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 What has happened as they died out is that education has been replaced by training, the academies of higher learning, generally speaking, have become trade schools.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

 

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Another Black Eye

I have held forth about the inexcusable situation in Guantanamo Bay where forty presumed terrorists are still being held in prison without a trial, so I will not return to that theme. But I must note that for a country that aspires to be “Great,” the incarceration without a fair trial of men who may or may not be guilty of crimes against the United States is in opposition to all the basic rules of a civilized country, much less a great one.

In any event, of late we are witnessing another black eye for this country in its treatment of the hordes of people from Central America who are fleeing dictators and gangs, murder, rape, and mayhem to find a better life in the United States and are being treated like criminals, including the use of tear-gas and pepper spray on children and women. But the recent notice in a Yahoo News item is disturbing on an even deeper level:

A migrant mom was impaled in front of her children over the weekend while attempting to climb a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border, authorities said.

The 26-year-old Guatemalan native was trying to scale a fence near the San Ysidro Port of Entry, a crossing between San Diego and Tijuana, on Friday when she fell and impaled herself on pieces of rebar, according to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officials.

We pride ourselves on being a nation that defends the moral high ground which, we like to think, is ignored by other nations in the world. Yet we read about the treatment of people, including women and children, in a manner that would embarrass even the nastiest among us — if they bothered to give it a thought. The “migrant caravan” of an estimated 5000 souls heading toward what those who comprise it hope to be the safety and protection of a great nation is considered by some, including our feckless leader, as an attack on this nation. In fact, it is simply a desperate attempt by people who hope to breathe the air of freedom.

Make no mistake, I am entirely in favor of “Making America Great Again.” I even agree that we can embrace the notion of “greatness,” and even identify it when we see it. I assume the America we want to return to is the America after the Second World War when actions like the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild Europe after the devastation resulting from the dropping of thousands of bombs on both military and civilian targets. That was a plan that must make us all proud: an effort to help rebuild a world that had been shattered by unprecedented violence.

Yet, in the name of “Greatness” we now see about us efforts to exclude and reject those who differ from us, those would make us uncomfortable. Even those we disagree with. And we treat women and children like cattle. Whether or not we embrace Christian virtues, and there are many who insist the nation was founded on those virtues, what we are seeing is the exact opposite of the virtues preached in the New Testament — which is a gospel of love, not hate.

One need not be a Christian, however, (and very few are) to see the inhumanity of the steps this nation is currently taking toward “Greatness”; to realize that we may be leaving greatness behind us as we head instead in the opposite direction entirely. Where is the moral high ground that Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed about?