Wasting Time

It would appear that I have been wasting my time. If John Carroll is right, and I think he is, the humanities I attempted to pass on to the younger generation are dead. Indeed, they have been dying for some time. I have suspected this, but Carroll’s argument in The Wreck of Western Culture is very persuasive.

Bear in mind that I do not agree with everything I read. Indeed, I have been trained to read with a critical eye. But Carroll makes a persuasive case and given that the signs he points to are all around us and I have even noted many of them myself, there’s little more to be said.

The humanities have traditionally included the fine arts, literature, philosophy, history, and other endeavors now regarded as “elitist” and generally ignored. And there’s the rub. Carroll saw the creations flowing from those endeavors grow and thrive as Western Civilization worked its way from ancient Greece through Christianity, especially during the Dark Ages, to the Reformation which sought to bring new life to the basic tenets of Christianity that were dying from the intolerant nature of the Catholic Church with its purges and Inquisitions. The Renaissance and then, especially, the Enlightenment brought about an explosion in human creativity and invention; in the process it was insisted that religion is superstition and man is free and capable of solving all problems with his reason alone. In Descartes’ words, we need only heed “clear and distinct” ideas to answer all the questions that can possibly be raised. The avenue to absolute certainty does not lie with revelation; rather, it lies with mathematics and empirical science.

With modern science came longer, less painful lives, but also the industrial revolution, and eventually capitalism and all have transformed culture while at the same time disenchanting our world, dismissing out of hand all of the things in heaven and earth that are not dreamt of in science.  Humanism, as it came to be called, lasted several centuries and eventually was given a death blow by such thinkers as Karl Marx and Charles Darwin who insisted that humans are not truly free and even reason is not sufficient; economics and natural selection govern everything. Regarding Darwin, Carroll notes,

“The new scientific picture of the world is utterly dispiriting. . .. . in the shoes of Darwin the joyful bird song at dawn is transformed, at best, into intellectual curiosity about a species sending his warning signals in defense of its territory. Once one begins to think like this — about birds, newborn babies, romance, death — the magic is compromised.”

Marx’s influence may have gone even deeper. As Carroll put it:

“The cultural consequences of Marx were that selfishness and economics rule, that culture is merely a cloak disguising base bourgeois motives; unconsciously, the gods of culture have betrayed us, so let us annihilate them. . . .No honor, no trust, no fidelity — nothing but greed.”

Now whether or not one agrees with Carroll’s rather bleak pronouncements, they do give us pause. Careful studies back up the signs I have pointed to in numerous blogs, especially of late, making it clear that those of us who have been teaching the humanities (in my case for over 40 years) were fighting a rear-guard battle, because the humanities were expiring even as we tried to breath life into the dying corpse. Students, and a great many professors simply do not care. The colleges and universities are now overrun by barbarians who have embraced a nihilistic attitude toward everything in the past. It is time to “do-over.” And their behavior, including their unqualified postmodern commitment to such thing as political correctness, has become the way to do things. We will eliminate the dead, white European males and replace them with like-minded men and, especially, women who will indoctrinate the young properly. Meanwhile the streets are overrun by self-absorbed seekers of more and greater profits who couldn’t care less about the past or the heights to which the human spirit can aspire.  Brace yourselves: we have entered a new era.

To be sure, we see around us the decaying corpses of the dead, white European males and the great works they created and which are now regarded as past their prime and not worth our effort. At best, they will be museum pieces visited by a decreasing number of people as time passes, those few who still care. So along with a Christianity that was based on love of our fellow humans and adherence to those virtues that make it possible for us to lead a good life, we turn our backs on the humanism that raised humanity to great heights, created extraordinary works of beauty and imagination while influencing a great many people and giving birth to, among other things, modern science — which survives independently, largely reduced to technical expertise and invention. And never asking moral questions.

So it goes. I guess I have suspected it for some time now. But it is hard to admit that the things one fought for have “come a cropper” as the Brits would say. The humanities have had their day. But what really rankles is the obvious fact that what is taking the place of the humanities and Christianity is nothing more and nothing less that a vapid nihilism, a new barbarism, nesting comfortably in an egoism that seeks only pleasure and which cannot see beyond the eradication of what has been in the name of the new and the now.

The time has come to accept the facts that have been announcing themselves loud and clear for some time now.

 

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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.

In Pieces

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.