Thursday, July 26, 2012

Humanism: To Each His Own

I still remember vividly a dinner party at our house—about forty years ago. Among the guests was a couple the male member of which was a clergyman affiliated with one of the large liberal Protestant denominations. During the dinner conversation the term “secular humanism” just happened to slip from my mouth with a slightly acerbic intonation. I knew at once that I’d made a mistake. The clergyman erupted and—until the women joined in the sort soothing peace-making chorus that comes to them from Above—he went on in passionate tones thinking me (we did not know each other well) a raging fundamentalist.

A quite wonderful article in the American Conservative Brigitte read out loud yesterday as part of our lunch-time ritual (“Culture Without War,” by Elias Crim) spoke of Christian humanism. Later I got to thinking. I grew up in a household soaked, permeated in humanism—my Mother’s de facto philosophy. We never used the word as such. Our saints and prophets were members of the literary, musical, and artistic pantheon—ancient and recent. It was a value system strongly rooted in cultural expression. And it was humanist in this sense. It was Michelangelo who counted—not his subject matter.

The age of ideology dawned before I was born; it took off as I aged—and in consequence of that a clear, felt, lived value system came to be classified into endless branches. I was amazed to discover this morning, thanks to Wikipedia, that there exist at least thirteen different kinds of hyphenated humanisms—among them most interestingly Transhumanism and Posthumanism. Personism, although I didn’t count it, was on the list as well.

Later, when I had grown up and learned to see history—and culture—as cyclic phenomena, I also came to see that humanism is a stage in the transition of cultures from religious to secular to brutal. It is the stage when the religious has lost its grip but not as yet its aura. The aura is transferred from the transcendental to the human, but not to the human in its average but in its most elevated expressions.

Today’s sampling—with the large number of classifications into which humanism has now shattered—tells me that Brutalism is approaching by large, thundering steps. And its tiny little beady eyes still glitter with residues of the old ways, exemplified by yet another humanism on the list that I consulted: Antihumanism.

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