“I have found little ‘good’ about human beings.
In my experience, most of them are trash.”
An old professor of mine once joked that ecumenism was a case of “the bland leading the bland,” an epithet that could just as appropriately describe contemporary humanism. Cast your net at Google, and you will haul in a wriggling boatload of rational humanists, ethical humanists, anarchohumanists, scientific humanists, vegan humanists, “gay and lesbian” humanists, and, of course, transsexual transhumanists. Nor must we forget their fellow-traveler Christian, Jewish, and Muslim humanists. However diverse, they are all infected with the same urge to babble endlessly and sentimentally about the essential goodness of humanity.
This past year, the American Humanist Association launched a holiday ad campaign. Its slogan, “Why believe in God? Just be good for goodness’ sake,” invited us to consider anew just how precious we really are. Of course, most Americans these days are already convinced of their goodness, so it hardly seems to matter whether they believe in God.
As John Carroll’s latest book reminds us, humanism once possessed more gravitas. At its instauration in the 15th century, Renaissance humanism was a formidable force forged by the talents of formidable men. Whatever one might think of their movement, men such as Ficino, Pico, Colet, Erasmus, More, Petrarch, Rabelais, Montaigne, and Bacon were intellectual giants by comparison with the pygmies who cavort in their borrowed robes today. They were, in Carroll’s words, “a procession of great men” whose “works of statecraft, ideas, art and science” made a compelling case for Pico’s dictum (from the Oration on the Dignity of Man): “We can become what we will.” What is essential in Pico’s declaration is its stark emphasis on the autonomy of the human will. Humanism sought, in its salad days, nothing less than the restoration of the City of Man. Medieval Catholicism had taught, by contrast, that human life was a brief and fearful pilgrimage toward the City of God. The pilgrim was not encouraged to concern himself overmuch with rebuilding what the Almighty had torn asunder. Saint Augustine had made it clear that the collapse of the imperial splendors of Rome was divine punishment for idolatry and sensual depravity. But, as the interregnum wore on and the eagerly awaited Second Coming failed to occur, cities like Paris and Florence grew wealthy and powerful. The monastic monopoly on learning began to yield to the great universities. Gradually, and perhaps inevitably, the learned began to avert their gazes from the Heavenly City and to contemplate the potentialities of the terrestrial realm. It was out of such centers of learning, which were increasingly preoccupied with the arts and letters of classical antiquity, that Renaissance humanism was born.
While many humanists, including Ficino and Pico, drew upon Neo-pla-tonic doctrines that emphasized in quasi–gnostic fashion the divinization of man, many others remained piously attached to traditional Christian teaching. Nevertheless, a common thread runs through the productions of all the humanists of the period. Even a man like Thomas More, whose piety was positively medieval, was capable of producing his Utopia, which envisions a city-state in which social planning has resulted in a communal paradise free of want and political corruption. To be sure, a vein of satire runs through Utopia, but as the late Eric Voegelin once noted, it is disturbing that so orthodox a Catholic could engage in such a thought experiment at all. Carroll argues that the “central task” of the Renaissance was to replace the “I am that I am” of the Old Testament with the “I am, where the I is the individual being.” Carroll is fond of sweeping generalizations, and this is one of them; however, in retrospect it does appear that the internal logic of the early humanist position was always leading toward an assertion of the individual will’s independence of divine sanction, even if that assertion would not become fully explicit until the Enlightenment.
As Carroll tells the story, the humanist movement was almost strangled in its crib. “Christianity,” he writes, “had focused itself in all its formative intensity on the crucifixion, on one tragic image of death and its transcendence. Humanism had to find a credible alternative.” Its efforts to find a place to stand upon the primacy of will and reason encountered a trenchant adversary in the person of Martin Luther. In his prolonged assault on Erasmus’ Discourse on Free Will, the German Augustinian gave no quarter: Free will, he argued in The Bondage of the Will, is an illusion; Original Sin had obliterated man’s freedom and crippled the will. Man’s only hope for an escape from the specter of death lay in the “darkness” of faith: “Faith belongs with the night demons, out of the securing light of human order, down there where the torch of reason cannot penetrate.” The humanist “I am” was merely vain posturing and could only lead to a presumptuous quest to nullify divine authority.
This analysis of the Reformation attack on humanist presumption is nothing new. However, part of the appeal of Carroll’s book is that he moves easily from theological polemics to works of the imagination. In Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533), Carroll finds evidence of the existential crisis that humanism faced in its infancy. Holbein is one of those who, early on, sniffed out the odor of death in the humanist endeavor. The Ambassadors pictures two sumptuously attired French diplomats standing on each side of a set of shelves laden with various books and implements (a globe, geometrical instruments, an astrolabe, a book of mathematics) that identify them as quintessential Renaissance men. However, in the foreground of the painting, dominating its central space, is a flattened object rendered in anamorphic perspective that, viewed from the side of the painting, proves to be a skull. In Carroll’s view, the death’s head is a “grim mockery” of the humanist glorification of the will:
The two men are under its sway. Pale in their unconscious fear, they recognize that they have been turned to stone, with their cultural toys powerless to help. . . . Death is the master, and there is no other.
Equally skeptical of the humanist project at its outset was Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Carroll asserts that the melancholic Danish prince may be understood as the quintessential humanist. What motivates his famous “delay” in revenging his father’s murder is his awareness of death, that “consummation” he both longs for and dreads. Reasoning on death, the humanist Hamlet suffers from paralysis of the will. Reason alone can find no place to stand. Much in what Carroll has to say of Hamlet’s morbid preoccupation with death rings true, but there is much that is questionable. For example, he simply ignores the evidence that Hamlet has serious doubts about the provenance of the Ghost that claims to be his murdered father. Indeed, it is those doubts that motivate much of the delay and lead to the staging of the famous Mousetrap scene, for Hamlet must have evidence that the Ghost speaks the truth. This may be rationalization covering a deeper malady of the will, but Carroll doesn’t say so, and his case would be stronger if he made some effort to account for evidence that seems to challenge his position.
Humanism, according to Carroll, survived the crisis of its origins for two reasons: It rode on the coattails of the stupendous success of the Scientific Revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries, and it reached a mutually beneficial accommodation with the Calvinist bourgeoisie. While Calvinism managed “to find a sacred core in the daily practices of home and work,” it was nonetheless “too one-sided to succeed on its own.” It was necessary that the Calvinist work ethic be fused with the humanist ego and its drive to master the material world before the Protestant bourgeoisie could become a social force of historical significance. Out of this “humanist-Protestant hybrid” arises, in time, a new understanding of culture and education, one in which the Protestant emphasis on the formation of conscience combines with the humanist and rationalist faith that “clarity of mental insight brings virtue and happiness.” Carroll also credits this fusion of humanist and Protestant cultures with the creation of parliamentary democracy. But in the long term the humanist influence was enervating. Protestant intensity, tamed by humanism, began to wither and sank into the “disconnected inwardness” so memorably portrayed in Thomas Mann’s 1901 novel, Buddenbrooks.
A more gemütlich alliance was established between humanism and the Enlightenment. This is the point at which humanism, in its most forward-looking mode, began to effect a complete detachment of reason from faith, just as Luther had predicted. And the central figure was, of course, René Descartes, whose Discourse on Method would become a seminal philosophical text for the Age of Reason. If the crucial problem faced by humanism had always been to find a place to stand, a foundation that required no supernatural sanction, Descartes seemed to provide one. His “Cogito, ergo sum” was “the new Archimedean rock.” It proclaimed, in effect, “I am, not because God made me, but because I think.” Out of the Cartesian revolution came a host of new challenges for faith, above all the rational criticism of sacred texts and traditional morality. The attack on the latter took its most pernicious form in the utilitarian principle of Jeremy Bentham, “in which morality has been eviscerated into a technical computation of units of pleasure.” Alarmed by the implications of the pleasure principle, humanism’s most formidable philosopher, Immanuel Kant, attempted to place traditional morality on a rational foundation. His categorical imperative assumes the existence of a universal moral law in the tradition of Aristotle or Aquinas, but breaks with his classical and medieval predecessors in “welding his new system to the humanist conception of the individual.” Following Descartes, Kant teaches that reason alone is sufficient to discern the moral law; to this he adds that reason, having discerned the moral law in any given case, is honor-bound to submit to its dictates. The problem, as Carroll rightly notes, is Kant’s further assumption that the rational man, “knowing the law, will obey it.” What Kant naively fails to take into account is “the demonic in human nature” and the congenital infirmity of reason itself. Nonetheless, the Kantian ethic has become the mainstay of humanism down to the present. “Be good for goodness’ sake” is merely its trivialization.
Humanism reached its apogee with the Enlightenment, argues Carroll, after which its decline has been precipitous. The dignified image of the autonomous individual upheld by Renaissance humanism came under sustained attack on several fronts in the 19th and 20th centuries, most notably by Marxism, Darwinism, and Freudianism. All three called radically into question the autonomy of the individual. Of these, the influence of Freudian theory has been the most far-reaching. For while there was a trace of Enlightenment optimism in Freud’s character, his work was a systematic negation of the humanist vision of the self. Beset by demonic drives (the unconscious), on the one hand, and lacerating guilt (the superego), on the other, the once proud, autonomous self was now reduced to mere “ego.” Freud was “doctor-confessor to the decadent bourgeoisie,” promising a cure for hysteria, obsession, and depression in an updated version of the Socratic dictum “Know thyself.” But the self that remained at the end of the “interminable” Freudian quest for self-knowledge was an emasculated shadow of the Renaissance individual. While it is true that Freudian psychotherapy remained the preserve of an upper-middle-class elite, the therapeutic ethos inspired by Freud is now pervasive in Western societies.
After Marx, Darwin, and Freud, humanism lapses into nihilism. “In the aftermath of humanism,” writes Carroll, “with all cultural barriers smashed, ‘We can become what we will’ is simplified back to the jungle, in which lust and sadism rule.” But if humanism is dead, what consolation is to be had amid the ruins? Carroll states in his Prologue that his aim was to write a “requiem” for humanism, not to offer any panacea for the ills of the posthumanist era. However, he does hint at certain possibilities. In a lengthy treatment of the 17th-century French master Nicolas Poussin, Carroll suggests that the painter of The Plague of Ashdod (1631) found “a notion of the ‘I am’ counter to the humanist ego, one that draws upon John’s and Mark’s accounts of the life of Jesus.” He offers no evidence that Poussin’s work was inspired by these Gospels, nor is he ever very clear about what this alternative model of the “I am” might be, except to say that it is “a redemptive path through tragedy different to [sic] the classical Greek model. It centers on a fallen worldliness followed by metamorphosis.” This “fallen worldliness” is not to be equated with Original Sin, something Poussin rejected, claims Carroll, again without offering a shred of proof. As for “metamorphosis,” or the possibility of a spiritual renewal that would transcend the false allure of the humanist will to power, Poussin apparently found an alternative path in the “classical Greek equation of culture with story,” in the “mythos, the body of timeless, archetypal narratives that carry the eternal truths.”
Carroll offers another hint at his ultimate thrust in the final chapter. If we are to “begin again,” we must relearn the true meaning of the Gospel of John, which is that “the human individual, exemplified by Jesus, has replaced God.” In short, if I am reading Carroll’s rather oracular utterances rightly, humanists like Pico were right to find their transcendent truth in the “I am.” Their mistake was in failing to heed Luther’s warning, to see that genuine liberation of the self lies in the “darkness of faith.” Yet there is no indication that Carroll, unlike Luther, regards the Christian Faith as uniquely redemptive, nor any sign that Carroll’s Jesus is—to cite the Nicene Creed—“true God from true God.” In fact, to make any sense of Carroll’s spiritual hash, one must turn to another of his recent books, The Existential Jesus. There we find a portrait of Jesus, derived largely from a highly subjective reading of the Gospel of Mark, in which the Christ of the orthodox tradition has been transformed into a mythic Jesus, one who is “individual-centered and anti-tribal,” and from whom all the particularities of religious or ethnic identity have been stripped away—in short, a Jesus tailor-made for the deracinated, post-humanist, secular masses. Clearly, Carroll (who is by trade a sociologist) has been reading too much Martin Hei-deg-ger. What attracts him to the Man of Sorrows is the Jesus essence, the radiance of Being that emanates from Mark’s “Life of Jesus.” Without saying so explicitly, Carroll appears to be promoting a new sort of neopagan, mystical humanism! If that is the case, then it was probably wise that he chose to say so little about the matter and thus spare himself further embarrassment. Otherwise, The Wreck of Western Culture is a provocative if not altogether original book, and Carroll is a writer who, despite occasional lapses into incoherence, has much to say about the rise and fall of the humanist enterprise that will resonate with the readers of this magazine.
[The Wreck of Western Culture: Humanism Revisited, by John Carroll (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books) 270 pp., $28.00]