Roots of Anti-Humanism: “Our object was to know Man; as for men, we left them to do as they chose” -Goethe
Julian Benda’s (b.1867-d.1956) The Treason of the Intellectuals (La Trahison des clercs) is one of the most astute diagnoses of the contemporary age I have ever read, despite being written in 1928. It is a goldmine of ideas and offers an early look into the social snowball that would come to be known as the Culture Wars. It’s also, curiously, read by both the left and the right of the political spectrum, referenced both in an essay by Roger Kimball and in Chris Hedges new-ish book The Death of the Liberal Class. But I’d like to bring your attention to a little passage on Humanism, one of this blog’s favourite themes.
It’s fashionable to talk about post-humanism or trans-humanism, but once you raise humanism, people often think you’re refering to secular-humanism or humanitarianism.
But post-humanism, as it is used by its technophilic proponents is not advocating a post-secular-humanism or a post-humanitarianism: it is advocating post-humanism. (Likewise, trans-humanism, as it is used by its freezer burned proponents is not advocating a trans-secular-humanism or a trans-humanitarianism: it is advocating trans-humanism.)
Movements such as transhumanism and posthumanism are anti-humanist, that is, in the words of the great and mighty Wikipedia, a way of thinking that holds the view that “…all notions of ‘human nature’ or of ‘Man’ or ‘humanity’ in the abstract should be rejected as historically relative, or as metaphysical...” So that’s a wiki-mouthful, but I think it describes the aim of the anti-humanism. And I think it helps to distinguish anti-humanism from anti-secular-humanism, or anti-humanitarianism.
Now, what’s so interesting about Benda is that his anti-humanist observations are not about the usual technological culprits (biotechnology, germ line engineering, human cloning, Body Worlds plastinated corpses etc…) at whose feet we usually lay blame. (In fact, in 1988 Alain Finkeilkraut explored Benda’s ideas and teased out the idea that our belief in ‘humanity’ in the abstract was destroyed by the French counter-revolutionaries and German Romantics after the French Revolution. I’d like to return to this in a future post, but in the meantime you can probably dig Finkielkrauts book The Undoing of Thought out of your local library’s black hole and surprise all your cool post-human friends.)
One of the tendencies that Benda noticed was that the intellectual class of his day had set out to “exalt the will of men to feel conscious of themselves as distinct from others, and to proclaim as contemptible every tendency to establish oneself in a universal.” The “moralists of Europe” between 1870-1920 “praised the effort of men to feel conscious of themselves in their nation and race, to the extent that this distinguishes them from others and opposes them to others, and have made them ashamed of every aspiration to feel conscious of themselves as men in the general sense and in the sense of rising above ethnical aims“.
Benda continues, “…in our age, we have denounced humanitarianism as a moral degeneration, nay, an intellectual degeneration…” But he does not mean humanitarianism as we usually mean it, rather he writes: “I should like to draw a distinction between humanitarianism as I mean it here – a sensitiveness to the abstract quality of what is human, to Montaigne’s ‘whole form of the human condition’ – and the feeling which is usually called humanitarianism, which is meant love for human beings existing in the concrete.”
Benda’s sense of humanitarianism (humanism) is a “pure passion of the intelligence”, and quips that “it is quite easy to conceive of a person plunging into the concept of what is human without having the least desire to see a man”. Goethe, Erasimus, Malebranche, Spinoza, etc… all loved humanity but weren’t anxious “to throw themselves into the arms of their neighbors”. They weren’t subject to what we call today humanitariansm, a sentimental type of humanism, “a state of heart and therefore a portion of plebian souls…occuring among moralists in periods when lofty intellectual discipline dissapears among them and gives way to sentimental exaltation (see Diderot, Proudhon, etc…)”. This distinction [between the two types of humanism] was expressed by Goethe when he related the indifference of himself and his friends to the events of 1789. “In our little circle, we took no nottice of news and newspapers; our object was to know Man; as for men, we left them to do as they chose.” The Humanities, Benda points out, as instituted by the Jesuists in the Seventeenth century, the studia humanitatis, are “the study of what is most essentially human”, and were in no sense altruistic exercises.)
Just some food for thought to get you thinking about situating anti-humanism outside of technological explanations and inquiring about what it is that post-humanism aims at moving beyond and trans-humanism aims at transforming.