So What?

I have been kicking a dead horse of late in the form of the movement that started in the 14th century and which has been called “humanism.” This movement went head-to-head with Christianity for many years — especially in the form of the Protestant Reformation in the 15th and 16th centuries, which, for all intents and purposes humanism defeated. But humanism also died. Following John Carroll’s lead I made some pithy comments about the death of humanism which he and I both lay at the feet of thinkers like Charles Darwin and Karl Marx — both of whom played pivotal roles in the scientific revolution and in the growth of capitalism which in many ways define our shallow “commodified culture” and certainly lay to rest any notion anyone might have about the possibility that humanism still lives. It does not.

But a comment by a reader of the last of three posts on that topic said, in effect, “so what?” The reader feels that the humanities in the colleges and universities. for example, are dead because there is no longer any call for them; students don’t want to study esoteric subjects that will not lead them directly to jobs, etc. To be honest, I wasn’t writing about the death of the humanities as academic disciplines in the colleges and universities which have been dying for many years. I will simply say that the humanities, and liberal arts generally, were designed to help young people think, to help them gain possession of their own minds, regardless of what job they undertake. What has happened as they died out is that education has been replaced by training, the academies of higher learning, generally speaking, have become trade schools. Let’s leave it at that.

I would rather turn to the larger question of the humanistic movement. So what if this movement has also died out?

The problem lies not so much with humanism itself but with what humanism brought to the table, historically speaking. Let’s focus exclusively on the fact that humanism generated the Enlightenment and at the height of the eighteenth century, when humanism was in its glory the German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote his monumental works defending the role of human reason in ethics. One of his books, in fact, was titled Religion Within The Limits of Reason Alone. He defended the place of reason in determining right and wrong which he thought were no longer capable of being defended by the Roman Church or its Reformers. Christianity may have died out as a cultural force, thought Kant, but we no longer need it to do the right thing. With reason alone, following the categorical imperative, human beings were capable, Kant insisted, in determining in any given case which course of action was “in accordance with duty” and therefore morally right. The Kantian ethic, together with remnants of the Christian ethics combined to create in the Western world a moral high ground from which it was possible for anyone who made the attempt to determine in a given case what he or she should do.

With the death of humanism — and anything like the Kantian ethics — the notion of the moral high ground was leveled. Virtues such as courage, wisdom, justice, human rights, all notions that the humanists regarded as self-evident, were replaced by “values,” which were regarded as relative if not subjective. No longer universal in their appeal, values come and go with the winds of change and the level moral high ground provided no one a place to stand in order to see clearly what is right and what is wrong. Indeed, right and wrong have disappeared along with the moral high ground. And with it such virtues as courage, civility, honor, and chivalry, the virtues that Don Quixote fought to defend, have been lost — perhaps forever. Thus, even before Kant took up his pen the hero of Cervantes’ novel was made to look ridiculous, even mad, in his attempt to defend the virtues that were already beginning to disappear.

Today there are no more Don Quixotes. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the last man to defend the moral high ground. All around us lie the dead husks of that humanism that gave those virtues and indeed morality itself breath. What we have today is pragmatism, a careful calculation as to which course of action will turn out best for me in the short run. Reason simply calculates and for growing numbers of people compassion for our fellows has been lost along with  those virtues that were predicated on helping others, or as Quixote would see it, helping those who cannot help themselves.

There are remnants left of the Kantian and the Christian ethics, to be sure. But they pale in comparison with the virtues that Quixote defended. Humanism died and along with humanism the commitment to human reason that can lead us, along with centuries of tradition and various religions, to universal truths about right and wrong also died. So when we ask “so what?” we ask “why be moral?” The two questions amount to the same thing.



11 thoughts on “So What?

  1. You make a good and valid point, Hugh, and at the risk of being totally misunderstood again, I’ll take a chance on commenting on the why of it. Two things that jump up when reading your several posts on this all-important subject. The first, and obvious, is that your view is from the essentially European perspective, which includes the USA and Canada – these are inseparable societies. This European perspective follows the insular propaganda, that the members of these societies were mentally and ethically superior to their predecessors. This ignores the great and blatant evils imposed upon the world by the ravages of European and American/Canadian imperialism against the native populations that were either needed as slaves or stood in the way of exploitation of resources. On that basis, humanism was a false flag and doomed from the start although it did address slavery – to a point, and when it was no longer profitable – and emancipation of women, but also only to a point and when women were needed to feed the textile mills, fields and wars as cheap labor. Second point which doomed humanism: like religion, it was an imposed concept but unlike religion its roots were extremely shallow and of course the powers that be were not about to allow those roots to dig deep: they were cut off at the academic level.

    • Your point about shallow roots is spot on! Carroll says it had nothing solid to stand upon. But I do think despite the atrocities you mention (which were very real) humanism did pass on to us a wealth of treasure. This nation was founded on Enlightenment ideas, after all, and despite the fact that we have taken several wrong turns it was a grand experiment in human governance.

      • It was certainly new thinking. If they had been serious about democracy they would have emancipated women and slaves and ensured that the existing inhabitants of what was yet ‘undiscovered country’ would be dealt with fairly and treated as equals. That would have provided the roots their democratic experiment needed to remain successful and grow exponentially instead of devolving into the incomprehensible farce it is now.

  2. I find your sense of hopelessness sad, my friend. I pondered on your point that MLK was “the last man to defend the moral high ground”, and … the question came to mind … isn’t that what you are doing in these posts? Defending the moral high ground? Perhaps there hasn’t been another as notably and publicly committed to the task, but … aren’t there good men (and women, if you don’t mind) out there every day defending morality?

    Drop by Jolly Monday tomorrow … I’ve made sure to add Maxine in hopes of pulling a bit of a smile from my friend.

    • For some reason I have not given up hope. Perhaps it is because for all my generalizing I know there are good people doing good things — like you and the folks you remind us of! There is hope as long as there are good people doing good things.

      • I’m glad to hear you say that … I was saddened, thinking that you had given up all hope. I sometimes feel the same, but so far I’ve been able to find ways to remind myself that as long as there is life, there is hope.

  3. Hugh, the response to the “so what” question is teaching people how to think. Creativity occurs at the intersections of disciplines. While this observation was made by someone who studies education, a good example can be found in one of Apple’s suppliers. The name escapes my old brain, but in a news report about this company, it compiles creative teams of english majors, business majors, philosophy majors, engineering majors, physics majors, etc.

    Taking this a step further, many good ideas come from customers or the blue collar workers on the floor. It takes communication skills and interest to solicit and understand change. Keith

  4. Ironic how that, once “in possession of one’s own mind” a Liberal Arts graduate in Philosophy, Intellectual History and Classical Culture can go on to be ejected from the same System as a Conspirator, Subversive, or worse: Arsonist (Iconclast). Maybe the days of such form of Intelligence have closed as an Option to American Youth, with such examples rife in the Political Culture of defamation of their Interests (Michelle Bachman’s “anti Americanism”)? It wouldn’t surprise me that those graduates of this Type would find an Other means of exacting tribute upon their Country that has so divorced them.

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