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.

Advertisements

Frames of Reference

And now for something completely different! I have always been intrigued by the way we look at the world as contrasted with, say, the people of Western Europe during the Middle Ages — from the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 A.D. until the Renaissance in the 16th century. The most obvious difference comes in our way of looking at death. We don’t even like to think about it and I dare say if I had put the word in the title of this blog no one would have read it. As it is, I may have lost readers by mentioning it now! But hear me out.

We fear death and regard it as a “tragedy.” This is especially so when we hear of the death of a child. Much of this comes from the fact that we live so much longer than those in the Middle Ages who were lucky to see their 30th birthday. They saw death as a release from this life of pain and fear — which it was for most of them. Think about it: no way to alleviate pain, not even a toothache. Tooth decay was common and teeth recovered from the period show signs of rotting teeth that would send any of us to our knees in agony. It must have been a fairly common companion during those days when the only cure was to pull the tooth — without a sedative. There weren’t even any aspirin! And pain was accompanied by disease and almost constant fear of spirits who were everywhere and were as real as the person closest to them. They coped with the help of generous amounts of beer — an average of a pint a day for each man, woman, and child.

But the main reason we differ in our way of looking at death is that we really don’t believe in the immortality of the soul. When I say “we” I mean the vast majority of us. Even the most devout among us don’t believe in it the way the typical Medieval mind believed in it. They believed in it the way we believe in the reality of the computer screen before our very eyes. There was simply no doubt: when a person died he or she would go to Heaven, Hell or Purgatory. The latter was a place souls went to continue to do penance until they were pure enough to ascend into heaven. An innocent soul would be rewarded and an evil person would be punished for eternity. There was no doubt whatever. How comforting!

Think of the “Faust” legend. It dates from the sixteenth century, which was toward the end of the Medieval period. We first hear about it from a collection of letters presumably written by a Doctor Johann Faustus in Germany, who was a real person who had remarkable magical powers and who allegedly made a “deal” with the devil that allowed him success in this world at the price of his immortal soul. The fact that this legend became popular suggests that toward the end of the Medieval period people were increasingly attracted to the idea of success in this life and less concerned about punishment in the next. But the conviction remained none the less that there was another life after this one. No doubt about it. Chaucer, in the fourteenth century, wrote the “Pardoner’s Tale” about a cleric who made his living by selling indulgences, or “pardons” that would shorten a person’s time in Purgatory for a fee — though originally the idea was that one could earn indulgences only by doing penance. It was quicker and easier as people began to accumulate some extra cash to simply buy indulgences and there were those who made a very good living from selling them. Dante’s Hell is full of these types. And bear in mind that Dante’s Divine Comedy was generally regarded as late as the fourteenth century as a faithful depiction of the afterlife consistent with the science of the time (Ptolemy) and the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas that was even more certain than science.

In any event, the reality of another life after this one made it possible for the Medieval mind to escape the fear and trepidation that was a part of this life for the peace of mind that came from assurance of a reward for their good behavior. They did not regard death as a “tragedy” but as a release from a life of pain and suffering to one of bliss and comfort. Our preoccupation with the here and now has cost us that assurance and may well be the root cause of the anxiety that many cultural historians insist predominates in our age. Perhaps this helps us to understand why so many of us are fearful.