In his remarkable book, The Wreck of Western Culture, John Carroll paints a bleak picture of what he sees around him:
“We live amidst the ruins of the great, five-hundred-year epoch of humanism. Around us is that colossal wreck. Our culture is a flat expanse of rubble. It hardly offers shelter from a mild cosmic breeze, never mind one of those ice gales that regularly returns to rip us out of the cozy intimacy of our daily lives and confront us with oblivion. Is it surprising that we are run down? We are desperate, yet we don’t care much any more. We are timid, yet we cannot be shocked. We are inert underneath our busyness. We are destitute in our plenty. We are homeless in our own homes.”
He might have also noted, our children in school hold their heads under their desks in fear as they regularly practice the latest drill to thwart maniacs who, demanding loudly their right to bear arms, arrive with automatic weapons and start to shoot.
Disturbing as is Carroll’s picture, it is not overblown. Much the same thing was said many years ago by Jacques Barzun who warned us to lock up our treasures because the barbarians were about to arrive. Well, they have arrived and they have taken over. They now have rank and tenure in our major universities and control matters of curriculum and edit the prestigious journals. They prance on our streets in outlandish garb insisting that we look at them rather than to the beauty that surrounds us all. They use social media to demand that we think about them and not about anything of real importance. They have provided us with toys we hold in our hands or which greet us upon entering the room with constant reminders that the corporate world is the real world. As the inheritor of a humanism that began with an attempt to raise medieval human beings from the mud to greater heights, the world of business and corporate profits has placed itself firmly at the center of a commodified culture. And we are told repeatedly that we are the most important thing in the world.
Humanism was born at the end of the Middle Ages and the start of the Renaissance when humans began to see themselves as the center of the world. Not God. Certainly no longer. The corruption within the Church coupled with the invention of the printing press and growing literacy among the population at large all led to religious revolutions coupled with the industrial revolution and the birth of modern science which have engendered general prosperity and long life, reinforcing the notion that human beings no longer need to lean on God or any other “superstition.”
These are the stepchildren of the Humanism which, Carroll tells us is now in tatters around us. This is because we are learning of the terrible mistakes that come with the riddance of something greater than the self. We are seeing around us, if we look with Carroll’s eyes, the reductio ad absurdum of the Self as God. Medieval men and women, living in terrible times, knew that death was the beginning. Humanists insisted that death is the end, as we learn if we read Shakespeare’s Hamlet carefully. That was the problem: could humans replace God? They could not. What began as a powerful movement to empower the human spirit, to allow it to express itself in extraordinary works of philosophy, art, and science, soon degenerated into the “Cult of Me.” What resulted was a fearful, industrialized world polluting the air and water and producing an economic system that equated wealth with success. But there’s more.
Among other things, we have come to confuse freedom with license, to descry restraint and self-discipline, to stress human rights and ignore human responsibilities, to see law as nothing more or less than a curb on the impulses that, being human, are ipso facto a good thing. “Let it all hang out!” We wallow in a sea of self-importance while at the same time we dimly sense that something is missing, that there is more to life than pleasure and the “stuff” of which George Carlin makes delightful fun.
John Carroll sees the destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001 as a symbol of the destruction of our puffed up sense of self that has morphed from humanism; it reveals to us all that human beings are not worthy of self-adoration, that there needs to be something more in our lives than our own selves. It seems trite somehow, but it is profound. For all its beauty and intellectual splendor, humanism was hollow at the center.
As Carroll notes,
“humanism failed because its I is not the center of creation in the sense of being creature and creator in one.”
The times demand greater self-awareness, the admission that humans are not the center of the world and that we need something greater than ourselves to provide our world with meaning if we are to avoid the continuance of what are essentially meaningless lives. It need not be God and it certainly need not be organized religion. But it demands an acceptance of the fact that we are a human community bound together by a common purpose, living on a fragile planet, and aware that there is something beyond our selves.