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 What has happened as they died out is that education has been replaced by training, the academies of higher learning, generally speaking, have become trade schools.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.