To be human

“Humanism” is a funny old term. It is used today to denote the extraordinarily high regard in which politicized Atheists hold themselves. It conveys the evolutionary notion, that some pigs are more equal than others. In particular, those who deviate from the scientistic doctrines of Movement Atheism, & resist jackboot orders to remove themselves from public sight, constitute a lower life form, & must be eradicated in the name of Progress.

Perhaps I overstate their views. Having read key passages in Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, &c, I don’t think so. To be fair, let me recall that I’ve read several Atheist debunkers of Dawkins in particular, who complain of the viciousness & ignorance of his position, & how it makes them feel ashamed to be Atheists.

Too, on this other hand, I can supply a much longer list of “nice, tolerant Atheists” which includes, among living & dead off the top of my head: J.G. Ballard, Theodore Dalrymple, Carol Ann Duffy, Terry Eagleton, Oriana Fallaci, Seamus Heaney, Clive James, Philip Larkin, Stanislaw Lem, Iris Murdoch, Thomas Pynchon, Italo Svevo, Fernando Pessoa, Georg Cristoph Lichtenberg, Lucian, & Aristophanes.

This list could be made much longer, while sticking to my own preferences alone; but I would make two general observations about it:

First, in each & every case I’ve considered, Atheism has undermined the expression of profundities of which I thought the author capable, & cut across the grain of a formidable talent. And since this remark will be misunderstood, let me make clear: I am not referring to passages evocative of grimness or desolation when confronting human fate. (The religion of the Cross is not “happyface.”) I mean the absence of a spiritual lyricism that could have raised such passages. This is why there are no Atheists of the highest literary or philosophical order: the Atheism itself precludes, introducing a smallness of interpretation when the great questions of life are suddenly at stake. Yet in the best, there is a certain gritty stoicism.

Second, I expect each will appear on the Index of the Bright Inquisition, along with the Bible, Shakespeare, Dante, Homer, & all other literature that indulges imagination too freely. For the more creative sort of Atheists were no more safe than believing Christians, under previous aggressively Atheist regimes. You lick their boots, or you are a dead man.

The odd thing is, the title “Humanist” was appropriated from a religious vocabulary. Before being put directly at the service of Satan, during his Enlightenment, it referred to an explicitly Catholic intellectual movement of the later Middle Ages, in opposition to Scholasticism.

My own view of the original Humanism — starting from Petrarch in the standard academic way — is ambiguous. The term is applied to many who never applied it to themselves, which makes it dicey from the start. Sometimes it is little more than fashion. Yet one may easily discern a Humanist movement, beginning from urban Italy, crossing over the Alps, & settling into those Netherlandish parts through the 15th & earlier 16th centuries. It is also easy to blame it for the re-intrusion of an unthinkingly worldly pagan sensuousness into art, music, philosophy, &c. But at its more serene, it is pedagogical by disposition, classicizing, reactionary in its aspiration to recover skills & standards from a lost past; & thus attractively inimical to Progress.

Its ultimate exponents — men like Juan Luis Vives, Desidarius Erasmus, Saint Thomas More — were among the most eloquent opponents of the Reformation. Fine & good, & More is of course my greatest political hero. These, & others like them were men (& women: one thinks of the saintly & learned Catherine of Aragon, for instance) of uncompromising faith. Their own projects of “reform,” within the Catholic Church, were desirable: to improve standards of education for men & women alike; to increase religious observance; to bring churchmen back to a recollection of their vows, & the public at large to moral sobriety; to challenge heresy & apostasy. There was among them, & among so many of their predecessors, a very Christian & elevated view of the nature of Man, & therefore of our possibilities: a belief that much better could be got out of us.

To my mind, they went wrong in opposition to Scholasticism, too wantonly satirizing not the thing itself, but the decayed version of the thing on offer towards the end of the Middle Ages. They implicitly confused the thing itself with what amounted to a cheap imitation. This mistake would be corrected by such as John Poinsot (“John of Saint Thomas”), who might be considered a Humanist of a later Catholic generation. After an erratic course through that self-styled “Age of Reason,” the fine heritage of Scholasticism, with its Aristotelian foundations, has been largely recovered through the great “renaissance” of Thomism that accelerated in the later 19th century, & continues within the Church to our day. One might say it has been cleaned up, dusted off, & is ready to be put back in action.

But all this gets beyond the purpose I had in mind for today’s lay sermon. For I wanted to comment on what might be called the “ur-Humanism”: that form of the humane that was written into the human condition, by God. And further, to invite gentle reader to speculate on what a recovery of true Humanism might entail, especially in the sciences.

Consider this, from a news report:

“Australian archeologists have studied the burial site of a paralyzed young man who lived in northern Vietnam between 3,700 to 4,500 years ago. He lived into his early thirties thanks to round-the-clock, high-quality personal care including regular bathing, toileting, massaging, & turning to avoid pressure sores.”

The article is almost as thrilling for its explanation of how the archaeologists could infer these facts, as for the facts themselves, & the light they cast on a “primitive hunter-gatherer culture.” I have seen many similar reports, from the world of empirical archaeology & anthropology, & have flagged this one only because it is current & available & the moral is spelt out. Again & again we are reminded, of what we have in common with our most primitive human ancestors; of what “humanity” means.

Humans may be considered as one animal “evolving” by random mutation through natural selection along with all the others. This is the cosmology of our contemporary, self-styled “Humanists.” It is an atheological imposition upon the evidence that no theologian could match. It imposes throwaway “survival of the fittest” explanations upon nature’s rich store of cooperative behaviour. It is casually adapted to explain away mounting contradictory evidence, & to distract from the huge bald fact of incredibly complex, genetically specified design — in every example of every known creature. The speed with which this grinding, Victorian “just so” story is retold, before each new discovery has even been unpacked, reveals the incuriosity of its exponents. They exhibit the very gross credulity & bigotry which they falsely impute to Mediaeval Man. And all for the sake of spitting in the face of the Divine.

But there is an alternative to this intellectual zombieism; an alternative within empirical science itself. It is to look at the evidence without preconceptions. Moreover, to look at the evidence broadly, in the older Aristotelian spirit, with a view to cataloguing it on its own terms. Nature herself is helping to compel this, for at the front line of biology today we begin to read the genetic codes. The family trees used to illustrate Darwinism, & make it appear plausible to the schoolchildren of the past, are being merrily blown out of the water. They are replaced by new ones that leave us scratching our heads. More deeply, we find nothing to meet the criteria for random drift; & the desperate further speculations about “selfish genes” & the like will not save an account of reality that is, at its best, wilfully obtuse.

Nature herself is forcing us back — to the close observation & categorization of creatures in a scala naturae, or “ladder of life,” or “Great Chain of Being” — & upon the teleological wisdom that follows from this frankly Aristotelian enterprise. Nature does not reward ideologues; she favours rather the industrious inquirer, who remains humble & reticent on the theoretical side. She punishes those who ignore the obvious, humiliates those who jump to conclusions. Indeed: this is one of the things I love about Nature.

It could be said that the original Humanists set about replacing a basically Aristotelian with a basically Platonic approach to science. That was enough of a mistake. Our contemporary, self-styled “Humanists” — or, “post-Humanists” — kick both kinds of epistemology away. They sport a “Humanism” that denies humanity itself, & a knowledge that denies the possibility of knowledge. We may well protest the nihilist tyranny in such a view; but through the grace of our benevolent Creator, Nature will eradicate it in due course.