nature and freedom

The notion that we “have a nature,” far from threatening the concept of freedom, is absolutely essential to it. If we were genuinely plastic and indeterminate at birth, there could be no reason why society should not stamp us into any shape that might suit it. The reason people view suggestions about inborn tendencies with such indiscriminate horror seems to be that they think exclusively in one particular way in which the idea of such tendencies has been misused, namely, that where conservative theorists invoke them uncritically to resist reform. But liberal theorists who combat such resistance need them just as much, and indeed, usually more. The early architects of our current notion of freedom made human nature their cornerstone. Rousseau’s trumpet call “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains,” makes sense only as description of our innate constitution as something positive, already determined, and conflicting with what society does to us. 

— Mary Midgley, Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature (1979) 

humans, humanity, humanism

At the outset of my book The Year of Our Lord 1943 I describe my narrative method using a cinematic metaphor: I compare it to the famous opening tracking shot of Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil. A couple of people have asked me whether a musical metaphor wouldn’t have been more appropriate, given that I explore different voices, and indeed at one point I considered employing one, but it seemed a little too obvious — and in any case, polyphony implies harmony, and I didn’t want to suggest that. Along these very lines, I’ve been wanting to say a little more about how I understand my own book, and I’m given an excuse by Chad Wellmon’s generous reflection on it, which you should read less as a review than as an illuminating and provocative essay about the uses and limitations of the language of humanism and the human. Please read it and then come back!


Okay. As I was saying, I have some thoughts about what my story adds up to — which may sound like an odd thing to say, but the book really is a story rather than an argument, and while I don’t think my views about what the story says are necessarily better than anyone else’s, I do have views, and I want to describe some of them here. I’ve also done that in two long interviews about the book, one with Wen Stephenson and one with Robert Kehoe.  As I have explained in those interviews, the book began when I noticed that in January of 1943 three thinkers — Jacques Maritain, C. S. Lewis, and W. H. Auden — were all writing with great intensity about education, which struck me as a strange thing to be doing in the middle of a war. Later, I saw that T. S. Eliot and Simone Weil were working along similar lines, and realized that I had five figures to write about, not just three. And their ideas, I discovered, went in and out of sync with one another in fascinating ways — ways that would be lost if I wrote a conventional academic sort of treatise in which I wrote one chapter about each author and sandwiched those with an Introduction and Conclusion. I would have to write a braided narrative in order to pick up properly on the moments of synchronization and the moments of asynchronization, or, to pick up that rejected musical metaphor, moments of harmony and moments of dissonance.

(By the way, getting the braiding right was the chief challenge I faced in writing this book, and I don’t know what it means that almost no one reviewing the book has commented on how it’s structured — Philip Jenkins being an extremely gratifying exception to that rule. I am going to assume that people haven’t talked about the narrative structure because I handle it so elegantly.)

Among my five protagonists, the one who is most consistently out of sync with the others is Simone Weil. She is the odd person out in several ways — the only woman, the only Jew, the youngest of the five — but in any group of any kind Weil would be the odd person out, because few minds have ever been as distinctive and original as hers. Again and again she offers philosophical and historical arguments that set her quite apart from the analytical frameworks of the other figures. (None of the others could have seen a causal chain leading from the Catholic campaign against the Cathars in 12th-century Languedoc to 20th-century National Socialism.) Looking at my book now, I find myself thinking that Weil is the central figure, the one indispensable figure, in it, and the one who, despite her intellectual eccentricities and even perversions, has the most to say to us now.

When in his essay Chad sets Karl Barth against the five figures in my book, I think he misses this; I think he attributes to them more unity of purpose and even vocabulary than they had, and especially fails to note just how radically strange Weil’s ideas are. Also, he attributes to all five of them a nostalgia that I think is actually characteristic only of the three older figures: Auden and Weil understand with absolute clarity that neither previous forms of humanism nor Christendom can be revived, and that the attempts to go back to either are misbegotten. Consider, to take just one example among many possible ones, Auden’s review of Charles Norris Cochrane’s Christianity and Classical Culture:

Our period is not so unlike the age of Augustine: the planned society, caesarism of thugs or bureaucracies, paideia, scientia, religious persecution, are all with us. Nor is there even lacking the possibility of a new Constantinism; letters have already begun to appear in the press, recommending religious instruction in schools as a cure for juvenile delinquency; Mr. Cochrane’s terrifying description of the “Christian” empire under Theodosius should discourage such hopes of using Christianity as a spiritual benzedrine for the earthly city.

“Spiritual benzedrine for the earthly city” is a great phrase. (By the way, I have written about the importance of Cochrane’s book here and about benzedrine here. Just FYI.)

Anyway — and this continues my response to Chad — my five protagonists also differ from one another in their use of the term “humanism.” Perhaps only Maritain uses it in the way that Chad critiques in his essay; Auden uses the term rarely and Lewis not at all (except to describe the humanist movement of the early modern period). I describe these variations at considerable length in my book, and yet if Chad sees all my protagonists as standing under this humanist umbrella, it’s largely my fault, because despite all my reservations I use the word myself — and even allowed it a place in my subtitle.

I say “allowed” because the subtitle I submitted was: “Christian Intellectuals and Total War.” But when my editor, Cynthia Read, changed it to “Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis” I didn’t contest the change. Partly that was because I know from experience how insistent editors can be about titles and subtitles, and at least my title wasn’t being questioned; partly because I wasn’t sure how widely understood the term “total war” is; partly because my book isn’t about “Christian intellectuals” in general, and I didn’t want to give a false impression on that count; and partly because I think “humanism” encompasses better than any other term I can think of the general interests that bind my five protagonists, that make the story I tell a coherent one. So I remain ambivalent about that subtitle, and especially about the term “humanism,” but don’t really know what the alternative would be.

I think there are certain points that all five of my protagonists would have agreed upon: That they were living in a moment when it was important to stress that there are certain things that all people have in common, regardless of race or nationality; that the great authoritarian and totalitarian movements of their time tended to obscure those great commonalities; that there is such a thing as “human flourishing” (though none of them would have used that term); that such flourishing happens neither when people are reduced to faceless units in a collective nor when they conceive of themselves as atomistic “individuals”; that Christianity provides the best account of what a flourishing human person is and how such flourishing may be achieved. Do we call that “Christian humanism”? Can the term be retrieved and redeployed to good effect? (Maybe?)

Would Karl Barth have dissented from any of that? I don’t think so. He would have differed from my protagonists — as they differed among themselves — about what public language is adequate to the expression of these ideas. More substantively, I think, Barth might have questioned my protagonists’ belief in the role that the study of humane letters, and of the liberal arts, might play in educating people in a rich and deep account of, to borrow a phrase from Bruce Cockburn, “what humans can be.” In any case he, more than any of them, would have made a place in theological reflection for Mozart, who “heard, and causes those who have ears to hear, even today, what we shall not see until the end of time — the whole context of providence.”

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tragic humanism

Terry Eagleton:

The distinction between Hitchens or Dawkins and those like myself comes down in the end to one between liberal humanism and tragic humanism. There are those who hold that if we can only shake off a poisonous legacy of myth and superstition, we can be free. Such a hope in my own view is itself a myth, though a generous-spirited one. Tragic humanism shares liberal humanism’s vision of the free flourishing of humanity, but holds that attaining it is possible only by confronting the very worst. The only affirmation of humanity ultimately worth having is one that, like the disillusioned post-Restoration Milton, seriously wonders whether humanity is worth saving in the first place, and understands Swift’s king of Brobdingnag with his vision of the human species as an odious race of vermin. Tragic humanism, whether in its socialist, Christian, or psychoanalytic varieties, holds that only by a process of self-dispossession and radical remaking can humanity come into its own. There are no guarantees that such a transfigured future will ever be born. But it might arrive a little earlier if liberal dogmatists, doctrinaire flag-wavers for Progress, and Islamophobic intellectuals got out of its way.

Erasmus and Machiavelli

(What follows is a post I wrote this morning for one of my class blogs, which are private.)

Erasmus is sometimes referred to as Erasmus of Rotterdam, but that’s primarily to distinguish him from his namesake, St. Erasmus of Formia, also known as St. Elmo, patron saint of sailors. (That Wikipedia page also says he’s the patron saint of abdominal pain, whatever that means.) But our Erasmus really wasn’t of Rotterdam at all, even if he was born there. He considered himself to belong to that international group of scholars and writers that would later come to be called the Republic of Letters. His “countrymen” were Thomas More, who happened to live in England, and Aldus Manutius, who happened to live in Venice, and Johannes Frobenius, who happened to live in Switzerland.

Centuries later, as World War II was breaking out, the poet W. H. Auden would write of that same sense of connection with people separated by citizenship in the modern nation-states:

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

In contrast to this highly cosmopolitan vision, we should be aware that Machiavelli is much more aware of himself as a citizen of one particular city, Florence, whose greatness he wishes to restore. He is as local and particular as Erasmus is universal and general.

And yet, when Machiavelli was in exile from Florence he wrote of how central to his life was his reading of, his conversation with, the great writers of the past. Here he sounds like the truest possible humanist:

When evening has come, I return to my house and go into my study. At the door I take off my clothes of the day, covered with mud and mire, and I put on my regal and courtly garments; and decently reclothed, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them lovingly, I feed on the food that alone is mine and that I was born for. There I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their humanity reply to me. And for the space of four hours I feel no boredom, I forget every pain, I do not fear poverty, death does not frighten me.

Machiavelli was a complicated guy.