking your cue from the world itself. It’s at this point humility.

And the traditionalist opposed to this? He closes his eyes to the world. The words of his community have entered his head, but he’s unaware of where they come from. He thinks they come from God or some similar source. So he listens to the echoes inside his skull and thinks they are the fundamental truth. But they are the words of men. Just opening your eyes, you could see that.

Because you have to use your own reason. There’s no way around that. The Bible is a source of infallible knowledge? How do you know? To know for sure, you’d have to be infallible. And that’s really the thing about the traditionalist who claims those disagreeing with him are overruling God. He’s the one who thinks he can’t be wrong. He’s the one who puts his own intuitions in the place of God while sternly refusing to see where they come from.

Want to talk about hubris now?

The humanist lets the world tell him what to believe. Certainly, he has to obtain all this knowledge through himself, in that making the observations and conclusions he’s using his own reason and abilities. But at least he knows it, and knows he can be wrong. The traditionalist refuses to accept his own responsibility for his beliefs, and in that, makes himself and his society the unacknowledged and unquestioned measure of all things.

So in a sense, both the traditionalist and the humanist make man the measure of all things. But, though it appears otherwise, the traditionalist in truth goes just as far as the humanist, and beyond. (Cf. also this.) It is in fact more informative to say that the traditionalist is the one who makes himself the measure of all things.

The above is mostly in regards to knowledge. In terms of ethics, there is a different case for saying the humanist makes man the measure of all things. It’s in that he actually cares about what happens to real human beings (and other animals, hopefully), as opposed to implicitly thinking ethics is about symbolically honouring the established order of things because doing otherwise is sin and upsets the cosmos just because. But since the traditionalist’s beliefs on this didn’t actually drop from the sky either, he’s holding man as the measure of all things again anyway, just unknowingly.

Belief in God is of course not incompatible with being the humanist in the above scheme. It just means believing that God meant for us to think for ourselves, or simply recognising the truth about the unreliability of received beliefs. At the end of the day, the humanist tries to make the world the measure of truth about the world, and other people the measure of how other people should be treated. The traditionalist makes something man-made the measure of things and defends it as something higher and absolute.

(What’s that? You’re a traditionalist and you think I’m wrong, because what you believe in really is the absolute truth? Gosh, I’m sorry. I didn’t know there was anyone like you. I was thinking about all those other guys, you know, the ones who we must both agree are wrong, because they believe in different traditions from yours that contradict it. Would you believe it? They think they’re the ones who know the real truth, just like you except that they’re wrong. You sure were lucky that you got the one tradition that’s obviously right instead of the ones that just look like it to people who were born into them.)

Some literature that inspired me to write this

  • Karen Armstrong: The Battle for God. Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. An excellent book that discusses its subject both broadly and in depth, and, as far as I can tell, with great insight. In particular in relation to this article, it discusses fundamentalism as a reaction to modernity, as well as the two ways of thinking that I mention above. Also interesting is the use of the concepts of mythos and logos, a different distinction.
  • Alister E. McGrath: Christian Theology. An Introduction. An interesting and thorough presentation of the history of Christian theology. Touches on modernity and the two ways of thinking. Intelligent and aware, yet still involves the idea that thinking for yourself without relying on God is sin.


  • After already writing this, I happened to notice that Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature. The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes (Penguin, 2011), on pages  143-4, mentions specific thinkers (Sebastian Castellio, Spinoza, Milton, Newton, Locke) that noted the possibility of tradition being wrong (when that was a new idea), which I was discussing above on a purely general level without really anchoring it to history.

Sama suomeksi.


One thought on “Man as the Measure of All Things?

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