I consider myself a rather devout humanist. And, for better or worse, I do mean “devout.” Depending on my mood, I would argue that I am as taken with and as loyal to humanism as I am with my Christianity. Though I would never compare myself to St. Augustine, I certainly understand his detour from Christianity after reading the rhetoric of Cicero. And, yes, before you comment below, Socrates will not escort me into heaven.
Yet, when I mention the term “humanism” among conservatives, I almost always am greeted with silence, head shaking, or visible disgust. Almost all conservatives, it seems, associate humanism with secularism, atheism, and radicalism. They see it, very incorrectly, as a deification of, and attempt at, the apotheosis of the human being.
In a previous essay written for The Imaginative Conservative I had the opportunity to discuss the finer points of humanism, but only briefly. Here is what I listed as the five most important tenets or, as Russell Kirk described in terms of conservatism, canons of humanism:
First, humanists believe in the dignity of the human person. Each person is unique, born in a certain time and place, never to be repeated. She or he comes into the world, burdened by many flaws but also armed with unique gifts, each to be made excellences over time and usage, through community.
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. It does not believe in shaping the person for the here and now, but for the eternal.
Third, contrary to so much of our current understanding, real humanism never placed the human person as the highest of all things, but as and in 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. He, alone among all worldly creatures, wields free will. Some humanists have written about this as an “economy of nature or grace” and Renaissance humanists explained the concept of a “great chain of being,” connecting the perfect creator to even the lowest order of creation. Nothing could exist outside of this hierarchy. Even evil existed only as a corruption of the good.
Fourth, the humanist upheld citizenship of the Republic of Letters—across time—as higher than loyalty to any nation or worldly power. A Roman Catholic might refer to this as a communion of saints or as the mystical body of Christ. The great pagan, Cicero, however, spoke of this as simply, “reason,” the language that connects not only man to the god, but all men of good will to all other men of good will, from the beginning to the end of humanity.
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 of some supernatural order transcends all of humanity, time, and existence.
I mention Kirk intentionally. After his grand and, frankly, unexpected success of The Conservative Mind, he wondered what to do next. Conservatism, he argued, did not mean “stand patism.” It meant conserving what is dignified, humane, good, and beautiful. It meant searching for timeless truths and making them palatable for each generation. It meant defending that which the world all too often forgets. As he explained in his prize-winning essay, written when he was only seventeen, man must cling to his “mementos,” finding story and meaning within each, noting that a physical thing had real meaning only when sanctified and given soul. The same was true with conservatism. A conservatism of the wrong, the false, and the hideous means only degradation. No one, Kirk noted several times, would want to conserve ancient Egypt or Incan Peru.
But, what to conserve?
After much soul-searching in the summer of 1953 and bewildered by his own success, the thirty-five-year-old Kirk believed that the future of conservatism lay in defining, recapturing, and promoting humanism. Much of this was already latent (and sometimes explicit) in The Conservative Mind. His six canons, for example, have been quoted and repeated innumerable times since he first delineated them in 1953. What is often ignored, however, is that Kirk employed the term “canon,” a specifically Catholic word meaning dogma, argument, or truth. It must also be noted, however, that canons are generally accepted as truths often out of context. Hence, the canons (arguments) of a Church council, followed by the decree (settlement of truth). A canon, therefore, is akin to a fact, while a decree is related to a story or narrative or mythos. Kirk, in The Conservative Mind, sought dogmas, not systems or even narratives. There is, of course, a deep irony that can’t be explained within the confines of this essay.
Following the lead of Paul Elmer More, Nicholas Berdyeav, and, especially, Christopher Dawson and T.S. Eliot, Kirk decided to modify humanist with “Christian.” Hoping to write a sequel to equal The Conservative Mind, he planned on writing a massive history of humanism from the Greeks to T.S. Eliot. The Conservative Mind began with Burke and followed his thought. Its sequel, which Kirk tentatively called The Age of Humanism, would begin with Socrates and follow his thought to the present. Though he never published this book, his letters indicate that he had written a huge chunk of it by the fall of 1953. What happened to those chapters has become lost, sadly, to the biographer and historian.
Several of Kirk’s following books, however, became explorations of various aspects of Christian Humanism. The actual sequel to The Conservative Mind, A Program for Conservatives, might well have been entitled A Christian Humanist Manifesto. Academic Freedom, Beyond the Dreams of Avarice, and, especially, The Intelligent Women’s Guide to Conservatism each reflect Kirk’s interest in Christian Humanism as well. Though Kirk never left Christian Humanism behind, he did relegate the topic to the background of his post-1957, non-fiction writing career. Christian Humanism pervades every aspect of his fiction, however, as much as it does the writings of Willa Cather, Walter Miller, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy.
In my previous esay, I lamented the corruption of the term “humanism” and lamented its loss, suggesting that the consequences have been much greater than we conservatives realize.
Here, it is enough to know that the best minds of the twentieth century embraced humanism, properly understood. Kirk and others added the descriptive “Christian.” At The Imaginative Conservative, we might very well simply write “western humanism,” as the understanding of the term includes the Greco-Roman as well as the Judeo-Christian traditions. It also includes the Germanic and, especially, the Anglo-Saxon and northern understandings.
Heimdall, after all, possessed a humanist streak. He watched and waited. And like Kirk, so must we.
Books by Bradley Birzer may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.