How Humanism (as the philosophical movement of the Renaissance historical period), the philosophy of the Enlightenment, and classical liberalism are related?

I have some difficulties distinguishing them from one another, since they share many of their (core) principles. (Humanism has later developed into so-called "secular humanism". I distinguish between Humanism and secular humanism principles in the following presentation).

  • Place and Time. The three emerged roughly around the same period of time and in the same place: roughly 16th-18th century Europe.

  • Freedom. They all insist on the freedom of the individual(1). Secular humanism will later, along with the philosophy of the Enlightenment and classical liberalism advocate for democracy.

  • Tolerance. They all advocate for tolerance.

  • Free market. The philosophy of Enlightenment, classical liberalism, and later secular humanism, advocate for some form of free market.

  • Reason and empirical sciences. Both Humanism and the philosophy of the Enlightenment defend the use of reason and empirical sciences over faith/mysticism/intuition/etc. At a very different degree, it can be argued that classical liberals also put emphasis on reason, to the extent that to them, a liberal society can function successfully only if individuals are responsible of themselves, which can be ensured by their fair use of reason (to identify what is in their own long term interest, e.g. not harming other unnecessarily and cooperating).

  • Progress. In the Humanism movement, it is more a moral progress. In the Enlightenment movement it is more a scientific and technical progress. The idea of progress does not stand as a principle in classical liberalism, but the materialistic progress that the application of classical liberalism main principles (free market and limited government) historically brought often serves as an argument for the adoption of classical liberalism.

So to me, Humanism, philosophy of the Enlightenment, and classical liberalism are in a continuity (and sometimes historically intertwined), with the liberty of the individual as a common thread. This continuity takes this shape:

Humanism 14th-17th century Europe (Petrarch, Montaigne, More) → Enlightenment 18th Europe (Locke, Smith, Voltaire) → classical liberalism 19th-20th Europe/U.S (Bastiat, Hayek, Friedman)*

The interesting point is they do are different movements, in the sense that they refined, modified each other according to the criterion concerning how to give greater freedom to the individual. Therefore, a classical liberal might not agree with a humanist, a humanist might not agree with an Enlightenment philosopher, etc.

But since it is the Humanism which introduced the emphasis on the freedom of the individual (more broadly designated as "the autonomy of the individual" [World History] [Britannica] at the time), one could hardly self-designates themselves as a classical liberal without recognizing their debt to the Humanism movement.

*It is worth noticing that these philosophical movements have been accompanied by the religious movement of the Reformation, the historical and geographical development of the latter maybe having definitive impact on how each philosophical movement were shaped according to their geographical position (Italy vs. France vs. Netherlands vs. Germany vs. Great Britain).

More in depth references

(1) Concerning Humanism and individualism

The period from the fourteenth century to the seventeenth worked in favor of the general emancipation of the individual. The city-states of northern Italy had come into contact with the diverse customs of the East, and gradually permitted expression in matters of taste and dress. The writings of Dante, and particularly the doctrines of Petrarch and humanists like Machiavelli, emphasized the virtues of intellectual freedom and individual expression. In the essays of Montaigne the individualistic view of life received perhaps the most persuasive and eloquent statement in the history of literature and philosophy.

Kreis, Steven (2008). "Renaissance Humanism". Retrieved 2009-03-03.

  • The additional discussion of humanism is very helpful and allows me to see the focus of your interest in this topic. You'll be aware of Thomas Paine and his part in the American and French Revolutions and the political consequences for most of the 19th century. The development of Romanticism is often regarded as the end of Enlightenment, but I see it as a continuation and strengthening of the emphasis on the individual as free, as well as a reaction against the Industrial Revolution.
    – Ludwig V
    Mar 5, 2023 at 15:40
  • @LudwigV The relation of Romanticism with the Humanism/Enlightenment/Classical Liberalism set is also interesting. The romanticist did indeed present themselves as a better alternative to them, in the quest of freedom.
    – Starckman
    Mar 6, 2023 at 0:55
  • But I think Romanticism are in fact anti-freedom (not only, anti-Enlightenment, see Isaiah Berlin and Zeev Sternhell). They advocated for the use intuition and the release of (strong negative) emotions. This is not freedom. Freedom is given by a greater use of reason, at least at the individual level.
    – Starckman
    Mar 6, 2023 at 0:59
  • They also advocate for a return to nature, and tended to be anti-technology and science. This is not freedom. Science, technology and urbanization give greater freedom to the individual. The Romanticist often say people in a modern society are dependent on machines. In reality, people freedom is extremely limited by nature if it is all there is.
    – Starckman
    Mar 6, 2023 at 1:01
  • 1
    H'm. I see your points - all of them. It is more complicated than I thought. No surprise there
    – Ludwig V
    Mar 6, 2023 at 6:44

1 Answer 1


The relationship between classical liberalism and the Enlightenment is easy to identify. John Locke is a paradigm philosopher of the Enlightenment and often identified as the father of English liberalism. Humanism is more complicated; it isn't a well-defined concept and takes different forms at different times. You can find precursors in Ancient Greece - "Man is the measure of all things" was coined by Protagoras (5th century BCE) and Xenophanes famously observed that horses, oxen and lions would have equine, bovine and leonine gods (6th - 5th centuries BCE). But it's first appearance as a more or less coherent movement is much earlier than the Enlightenment, say 14th to 15th centuries CE, with people like Copernicus and Erasmus. In the 19th century it was popular and was associated with liberalism and atheism.

I'm not a good enough historian to go much further than that, I'm afraid. I hope it helps.

  • I don't think anthropomorphism and relativism (man is the measure of things) is what secular humanism means in the question. Rather more towards human rights, as related to enlightenment and liberalism.
    – Nikos M.
    Mar 4, 2023 at 16:17
  • It depends how you define the concept of human rights. The earliest version appears to be 539 BCE with the cylinder of Cyrus which specified universal rights for all within his empire. Locke discusses universal rights, but calls them natural rights. Then there's the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. There's a similar, but much more murky, story to be told about humanism. Renaissance humanism, for example, meant the study of the classics, especially what academics now call the humanities. Their word came from the Latin word "humanus" which meant "cultured".
    – Ludwig V
    Mar 4, 2023 at 19:53
  • 1
    @LudwigV, there is a false translation of the Cylinder of Cyrus making the rounds on the internet. The real cylinder doesn't say anything remotely like that. It does say that Cyrus saved the people from their despotic former king and frees some captives, but nothing like a declaration of human rights. Universal natural rights as we understand them today are a product of the Enlightenment. Mar 4, 2023 at 21:37
  • "Renaissance humanism, for example, meant the study of the classics, especially what academics now call the humanities." can you explain the difference between this definition of humanism, and the humanism as the movement of the 15-16th Europe?
    – Starckman
    Mar 5, 2023 at 1:46
  • 1
    @Starckman I forgot to mention that I think you will also find the Reformation and Counter-Reformation interesting. It is usually distinguished from humanism, but shares the emphasis on human beings, especially the individual conscience at the centre of things. Moreover, Weber, I think it was, who attributed the rise of capitalism largely to Protestantism. There's lots of information readily available in the encyclopedias &c.
    – Ludwig V
    Mar 5, 2023 at 5:34

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