Black Theology


Modernism Humanism

At the heart of humanism in each of its various historical instances is the attempt to locate and cultivate what is essentially and universally human. This humanistic impulse runs throughout Western thought and has come to the fore several times, including in the ancient Greco-Roman humanists and in the Christianized humanism of the Renaissance. The New Humanists of the early twentieth century may be the most recent occurrence of the emergence to the fore of this humanistic impulse.

As Irving Babbitt, the leader of the American New Humanists, explained in his 1930 essay “Humanism: An Essay at Definition,” humanism stands opposed to “the perception with which the modernist is chiefly concerned . . . of the divergent and the changeful both within and without himself.” The humanist rather seeks after what is true and unchanging of all mankind in any age. He seeks to discover “the something in his nature that sets him apart simply as man from other animals and that Cicero defines as a ‘sense of order and decorum and measure in deeds and words.’”

This things that distinguishes humans from all other created things is, in addition, according to the humanist, that which must be cultivated within man. “‘Nothing too much,’” says Babbitt, “is indeed the central maxim of all genuine humanists, ancient and modern.” If the sense of proportionality is the distinguishing characteristic of mankind, it is precisely this sense which must be cultivated for humans to attain to the fullness of their nature and, therefore, to attain the telos of human life and the satisfaction that arises from such attainment. And this sense of proportionality is to be applied in every aspect of human life, including not only its obvious applications in the arts but also within the realms of the practical and of the ethical. It is, or should be, the guiding principle of human life, according to the humanist.

This leads the humanist to the support of an aristocratic principle in society and government, of the sort described by Plato. Those who are able, through the combined powers of intellect and will, to put this guiding principle into action are those most naturally fitted for leadership. As Babbitt explains in his 1924 book Democracy and Leadership,

A man needs to look, not down, but up to standards set so much above his ordinary self as to make him feel that he is himself spiritually the underdog. The man who thus looks up is becoming worthy to be looked up to in turn, and, to this extent, qualifying for leadership.

Importantly, this standard cannot be imposed from without but must be cultivated within. The work of a society is to clear the way for those with the ability, not to force such a standard upon the populace as a whole. In fact, says Babbitt, “the multitude of laws we are passing is one of many proofs that we are growing increasingly lawless.”

One reaches—or at least looks to—this “humane standard,” according to Babbitt

by a knowledge of good literature—by a familiarity with that golden chain of masterpieces which links together into a single tradition the more permanent experience of the race; books which so agree in essentials that they seem, as Emerson puts it, to be the work of one all-seeing, all-hearing gentleman.

While there is both a great deal of truth and a great deal of reflection of the past humanistic traditions in this statement, it presents, however, something of a departure on the part of the New Humanists from earlier instances of humanism which is problematic for its claim to embody the humanistic spirit. As Bernard Bandler II points out in his 1930 essay “Paul Elmer More and the External World,” More, a close associate and follower Babbitt, “considers himself a follower of Socrates; but though he may agree with many of Socrates’ conclusions, in his life and writings he has ignored the methods which Socrates employed and the medium in which he worked.” Bandler cites More’s acquisition of wisdom through solitude rather than in the hustle and bustle of the marketplace as well as More’s focus on knowledge derived from books rather than personal experiences of others, both contrary to the style of Socrates. One might also, however, cite the conservatism of both Babbitt and More as a departure from the forebears which they claim for themselves.

While both Babbitt and More offer harsh criticism for the great bulk of modern literature as indicative of moral degradation, neither accounts for the similar accusations leveled against each successive generation of authors and thinkers in history. While there is certainly a sort of “golden chain” of commonality that runs throughout the history of literature, there is as much—perhaps more—that changes within it from generation to generation and even within a single generation one finds authors and thinkers of equal merit whose ideas differ one from another—and often in essentials. The moralism and nostalgic conservatism of the New Humanists seems hardly in keeping with the spirit of earlier brands of humanism on this point. These distinctly modern attitudes, in fact, seem to be distinctly modern aspects of this most recent emergence of the humanistic spirit in modern times.

T. S. Eliot on Religion and Humanism

In his short essay “Religion Without Humanism,” published in Norman Foerster’s 1930 book Humanism in America, T. S. Eliot argues that humanism is an essential supplement to religion. There is, he says, a “danger, a very real one, of religion without humanism.” This danger, he claims, is twofold. On the one side is the extreme of a “petrified eccleciasticism” and, on the other, the extreme of “modernism.” The former Eliot identifies with the “narrow and bigoted” reactionaries of, for example, the Roman Catholic Church and the latter with the “hypocritical and humanitarian” faction of the same Church. Without humanism, religion “produces the vulgarities and the political compromises of Roman Catholicism” as well as “the vulgarities and the fanaticism of Tennessee” in the Protestant churches.

Eliot’s argument, unfortunately, suffers from his failure to define his terms. His failure to define the term “humanism” is, in this essay, apparently intentional. “As I believe I am writing chiefly for those who know or think they know, what ‘humanism’ means,” he writes, “I have not in this paper attempted any definition of it.” The definition which Eliot implicitly provides, however, seems to contradict the definitions which the humanists whose essays are published in the same volume provide.

Eliot, for example, implies that humanism and religion are in some ways mutually exclusive, humanism behaving as a sort of loyal opposition to religion. He identifies humanism, for example, with “criticism from without” religion as well as “infidelity and agnosticism.” His greatest fear for humanism, he goes on, is that it “should make a tradition of dissent and agnosticism, and so cut itself off from the sphere of influence in which it is most needed.” Within Eliot’s notion of humanism as a force external to religion which, through its criticism of religion, prevents religion from decaying into enthusiasm on the one hand and humanitarianism on the other is the clear, if implicit, understanding that the two, religion and humanism, cannot coexist within the same person. One cannot, after all, be both internal to religion and external to it, and the humanist, at least vis-à-vis his humanism, in Eliot’s account, must be in the latter position.

Irving Babbitt, however, in his essay “Humanism: An Essay at Definition,” seems to assume the opposite position. He argues, for instance, that “the man who sets out to live religiously in the secular order without having recourse to the wisdom of the humanist is likely to fall into vicious confusions.” He goes on to write, “It follows that the Catholic and the non-Catholic should be able to co-operate on the humanistic level.” From this point of view humanism can be seen as possibly, though not necessarily, internal to religion in that the Catholic is capable of adopting and applying humanistic principles while remaining a faithful Catholic. This is patently incompatible with Eliot’s view of the relationship between humanism and religion.

In addition to his failure to define humanism, there is the further trouble of Eliot’s failure to define religion. While the former absence of definition is, according to Eliot, intentional, the latter seems, rather, wholly unintentional. While it is clear that Eliot has in mind a specifically, if ecumenically, Christian cultural milieu, he does include among his references to the potential failures of religion without humanism “the communion of saints in Tibet.” This reference to the decadent theocracy of Tibet under the Buddhist lamas, of course, widens the scope of the word “religion” as it is being used by Eliot in this essay. It also, however, complicates the term due to Eliot’s failure to provide a definition for it. There is, after all, an important distinction between the tenets of Buddhism and the beliefs which must be adopted by the committed orthodox Christian. This distinction is, in turn, such that, if the humanist is, as Eliot claims, to play the role of critic, the career of the humanist where Buddhism is the predominant religion will inevitably be quite different from the career of the humanist whose primary religious relationship is with Christianity.

Eliot’s failure to define both humanism and religion in an essay about the relationship between the two creates significant difficulties for his argument. Even so, however, Eliot’s view of humanism as the loyal opposition to religion provides a valuable perspective on the usefulness of disbelief and the unbelievers who espouse it even within an otherwise religious society. Without the voice of doubt, as Eliot says, the power of religious authorities nearly inevitably degrades into pomposity and the importance of faith into an unquestioning and stifling dogmatism.

Book Review: A Clergyman’s Daughter by George Orwell

This book has largely been ignored and forgotten by anyone outside of the few with a passion for Orwell’s work. And Orwell himself would have had it so. He wrote, once his circumstances were a bit more secure due to the success of certain other novels (much more well-known) about a decade after the book was first published, that he had been forced by a need for money to publish this book and had regretted allowing its publication ever since. He had written it, he said, not for publication but as a sort of experiment in style. This admission on his part, however, is, I believe, a fine indicator of why it is as good of a book as it is and why it is truly an injustice to Orwell and to the book itself that it remains so little known and read today.

The experimental style of the book does nothing to make for a compelling story. If you are looking for the fine-tuned plot and provocative storytelling of Orwell’s more famous works, you are looking in the wrong place. If you are looking for a book that grants a great deal of personal insight into one of the greatest literary minds of the 20th century, though, this is a book not to be missed.

That Orwell did not intend the book for publication no doubt allowed him to place within it a greater amount of personal reflection than he allowed into his more manicured works. Within the novel, for example, Dorothy, the primary protagonist, is dragged by circumstance through a number of situations which Orwell himself had experienced in his early days as a writer, including homelessness, teaching at a school for the children of working class Londoners, and losing his faith even while insisting that he must maintain the pious practice thereof in order not to fall into nihilism. All of these are things that Orwell experienced and which certainly shaped the beliefs and ideas that led him eventually to write his two most famous novels several years later. Here one is treated to a more direct reflection about these experiences, a reflection which will allow one to read Orwell’s later works with a much greater insight.

I recommend this book, first, as good literature. Again, the story itself is not especially interesting or compelling but the individual incidents within the wider narrative are each fascinating in their own right. I recommend this book especially to anyone who has enjoyed the other great works of Orwell and desires a greater insight into this literary mind and the forces that shaped it.

Book Review: Siddhartha by Herman Hesse

Siddhartha is the tale of a man driven by an insatiable desire for truth. Unlike the great mass of men who live and have ever lived (and, no doubt, who will live) the eponymous character is unable to bury the innate human desire for truth, transcendence, and eternity beneath the morass of material things and temporal (and therefore temporary) concerns. He is unable to forget that man, however pervasive illusion and delusion might be, was placed into this world for other and better reasons than the satisfaction of ultimately meaningless desires, enjoyment of passing pleasures, and obsessions with works the effects of which will hardly outlast the moment of their performance.

It is rather, as Siddhartha knows and cannot force himself to forget, that man was created for something altogether of another order. He was created to seek after what is good, what is true, and what is beautiful. The highest end of man and the purpose for which he was created surpasses the merely earthly and the merely momentary.

Only after years of struggle with his self and his world is Siddhartha able to realize that he had been seeking since his youth had been with him — in him — all along. It had, in fact, been him — and everything around him. It was — it is — the all-pervasive presence of the divine, which encompasses, unites, and yet exceeds the entire created order.

Book Review: The Rig Veda, translated by Wendy Doniger

The Rig Veda is one of the great classics of world religious thought. A collection of disparate hymns to various deities, foremost among whom are Indra, Agni, and Soma, it has come a long way from its roots in the syncretism of Aryan and pre-Aryan Indian religious systems. While the culture it reflects is a semi-nomadic warrior society that has recently conquered and subdued a settled agrarian (and ostensibly peaceful) culture of the Indus Valley, by the Upanishadic era (beginning in earnest circa 500 BCE) the hymns it contains were being reinterpreted along more mystical, spiritual, and even incipiently monotheistic lines.

Doniger does a fair job in capturing all of this in her selections and commentary in this book. The sample size is fair, as this contains about 10% of the actual Rig Veda. It is, alas, not always entirely representative of the source material, however. This is due to an unfortunate disposition toward those minute and stupid things modern academics are interested in. The table of contents, for example, in which the various hymns featured in this sampling are listed by theme, reveals an interesting predilection toward the obsessions of liberal academics. Indra, the primary god of the Aryan religious system, has 21 pages total of this book, for example, and Soma, both a god and a hallucinogenic plant whose use was widespread in the Vedic religious system, has 18 pages of hymns dedicated to him. The theme of “women,” however, which, outside of natural sexual desire and the need to perpetuate society and species through procreation, was not an especially intense concern of the Vedic authors, receive a whopping 32 pages, more pages than any other subject! The result is that, rather than presenting a sample representative of the content of the Rig Veda and the concerns of the society from which it emerged, Doniger instead provides a sample that entirely reflects the concerns of her academic colleagues.

All of this is unfortunate, but it does not make the book entirely worthless, as such academic idiocies so often do. The positive aspect of this concern with academic fetishes over all else is that Doniger does not, as Eknath Easwaran and other translators of and commentators upon Indian religious texts so often do, allow the superstitions and predispositions of modern Hinduism to determine the content or commentary. Modern Hindus, under the influence of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, among other later works, read back their monism and its accompanying mysticism into the Vedic texts and many academics, in their grovelling before foreignness, one symptom of the rampant Western self-hatred of the academic, are all too happy to oblige them in this ahistorical outlook. This is, of course, entirely unhelpful for the honest interested party who really seeks to understand a text within its historical and cultural origins rather than within the mythology and ex post facto justifications that have grown up around it.

To summarize, I applaud Doniger for her willingness to be honest about the polytheistic warrior culture of the Rig Veda. I only wish she were as honest about her own atheistic sex-fetish culture in academia. If she were, this sample translation of the foremost Veda would have been of more value. As it is, I recommend it as a decent introduction insofar as the reader is aware of the biases of Doniger and her compatriots.