The mediocrity and driftless purposelessness of liberalism had permeated and shattered true humanist culture at the turn of the nineteenth-to-the-twentieth century, the great historian and man of letters Christopher Dawson feared. Too many unthinking liberals had tried to do too much with the once noble philosophy of humanism that dated back to Heraclitus and Socrates. Liberals, by coopting humanism, had corrupted it, making it bear a burden it should never have borne.
Though Friedrich Nietzsche had demolished the abortion humanism had become by the 1880s, T.E. Hulme bested him, finding that which was good along with that which was bad. “The essentially transitory character of the humanist culture has been obscured by the dominance of the belief in Progress and by the shallow and dogmatic optimism which characterized nineteenth-century Liberalism,” Dawson explained. “It was only an exceptionally original mind, like that of the late T.E. Hulme, that could free itself from the influence of Liberal dogma and could recognize the signs of the times—the passing of the ideals that had dominated European civilization for four centuries, and the dawn of a new order.” Hulme had come to understand that liberalism attached to humanism had created nothing other than nominalism masquerading as objectivity. This was not new, as it had existed at the time of Pelagius, but it had recently become predominant and, for the most part, unquestioned.
Far from alone in his praise of Hulme, T.S. Eliot had also proclaimed Hulme the truly great man of his age, the hope (though broken after Hulme’s tragic death in France during World War I) for a real and meaningful twentieth-century poetic and literary culture. Hulme was “classical, reactionary, and revolutionary; he is the antipodes of the eclectic, tolerant, and democratic mind of the end of the last century,” Eliot proclaimed, seeing in Hulme the possibilities of a new man for a new century. “A new classical age will be reached when the dogma . . . of the critic is so modified by contact with creative writing, and when the creative writers are so permeated by the new dogma, that a state of equilibrium is reached. For what is meant by a classical moment in literature is surely a moment of stasis, when the creative impulse finds a form which satisfies the best intellect of the time, a moment when a type is produced.”
Sadly, Hulme had been rather haphazard in his own approach to scholarship, preferring to make his rather complex arguments with small groups of friends and in articles in relatively obscure publications rather than in books. In 1924, though, Hulme’s friend, critic Herbert Read, had pulled together his small corpus into a single collection, Speculations. Though Read thought he had collected everything that could be collected, many of Hulme’s writings remained unpublished until 1955, when Further Speculations appeared from an American academic press. Still, Speculations (1924) gives us a profound insight into the man.
In one of the many essays in Speculations, “Humanism,” Hulme attempts to identify what makes modernity unique in the history of thought and culture, though he rarely employs the term modernity. One can recognize modernity by the “gaps” it attempts to fill. First, through knowledge, it attempts to answer all things as a whole. Not the universal whole found in Dante’s medieval unity, but a whole as in a puzzle of man’s various bits and pieces of facts and knowledge. Second, in its relentless drive to find “progress” from one era to another—as well as from one idea to another, one achievement to another, one cultural mode to another—modernity attempts to gloss over differences in eras, seeing all things as fitting into some greater good as it moves irrevocably toward some end point. This second form of modernity is especially insidious because it has become so ingrained in our thinking that we lose all objectivity in attempting (now nearly impossible) to see its existence. “Originally urged only by the few, it has spread—implicit in the popular conception of evolution—till it has attained the status of a category,” Hulme wrote. “We now absorb it unconsciously from an environment already completely soaked in it.” Progress, as such, has not become one new religion among many older ones, but has become “an inevitable constituent of reality itself.”
To transcend or to break through this delusion of progress, a true scholar, Hulme continued, must attempt to see the gaps in both senses, recognizing them and allowing them to exist. In other words, much like Friedrich Hayek will proclaim with the “knowledge problem” several decades later, true scholars must be humble and be content with knowing what we do not know. The modernist, of course, hates ignorance more than anything else, and in his blind zeal to know all things, he will create “knowledge” where no knowledge is possible, thus truly derailing centuries upon centuries of fine work and of understanding of the human person. Ironically, in his hatred of religion, the modernist merely creates a new, shallow, and false religion. The modern, Hulme understood, is nothing short of a full-fledge Gnostic, ultimately seeing the universe as pre-determined, mechanistic, and absent of free will.
At heart, a proper critic avoids anything—no matter how tempting—that leads to something believed to be perfect, especially when dealing with anything remotely human. “We place Perfection where it should not be—on this human plane. As we are painfully aware that nothing actual can be perfect, we imagine the perfection to be not where we are, but some distance along one of the roads,” Hulme believed. “The fundamental error is that of placing Perfection in humanity, thus giving rise to that bastard thing Personality, and all the bunkum that follows from it.”
In his overall attack on modernity, Hulme calls for the true philosopher (one who openly and willfully employs scientific observation with personal opinion) or scholar to see unity, but not in the unity of facts and pieces and knowledge. Rather, he must find his unity in the lowest common denominator of man, his sinfulness. With sinfulness as the starting point in understanding the nature of man, one can actually build upon the wisdom obtained over centuries and centuries of struggle—or, at the very least, have a hope to do so. Man “is endowed with Original Sin. While he can occasionally accomplish acts which partake of perfection, he can never himself be perfect,” Hulme noted. “A man is essentially bad, he can only accomplish anything of value by discipline—ethical and political. Order is thus not merely negative, but creative and liberating.”
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The featured image is a photograph of T.E. Hulme and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.