Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Less than God, excelling other creatures

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.

—Sir Thomas Elyot, The Boke named The Governour (1531), II.viii

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.”[1] 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.”[2]

But giving the word a moral connotation is how the humanists used it. As in More:[R]eason directs us to keep our minds as free from passion and as cheerful as we can, and that we should consider ourselves as bound by the ties of good-nature and humanity to use our utmost endeavours to help forward the happiness of all other persons; for there never was any man such a morose and severe pursuer of virtue, such an enemy to pleasure, that though he set hard rules for men to undergo, much pain, many watchings, and other rigors, yet did not at the same time advise them to do all they could in order to relieve and ease the miserable, and who did not represent gentleness and good-nature as amiable dispositions. Or Montaigne: “There is nothing so little to be expected or hoped for from this many-headed monster [a mob], in its fury, as humanity and good nature; it is much more capable of reverence and fear.” Or Erasmus: “[Seneca] sets up a stony semblance of a man, void of all sense and common feeling of humanity.”

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,Americans were more likely to look at marriage and family through the prisms of duty, obligation, and sacrifice. A successful, happy home was one in which intimacy was an important good, but by no means the only one in view. A decent job, a well-maintained home, mutual spousal aid, child-rearing, and shared religious faith were seen almost universally as the goods that marriage and family life were intended to advance.Now, however, marriage is looked upon as another conduit of personal fulfillment. Keeping faith, standing by promises, duty to children and family—these cannot be permitted to override the bawl of unhappiness. What I am looking for, after all, is not someone with whom to make a home, but someone who completes me. “The 1970s marked the period when, for many Americans, a more institutional model of marriage gave way to the ‘soul-mate model’ of marriage,” Wilcox says.

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:Most young people in my experience still want to be taken seriously. Despite their facile sophistications and easy-going cynicisms—more often than not, largely a defense against disappointment—most of them are in fact looking for a meaningful life or listening for a summons. Many of them are self-consciously looking for their own humanity and for a personal answer to Diogenes’ question [anthropon zeto,“I am looking for human being”]. If we treat them uncynically and respectfully, as people interested in the good, the true, and the beautiful, and if we read books with them in search of the good, the true, and the beautiful, they invariably rise to the occasion, vindicating our trust in their potential. And they more than repay our efforts by contributing to our quest their own remarkable insights and discoveries.If he is right the young seek the moral achievement of humanity—to excel all other creatures, including those who would condemn them to creatureliness—and they long for the wisdom of literature to assist them on the way.

[1] Simon Lewis, “An Epoch of Destruction,” Manchester Guardian (July 24, 2009): 32.

[2] Patricia Sullivan, “Artist Reflected Humanity’s Good Side and Bad,” Washington Post (August 17, 2009): B4.