THE FAILURE OF HUMANISM
Bookforum.com carried a highly perceptive and thought-provoking review by George Scialabba of John Carroll’s The Wreck of Western Culture: http://www.bookforum.com/inprint/015_05/3270 . Following my inveterate habit of jotting down comments as I read on, I put down the following notes, imagining at first that I would find myself much in agreement with Carroll’s position, only to discover that his is a position I am radically opposed to. However, I leave my notes mostly as they were written down with little addition and alteration, even if this results in some incoherence and some loose ends in what I have written.
The failure of Humanism, in my view, does not signify that we cannot live by reason alone but rather that Humanism came prematurely, before the main body of humanity was mature enough to live by reason.
I maintain that only reason can secure a worthwhile life for human society: not reason in a single wise ruler, as Plato vainly hoped, or even in a limited body of wise rulers, but reason in all the members of the human community. And that, at the present juncture of the human adventure, seems to be an even wilder dream than Plato’s. The ‘myth of humanism’ is not false: humanism was a fond dream true for a humanity that has not yet come into being.
Scialabba quotes a paragraph of Carroll’s which amounts to “a proclamation of universal ruin” with no attempt to substantiate or elaborate on what it claims. Carroll’s “apocalyptic paragraph” does not need any substantiation or elaboration. It is highly rhetorical, but its depiction of the human condition (and not merely of ‘Western culture’) must, in my view, be seen as just by anyone concerned with the present plight of humanity.
Carroll is correct in affirming that the humanist ambition was “to found an order on earth in which freedom and happiness prevailed, without any transcendental or supernatural supports—an entirely human order.” But it is wrong to suppose that the fault of humanism was in seeking to do away with ‘any transcendental or supernatural supports’. From pre-historic times to the present day ‘transcendental and supernatural supports’ have done humanity no good, to put it most leniently.
Humanism is not bankrupt, but humanism has been corrupted. Humanism dreamed of establishing human civilization on the foundations of what is best in humanity, and that included spiritual and moral values that most decidedly did not come from a transcendental or supernatural source but stemmed from the nature of human beings and the natural aspirations of human beings. The spiritual dimension of human beings is, I will not say as real and natural as the physical dimension, but rather that it is the reality proper to a human being. The usurpation of all claim to knowledge and understanding by empirical science and the identification of all good with material or worldly good reduced the humanist aspiration to our present-day paltry secular humanisms and naturalisms that are as fiercely opposed to any mention of spirituality or idealism as the most recalcitrant of fundamentalist dogmatisms and leave us lost between the madness of other-worldly supernaturalisms on the one hand and the equal madness of worldly consumerism, competitiveness, and the lust for power and domination on the other hand.
I thought I agreed with Carroll in his insistence on the necessity of myth in human culture until I discovered the gulf between what he and I mean by that.
In book after book and essay after essay I have been affirming that what gives human beings their proper character as humans is that they live in a world of ideas of their own making; that these ideas are myths, and that these myths are the substance of culture and are the lifeblood of humanity. But for me these myths are not opposed to reason, unless reason is equated with the impoverished reason of empirical science. The making of cultural myth is the very life of creative reason or, as I prefer to say, creative intelligence. The one ground or condition for the reconciliation of the necessity of myth for human culture with the absolute necessity of reason for preserving human dignity is that our myths be acknowledged as myths and that all the postulates of reason itself be demolished by reason itself as Plato insisted in the Republic. And it is here that I not only part company with Carroll, but find my position directly opposed to his. I would find his Christian myth as inspiring and as valuable as any Hindu or Egyptian or Orphic myth, if only he offers it frankly as myth.
We do not have to look far for a saving cultural myth, and it is not a new myth; it is one that has been with us for more than two millennia. It is simply this: within every one of us is a soul that is not separate or separable from the body and that has not been fitted into us by a power outside us, but is simply what is real and what is most worthy in us; what Socrates designated as that in us that blooms by doing what is good and is harmed by doing what is bad.
In Plato’s Euthyphro Socrates poses the question: Is righteousness right because the gods will it or do the gods will it because it is right? Carroll, in ruing the loss of transcendental law, opts, like the soothsayer Euthyphro, for the wrong answer. Transcendental law is the negation of human dignity and human worth. It is only in the autonomy of the moral law that we find our proper excellence as Kant rightly insisted.
D. R. Khashaba
Cairo, 20 January 2009.