Where is the New Humanism?
In 1967, Pope Paul VI, in the landmark encyclical, Populorum progressio, called upon experts to help forge a “new humanism” — one that that goes beyond mere material concerns to encompass higher values and transcendent aspects of human nature, so as to promote development of “the whole man.” This plea was renewed by John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now again by Pope Francis in his address to the European Parliament (23 November 2014). There is regrettably little evidence of any sustained and coordinated response — or perhaps any response at all — to the past pleas. This makes one wonder how much good it will do for Pope Francis to ask again.
Clearly the ball is in the court of philosophers and intellectuals. Therefore I’d like to pitch a prospectus, as it were — to encourage scholars to pick up this lost thread, consider it, and possibly even eventually get, say, the Templeton Foundation or the EU government to fund conferences or other activity towards this end.
Here are some initial propositions. I offer these as proposals or hypotheses only — as topics for discussion, debate, and dialogue — not as dogmas.
- Human beings have, in addition to a body and a biological nature, an interior life. This constitutes one important meaning of the word soul (Greek: psyche), as logically distinct from two other senses of the word, viz., as an animating spirit, and as some element of the person which survives biological death. This sense of soul as interior life is a phenomenological, empirical reality, experienced by each person. We cannot see another’s interior life, but our conversation with others, as well as their conversation and artistic and literary productions, suffice to convince us that others have an interior life basically the same as our own. Understood in this sense, the human soul is a proper object for collective and scientific study.
- To say that human beings have a soul in this sense does not commit us to any particular religious or metaphysical view or belief system.
- Human happiness depends more on the state of ones soul (in the sense we’ve stipulated) than on one’s body. Let’s be clear: both ‘physical’ and ‘soul’ happiness are important. We merely propose that the natural ordering is such that the latter is more important. To illustrate the point, a person might be rich as Crassus, yet very unhappy; or poor as Diogenes, yet as happy as a person may possibly be.
- Happiness of soul is, almost by definition, moral in nature. By moral we don’t mean moralistic, but rather that whole dimension of life that pertains to meaning, and includes arts, intellectual development, and culture generally, as well as ethical actions.
- It would appear even from the most casual survey that integral to moral development is love. By love here we mean something distinct from eros or romantic love, and more like unselfish or disinterested love, agape. This is also different from compassion and sympathy. Associated with this higher love are man’s vast creative potentials. Thus the great works of art and literature which we ascribe to genius are typically motivated by or connected with this transcendent love (see e.g., Sorokin, 1954).
- The very nature of human moral development, and hence moral happiness, is such that it can only come about primarily, if not exclusively, as a result of personal effort. Nobody else — no government, parent, teacher, or friend — can, per se, make another person more moral or morally happy. Indeed part of moral happiness is the sense that one has personally overcome obstacles, met challenges, performed difficult tasks, etc.
- It would appear that human beings possess an innate sense of moral goodness (Conscience). That it is innate is evidenced by (1) that our moral sense is ubiquitous, such that virtually everything we see or do is judged in moral terms of good or bad; (2) there is remarkable similarly in standards of good and bad across cultures; and (3) we see this sense operating even in children; if you tell a child, “be good,” the child knows exactly what you mean. You don’t have to get into a discourse with a child on whether morality is innate or accidental, universal or relative. It as though one said, “You know that sense you and we all have that tells us what is right and wrong? Well start paying attention to it!” A look comes over the child’s face like, “Oh right. Now I remember what being good is all about.”
- Man is also a social animal, instinctively, like other animals, concerned with the welfare of other members of the species. This means that ones own moral development and the assisting others’ moral development are interpenetrating and inseparable.
- It follows from the preceding points that the most important way one can help others is to promote their moral welfare. Certainly material assistance figures into this. But once the basic necessities of life are met, to help others with their moral development becomes a more pressing concern than, say, raising the minimum wage by 5%. Thus it is that, at least in better times, human beings have cooperated socially to produce libraries, museums, art, symphony orchestras, public parks, gardens, and so on.
Everything stated thus far here seems uncontroversial. These are basically common sense notions to which it would seem most people would agree, especially those well educated and with a moderate degree of ‘cultural literacy.’ Yet one would be hard pressed to find anything like an acknowledged consensus in the academic world, much less in popular culture, that would confirm that we all do share this view. (Such would not have been true 100, or even 50 years ago, when the suggestion that ‘we ought to culture ourselves’ would be taken as obvious.)
- Now we take things a step further, and enter a more controversial realm. That is to suggest that not only do human being have a soul, but that this soul immortal. We can neither prove nor disprove this proposition. That this premise seems a consistent feature of religion, and that human beings across cultures seem intent on having religion, must be taken as legitimate evidence in favor of the premise, even if it isn’t conclusive. Pascal’s wager-type reasoning might also be applied: if we do have an immortal soul, we would be very ill-advised to ignore the fact; and this far outweighs the potential disutility of incorrectly believing in an immortal soul. If this proposition is true, then, taken along with points 8 and 9 above, it has considerable bearing on our responsibility to help one another. This is difficult ground to safely navigate to be sure. For the sake of saving immortal souls the Catholic Church once tortured and burned heretics! But such distorted interpretations as this do not per se negate the principle that if human beings have immortal souls then this has important implications for our social duties to one another. Having mentioned this possibility, however, the remaining comments below will pertain only to the less controversial points 1–9 above.
A Secular Transcendental Humanism?
What is sought is a humanism that is both secular, in the sense that is suitable for use by civil institutions and is more or less universally agreed on within society, and transcendental, in the broad sense that it includes aspects of human nature that are not biological and material. To achieve this is by no means a remote possibility. In fact, we can refer to examples that already exist. Platonism is one such example. New England Transcendentalism — which in a sense is Platonism come to America — is another. New England Transcendentalism ought very much to interest us, inasmuch as (1) it was founded on, and remained closely connected with, the Renaissance and classical philosophical traditions of Europe, and (2) was very much a conscious and articulate reaction to modernism. This literature is especially strong in its treatment of the theme of self-culture as a moral imperative. (It’s really a pity that professional philosophers today do not give more respect to American Transcendentalist writings!)
Finally, in the writings Carl Jung, despite their frequent obscurity, one can find at least some elements of a secular transcendental humanism. Jung’s work offers a bridge between modern science and traditional religions. It makes no appeal to religious doctrine, but relies on scientific and empirical data to argue for the existence of a human soul that is real, nonmaterial, sacred, and incomprehensibly great. By no means would I suggest that Jung’s theories in themselves supply a new humanism; only that they supply some suggestions, and more importantly that they demonstrate the possibility of a philosophy that bridges the gap between science and religion.
To re-iterate what was initially said, I propose that there ought to be a conference dedicated to this theme. This wouldn’t be very hard to accomplish. I’m constantly surprised at how many books are published each year collecting papers presented at this or that philosophical conference, assembling teams of experts to address topics of much less moment.
Pope Francis. Address to the European Parliament. Strasbourg, France. 25 November 2014.
Pope Paul VI. Encyclical Letter. Populorum progressio (The development of peoples). Vatican City, 1967.
Pope John Paul II. Encyclical Letter. Sollicitudo rei socialis (The social concern).Vatican City, 1987.
Pope Benedict XVI. Encyclical Letter. Caritas in veritate (Charity in truth). Vatican City, 2009.
Sorokin, Pitirim A. The Ways and Power of Love. Chicago, 1954 (repr. 2002).
Written by John Uebersax
December 6, 2014 at 5:02 pm