It is a common fact of our century—appreciated most by George Orwell—that men who lust after power will distort words to gain their own ends. In 1933, a significant distortion took place. A group of men, John Dewey among them, drafted and published a now famous document, the Humanist Manifesto I, in which they declared their allegiance to a world free of “any supernatural or cosmic guarantees of human values.” Steadily, this creed has come to define the humanist (or secular humanist) in our day, to the point that “humanism” has become a byword to conservatives, especially conservative Christians.

It was not always so. In the decades immediately preceding the 1933 manifesto, the term “humanist” had been associated with a few isolated scholars, for the most part acting independently of one another, who had developed rather traditional ideas about education, letters, and man’s place in the universe. Their ideas, however diverse the application, were based on the premise that “supernatural or cosmic guarantees” had a great deal to do with “human values.” One of the main figures to emerge from this circle of scholars was Paul Elmer More, whose thought is the subject of a new book by Stephen L. Tanner.

In one sense, More had something in common with the men who drafted the Humanist Manifesto I. Like all men who claim the title of humanist, he asserted the dignity of human life, the responsibility of the individual, and the importance of free will. Yet More has never ceased to be treated with contempt by the post-Manifesto humanists, because he saw clearly that humanism, in order to survive as a distinct philosophy, had to rest on something more than itself. “Will not the humanist,” he said, “unless he adds to his creed the faith and the hope of religion, find himself at the last, despite his protests, dragged back into the camp of the naturalist?” This attitude applied even to More’s allies, men such as Irving Babbitt. For More, it was necessary to harness humanism to a body of ideas and beliefs totally alien to the modern ethos. Specifically, these ideas and beliefs were Platonism and Christianity. Hence, the split with modern humanists.

To avoid falling into the error he criticized. More set himself the task of investigating, in Tanner’s words, “the fundamental questions of what is the nature of man and how should he believe and act.” These are old questions based on a view of man which fewer and fewer of the intellectuals of the day were able to accept. Asking them was a result of More’s fascination with two forces at work in the history of modern ideas, humanism and naturalism.

Humanism, according to More, primarily meant accepting a dualistic view of man. Man is simultaneously a natural and supernatural being. To ignore either aspect of the soul leads to cultural and political dangers that have become familiar to us all: the loss of the special position of man in Creation and the lowering of man to a cog in a statist machine. Naturalism, in other words. More saw in the tendency toward naturalism (what we now mistakenly call humanism) the chief heresy in the West from the Renaissance to our day, manifesting itself in a variety of forms and creeds—rationalism, scientism, romanticism, humanitarianism—all carrying the basic message that man was, one way or another, in control of his own destiny and not responsible to either any transcendent Being or code.

The decline of true humanism and the rise of naturalism in the thinking of Western men became More’s great theme. He made it his objective to analyze the conflict of these two creeds in the literature of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries and, as Tanner puts it, “to cultivate within himself the historic sense and thus trace the history of the human spirit.”

It is no surprise, then, that More chose to dedicate himself to the calling (indeed, he considered it a very high calling) of literary criticism. But it was literary criticism of a kind unknown to those of us who have been schooled in the New Criticism or in Deconstructionism. More’s writing was moral, philosophical, and historical in its emphasis. Focusing on individual writers and periods. More attempted to isolate the central ideas behind each artist and place them within the context of an intellectual and historical movement. In his Shelburne Essays, he chose to measure the worth of his subjects primarily in terms of where they fell in the humanist-naturalist debate. The method has its limits, as Tanner is quick to point out. More tends to ignore the formal and stylistic side of some of the greatest writers. But the benefits far outweigh the disadvantages. The disciple of the New Criticism who reads a poem as an isolated event may come away with a very good understanding of the work, but not much else. The humanist is much more likely to leave his reading with a sense of moral and spiritual enrichment. He may also be better prepared to do battle with a few Philistines.

Stephen Tanner has done an excellent job of discussing More’s achievement. Like More’s criticism. Tanner’s study has its limits, as, indeed, the author is ready to confess. But it stands as a superb introduction to a man whom most conservatives hear of now and again (mostly in the writings of Russell Kirk) but never bother to read. We could spend a profitable week in slowly digesting this book. But the true dividend will be realized only if we then turn to the works of More himself.


[Paul Elmer More: Literary Criticism as the History of Ideas, by Stephen L. Tanner (Albany: State University of New York Press) $19.50]