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7 - The Humanist Revolution
The modern deal offers us power, on condition that we renounce our belief in a great cosmic plan that gives meaning to life. Yet when you examine the deal closely, you find a cunning escape clause. If humans somehow manage to find meaning without deriving it from a great cosmic plan, this is not considered a breach of contract.
This escape clause has been the salvation of modern society, for it is impossible to sustain order without meaning. The great political, artistic and religious project of modernity has been to find a meaning to life that is not rooted in some great cosmic plan. We are not actors in a divine drama, and nobody cares about us and our deeds, so nobody sets limits to our power – but we are still convinced our lives have meaning.
As of 2016, humankind indeed manages to hold the stick at both ends. Not only do we possess far more power than ever before, but against all expectations, God’s death did not lead to social collapse. Throughout history prophets and philosophers have argued that if humans stopped believing in a great cosmic plan, all law and order would vanish. Yet today, those who pose the greatest threat to global law and order are precisely those people who continue to believe in God and His all-encompassing plans. God-fearing Syria is a far more violent place than the atheist Netherlands.
If there is no cosmic plan, and we are not committed to any divine or natural laws, what prevents social collapse? How come you can travel for thousands of kilometres, from Amsterdam to Bucharest or from New Orleans to Montreal, without being kidnapped by slave-traders, ambushed by outlaws or killed by feuding tribes?
The antidote to a meaningless and lawless existence was provided by humanism, a revolutionary new creed that conquered the world during the last few centuries. The humanist religion worships humanity, and expects humanity to play the part that God played in Christianity and Islam, and that the laws of nature played in Buddhism and Daoism. Whereas traditionally the great cosmic plan gave meaning to the life of humans, humanism reverses the roles, and expects the experiences of humans to give meaning to the great cosmos. According to humanism, humans must draw from within their inner experiences not only the meaning of their own lives, but also the meaning of the entire universe. This is the primary commandment humanism has given us: create meaning for a meaningless world.
Accordingly, the central religious revolution of modernity was not losing faith in God; rather, it was gaining faith in humanity. It took centuries of hard work. Thinkers wrote pamphlets, artists composed poems and symphonies, politicians struck deals – and together they convinced humanity that it can imbue the universe with meaning. To grasp the depth and implications of the humanist revolution, consider how modern European culture differs from medieval European culture. People in London, Paris or Toledo in 1300 did not believe that humans could determine by themselves what is good and what is evil, what is right and what is wrong, what is beautiful and what is ugly. Only God could create and define goodness, righteousness and beauty.
Although humans were viewed as enjoying unique abilities and opportunities, they were also seen as ignorant and corruptible beings. Without external supervision and guidance, humans could never understand the eternal truth, and would instead be drawn to fleeting sensual pleasures and worldly delusions. In addition, medieval thinkers pointed out that humans are mortal, and their opinions and feelings are as fickle as the wind. Today I love something with all my heart, tomorrow I am disgusted by it, and next week I am dead and buried. Hence any meaning that depends on human opinion is necessarily fragile and ephemeral. Absolute truths, and the meaning of life and of the universe, must therefore be based on some eternal law emanating from a superhuman source.
This view made God the supreme source not only of meaning, but also of authority. Meaning and authority always go hand in hand. Whoever determines the meaning of our actions – whether they are good or evil, right or wrong, beautiful or ugly – also gains the authority to tell us what to think and how to behave.
God’s role as the source of meaning and authority was not just a philosophical theory. It affected every facet of daily life. Suppose that in 1300, in some small English town, a married woman took a fancy to the next-door neighbour and had s@x with him. As she sneaked back home, hiding a smile and straightening her dress, her mind began to race: ‘What was that all about? Why did I do it? Was it good or bad? What does it imply about me? Should I do it again?’ In order to answer such questions, the woman was supposed to go to the local priest, confess and ask the holy father for guidance. The priest was well versed in scriptures, and these sacred texts revealed to him exactly what God thought about adultery. Based on the eternal word of God, the priest could determine beyond all doubt that the woman had committed a mortal sin, that if she doesn’t make amends she will end up in hell, and that she ought to repent immediately, donate ten gold coins to the coming crusade, avoid eating meat for the next six months and make a pilgrimage to the tomb of St Thomas à Becket at Canterbury. And it goes without saying that she must never repeat her awful sin.
Today things are very different. For centuries humanism has been convincing us that we are the ultimate source of meaning, and that our free will is therefore the highest authority of all. Instead of waiting for some external entity to tell us what’s what, we can rely on our own feelings and desires. From infancy we are bombarded with a barrage of humanist slogans counselling us: ‘Listen to yourself, follow your heart, be true to yourself, trust yourself, do what feels good.’ Jean-Jacques Rousseau summed it all up in his novel Émile, the eighteenth-century bible of feeling. Rousseau held that when looking for the rules of conduct in life, he found them ‘in the depths of my heart, traced by nature in characters which nothing can efface. I need only consult myself with regard to what I wish to do; what I feel to be good is good, what I feel to be bad is bad.’1 Accordingly, when a modern woman wants to understand the meaning of an affair she is having, she is far less prone to blindly accept the judgements of a priest or an ancient book. Instead, she will carefully examine her feelings. If her feelings aren’t very clear, she will call a good friend, meet for coffee and pour out her heart. If things are still vague, she will go to her therapist, and tell him all about it. Theoretically, the modern therapist occupies the same place as the medieval priest, and it is an overworked cliché to compare the two professions. Yet in practice, a huge chasm separates them. The therapist does not possess a holy book that defines good and evil. When the woman finishes her story, it is highly unlikely that the therapist will burst out: ‘You wicked woman! You have committed a terrible sin!’ It is equally unlikely that he will say, ‘Wonderful! Good for you!’ Instead, no matter what the woman may have done and said, the therapist is most likely to ask in a caring voice, ‘Well, how do you feel about what happened?’ True, the therapist’s bookshelf sags under the weight of Freud, Jung and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Yet these are not holy scriptures. The DSM diagnoses the ailments of life, not the meaning of life. Most psychologists believe that only human feelings are authorised to determine the true meaning of our actions. Hence no matter what the therapist thinks about his patient’s affair, and no matter what Freud, Jung and the DSM think about affairs in general, the therapist should not force his views on the patient. Instead, he should help her examine the most secret chambers of her heart. There and only there will she find the answers. Whereas medieval priests had a hotline to God, and could distinguish for us between good and evil, modern therapists merely help us get in touch with our own inner feelings.
This partly explains the changing fortunes of the institution of marriage. In the Middle Ages, marriage was considered a sacrament ordained by God, and God also authorised the father to marry his children according to his wishes and interests. An extramarital affair was accordingly a brazen rebellion against both divine and parental authority. It was a mortal sin, no matter what the lovers felt and thought about it. Today people marry for love, and it is their inner feelings that give value to this bond. Hence, if the very same feelings that once drove you into the arms of one man now drive you into the arms of another, what’s wrong with that? If an extramarital affair provides an outlet for emotional and s@xual desires that are not satisfied by your spouse of twenty years, and if your new lover is kind, passionate and sensitive to your needs – why not enjoy it?
But wait a minute, you might say. We cannot ignore the feelings of the other concerned parties. The woman and her lover might feel wonderful in each other’s arms, but if their respective spouses find out, everybody will probably feel awful for quite some time. And if it leads to divorce, their children might carry the emotional scars for decades. Even if the affair is never discovered, hiding it involves a lot of tension, and may lead to growing feelings of alienation and resentment.
The most interesting discussions in humanist ethics concern situations like extramarital affairs, when human feelings collide. What happens when the same action causes one person to feel good, and another to feel bad? How do we weigh the feelings against each other? Do the good feelings of the two lovers outweigh the bad feelings of their spouses and children?
It doesn’t matter what you think about this particular question. It is far more important to understand the kind of arguments both sides deploy. Modern people have differing ideas about extramarital affairs, but no matter what their position is, they tend to justify it in the name of human feelings rather than in the name of holy scriptures and divine commandments. Humanism has taught us that something can be bad only if it causes somebody to feel bad. Murder is wrong not because some god once said, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ Rather, murder is wrong because it causes terrible suffering to the victim, to his family members, and to his friends and acquaintances. Theft is wrong not because some ancient text says, ‘Thou shalt not steal.’ Rather, theft is wrong because when you lose your property, you feel bad about it. And if an action does not cause anyone to feel bad, there can be nothing wrong about it. If the same ancient text says that God commanded us not to make any images of either humans or animals (Exodus 20:4), but I enjoy sculpting such figures, and I don’t harm anyone in the process – then what could possibly be wrong with it?
The same logic dominates current debates on homos@xuality. If two adult men enjoy having s@x with one another, and they don’t harm anyone while doing so, why should it be wrong, and why should we outlaw it? It is a private matter between these two men, and they are free to decide about it according to their inner feelings. In the Middle Ages, if two men confessed to a priest that they were in love with one another, and that they never felt so happy, their good feelings would not have changed the priest’s damning judgement – indeed, their happiness would only have worsened the situation. Today, in contrast, if two men love one another, they are told: ‘If it feels good – do it! Don’t let any priest mess with your mind. Just follow your heart. You know best what’s good for you.’ Interestingly enough, today even religious zealots adopt this humanistic discourse when they want to influence public opinion. For example, every year for the past decade the Israeli LGBT community holds a gay parade in the streets of Jerusalem. It is a unique day of harmony in this conflict-riven city, because it is the one occasion when religious Jews, Muslims and Christians suddenly find a common cause – they all fume in accord against the gay parade. What’s really interesting, though, is the argument they use. They don’t say, ‘You shouldn’t hold a gay parade because God forbids homos@xuality.’ Rather, they explain to every available microphone and TV camera that ‘seeing a gay parade passing through the holy city of Jerusalem hurts our feelings. Just as gay people want us to respect their feelings, they should respect ours.’ On 7 January 2015 Muslim fanatics massacred several staff members of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, because the magazine published caricatures of the prophet Muhammad. In the following days, many Muslim organisations condemned the attack, yet some could not resist adding a ‘but’ clause. For example, the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate denounced the terrorists for their use of violence, and in the same breath denounced the magazine for ‘hurting the feelings of millions of Muslims across the world’.2 Note that the Syndicate did not blame the magazine for disobeying God’s will. That’s what we call progress.
Our feelings provide meaning not only for our private lives, but also for social and political processes. When we want to know who should rule the country, what foreign policy to adopt and what economic steps to take, we don’t look for the answers in scriptures. Nor do we obey the commands of the Pope or the Council of Nobel Laureates. Rather, in most countries, we hold democratic elections and ask people what they think about the matter at hand. We believe that the voter knows best, and that the free choices of individual humans are the ultimate political authority.
Yet how does the voter know what to choose? Theoretically at least, the voter is supposed to consult his or her innermost feelings, and follow their lead. It is not always easy. In order to get in touch with my feelings, I need to filter out the empty propaganda slogans, the endless lies of ruthless politicians, the distracting noise created by cunning spin doctors, and the learned opinions of hired pundits. I need to ignore all this racket, and attend only to my authentic inner voice. And then my authentic inner voice whispers in my ear ‘Vote Cameron’ or ‘Vote Modi’ or ‘Vote Clinton’ or whomever, and I put a cross against that name on the ballot paper – and that’s how we know who should rule the country.
In the Middle Ages this would have been considered the height of foolishness. The fleeting feelings of ignorant commoners were hardly a sound basis for important political decisions. When England was torn apart by the Wars of the Roses, nobody thought to end the conflict by having a national referendum, in which each bumpkin and wench cast a vote for either Lancaster or York. Similarly, when Pope Urban II launched the First Crusade in 1095, he didn’t claim it was the people’s will. It was God’s will. Political authority came down from heaven – it didn’t rise up from the hearts and minds of mortal humans.
What’s true of ethics and politics is also true of aesthetics. In the Middle Ages art was governed by objective yardsticks. The standards of beauty did not reflect human fads. Rather, human tastes were supposed to conform to superhuman dictates. This made perfect sense in a period when people believed that art was inspired by superhuman forces rather than by human feelings. The hands of painters, poets, composers and architects were supposedly moved by muses, angels and the Holy Spirit. Many a time when a composer penned a beautiful hymn, no credit was given to the composer, for the same reason it was not given to the pen. The pen was held and directed by human fingers which in turn were held and directed by the hand of God.
Medieval scholars held on to a classical Greek theory, according to which the movements of the stars across the sky create heavenly music that permeates the entire universe. Humans enjoy physical and mental health when the inner movements of their body and soul are in harmony with the heavenly music created by the stars. Human music should therefore echo the divine melody of the cosmos, rather than reflect the ideas and caprices of flesh-and-blood composers. The most beautiful hymns, songs and tunes were usually attributed not to the genius of some human artist but to divine inspiration.
Such views are no longer in vogue. Today humanists believe that the only source for artistic creation and aesthetic value is human feelings. Music is created and judged by our inner voice, which need follow neither the rhythms of the stars nor the commands of muses and angels. For the stars are mute, while muses and angels exist only in our own imagination. Modern artists seek to get in touch with themselves and their feelings, rather than with God. No wonder then that when we come to evaluate art, we no longer believe in any objective yardsticks. Instead, we again turn to our subjective feelings. In ethics, the humanist motto is ‘if it feels good – do it’. In politics, humanism instructs us that ‘the voter knows best’. In aesthetics, humanism says that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’.
The very definition of art is consequently up for grabs. In 1917 Marcel Duchamp took an ordinary mass-produced urinal, named it Fountain, signed his name at the bottom, declared it a work of art and placed it in a Paris museum. Medieval people would not have bothered to even argue about it. Why waste oxygen on such utter nonsense? Yet in the modern humanist world, Duchamp’s work is considered an important artistic milestone. In countless classrooms across the world, first-year art students are shown an image of Duchamp’s Fountain, and at a sign from the teacher, all hell breaks loose. It is art! No it isn’t! Yes it is! No way! After letting the students release some steam, the teacher focuses the discussion by asking ‘What exactly is art? And how do we determine whether something is a work of art or not?’ After a few more minutes of back and forth, the teacher steers the class in the right direction: ‘Art is anything people think is art, and beauty is in the eye of the beholder.’ If people think that a urinal is a beautiful work of art – then it is. What higher authority is there that can tell people they are wrong? Today, copies of Duchamp’s masterpiece are presented in some of the most important museums in the world, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the National Gallery of Canada, the Tate Gallery in London and the Pompidou Centre in Paris. (The copies are placed in the museums’ showrooms, not in the lavatories.) Such humanist approaches have had a deep impact on the economic field as well. In the Middle Ages, guilds controlled the production process, leaving little room for the initiative or taste of individual artisans and customers. The carpenters’ guild determined what was a good chair, the bakers’ guild defined good bread, and the Meistersinger guild decided which songs were first class and which were rubbish. Meanwhile princes and city councils regulated salaries and prices, occasionally forcing people to buy fixed amounts of goods at a non-negotiable price. In the modern free market, all these guilds, councils and princes have been superseded by a new supreme authority – the free will of the customer.
Suppose Toyota decides to produce the perfect car. It sets up a committee of experts from various fields: it hires the best engineers and designers, brings together the finest physicists and economists, and even consults with several sociologists and psychologists. To be on the safe side, they throw in a Nobel laureate or two, an Oscar-winning actress and some world-famous artists. After five years of research and development, they unveil the perfect car. Millions of vehicles are produced, and shipped to car agencies across the world. Yet nobody buys the car. Does it mean that the customers are making a mistake, and that they don’t know what’s good for them? No. In a free market, the customer is always right. If customers don’t want it, it means that it is not a good car. It doesn’t matter if all the university professors and all the priests and mullahs cry out from every pulpit that this is a wonderful car – if the customers reject it, it is a bad car. Nobody has the authority to tell customers that they are wrong, and heaven forbid that a government would try to force citizens to buy a particular car against their will.
What’s true of cars is true of all other products. Listen, for example, to Professor Leif Andersson from the University of Uppsala. He specialises in the genetic enhancement of farm animals, in order to create faster-growing pigs, dairy cows that produce more milk, and chickens with extra meat on their bones. In an interview for the newspaper Haaretz, reporter Naomi Darom confronted Andersson with the fact that such genetic manipulations might cause much suffering to the animals. Already today ‘enhanced’ dairy cows have such heavy udders that they can barely walk, while ‘upgraded’ chickens cannot even stand up. Professor Andersson had a firm answer: ‘Everything comes back to the individual customer and to the question how much the customer is willing to pay for meat . . . we must remember that it would be impossible to maintain current levels of global meat consumption without the [enhanced] modern chicken . . . if customers ask us only for the cheapest meat possible – that’s what the customers will get . . . Customers need to decide what is most important to them – price, or something else.’3 Professor Andersson can go to sleep at night with a clean conscience. The fact that customers are buying his enhanced animal products implies that he is meeting their needs and desires and is therefore doing good. By the same logic, if some multinational corporation wants to know whether it lives up to its ‘Don’t be evil’ motto, it need only take a look at its bottom line. If it makes loads of money, it means that millions of people like its products, which implies that it is a force for good. If someone objects and says that people might make the wrong choice, he will be quickly reminded that the customer is always right, and that human feelings are the source of all meaning and authority. If millions of people freely choose to buy the company’s products, who are you to tell them that they are wrong?
Finally, the rise of humanist ideas has revolutionised the educational system too. In the Middle Ages the source of all meaning and authority was external, hence education focused on instilling obedience, memorising scriptures and studying ancient traditions. Teachers presented pupils with a question, and the pupils had to remember how Aristotle, King Solomon or St Thomas Aquinas answered it.
Humanism in Five Images
In contrast, modern humanist education believes in teaching students to think for themselves. It is good to know what Aristotle, Solomon and Aquinas thought about politics, art and economics; yet since the supreme source of meaning and authority lies within ourselves, it is far more important to know what you think about these matters. Ask a teacher – whether in kindergarten, school or college – what she is trying to teach. ‘Well,’ she will answer, ‘I teach the kids history, or quantum physics, or art – but above all I try to teach them to think for themselves.’ It may not always succeed, but that is what humanist education seeks to do.
As the source of meaning and authority was relocated from the sky to human feelings, the nature of the entire cosmos changed. The exterior universe – hitherto teeming with gods, muses, fairies and ghouls – became empty space. The interior world – hitherto an insignificant enclave of crude passions – became deep and rich beyond measure. Angels and demons were transformed from real entities roaming the forests and deserts of the world into inner forces within our own psyche. Heaven and hell too ceased to be real places somewhere above the clouds and below the volcanoes, and were instead interpreted as internal mental states. You experience hell every time you ignite the fires of anger and hatred within your heart; and you enjoy heavenly bliss every time you forgive your enemies, repent your own misdeeds and share your wealth with the poor.
When Nietzsche declared that God is dead, this is what he meant. At least in the West, God has become an abstract idea that some accept and others reject, but it makes little difference either way. In the Middle Ages, without a god I had no source of political, moral and aesthetic authority. I could not tell what was right, good or beautiful. Who could live like that? Today, in contrast, it is very easy not to believe in God, because I pay no price for my unbelief. I can be a complete atheist, and still draw a very rich mix of political, moral and aesthetical values from my inner experience.
If I believe in God at all, it is my choice to believe. If my inner self tells me to believe in God – then I believe. I believe because I feel God’s presence, and my heart tells me He is there. But if I no longer feel God’s presence, and if my heart suddenly tells me that there is no God – I will cease believing. Either way, the real source of authority is my own feelings. So even while saying that I believe in God, the truth is I have a much stronger belief in my own inner voice.
Follow the Yellow Brick Road
Like every other source of authority, feelings have their shortcomings. Humanism assumes that each human has a single authentic inner self, but when I try to listen to it, I often encounter either silence or a cacophony of contending voices. In order to overcome this problem, humanism has upheld not just a new source of authority, but also a new method for getting in touch with authority and gaining true knowledge.
In medieval Europe, the chief formula for knowledge was: Knowledge = Scriptures × Logic.* If we want to know the answer to some important question, we should read scriptures, and use our logic to understand the exact meaning of the text. For example, scholars who wished to know the shape of the earth scanned the Bible looking for relevant references. One pointed out that in Job 38:13, it says that God can ‘take hold of the edges of the earth, and the wicked be shaken out of it’. This implies – reasoned the pundit – that because the earth has ‘edges’ of which we can ‘take hold’, it must be a flat square. Another sage rejected this interpretation, calling attention to Isaiah 40:22, where it says that God ‘sits enthroned above the circle of the earth’. Isn’t that proof that the earth is round? In practice, that meant that scholars sought knowledge by spending years in schools and libraries, reading more and more texts, and sharpening their logic so they could understand the texts correctly.
The Scientific Revolution proposed a very different formula for knowledge: Knowledge = Empirical Data × Mathematics. If we want to know the answer to some question, we need to gather relevant empirical data, and then use mathematical tools to analyse the data. For example, in order to gauge the true shape of the earth, we can observe the sun, the moon and the planets from various locations across the world. Once we have amassed enough observations, we can use trigonometry to deduce not only the shape of the earth, but also the structure of the entire solar system. In practice, that means that scientists seek knowledge by spending years in observatories, laboratories and research expeditions, gathering more and more empirical data, and sharpening their mathematical tools so they could interpret the data correctly.
The scientific formula for knowledge led to astounding breakthroughs in astronomy, physics, medicine and countless other disciplines. But it had one huge drawback: it could not deal with questions of value and meaning. Medieval pundits could determine with absolute certainty that it is wrong to murder and steal, and that the purpose of human life is to do God’s bidding, because scriptures said so. Scientists could not come up with such ethical judgements. No amount of data and no mathematical wizardry can prove that it is wrong to murder. Yet human societies cannot survive without such value judgements.
One way to overcome this difficulty was to continue using the old medieval formula alongside the new scientific method. When faced with a practical problem – such as determining the shape of the earth, building a bridge or curing a disease – we collect empirical data and analyse it mathematically. When faced with an ethical problem – such as determining whether to allow divorce, abortion and homos@xuality – we read scriptures. This solution was adopted to some extent by numerous modern societies, from Victorian Britain to twenty-first-century Iran.
However, humanism offered an alternative. As humans gained confidence in themselves, a new formula for attaining ethical knowledge appeared: Knowledge = Experiences × Sensitivity. If we wish to know the answer to any ethical question, we need to connect to our inner experiences, and observe them with the utmost sensitivity. In practice, that means that we seek knowledge by spending years collecting experiences, and sharpening our sensitivity so we could understand these experiences correctly.
What exactly are ‘experiences’? They are not empirical data. An experience is not made of atoms, molecules, proteins or numbers. Rather, an experience is a subjective phenomenon that includes three main ingredients: sensations, emotions and thoughts. At any particular moment my experience comprises everything I sense (heat, pleasure, tension, etc.), every emotion I feel (love, fear, anger, etc.) and whatever thoughts arise in my mind.
And what is ‘sensitivity’? It means two things. Firstly, paying attention to my sensations, emotions and thoughts. Secondly, allowing these sensations, emotions and thoughts to influence me. Granted, I shouldn’t allow every passing breeze to sweep me away. Yet I should be open to new experiences, and permit them to change my views, my behaviour and even my personality.
Experiences and sensitivity build up one another in a never-ending cycle. I cannot experience anything if I have no sensitivity, and I cannot develop sensitivity unless I undergo a variety of experiences. Sensitivity is not an abstract aptitude that can be developed by reading books or listening to lectures. It is a practical skill that can ripen and mature only by applying it in practice.
Take tea, for example. I start by drinking very sweet ordinary tea while reading the morning paper. The tea is little more than an excuse for a sugar rush. One day I realise that between the sugar and the newspaper, I hardly taste the tea at all. So I reduce the amount of sugar, put the paper aside, close my eyes and focus on the tea itself. I begin to register its unique aroma and flavour. Soon I find myself experimenting with different teas, black and green, comparing their exquisite tangs and delicate bouquets. Within a few months, I drop the supermarket labels and buy my tea at Harrods. I develop a particular liking for ‘Panda Dung tea’ from the mountains of Ya’an in Sichuan province, made from leaves of tea trees fertilised by the dung of panda bears. That’s how, one cup at a time, I hone my tea sensitivity and become a tea connoisseur. If in my early tea-drinking days you had served me Panda Dung tea in a Ming Dynasty porcelain goblet, I would not have appreciated it much more than builder’s tea in a paper cup. You cannot experience something if you don’t have the necessary sensitivity, and you cannot develop your sensitivity except by undergoing a long string of experiences.
What’s true of tea is true of all other aesthetic and ethical knowledge. We aren’t born with a ready-made conscience. As we pass through life, we hurt people and people hurt us, we act compassionately and others show compassion to us. If we pay attention, our moral sensitivity sharpens, and these experiences become a source of valuable ethical knowledge about what is good, what is right and who I really am.
Humanism thus sees life as a gradual process of inner change, leading from ignorance to enlightenment by means of experiences. The highest aim of humanist life is to fully develop your knowledge through a large variety of intellectual, emotional and physical experiences. In the early nineteenth century, Wilhelm von Humboldt – one of the chief architects of the modern education system – said that the aim of existence is ‘a distillation of the widest possible experience of life into wisdom’. He also wrote that ‘there is only one summit in life – to have taken the measure in feeling of everything human’.4 This could well be the humanist motto.
According to Chinese philosophy, the world is sustained by the interplay of opposing but complementary forces called yin and yang. This may not be true of the physical world, but it is certainly true of the modern world that has been created by the covenant of science and humanism. Every scientific yang contains within it a humanist yin, and vice versa. The yang provides us with power, while the yin provides us with meaning and ethical judgements. The yang and yin of modernity are reason and emotion, the laboratory and the museum, the production line and the supermarket. People often see only the yang, and imagine that the modern world is dry, scientific, logical and utilitarian – just like a laboratory or a factory. But the modern world is also an extravagant supermarket. No culture in history has ever given such importance to human feelings, desires and experiences. The humanist view of life as a string of experiences has become the founding myth of numerous modern industries, from tourism to art. Travel agents and restaurant chefs do not sell us flight tickets, hotels or fancy dinners – they sell us novel experiences. Similarly, whereas most premodern narratives focused on external events and actions, modern novels, films and poems often revolve around feelings. Graeco-Roman epics and medieval chivalric romances were catalogues of heroic deeds, not feelings. One chapter told how the brave knight fought a monstrous ogre, and killed him. Another chapter recounted how the knight rescued a beautiful princess from a fire-spitting dragon, and killed him. A third chapter narrated how a wicked sorcerer kidnapped the princess, but the knight pursued the sorcerer, and killed him. No wonder that the hero was invariably a knight, rather than a carpenter or a peasant, for peasants performed no heroic deeds.
Crucially, the heroes did not undergo any significant process of inner change. Achilles, Arthur, Roland and Lancelot were fearless warriors with a chivalric world view before they set out on their adventures, and they remained fearless warriors with the same world view at the end. All the ogres they killed and all the princesses they rescued confirmed their courage and perseverance, but ultimately taught them little.
The humanist focus on feelings and experiences, rather than deeds, transformed art. Wordsworth, Dostoevsky, di@kens and Zola cared little for brave knights and derring-do, and instead described how ordinary people and housewives felt. Some people believe that Joyce’s Ulysses represents the apogee of this modern focus on the inner life rather than external actions – in 260,000 words Joyce describes a single day in the life of the Dubliners Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, who over the course of the day do . . . well, nothing much at all.
Few people have actually read all of Ulysses, but the same principles underpin much of our popular culture too. In the United States, the series Survivor is often credited (or blamed) for turning reality shows into a craze. Survivor was the first reality show to make it to the top of the Nielsen ratings, and in 2007 Time magazine listed it among the hundred greatest TV shows of all time.5 In each season, twenty contenders in minimal swimsuits are isolated on some tropical island. They have to face all kinds of challenges, and each episode they vote out one of their members. The last one left takes home $1 million.
Audiences in Homeric Greece, in the Roman Empire or in medieval Europe would have found the idea familiar and highly attractive. Twenty challengers go in – only one hero comes out. ‘Wonderful!’ a Homeric prince, a Roman patrician or a crusader knight would have thought to himself as he sat down to watch. ‘Surely we are about to see amazing adventures, life-and-death battles and incomparable acts of heroism and betrayal. The warriors will probably stab each other in the back, or spill their entrails for all to see.’
What a disappointment! The back-stabbing and entrails-spilling remain just a metaphor. Each episode lasts about an hour. Out of that, fifteen minutes are taken up by commercials for toothpaste, shampoo and cereals. Five minutes are dedicated to incredibly childish challenges, such as who can throw the most coconuts into a hoop, or who can eat the largest number of bugs in one minute. The rest of the time the ‘heroes’ just talk about their feelings! He said she said, and I felt this and I felt that. If a crusader knight had really sat down to watch Survivor, he would probably have grabbed his battleaxe and smashed the TV out of boredom and frustration.
Today we might think of medieval knights as insensitive brutes. If they lived among us, we would send them to a therapist, who might help them get in touch with themselves. This is what the Tin Man does in The Wizard of Oz. He walks along the yellow brick road with Dorothy and her friends, hoping that when they get to Oz, the great wizard will give him a heart, while the Scarecrow wants a brain and the Lion wants courage. At the end of their journey they discover that the great wizard is a charlatan, and he can’t give them any of these things. But they discover something far more important: everything they wish for is already within themselves. There is no need of some godlike wizard in order to obtain sensitivity, wisdom or bravery. You just need to follow the yellow brick road, and open yourself to whatever experiences come your way.
Exactly the same lesson is learned by Captain Kirk and Captain Jean-Luc Picard as they travel the galaxy in the starship Enterprise, by Huckleberry Finn and Jim as they sail down the Mississippi, by Wyatt and Billy as they ride their Harley-Davidsons in Easy Rider, and by countless other characters in myriad other road movies who leave their home town in Pennsylvania (or perhaps New South Wales), travel in an old convertible (or perhaps a bus), pass through various life-changing experiences, get in touch with themselves, talk about their feelings, and eventually reach San Francisco (or perhaps Alice Springs) as better and wiser individuals.
The Truth About War
The formula Knowledge = Experiences × Sensitivity has changed not just our popular culture, but even our perception of weighty issues like war. Throughout most of history, when people wished to know whether a particular war was just, they asked God, they asked scriptures, and they asked kings, noblemen and priests. Few cared about the opinions and experiences of a common soldier or an ordinary civilian. War narratives such as those of Homer, Virgil and Shakespeare focused on the actions of emperors, generals and outstanding heroes, and though they did not hide the misery of war, this was more than compensated for by a full menu of glory and heroism. Ordinary soldiers appeared as either piles of bodies slaughtered by some Goliath, or a cheering crowd hoisting a triumphant David upon its shoulders.
Look, for example, at the painting above of the Battle of Breitenfeld, which took place on 17 September 1631. The painter, Jean-Jacques Walter, glorifies King Gustav Adolph of Sweden, who led his army that day to a decisive victory. Gustav Adolph towers over the battlefield as if he were some god of war. One gets the impression that the king controls the battle like a chess player moving pawns. The pawns themselves are mostly generic figures, or tiny dots in the background. Walter was not interested in how they felt while they charged, fled, killed or died. They are a faceless collective.
Even when painters focused on the battle itself, rather than on the commander, they still looked at it from above, and were far more concerned with collective manoeuvres than with personal feelings. Take, for example, Pieter Snayers’s painting of the Battle of White Mountain in November 1620.
The painting depicts a celebrated Catholic victory in the Thirty Years War over heretical Protestant rebels. Snayers wished to commemorate this victory by painstakingly recording the various formations, manoeuvres and troop movements. You can easily tell the different units, their armament and their place within the order of battle. Snayers gave far less attention to the experiences and feelings of the common soldiers. Like Jean-Jacques Walter, he makes us observe the battle from the Olympian vantage point of gods and kings, and gives us the impression that war is a giant chess game.
If you take a closer look – for which you might need a magnifying glass – you realise that The Battle of White Mountain is a bit more complex than a chess game. What at first sight seem to be geometrical abstractions turn upon closer inspection into bloody scenes of carnage. Here and there you can even spot the faces of individual soldiers running or fleeing, firing their guns or impaling an enemy on their pikes. However, these scenes receive their meaning from their place within the overall picture. When we see a cannonball smashing a soldier to bits, we understand it as part of the great Catholic victory. If the soldier is fighting on the Protestant side, his death is a just reward for rebellion and heresy. If the soldier is fighting in the Catholic army, his death is a noble sacrifice for a worthy cause. If we look up, we can see angels hovering high above the battlefield. They are holding a billboard which explains in Latin what happened in this battle, and why it was so important. The message is that God helped Emperor Ferdinand II defeat his enemies on 8 November 1620.
For thousands of years, when people looked at war, they saw gods, emperors, generals and great heroes. But over the last two centuries, the kings and generals have been increasingly pushed to the side, and the limelight shifted onto the common soldier and his experiences. War novels such as All Quiet on the Western Front and war films such as Platoon begin with a young and naïve recruit, who knows little about himself and the world, but carries a heavy burden of hopes and illusions. He believes that war is glorious, our cause is just and the general is a genius. A few weeks of real war – of mud, and blood, and the smell of death – shatter his illusions one after another. If he survives, the naïve recruit will leave war as a much wiser man, who no longer believes the clichés and ideals peddled by teachers, film-makers and eloquent politicians.
Paradoxically, this narrative has become so influential that today it is told over and over again even by teachers, film-makers and eloquent politicians. ‘War is not what you see in the movies!’ warn Hollywood blockbusters such as Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket and Blackhawk Down. Enshrined in celluloid, prose or poetry, the feelings of the ordinary grunt have become the ultimate authority on war, which everyone has learned to respect. As the joke goes, ‘How many Vietnam vets does it take to change a light bulb?’ ‘You wouldn’t know, you weren’t there.’6 Painters too have lost interest in generals on horses and in tactical manoeuvres. Instead, they strive to depict how the common soldier feels. Look again at The Battle of Breitenfeld and The Battle of White Mountain. Now look at the following two pictures, considered masterpieces of twentieth-century war art: The War (Der Krieg) by Otto Dix, and That 2,000 Yard Stare by Tom Lea.
Dix served as a sergeant in the German army during the First World War. Lea covered the Battle of Peleliu Island in 1944 for Life magazine. Whereas Walter and Snayers viewed war as a military and political phenomenon, and wanted us to know what happened in particular battles, Dix and Lea view war as an emotional phenomenon, and want us to know how it feels. They don’t care about the genius of generals or about the tactical details of this or that battle. Dix’s soldier might be in Verdun or Ypres or the Somme – it doesn’t matter which, because war is hell everywhere. Lea’s soldier just happens to be an American GI in Peleliu, but you could see exactly the same 2,000-yard stare on the face of a Japanese soldier in Iwo Jima, a German soldier in Stalingrad or a British soldier in Dunkirk.
In the paintings of Dix and Lea, the meaning of war does not emanate from tactical movements or divine proclamations. If you want to understand war, don’t look up at the general on the hilltop, or at angels in the sky. Instead, look straight into the eyes of the common soldiers. In Lea’s painting, the gaping eyes of a traumatised soldier open a window onto the terrible truth of war. In Dix’s painting, the truth is so unbearable that it must be partly concealed behind a gas mask. No angels fly above the battlefield – only a rotting corpse, hanging from a ruined rafter and pointing an accusing finger.
Artists such as Dix and Lea thus overturned the traditional hierarchy of war. In earlier times wars could have been as horrific as in the twentieth century. However, even atrocious experiences were placed within a wider context that gave them positive meaning. War might be hell, but it was also the gateway to heaven. A Catholic soldier fighting at the Battle of White Mountain could say to himself: ‘True, I am suffering. But the Pope and the emperor say that we are fighting for a good cause, so my suffering is meaningful.’ Otto Dix employed an opposite kind of logic. He saw personal experience as the source of all meaning, hence his line of thinking said: ‘I am suffering – and this is bad – hence the whole war is bad. And if the kaiser and the clergy nevertheless support the war, they must be mistaken.’7 The Humanist Schism
So far we have discussed humanism as if it were a single coherent world view. In fact, humanism shared the fate of every successful religion, such as Christianity and Buddhism. As it spread and evolved, it fragmented into several conflicting sects. All humanist sects believe that human experience is the supreme source of authority and meaning, yet they interpret human experience in different ways.
Humanism split into three main branches. The orthodox branch holds that each human being is a unique individual possessing a distinctive inner voice and a never-to-be-repeated string of experiences. Every human being is a singular ray of light, which illuminates the world from a different perspective, and which adds colour, depth and meaning to the universe. Hence we ought to give as much freedom as possible to every individual to experience the world, follow his or her inner voice and express his or her inner truth. Whether in politics, economics or art, individual free will should have far more weight than state interests or religious doctrines. The more liberty individuals enjoy, the more beautiful, rich and meaningful is the world. Due to this emphasis on liberty, the orthodox branch of humanism is known as ‘liberal humanism’ or simply as ‘liberalism’. It is liberal politics that believes the voter knows best. Liberal art holds that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Liberal economics maintains that the customer is always right. Liberal ethics advises us that if it feels good, we should go ahead and do it. Liberal education teaches us to think for ourselves, because we will find all the answers within us.
During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as humanism gained increasing social credibility and political power, it sprouted two very different offshoots: socialist humanism, which encompassed a plethora of socialist and communist movements, and evolutionary humanism, whose most famous advocates were the Nazis. Both offshoots agreed with liberalism that human experience is the ultimate source of meaning and authority. Neither believed in any transcendental power or divine law book. If, for example, you asked Karl Marx what was wrong with ten-year-olds working twelve-hour shifts in smoky factories, he would have answered that it made the kids feel bad. We should avoid exploitation, oppression and inequality not because God said so, but because they make people miserable.
However, both socialists and evolutionary humanists pointed out that the liberal understanding of the human experience is flawed. Liberals think the human experience is an individual phenomenon. But there are many individuals in the world, and they often feel different things and have contradictory desires. If all authority and meaning flows from individual experiences, how do you settle contradictions between different such experiences?
On 17 July 2015 the German chancellor Angela Merkel was confronted by a teenage Palestinian refugee girl from Lebanon, whose family sought asylum in Germany but faced imminent deportation. The girl, Reem, told Merkel in fluent German that ‘It’s really very hard to watch how other people can enjoy life and you yourself can’t. I don’t know what my future will bring.’ Merkel replied that ‘politics can be tough’ and explained that there are hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, and Germany cannot absorb them all. Stunned by this no-nonsense reply, Reem burst out crying. Merkel proceeded to stroke the desperate girl on the back, but stuck to her guns.
In the ensuing public storm, many accused Merkel of cold-hearted insensitivity. To assuage criticism, Merkel changed tack, and Reem and her family were given asylum. In the following months, Merkel opened the door even wider, welcoming hundreds of thousands of refugees to Germany. But you can’t please everybody. Soon enough she was under heavy attack for succumbing to sentimentalism and for not taking a sufficiently firm stand. Numerous German parents feared that Merkel’s U-turn means their children will have a lower standard of living, and perhaps suffer from a tidal wave of Islamisation. Why should they risk their families’ peace and prosperity for complete strangers who might not even believe in the values of liberalism? Everyone feels very strongly about this matter. How to settle the contradictions between the feelings of the desperate refugees and of the anxious Germans?8 Liberals forever agonise about such contradictions. The best efforts of Locke, Jefferson, Mill and their colleagues have failed to provide us with a fast and easy solution to such conundrums. Holding democratic elections won’t help, because then the question will be who would get to vote in these elections – only German citizens, or also millions of Asians and Africans who want to immigrate to Germany? Why privilege the feelings of one group over another? Likewise, you cannot resolve the Arab–Israeli conflict by making 8 million Israeli citizens and 350 million citizens of Arab League nations vote on it. For obvious reasons, the Israelis won’t feel committed to the outcome of such a plebiscite.
People feel bound by democratic elections only when they share a basic bond with most other voters. If the experience of other voters is alien to me, and if I believe they don’t understand my feelings and don’t care about my vital interests, then even if I am outvoted by a hundred to one, I have absolutely no reason to accept the verdict. Democratic elections usually work only within populations that have some prior common bond, such as shared religious beliefs and national myths. They are a method to settle disagreements between people who already agree on the basics.
Accordingly, in many cases liberalism has fused with age-old collective identities and tribal feelings to form modern nationalism. Today many associate nationalism with anti-liberal forces, but at least during the nineteenth century nationalism was closely aligned with liberalism. Liberals celebrate the unique experiences of individual humans. Each human has distinctive feelings, tastes and quirks, which he or she should be free to express and explore as long as they don’t hurt anyone else. Similarly, nineteenth-century nationalists such as Giuseppe Mazzini celebrated the uniqueness of individual nations. They emphasised that many human experiences are communal. You cannot dance the polka by yourself, and you cannot invent and preserve the German language by yourself. Using word, dance, food and drink, each nation fosters different experiences in its members, and develops its own peculiar sensitivities.
Liberal nationalists like Mazzini sought to protect these distinctive national experiences from being oppressed and obliterated by intolerant empires, and envisaged a peaceful community of nations, each free to express and explore its communal feelings without hurting its neighbours. This is still the official ideology of the European Union, whose constitution of 2004 states that Europe is ‘united in diversity’ and that the different peoples of Europe remain ‘proud of their own national identities’. The value of preserving the unique communal experiences of the German nation enables even liberal Germans to oppose opening the floodgates of immigration.
Of course the alliance with nationalism hardly solved all conundrums, while it created a host of new problems. How do you compare the value of communal experiences with that of individual experiences? Does preserving polka, bratwurst and the German language justify leaving millions of refugees exposed to poverty and even death? And what happens when fundamental conflicts erupt within nations about the very definition of their identity, as happened in Germany in 1933, in the USA in 1861, in Spain in 1936 or in Egypt in 2011? In such cases, holding democratic elections is hardly a cure-all, because the opposing parties have no reason to respect the results.
Lastly, as you dance the nationalist polka, a small but momentous step may take you from believing that your nation is different from all other nations to believing that your nation is better. Nineteenth-century liberal nationalism required the Habsburg and tsarist empires to respect the unique experiences of Germans, Italians, Poles and Slovenes. Twentieth-century ultra-nationalism proceeded to wage wars of conquest and build concentration camps for people who dance to a different tune.
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