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Humanism and Its Discontents

Humanism aspires to ethical universalism but in practice it is defined by what it opposes and excludes.

· 9 min read
Humanism and Its Discontents
Michelangelo's David c. 1501 – June 8, 1504. Unsplash

 A review of Humanly Possible: Seven Hundred Years of Humanist Freethinking, Inquiry, and Hope by Sarah Bakewell, 464 pages, Penguin Random House (March 2023).

“Humanism,” Sarah Bakewell tells us, “is a semantic cloud of meanings and implications.” As a philosophy, humanism encompasses the intellectual and cultural legacy of the Renaissance, humanitarianism, liberalism, atheism, and agnosticism, and the objects and methods of study of a loosely affiliated set of academic disciplines. As a historical movement, it is more coherent. It began in Europe in the late Middle Ages and—despite setbacks due to political and religious persecution—there has been an unbroken tradition of humanism in the West stretching up to the present day. In her provocative and intriguing book, Bakewell examines a slew of thinkers from Petrarch to Tzvetan Todorov and—despite the conceptual cloudiness of her subject—reveals certain key aspects of humanism, as both a tradition and as a system of values.

One of these core characteristics is humanism’s intrinsically pluralistic epistemology. Humanists believe that there is more than one aspect to the truth. This should not be confused with the position that truth is merely relative, that different things can be true, depending on your point of view, and that there is therefore no such thing as objective truth—an idea known as perspectivism. Nor does it mean that nothing is really true (nihilism). As historian Edward Hallett Carr puts it in his 1961 book What Is History?, “It does not follow that, because a mountain appears to take on different shapes from different angles of vision, it has objectively either no shape or an infinity of shapes.” Paul Cézanne painted Mont Sainte-Victoire from various angles, at different times of day, and in changing weather, yet in every picture it is recognizable as the same mountain in Provence. Analogously, while individual human perspectives differ—there are many ways to be human—there is clearly a “human dimension of life,” as Bakewell puts it, and that dimension exists “in between the physical realm of matter and whatever purely spiritual or divine realm may be thought to exist.”

After a brief discussion of humanism’s roots in antiquity, Bakewell begins her exploration with 14th-century Italian poet Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch), often considered the originator of the studia humanitatis, the humanities. Petrarch and his compatriot Giovanni Boccaccio “put together the [humanist] profile” of intellectual independence from faith and tradition. It took nearly two more centuries for humanism to become overtly moral and political. Desiderius Erasmus advocated that in civil and political affairs, we should be guided by human reason and viewed humanistic learning as a vital part of a civilizing ethical process. Following Plato, Erasmus attempts to separate human nature—which includes such undesirable aspects as a persistent propensity to violence—from an ethical ideal, a “true humanity, which we should be striving to develop and fulfill.” For Erasmus, humanism is about both social and individual enlightenment; it creates the proper conditions for moral and intellectual flourishing, for the spiritual elevation of the human being. This conception of humanism is liberal, but not yet fully secular. It views humanity as a set of moral qualities—this is not a given, but something we can get right or wrong, and that can be fostered by specific social practices that nudge us in the direction of good.

The antithesis of humanism, for Erasmus, is war. In his 1517 work The Complaint of Peace, Erasmus argues that, as Bakewell paraphrases, “War is a blunder: a failure to be human.” According to Erasmus, war is not only inhumane but unnatural to humans. Violence is literally brutalizing—it makes us descend to below the level of brute beasts. This later develops into one of the key tenets of humanism: it is something chosen. This implies that unlike beasts, we are free to choose the good; consequently, when we fail to do so, the fault lies with us. We cannot blame human violence on the promptings of nature. This suggests a view of human perfectibility—a view further developed by eighteenth-century writers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who, like Erasmus, believed that education was the key to developing and cultivating human capacities and steering them in the right direction.

For humanists, ethics is quite distinct from religion. In his Essays (1580), Michel de Montaigne writes, “I set forth notions that are human and my own, simply as human notions considered in themselves,” meaning that his ideas are not influenced by any consideration of the divine. The likely cause of this secularizing impulse was the violence unleashed by the hellish religious wars of the sixteenth century. Both secularism and pluralism came of age with Montaigne, for whom human multifariousness is to be celebrated in itself and for whom the most distinctive human quality is an irreducible diversity of conduct and opinion.

Secular Humanism is Not a Religion
Sydney. London. Toronto.

This pluralist outlook anticipates the novelistic tradition, inaugurated by writers like Miguel Cervantes in Don Quixote (1605–15) and Henry Fielding in Joseph Andrews (1742) and Tom Jones (1749). The kaleidoscopic works of Cervantes and Fielding are characterized by a capacious curiosity about the wide range of human motivations and characters. This fascination is echoed in Leo Tolstoy’s novel War and Peace (1865–69), in which Pierre is “struck by the endless variety of men’s minds, which prevents a truth from appearing exactly the same way to any two persons.” For Pierre, as for Montaigne, the idiosyncrasy of each person’s views forms the basis of his sympathy and esteem for human diversity.

The “fanatically nonfanatical” Montaigne, as Bakewell calls him, pioneered this new humanist value: tolerance of a wide range of customs, opinions, and appetites, including some that might seem intuitively odd or repellent, remarking in “Of Cannibals,” for example, that “Chrysippus and Zeno, the two heads of the Stoic sect, were of the opinion that there was no hurt in making use of our dead carcasses, in what way so ever for our necessity, and in feeding upon them too.” Montaigne was the originator of an anthropological strain of humanism that later developed into cosmopolitanism, with its emphasis on cultural diversity as a source of ethical and aesthetic enrichment.

The connection between humanism and liberalism is formulated most cogently by John Stuart Mill, who sought a political foundation for “absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological,” as he writes in his 1859 work On Liberty. As Bakewell notes, Mill was profoundly influenced by Wilhelm von Humboldt, who saw freedom of expression as vital to human flourishing. Mill prefaces On Liberty with a quotation from Humboldt’s work on the theory of statecraft: “The grand, leading principle… unfolded in these pages… is the absolute and essential importance of human development in its richest diversity.” Both Humboldt and Mill believed that the state’s main role was to provide enough security to allow human beings to freely define their own individual and collective goals. Mill’s utilitarianism—his belief in the greatest good for the greatest number—is a practical solution to the inevitable fact that people differ in their wishes and purposes. At the heart of Mill’s liberalism is compromise and a rejection of absolutism.

This reveals a glaring weakness in the humanist program: the need to tolerate one’s opponents sits uneasily with human nature. This commitment to pluralism can make humanism seem less like a universalist philosophy than like a particular temperament that must be trained: civilized, rational, urbane, averse to violence and coercion—a sensibility that exists only in the West, a WEIRD phenomenon. Many of the humanists profiled by Bakewell—from George Eliot and Bertrand Russell to Ludwig Zamenhof, the inventor of Esperanto—are exceptional humans.

Human Nature and Political Philosophy
Sydney. London. Toronto.

This is a paradox traceable to humanism’s earliest origins. For Erasmus—as for Russell—humanity is something to be achieved. This has led some critics to view it as elitist. As detractors have noted, humanism aspires to ethical universalism but in practice it is defined by what it opposes and excludes. And that includes tendencies that are characteristically, stubbornly human and that lead to, as Bakewell puts it, “the general human habit of behaving inhumanely.” It seems too facile to treat human and humane as synonymous, as humanists tend to do.

Disillusionment with all too human moral depravity prompted the rise of antihumanism in the twentieth century. This in turn influenced both poststructuralism and Marxist critical theory—movements that are not only ideologically but methodologically antihumanist in emphasizing the causal role of social structures and historical forces over the agency of individuals. As the “new humanist” philosophers Luc Ferry and Alain Renault suggest, a widespread disillusionment among intellectuals with the cultural legacy of the West prevailed in the wake of the Second World War.

This skepticism was also fueled by the emerging anti-colonialist liberation movements. With some justification, the West was blamed for a long sequence of historical catastrophes. By extension, humanism and liberalism were also labeled suspect and dangerous, guilty by association with a “corrupt” civilization. Furthermore, as Richard Wolin argues persuasively in his 2004 book The Seduction of Unreason, antihumanism provided an alibi for writers tainted by fascism, such as Maurice Blanchot, Paul de Man, and Martin Heidegger, a way of shaking off the moral burden of collaboration. If the Enlightenment was in some sense “just as bad” as fascism, how could they be especially guilty—especially if the individual was not the locus of moral choice and action, but history was just “a process without a subject,” as Louis Althusser alleged.

This form of antihumanism began in the growing conviction that individuals are dominated by external forces and lack agency in the face of either history or discourse. It started to take root toward the end of the nineteenth century, presenting itself as analogous to the scientific principle that described objects in nature not in terms of their outward sensory manifestations or appearances but the imperceptible components of which they were composed and the forces that acted upon them. Antihumanism marshaled ideas from German idealism; from the hermeneutics of suspicion, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud; and from other sources, including the counter-Enlightenment eighteenth-century thinkers Joseph de Maistre and Johann Georg Hamann. It attempted to debunk the ideas of individual agency and universal human nature.

One of the defining statements of the radical antihumanist view was Michel Foucault’s 1966 book The Order of Things. Foucault argued that the human sciences, rooted in Renaissance humanism, were already crumbling. The ideas (or “constructs”) of the human being and of a human-centered world would, he concluded, soon “be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea” by historical and ideological transformations. For the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, this was the explicit aim. The goal of structuralism was “not to constitute but to dissolve man” into the underlying symbols and processes of his social existence in the search for causal mechanisms that transcend the individual.

Bakewell devotes only a few pages to the postwar antihumanists and pays little attention in general to the long history of humanism’s ideological antagonists. Yet, humanism cannot be understood without examining their critiques.

As Richard Wolin has pointed out, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, antihumanists were typically reactionaries such as Joseph de Maistre and Edmund Burke, who were appalled by “the social cataclysms of revolutionary France—mob violence, dechristianization, anarchy, civil war, terror, and political dictatorship” and consequently rejected the revolution’s secularizing tendencies and ideals of reason and progress. Social turmoil produces antihumanist and authoritarian reactions as readily as humanist responses, it would seem. Later, antihumanism would be taken up by the radical Left as an alternative to the postwar liberal consensus.

More importantly, Bakewell says very little about differing strands of humanism itself. As Kate Soper has observed, what the term humanism means to most people—if it means anything at all—is a vaguely naturalistic atheism. This is certainly the platform of organizations like Humanists UK and Humanists International, something Bakewell downplays while attempting to portray their brand as essentially tolerant of religious belief. Such cheerful ecumenism elides profound differences in how humanists themselves have understood humanism—differences manifested in such questions as whether human values stem from a transcendental source. Bakewell’s history is a tad Whiggish, suggesting an inexorable march toward a single, vaguely defined enlightened secularism that happens to coincide with Western liberalism in its current form. While Humanly Possible emphasizes the unbroken continuity and progress of the humanist project, it touches on its many ruptures and lapses only glancingly.

Humanism’s biggest blind spot is that it fails to account for the intrinsically inhumane impulses in our nature—and, if it can’t do that, it can’t be an effective instrument of moral progress. While Bakewell’s book is both engaging and illuminating, she never examines head-on the feature that distinguishes human beings from animals and machines—our radical freedom to choose. As Bakewell acknowledges, in a brief nod to Jean-Paul Sartre’s Existentialism and Humanism (1946), humans “have no preexisting blueprint” for our choices, apart from the history that we ourselves have made. As humans we cannot choose the circumstances of our origin, but we are nevertheless responsible for ourselves.

Humanism is, at heart, an aspirational philosophy. It suggests what we should value: human life and flourishing. But when those values are in abeyance—when we are in the grip of illiberal ideologies and thanatocratic cults, to which we are all too humanly susceptible as recent world events have shown—humanism fails to provide a roadmap for how to get from where we are to where we want to be.

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