On the Dignity of Humanism

The New Oxonian

Joseph Hoffmann

As a humanist I have often done what humanists do: hide behind the great thoughts of significant men and women to give my own ideas heft and importance.

The possibility of doing that came to an end in 2009, when America’s oldest humanist society, the AHA, bestowed its “Humanist of the Year” award on a man named P Z Myers, someone whose simplistic views, bare-knuckle style towards his critics, and lack of literary depth embody everything I abhor about contemporary humanism and new atheism.

But I have written plenty about what I abhor.  And I have written a fair bit about why organized humanism, infused and high-jacked by the “new” atheism, has been turned into a parody of serious humanist principles and ideals.  Myers, blogger Jerry Coyne, and a few other swains who hang out at the Free Thought Ghetto, wasted no time trying to frame me as a pompous…

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Nietzsche: Of Love, Trees, and Religion

The New Oxonian

Reading Nietzsche is not always the easiest thing to do. He is the okra of philosophers, and his moments of lyricism are offset by yawpish moments like this one from “On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life”:

Consider the herd grazing before you. These animals do not know what yesterday and today are but leap about, eat, rest, digest and leap again: and so from morning to night and from day to day, only briefly concerned with their pleasure and displeasure, enthralled by the moment and for that reason neither melancholy nor bored. It is hard for a man to see this, for he is proud of being human and not an animal and yet regards its happiness with envy because he wants nothing other than to live like the animal, neither bored nor in pain, yet wants it in vain because he does not want it like…

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The Discovery of History

The New Oxonian

From The Morality of History (© 2014) R. Joseph Hoffmann

The fundamental discovery of the Enlightenment was the discovery of history or rather, of a historical consciousness. History had, of course, been written for two millennia. The Hebrews wrote it. The Greeks wrote it. The Romans wrote it. Often it was intertwined with interest in legend and legendary beginnings, making important men into great men or demigods; making bloody battlefield victories into providential triumphs; making stubborn evangelists and confessors into saints.

The idea of a history that could be detached from the parochial interests of writers and patrons cannot flourish when the patrons are kings and popes, who want history told in a certain way, a way consistent with giving glory to the sovereign, or glory to God and his holy church. The idea of a history faithful to impartial description and free of the demand for exaggeration and…

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Love in Transoxiana

The New Oxonian

The first thing to know is that Transoxiana (Transoxania) is a western fiction: The name stuck in Western consciousness because of the exploits of Alexander the Great, who extended Greek culture into the region with his conquests of the 4th century BC. Transoxiana was the far north-eastern point of Hellenistic culture until the Arab invasion. During the Sassanid Empire (>7th century CE) it was often called Sogdiana, a provincial name taken from the Achaemenid Empire, and used to distinguish it from nearby Bactria. These now sound like names out of mythology. Perhaps they are, partly. But their purchase on the land, the culture, the people, and the cities is permanent.

Once upon a time this was a center of Arabic learning—in the so-called Sassanid period—due to the immense wealth the region derived from the silk road. The Arabs knew it simply as the “land beyond the river” (Ma wara’un-Nahr…

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