Religion of Humanity

We can’t help it, we’re human, we necessarily have worldviews.  Everybody does.  The Resistance does too, rough hewn, in the aggregate, and tacit as it may be.  Now it is time to take a look squarely at the Resistance’s main object of concern:  Humanity itself.  The Resistance declares itself “inclusive” and it hates “exclusion.”  Its vision and its concern encompass all of humanity.  But not all “humanisms” are created equal.  But what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.  Who is to say that Resistance humanism is unquestionable?  Not me. Not Pierre Manent.  Not John Fonte.

Following our usual procedure, we begin with telling phenomena, revealing signs of the underlying humanitarian vision of the Resistance.  Any talk of immigration restriction is declared (or suspected of being) “racist” and “xenophobic,” and temporary bans on immigration from predominantly Muslim countries with known inabilities to vet Islamist terrorists were automatically judged “Islamophobic.”   As a rule, greater public concern is shown for possible “backlash” against Muslims here than for the victims of terrorist murder.  Typically, the condemnation of such murder is ritualistic, conveyed in flat tones, and then dropped so as not to give aid-and-comfort to the real enemy, domestic political opponents who are “Islamophobic.”  Once again, the binary structure of Resistance thinking declares itself.

Islam and Muslims are a striking exception to Progressive-Resistance antipathy toward traditional religions, so they are a particularly revealing case.   To be sure, they are often defended on the tactical principle of “the enemy of my enemy is my ally.”  But there is something deeper at work and Pierre Manent can help bring it to light.  It is precisely a certain sort of humanitarianism.

Manent has had the dubious privilege of observing its European version for decades, long before the Resistance came into being.  He can help us understand, mutatis mutandis, the more recent American version.  In a shorthand formulation, it is “a view of Humanity as already, or virtually, unified, with no significant differences”.[1]  Anyone who merely points out real and obvious divisions that exist among human beings is deemed to endorse them, to delight in human division, and to be in the grips of odium unitatis generis humani.  Anyone who says that these differences in beliefs and morals and collective organization are humanly significant and merit discussion, both philosophic and civic, has malevolently opened a can of worms and troubles the necessary unity and desirable unification of Humanity.  On the European continent, this view has taken the form of a secular religion, “a religion of Humanity,” and it is strictly enforced in their version of political correctness.   Here is Manent in 2010:

Anyone who does not see humanity as an immediate reality, as an evident experience in a way, reveals, according to the dominant opinion, his hostility to human unity and thus to humanity itself.  Such is the authority among us of this idea, o[f] philosophic origin, of humanity.[2]

This philosophical idea has taken on a certain cast, at once obfuscating and obdurate, and assumed a quasi-religious status:

According to this public philosophy, we see, we must see, we can only see human unity, or at least humanity in the process of unification.

But if we claim to see what we do not see, if what is visible and what is visibly fragmented do not arrest our gaze, and if, on the contrary, we believe we are seeing the invisible unity of humanity, then we are indeed part of what we can only call a religion, part of what I am happy to call, following others, the religion of humanity.  We are not only under the power of an idea; rather, the philosophical idea of humanity comes along with a religious enthusiasm (italics added).[3]

As a political philosopher, Manent has analyzed this ersatz philosophico-religious mindset’s characteristics and sources, as well as various domains in which it displays itself (international law; identity-politics; moral relativism), subjecting it to philosophical and political critique.  Some of these analyses also have the guilty pleasure of exhibiting his capacity for sarcasm.  One piquant example:

Under a flashing neon sign proclaiming “human unity,” contemporary Europeans would have humanity arrest all intellectual or spiritual movement in order to conduct a continual, interminable liturgy of self-adoration.[4]

The point is serious though, as it indicates the atheistic humanism involved, as well as the stifling self-satisfaction.   Whereas premodern Europeans were involved in the great adventures of searching for the philosophical and religious truth, and were alive to the great human possibility of “conversion,” of aligning one’s soul with the truth found or accepted, contemporary democrats are beyond those adventures and challenges.  There is a certain democratic complacency publicly encoded on the continent, born of dogmatic skepticism compounded by easy-going affirmation.   Its centerpiece is a distinctive view of human dignity.

Here, again, is Manent, this time on “contemporary moral conscience” and its central category, human dignity.  The foil is Kant, who most powerfully put human dignity on the modern philosophical map.  The main point is the recent democratization of an earlier, sterner understanding of human dignity, and its affront to the natural movements of the human spirit and to Socrates.

To respect the dignity of other human beings is no longer to respect the respect they hold within themselves for the moral law.  Today it is more to respect the choice they have made, whatever that choice may be, in asserting their rights.  For Kant, respect for human dignity is respect for humanity itself; for contemporary moralism, respect for human dignity is respect for the “contents of life,” whatever they may be, of other human beings.  The same words are used, but with an altogether different moral perspective.[5]

According to the first, the Kantian perspective,

My respect is addressed to the humanity of the other human beings; as human beings they are essentially respectable.  Now, what they do with their life, the “contents of their life,” is another thing; I can approve, disapprove, be indifferent, or be perplexed, in short, here the full scale of feelings and judgments that life arouses in us is naturally deployed.[6]

In this dispensation, the human mind is given free rein to follow its natural movements.  And Socrates can ask his probing questions, even in the public square.

The contemporary public square is quite different.  There, “[r]espect is demanded for all life contents, all life choices, or all lifestyles.”[7]

But, observes Manent,

[t]his formulation really has no meaning.  Or its only meaning is that all life contents, all life choices, all lifestyles must be approved, appreciated, valued, applauded.  But that is simply impossible.[8]

With the hocus-pocus and magic wand of this inflated notion of dignity, everything is dignified.  But everyone knows that everything is not dignified, that ideas and choices and beliefs and sexual practices and orientations and notions of justice and nobility are not self-explanatory or self-justifying:  the socratic imperative of “giving an account” (logon didonai) continues (even if dimmed) for human beings in advanced democratic times.  Contemporary moralism, in denying this, is deeply anti-human.

Nor will it do to say that public life can be a blanket allowance or licensing of lifestyles, while civil society and private life can continue their judging ways.  The classics and Tocqueville taught that what is authoritative in the political realm becomes authoritative tout court.  This is often on display here.  Take the Supreme Court and Justice Kennedy.

Kennedy, of course, is the one who has introduced this catch-all view of human dignity into our jurisprudence.  From the “sweet mystery of life” in Planned Parenthood v. Casey to his setting up of two autonomies in Lawrence v. Texas, that of the dignified individual and that of state legislatures, and declaring that the former cannot be attained by any morals legislation, but in fact must determine the latter (Obergefell), we in America know this heavy-handed use of dignity.

The example of Justice Kennedy reminds us that the American humanitarianism of the Resistance, while sharing many features with its European cousin, is perforce different because of unique features of the American scene.  For example, we have already spoken about the central place that African-Americans play in our views of race and country.  And in the face of Manent’s insistence upon the normative unity of Humanity at the core of this worldview (at the price of failing to take seriously serious differences), some readers will have wondered where the Resistance insistence upon “diversity” and “minorities” fits in?   Hence there is a need to turn to more American-focused analyses of this sort of cosmopolitan humanitarianism.  Happily, one is available and has been for a while.  To John Fonte’s analysis of “transnational progressivism” we turn next.

[1] For a fuller treatment, see my “European Dreamin’:  Democratic Astigmatism and Its Sources,” www.voegelinview.com, February 8, 2017.

[2] Seeing Things Politically (St. Augustine Press, 2015), trans. by Ralph C. Hancock, Introduction by Daniel J. Mahoney, p. 150.  There is a typo in the original.

[3] Ibid., p. 151-152.

[4] Democracy without Nations? (ISI Books, 2007), trans. with an introduction by Paul Seaton, pp. 8-9.

[5] A World beyond Politics?  (Princeton University Press, 2006), trans. by Marc LePain, p. 193.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., p. 194.

[8] Ibid.