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.

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Truth In Fiction

I am a firm believer that there is truth in fiction and, indeed, profound truth in the fiction of people like Dostoevsky, Conrad, and Eliot. George Eliot is one of my favorite writers and she always provides a wealth of food for thought. One of her novels is a special treasure despite the fact that many people find it a “hard read.” It is the novel Romola which is set in 15th century Florence and focuses on a most interesting character named Tito Melema who is described by the narrator as having a “soft, pleasure-loving nature.” We might add he is also spoiled: the adopted son of a wealthy, adoring father who made his life as easy as possible while turning him into an accomplished scholar somewhat resentful of his father’s demands on his time. In fact, the story centers around Tito’s failure to rescue his father from pirates with a purse filled with jewels including a valuable ring his father entrusted to him. When these jewels are sold and kept by Tito who decides not to pay the ransom, they make Tito a very wealthy man — and one who finds that his charm, outgoing personality, and scholarly abilities suit him splendidly for success and status in Florence.

The novel is historical in the manner of Walter Scott. It mixes the fictional Tito and his eventual wife Romola with such figures as Savonarola, Lorenzo Medici, Machiavelli, and Pico della Mirandola — among others. It is masterfully done. But, again, the main interest for this reader is the character Tito and his remarkable resemblance to growing numbers of people I find myself surrounded by each and every day. Note how Eliot described this “soft” man as he gradually reconciles himself to the fact that he has abandoned his father for the wealth and fame he finds irresistible:

“. . .he was not out of love with goodness, or prepared to plunge into vice: he was in his fresh youth, with soft pulses for all charm and loveliness. . .with the ready inoffensive sociability which belong to a good nature . . .he had still a healthy appetite for ordinary human joys, and the poison could only work by degrees. He had sold himself to evil, but at present life seemed so nearly the same to him that he was not conscious of the bond. He meant things to go on as they had done before, both within and without him: he meant to win golden opinions by meritorious exertion, by ingenious learning, by amiable compliance: he was not going to do anything that would throw him out of harmony with the beings he cared for.”

This remarkable description, coupled with the ensuing story of Tito’s growing lust for wealth and power, not to mention the suffering he brings upon himself and those close to him, presents us with a likeable, easy-going man who doesn’t set out to do the wrong thing but who lacks the will-power to resist. In fact, I would say this is a novel about character (“the reiterated choice of good or evil which gradually determines character”) and the growing awareness on Eliot’s part that the world around her was beginning to turn its back on the Victorian notion of virtue and duty to others which set the age apart (despite its many shortcomings). She saw more clearly than most of those around her what lack of strong character and the disintegration of the self could mean to the people involved. Tito never means to do the wrong thing; he simply does not bother to think about what the right thing might be in a particular case. Moreover, he doesn’t have the strength of will to resist temptation and do the right thing even when he knows what it is. He becomes the master of rationalization and as a consequence he follows mindlessly the easy path to self-ruin.

The novel was written in 1863 but it tells us a great deal about ourselves today. Tito may have been an unlikely character in 15th century Florence, but he is a token of a type  — “soft, pleasure-loving” people who have never learned the meaning of the word “no” — that is becoming more and more familiar in 21st century America.