Humanism Revisited

I recently posted a blog that focused on John Carroll’s remarkable book The Wreck of Western Culture, which is more about the death of humanism than anything else. I now want to explicate what I believe are some of the central tenets of Carroll’s thesis. I find them most interesting and thought provoking.

Carroll correctly views humanism as the heart and soul of Western Culture — at least since the Reformation and until quite recently. The Protestant Reformation itself was an attempt to revitalize a moribund Christianity in the form of a Catholic Church that had become corrupted beyond belief and rested on bland formulas and empty promises. When Luther visited Rome as a young man he was horrified and he attempted to bring new life to what he believed to be the central beliefs of Christianity. He insisted that reason and free will were vapid notions and that we can only find our way if we follow God totally and without question — blind faith, if you will. Calvin later emphasized those same principles, but in the meantime the Renaissance was aborning with its total commitment to the very things that Luther and Calvin denied: free will and human reason. The result was humanism and it dealt what was for all intents and purposes the death blow to a fragile Christianity though there are faint traces of the faith here and there — especially among the poor.

The Renaissance gave birth in turn to the age of Enlightenment which brought us the liberation of the individual — the “I” of Pico della Mirandola. This is the “I” that can achieve greatness through the community and in partnership with others of like mind. And without supernatural assistance. This is the “I” that embraces such values as honor, courage, and integrity. The result was modern science, the industrial revolution, modern medicine, free education for all, democracy, and “widespread prosperity.” Unfortunately, as Carroll sees it, the “I” has degenerated into “me” — the self-absorbed individual who feels no need of another and assuredly not God. The industrial revolution has brought us polluted air and water and a planet at risk; science has degenerated into technology; medicine has become a business, as has education; and democracy has become oligarchy as the wealthy make the decisions that are largely ignored by those who don’t understand the duties of citizenship. And “widespread prosperity” has devolved into a very wealthy few and a great many deep in debt.

Modern culture, if we can call it that, is therefore, in Carroll’s view, the remnant of a barely breathing Christianity and a dead humanism that has degenerated into an incoherent melange. The free will and reason of the humanists has become license and calculation as reason is no longer prized but has been replaced by a mind that figures profit and loss while playing mindless games on electronic toys (that’s my addition of Carroll’s thesis, but I think it is in the spirit of what he had to say in 2008.

Carroll has provided us with a careful examination the corpse, as he sees it, and is a bit short on prognosis. But he holds out little hope for a disenchanted culture centered around the self and its pleasures. However, there is more to be said and it was put nicely in a comment by one of my fellow bloggers, John Fioravanti:

 I understand the definition of humanism presented here, but I have always associated the term with a genuine concern for the well-being of humanity. I rejected organized religion over a decade ago, but I’ve not rejected the belief in a superior being and creator. If our lives are empty and meaningless it is because we don’t focus our attention or our efforts beyond ourselves. I believe we need to become a real human community, obliterate the silly, artificial political borders and establish a global government that will prioritize the environment and more equitable distribution of the world’s wealth. It is a dream.

I think John is right. We need to come out of ourselves and help build communities that care about one another. It is not clear how we go about this or how we can do this with a population that has turned its back on fellow-feeling and on reason itself which is simply a small candle in the darkness which we must in the end acknowledge. In the end, we must come out of our selves and admit that there is something beyond the self, something greater than any one individual, something through which we can find meaning and purpose. It starts by reaching out to the others around us.


7 thoughts on “Humanism Revisited

  1. Hugh, the solution you note of a community mindset is consistent with a message pundit David Brooks has been speaking about on a his speaking tour. He uses examples of refocusing on community centers in neighborhoods for gatherings of extended neighbors. The site could be a school, a hall, a church, a swimming pool area or home. The gatherings could be potluck dinners, cook outs, games night, book clubs, etc. He cited examples where these were recurring.

    We have become isolated and would prefer to do our own thing. To me, our mores suffer when we lose sight of this,

    Good post, Keith

    • Thanks, Keith. The breakdown of communities is a large part of the problem, but the immersion of the self into the self is also a huge part. If communities can recover there is hope that people will come out of themselves and begin to take care of one another. That is promising.

  2. Excellent post! I agree with most of what you say … and certainly the notion of democracy is now naught more than oligarchical plutocracy, not only in this nation, but in most western nations. I do not believe that humanism is a lost cause, for I still, perhaps foolishly, believe that most people are good at heart and want to be part of leaving this world a little better place than they found it, want to help their fellow humans, want to take care of the environment and the living creatures in it. I think we’re stymied because we don’t know where to start. Technology has expanded our world such that it is sometimes overwhelming. The idea of people starting in their own communities has merit … if you cannot solve the global crisis, start in your own backyard.

    • Carroll is talking about culture and he is convinced that ours has become shriveled and shallow. I call it, simply, a commodified culture in which everything has a price, even human conscience. But, as you point out weekly and which is reflected in your excellent posts, there is hope because there are still good people doing good things. There is a core of concern in most people that we see signs of when there are calamities and people step up.
      But in our colleges and universities, education has decidedly been replaced by job training and the institutions themselves are driven, almost without exception, by the business model. That is sad. Future leaders will have to be those who slip between the cracks or who manage to find a college that actually educates — such as St. John’s College in Annapolis and Santa Fe.

      • I most certainly agree … I would go further than saying it is sad that our colleges and universities have replaced learning about the world, learning how to think, with technical job skills training. I would call it tragic, and it does not bode well for future generations … from where will the true leaders come? From where will novel new ideas, great literature, etc. come from? The answer is that they will likely come from someplace outside the U.S. Too bad you and I aren’t wealthy … we could build our own college and teach the important stuff! 😉

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