The nature and condition of man, wherin he is lasse than god almightie, and excellinge nat withstanding all other creatures in erthe, is called humanitie whiche is a generall name to those vertues in whome semeth to be a mutuall concorde and loue in the nature of man.
The last time I quoted Elyot I lamented his influence upon a word’s later career. Would that he had had some leverage over the subsequent use of the word humanity!
Last Friday, when I replied to Benjamin Stein’s criticism of my assault upon Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, I asked whether it is true (as Stein had claimed without further elaboration) that “no matter how gruesome the crime, no matter how little remorse he shows for his act, [a mass murderer] is still a human being.” I suggested instead that humanity might be a moral achievement. If this were true, Stein objected, “a newborn would not deserve human rights, but it surely does.”
The confusion of a person’s moral status with his legal rights is a common error. It descends, I believe, from the contemporary degradation of the word humanity. Few are now so frumpy and anachronistic as to use the word to denote the moral dimension of the biological species homo sapiens. Instead, the word has become a mere synonym for the species.
There is, for example, the plant scientist Simon Lewis, who warns of humanity’s heavy hand: “Just as changes to the Earth’s orbit, volcanic eruptions and asteroid impacts in the distant past have set the world on radically new courses, humanity itself has now become a collective force of nature, with far-reaching consequences.” There is the Australia-based Vision of Humanity, which “groups together a number of interrelated initiatives focused on global peace” in order to raise awareness of “the importance of peacefulness to humanity’s survival in the 21st century.” There is the late American sculptor Alice Bindeman, who was described by a fellow artist: “She takes [her subjects] with all their humanities and their pride and their hubris and she celebrates it. She manages to do this with humor and respect and warmth. She just truly celebrates humanity in all of its weaknesses and strengths.”
But giving the word a moral connotation is how the humanists used it. As in More:
And now in the inaugural issue of National Affairs, a new quarterly modeled upon the four-years-defunct Public Interest, Leon Kass dusts off the humanists’ humanity to make a case for “teaching philosophical and literary texts” to an “old-fashioned purpose in an old-fashioned way”: namely, to derive wisdom from them—yes, wisdom—about “the meaning of our humanity.”
Kass’s largely autobiographical account of his “adopted career as an unlicensed humanist” strikes a deep chord within me. I believe that university students need to learn how to read difficult texts—how to derive their authors’ intended meaning from them—but they need more than to learn merely how to read them. They also need to come to grips with why the texts continue to be read at all; that is, they need to evaluate their authors’ message.
In class I find myself offering any number of moral hypotheses for students to consider. Teaching Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence yesterday, for example, I observed that the moral dilemma in which Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska find themselves—unable to marry without damaging others—no longer seems like much of a moral dilemma.
As W. Bradford Wilcox observes in the same issue of National Affairs, expectations of marriage have changed in America over the past four decades. “Prior to the late 1960s,” Wilcox writes,
The double bind of The Age of Innocence may strike my students as no longer relevant. Only Newland’s horror at being buried alive in a passionless marriage may have any significance for them. The “battle of ugly appetites” which is loosed when men and women chase personal fulfillment instead of doing what has to be done may seem an inevitable patch of unpleasantness, a mere episode, to young persons who have grown up in the popular ideology of you owe it to yourself!
Kass, however, thinks more highly of them than that:
 Simon Lewis, “An Epoch of Destruction,” Manchester Guardian (July 24, 2009): 32.
 Patricia Sullivan, “Artist Reflected Humanity’s Good Side and Bad,” Washington Post (August 17, 2009): B4.