The twentieth century witnessed an assault on a number of once fine words, often hollowing out the traditional meanings and filling them with sheer refuse. Myth, in the twentieth century, became lie. Love became lust. Another such word, lost in the confusion of our present whirligig of post-modern life, is humanism. To even those who would and should be friendly to the term react strongly to every one of its four syllables. For most of us not on the left, humanism has come to mean radicalism, atheism, arrogance, and secularism.
Frankly, this corruption of the word humanism is a tragedy almost at the level of the loss of the traditional meaning of love.
Traditionally—that is, from the earliest Greek philosophers of the fifth century (B.C.) through the end of the nineteenth century—humanism remained rather steady as a cherished and nurtured idea. Certainly, like many ideas and schools of thought, it has waxed and waned. Still, its progress, properly understood, has been adaptive rather than revolutionary. Certain personalities, in particular, have added to humanism while rarely subtracting: from Heraclitus to Socrates to Zeno to Cicero to Hillel to Jesus to Seneca to St. John to St. Paul to St. Augustine to Alcuin to St. Thomas to Erasmus to Thomas More to Edmund Burke to John Henry Newman. In the twentieth century, humanists included T.E. Hulme, Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, Christopher Dawson, Russell Kirk, Robert Nisbet, T.S. Eliot, Willa Cather, Otto Bird, Sister Madeleva Wolff, Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, Flannery O’Connor, and a number of others.
The ideas of humanism:
First, humanists believed in the dignity of the human person. Each person is unique, born in a certain time and place.
Second, humanists saw liberal education as the most proper education for the development and nurturing of a human being. True education seeks wisdom, not mere knowledge or technical skill.
Third, contrary to so much of our current understanding, real humanism never placed the human person as the highest of all things, but as the middle of all things. Man is higher than the animals but lower than the divine. Thus, humanism sought context (Justice) and place for each person throughout all of Creation. Man possesses the spiritual nature of the divine but the material nature of the animal.
Fourth, the humanist upheld citizenship of the Republic of Letters—across time—as higher than loyalty to any nation or worldly power.
Fifth, while the humanists have never exactly agreed about a god or God, the humanist has understood that someTHING stands above any one person or all of humanity together. Perhaps that someTHING is Yahweh or the Trinitarian God or the Natural Law, but a power transcends all of humanity, time, and existence.
While there are a number of things the humanist has traditionally believed, a full exploration will need to await another essay. This one merely seeks to understand our current misunderstanding of the term.
The years between Newman and Hulme, especially, saw such a rise in the popularity of the word “humanism,” it became essentially meaningless. The form remained, but the essence became whatever an individual so desired.
In 1908, Harvard’s Irving Babbitt attempted to define this shape of this corruption.
To make a plea for humanism without explaining the word would give rise to endless misunderstanding. It is equally on the lips of the socialistic dreamer and the exponent of the latest philosophical fad. In an age of happy liberty like the present, when any one can employ almost any general term very much as he pleases, it is perhaps inevitable that the term humanism, which still has certain gracious associations lingering about it, should be appropriated by various theorists, in the hope, apparently, that the benefit of the associations may accrue to an entirely different order of ideas. . . . Under these circumstances our prayer, like that of Ajax, should be to fight in the light.
While a number of persons and groups had sought to co-opt “humanism” for their own agendas—similar to what has happened with the employment of “republic” and “democracy” over the last hundred years—the most prominent and conspicuous such co-opter was none other than the infamous utilitarian philosopher and educationalist, John Dewey.
Interesting enough, though almost every conservative cringes at the name Dewey, we have long since forgotten exactly why he elicits such a response from us. In part, it comes down to his very corruption of the term, “humanism,” even as we accept the result of the very same corruption. Along with several other prominent thinkers of the first third of the last century, Dewey signed the “Humanist Manifesto” of 1933.
The manifesto argued that theistic institutions should conform to the concerns of human life qua human life.
Religious humanism [meaning a religion worshiping humanity] maintains that all associations and institutions exist for the fulfillment of human life. The intelligent evaluation, transformation, control, and direction of such associations and institutions with a view to the enhancement of human life is the purpose and program of humanism. Certainly religious institutions, their ritualistic forms, ecclesiastical methods, and communal activities must be reconstituted as rapidly as experience allows, in order to function effectively in the modern world.
Further, society as a unit must lose its emotionalism, as manifested in theistic religion. Science should determine all that is to come, the Deweyites argued.
Humanism asserts that the nature of the universe depicted by modern science makes unacceptable any supernatural or cosmic guarantees of human values. Obviously humanism does not deny the possibility of realities as yet undiscovered, but it does insist that the way to determine the existence and value of any and all realities is by means of intelligent inquiry and by the assessment of their relations to human needs. Religion must formulate its hopes and plans in the light of the scientific spirit and method.
Ultimately, the thirty-four signers of the Humanist Manifesto concluded, “the time has passed for theism.”
Should organized religion and religious institutions continue, they must do so in a manner that, as they argued, speaks to problems of the twentieth century, places man at the center of existence, and uses the scientific method. Religion, they concluded, serves only a utilitarian function, a “means for realizing the highest values of life.”
One of Dewey’s present-day admirers and disciples, Richard Rorty, has continued the secular humanist tradition at the end of the twentieth-century and beginning of the twenty-first century. For Rorty, America is the great democratic and liberal (hence, secular) experiment. He views the United States as a nation-state in which institutions promote “co-operation” instead of embodying “a universal and ahistorical order.”
Any attempt to bring God back in any form of public discourse (whether in politics or the university), or, as he puts it, to “re-enchant” the world, would be folly, a regression of the world.
While we might dismiss Rorty as simply one voice in a world of many voices, he represents so much of academia and politics in the western world. Certainly Europe has secularized far faster than America, but no single people has secularized as quickly as the English have done over the last generation. At least no generation has secularized so rapidly since the French rebelled against crown and church in the late eighteenth century.
America, however, is not far behind. While many Americans remain religious, they are loath to take their religion into the public square. Whether they fear condemnation by an activist minor or actually believe that religion should not be a part of public discourse remains unclear.
Far from being an enemy of religion, humanism, properly understood, has been a faithful ally since St. Paul visited Athens and St. John appropriated the Heraclitan Logos. The liberal arts teach not atheism, but virtue. They shun loyalties to things of this world (hence, “liberal,” to be free of this world) and point us toward citizenship in something larger.
Letting the liberals and leftists hijack the term has allowed them—in many ways—to promote themselves as the humane path in this world. Of course, we know this is simply not true. The lineage that led to Kirkian conservatism sought the dignity of the human person well beyond mere accidents of birth. That lineage that has led to Rorty and other progressives is full of eugenicists and racists and exclusionists. They are, in an other themselves, the very antithesis of humanism, properly understood, even as they embrace the term.
Humanism is not only not the enemy of conservatism; rather, it makes conservatism meaningful. Humanism is the very thing we conservatives must conserve. The term is well worth defending and reclaiming.
Our prayer, indeed, should be Ajaxian: to fight in the light.
Books by Bradley Birzer may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.