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15 Quotes about Humanity

What does it mean to be human? Philosophers have pondered this question for thousands of years, but it’s something we’ve all asked ourselves at some point. Are humans simply animals who’ve evolved uniquely? Are we good or evil at heart? Here are fifteen quotes from writers, artists, thinkers, activists, and others that explore the human experience, human nature, and how humanity can shape the world:

#1. “To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity.” – Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) was an anti-apartheid activist and South Africa’s first Black head of state, as well as the country’s first democratically-elected president. Mandela was politically active his entire life, spending three decades in prison for his actions. After his term as president, Mandela remained an advocate for peace, social justice, and human rights. He is often described as the “Father of the Nation.” In the quote above, Mandela draws the connection between human rights and humanity. Without rights, a person is dehumanized.

#2. “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.” – Dalai Lama

Since 1940, the 14th Dalai Lama has been the spiritual leader of Tibet. He was born to a farming family in 1935 and recognized as the reincarnated Dalai Lama at age 2. In 1989, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his advocacy on freeing Tibet. Today, he is the world’s most famous Buddhist teacher and viewed as a role model for his teachings on peace, compassion, and nonviolence. The quote above defines love and compassion as essential human characteristics.

#3. “The greatness of humanity is not in being human, but in being humane.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948) was an Indian lawyer and anti-colonial activist famous for his nonviolent worldview. To free India from British rule, Gandhi organized peaceful protests such as hunger strikes, mass boycotts, and the Salt March, a 240-mile journey to the Arabian sea where Gandhi collected salt in defiance of restrictive laws. Other civil rights movements – like the Civil Rights Movement in the United States – took inspiration from Gandhi’s nonviolent teachings, which are reflected in the quote above. “Mahatma” is an honorific.

#4. “We can know only that we know nothing. And that is the highest degree of human wisdom.” – Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) was a Russian writer famous for novels like War and Peace (where the above quote is from) and Anna Karenina. His writing explores themes like love, death, society, wealth, and religion. He was also a frequent critic of governments and embraced pacifism later in life. While many people uphold humans as the most impressive and intelligent creatures for everything we know, Tolstoy’s quote turns that concept on its head. For him, knowing we know nothing is the most impressive thing a human can acknowledge.

#5. “Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat.” ― Ralph Ellison

Ralph Ellison (1914-1994) was a writer famous for just one book: Invisible Man. Written in 1952, it’s considered one of the best novels of the century. In the story, the nameless main character – a Black man – leaves the racism of the South only to find he’s invisible in New York City because of his race. The quote above comes from the book’s epilogue, reflecting both a hopeful, but realistic view of reality. Our identity as humans is only “won” through living our lives and not letting others control us, even when the game is rigged against us.

#6. “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.” – Anne Frank

Anne Frank (1929-1945) was a Jewish girl forced into hiding with her family when the Nazis took over the Netherlands. Over the next two years, Anne wrote about her experiences and feelings in a diary. After the Nazis discovered the family’s hiding place, Anne and her family were sent to camps. Only Otto, Anne’s father, survived. Anne’s diary was eventually published and translated into 70 languages. The quote above, one of the diary’s most famous, is a testament to Anne’s resilience and hope in humanity.

#7. “I still believe in man in spite of man. I believe in language even though it has been wounded, deformed, and perverted by the enemies of mankind. And I continue to cling to words because it is up to us to transform them into instruments of comprehension rather than contempt. It is up to us to choose whether we wish to use them to curse or to heal, to wound or to console.” ― Elie Wiesel

Elie Wiesel (1928-2016) was a writer and activist famous for his book Night, a memoir of his time in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. He went on to write many more books, including Open Heart (2012), which is where the above quote comes from. Wiesel was a man who experienced the worst humanity has to offer, but he remained hopeful.

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#8. “Humans said one thing with their bodies and another with their mouths and everyone had to spend time and energy figuring out what they really meant.”― Octavia E. Butler

Octavia E. Butler (1947-2006) was a visionary Black science fiction author who explored ideas not common in many other sci-fi books at the time, including climate change, women’s rights, political inequality, and more. The quote above comes from the novel Imago, which is the conclusion of the “Lillith’s Brood” trilogy. In the series, an alien race merges its genetic material with humanity, blurring the line between what we consider “alien” and “human.” The quote touches on a hypocrisy common with people; they say one thing, but then do another.

#9. “All people have three characters, that which they exhibit, that which they are, and that which they think they are.” – Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr

Karr (1808-1890) was a French journalist, novelist, and critic. His most famous saying is “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” In the quote above, Karr explores how humans hold many contradictions. They are afraid – or unable – to show who they really are, even to themselves.

#10. “Everyone is a moon, and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody.” – Mark Twain

Samuel Clemens, also known as Mark Twain (1835-1910), was one of America’s most famous writers and humorists. He wrote novels (like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) and many short stories. The quote above comes from the chapter epigraphs of Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar. In his characteristically sharp style, Twain compares humans to the moon, where one side – the dark side – is always hidden.

#11. “Nothing ever stays the same, whether it be poems or humans.” – Joy Harjo

Joy Harjo is an award-winning poet, musician, playwright, and editor. She’s a member of the Mvskoke Nation and the second poet ever to be appointed for a third term as U.S. Poet Laureate. As a poet, her work explores themes like community, grief, healing, myth, and music. The quote above comes from the poetry book She Had Some Horses, a classic originally published in 1983.

#12. “We deserve to have our wrongdoing represented as much as our heroism, because when we refuse wrongdoing as a possibility for a group of people, we refuse their humanity.”― Carmen Maria Machado

Carmen Maria Machado is an acclaimed American short story writer, essayist, and critic. As a speculative fiction writer, her work embraces surrealism, horror, and unique structures. The quote above comes from In The Dream House, Machado’s memoir about her relationship with an abusive woman. Abuse within gay relationships is not often discussed, but pretending as if queer people are incapable of wrongdoing denies them their full humanity. This applies to any group. All humans have the capacity to harm.

#13. “To be rendered powerless does not destroy your humanity. Your resilience is your humanity. The only people who lose their humanity are those who believe they have the right to render another human being powerless. They are the weak. To yield and not break, that is incredible strength.”― Hannah Gadsby

Hannah Gadsby is an Australian comedian who rose to international fame in 2018 with Netflix’s release of Nanette, Gadsby’s special. It is not your typical comedy special as it features commentary on trauma, LGBTQ+ perspectives, inequality, and more. Among its many accolades, the special won a Peabody award.

#14. “I don’t feel there’s a difference between the real world and the fairy-tale world. They contain psychological truths and, I guess, projections of what the culture that tells them thinks about various things: men, women, aging, dying – the most basic aspects of being human.” – Helen Oyeyemi

Helen Oyeyemi is a British novelist and short story writer known for her imaginative, dark riffs on fairy tales like Snow White (2014’s Boy, Snow, Bird) and Hansel & Gretel (2019’s Gingerbread). In the quote above, she highlights the significance of what fairy tales say about humanity. Fairy tales aren’t just fantasy stories for kids; they tell the truth.

#15. Human beings are members of a whole, in creation of one essence and soul. If one member is afflicted with pain, other members uneasy will remain. If you have no sympathy for human pain, the name of human you cannot retain. – Sa’adi

Born in 1213, Sa’adi was a Persian poet and one of the most important figures in classical Persian literature. One of his poems, known as Bani Adam (translated to “Sons of Adam” or “human beings”), emphasizes how connected humans are and how we each have a responsibility to care for each other. In 2005, the owner of a carpet workshop in Isfahan gave the United Nations a carpet with the poem’s words woven in gold lettering.

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About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.