By Mark Vernon*
Humanism is not a specific doctrine or a unified system of thought. Rather it is a tradition that starts in the Renaissance, gathers momentum during the Enlightenment, and becomes a key feature of the modern world. During this development it embraces a range of possible meanings, principles and practices. It is fundamentally an attitude or spirit that values learning, curiosity and imagination aimed at engaging with the questions of life – personal and political – that human beings face and indeed that make us human. There are therefore many flavours of humanism, many philosophers that can be used to underpin it.
The Renaissance is an inspiration, though not because it was a period in which human beings supposedly awoke from a dark age: the medieval period was one of extraordinary invention and accomplishment. Rather, it is because the Renaissance humanists were able to make something wonderful of their times – in their joy of discovery, embrace of the new, cultivation of character, political reform, critical questioning, passion and potential. This still speaks to us, half a millennium later.
Then came the Enlightenment, and it is the intellectual giants, David Hume and Immanuel Kant, who impress me most. For Hume, scepticism was the natural position for the Enlightenment thinker – scepticism about religion for sure, but scepticism about the fundamentals of science too. Hume was also sceptical about what he called enthusiasm, defined as ‘presumption arising from success’. That could apply to triumphalist rationalism and scientism as much as religion.
Kant found Hume’s scepticism profoundly unsettling. He wanted to put things on a firmer foundation. And he did so, but only by writing Critiques. In these Critiques, the key issue was understanding the limits of human knowledge. When Kant said that Enlightenment was maturity this is what he meant, being able to live with this finitude and not reach out for false certainty. So we have Enlightenment humanism as scepticism and grappling with the reality of human knowledge and experience.
This I would actually relate to a tradition within religion, though it is one lamentably in decline today. It is called the ‘apophatic’, meaning ‘negative way’. It stands in marked contrast to the ‘cataphatic’, meaning ‘positive way’, the strident assertions of indisputable religious dogma and divine truth.
The apophatic is a way of approaching what is ultimately unknown by identifying what that unknown cannot be. In religion it says God is not mortal (immortal), not visible (invisible) – note, saying nothing positive about God. Its spirit is captured in the biblical story of Moses climbing the mountain. As he went up and symbolically got nearer to God, he did not ascend into greater light and clarity, but deeper cloud and unknowing. Thus, at its core is a sense of the sacred – that which is far greater than you and so takes you out of yourself and into the unknown.
In a way what the apophatic theologians explored was similar to what the sceptical Enlightenment philosophers like Hume and Kant articulated: both identify limits and seek intuitions of what lies beyond. It was called ‘learned ignorance’ by the first Renaissance humanist philosopher, Nicolas of Cusa, and he got the idea from Socrates. Socrates annoyed his fellow citizens in ancient Athens because he showed that the key to wisdom is not how much you know but is understanding the limits of what you know. This dimension reaches back right to the antecedent origins of humanism. It runs right through any honest study of what it is to be human.
It is also this dimension that to my mind is needed to combat contemporary fundamentalisms – religious and scientific – particularly if you want to avoid becoming a humanist fundamentalist in response. It is a kind of committed agnosticism – a juxtaposition of words that only sounds strange, if it does, today.
Echoing the same spirit, the last word can come from a famous humanist and agnostic, the anti-Christian though never quite atheist, Bertrand Russell. Towards the end of his History of Western Philosophy, he reflects on how human beings across the centuries have related to their potential and powers. Sometimes, he believes, they have been too humble. In other periods, too hubristic. And today? He worries that we are at risk of thinking of ourselves as gods.
‘In all this I feel a grave danger, the danger of what might be called cosmic impiety. The concept of ‘truth’ as something dependent upon facts largely outside human control has been one of the ways in which philosophy hitherto has inculcated the necessary element of humility. When this check on pride is removed, a further step is taken on the road towards a certain kind of madness – the intoxication with power… to which modern man, whether philosophers or not, are prone. I am persuaded that this intoxication is the greatest danger of our time, and that any philosophy which, however unintentionally, contributes to it is increasing the danger of vast social disaster.’
This ‘cosmic impiety’, the greatest danger of his time, shows no sign of passing. Humanists must ensure that they help mitigate it.