Friday, November 2, 2012

Chastened Humanism

I recently read and enjoyed A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living by French philosopher Luc Ferry. I was therefore eager to read an article on the book in the current issue of First Things titled Chastened Humanism. The author, Robert Royal, writes:
Ferry is not a believer, though he presents Christianity with a warm Gallic clarity in a recent volume, La Tentation du Christianisme (The Temptation of Christianity, never translated). He cannot give in to that temptation, he thinks, because Christianity is “too good to be true” and also makes us slightly less lucid in our reasoning than does philosophy straight with no chaser. Or maybe, he muses, he just hasn’t been given the gift of faith.

In any event, he would like to preserve the “humanistic” values he recognizes as indebted to the Christian tradition, even as he goes about trying to find a place for them in a chastened, post-Nietzschean humanism. Though ultimately he parts ways with Nietzsche’s “philosophizing with a hammer,” he believes it impossible to avoid both the great German’s critique of modern humanism and the need to propose something post-Nietzschean and “after deconstruction” that can support a life worthy of human beings.

His current international bestseller, A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living, is aimed precisely at this ongoing reassertion of humanism. In a lucid and accessible little volume, he tries to offer “spirituality” for the reflective contemporary nonbeliever who has lost faith, usually because of some modern philosophical analysis or scientific discoveries. In Ferry, however, there’s none of the mockery and incomprehension of religion to be found in the new Anglo-atheist school led by Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, et al., or even in the old French fire-breathers like Bayle, Diderot, and Voltaire.

For him, the Christian temptation is powerful and possesses its own appealing rationality. That’s the main reason it triumphed over ancient philosophy for close to 1,500 years. Along with figures like the Swiss writer Alain de Botton and the French materialist AndrĂ© Comte-Sponville ... he recognizes that religiosity responds to a human need and that those in the modern age who cannot or will not believe must explicitly seek to create a non-theistic humanist equivalent to fill the void.

A Brief History of Thought looks at five philosophical responses, in historical sequence, to three questions that every philosophy claiming to be the pursuit of wisdom tries to answer: What is the nature of the world (theory), How are we to act in it (ethics), and What should my ultimate goal be (salvation)?
Ferry admits that Christianity offers the most powerful answers to these questions and thus carries a powerful appeal. This was particularly true in the Roman world of the first century. Early Christianity was revolutionary in it's emphasis on individual accountability before God and the possibility of individual, as opposed to group, salvation. It's emphasis on the eternal life of the body rather than a disembodied spiritual existence; its belief that the physical body and the material world are good; the belief that the mysteries of the world can be discovered through human reason because it's the creation of a reasonable, logical God who is not capricious; its teaching that even the lowliest person had dignity and worth in the eyes of God and could be saved, not through their own efforts but because God loved even them; the notion of the equality of all men and women in the eyes of God; and the emphasis on love for one's neighbor as a guiding principle of life, all had enormous attraction in the world of the first century A.D. which knew little or nothing of such things.

But Ferry ultimately settles for the pale imitation of Christianity called humanism which embraces Christian values while rejecting the theistic base in which those values are grounded. Not having any foundation in anything more substantial than one's own personal preference, humanism simply can't withstand the charge of being an arbitrary, subjective ethical taste.

Ferry recognizes this, but for him it's the best alternative because in an age of science he can't bring himself to believe in the Christian notion of God. It's too bad. It reminds me of the man lost in the desert, thirsty and parched, drinking his own sweat and urine until even these dry up. The man improbably encounters a traveler who offers him all the water he can drink from his canteen, but the lost man turns it down because he can't believe that the traveler is really anything more than a mirage. Rather than accepting the traveler's offer he ignores it and presses on, scanning the hot, barren desert of human philosophies for an oasis, hopeful that if he can just make it over the next dune he'll find what he's searching for, all the while thinking that wouldn't it've been wonderful if the traveler who offered him the water wasn't just an illusion.

The Case (in Part) Against the Incumbent

This video lays out part of the argument against reelecting Mr. Obama on Tuesday succinctly and powerfully. I commend it to you with one caveat. I do not support it's endorsement of conservative talk radio, or at least of Sean Hannity who is, in my opinion, a rude, childish narcissist. Otherwise, the video is very good: