The limits of humanism


The weakness of humanism is that it makes man an idol and denies his fundamental insufficiency – the reality of evil. To be nice to each other is not enough. And on which rational grounds is man set apart? Buddhists prescribe respect for all life and nature worshippers pay homage to an even wider range of objects. But these abstractions provide little guidance. We are all, in principle, friends of humanity and friends of animals and nature to boot, just as we are friends of peace and quiet. Most of us have nothing ill in mind, on principle. Yet bad things happen.

Human self-adulation

In the Judeo-Christian culture the immense value of the individual is perhaps the most clearly expressed of all meta-rules. Noblesse oblige: he who has received much, shall be held to ransom for even more. Our right to exist should not be taken for granted but must be incorporated in a broader frame of reference. Mankind acquires real significance only as a pointer towards an open but dimly anticipated future. Man as his own purpose inevitably implies a shrinking value universe.

A century ago the death of God was a sensation which few took seriously. Now it is a trivial fact, and in the wake of godlessness the field is open to ahistorical improvidence, the fiendish misrepresentations of modern superstition and, worst of all, the hubris of the average citizen. The man-in-the-street has become the measure of all things, a target of abject adoration and idolization. Comfort and security rank highest in the scale of values, death is a scandalous imperfection, the God-relation a mental disorder. Such a syncretistically reduced and self-satisfied breed suggests nothing but its impending downfall.

By rejecting God, man has made himself the purpose and point of the whole play. Remembering Auschwitz and Treblinka, Dachau and Buchenwald, Kolyma and Katyn, we might feel that respect for human value can hardly be overemphasized, but taken out of context even this venerable principle leads to hubris.

Loss of purpose

In our times, humanism has been the banner which well-meaning thinkers can gather around without coming to blows. It expands the narrow frame of pragmatism to encompass a principled benevolence to and respect for all fellow human beings. Humanism can be regarded as Christianity ‘light’ but it also incorporates the related values of other monotheistic religions. Despite that (or for that reason), humanism remains vague, tepid and provides little sense of direction. Humanism is indispensable but insufficient as a frame of reference.

Human credulity has been exploited so often for religious purposes that a resigned retreat into agnosticism and nihilism is hardly surprising. This attenuation of spiritual energy seems to be a spontaneous process, an extension of the second law of thermodynamics. Meaningful purpose becomes rudderless disorientation in aimless dissipation of cultural exergy. Life cannot be halted at a comfortable level of safe play, the entropy of moral disorganization increases inexorably in tightly-closed ethical systems.

Nietzsche proclaimed not only the death of God but invoked an Übermensch, a superman, to assume command over the indolent bourgeoisie. In times of plenty, desperate value anarchy is dressed up in ever varying fashion. In the absence of any restrictive conventions or external threats, personal freedom becomes well-nigh intolerable whereas real problems of survival provide an effective cure for welfareitis. Primo Levi (1919–87) tells us in The Drowned and the Saved (1986) that suicide was virtually unknown in the German concentration camps. According to survivors mental patients recovered, ulcers healed, flu and the common cold almost disappeared.

A higher mission

We cannot become better ‘by ourselves’, the infinite regress of self-simulation soon exhausts our powers of introspection. Chaitin’s proof (see The Spirit of the Game 9.1.5) corroborates St. Augustine’s dictum that the self-perfection of man is a hopeless undertaking. No programme can improve itself beyond certain rather narrow limits; no one and no thing can know the truth about itself.

In strictly rational terms nothing can make up for my physical death which becomes an outrageous affront. In order to transcend human self-importance – the paralysie générale of culture – we must defer our man-made measuring rods to supreme criteria. Only before God are all men equal in their shortcomings; only before God is humanism, our care for one another, reconciled with a higher mission.

Rejecting God, man has presumed total independence but, in the final instance, timid humanism cannot stand alone. To escape inanity, man must be seen in a superior perspective. He will always seek a higher mission – or descend into bestiality. My personal credo enshrines the strivings of a progress dynamo. He or she wants to enrich the world, to be both strong and good, adroit and honest – in short, to heed the Spirit of the Game. A prodigious but not inhuman program, well worth failing.