We forget sometimes (or are uncomfortable in saying) that the humanities are at root about questions of value: what it means to lead a good life or how to build a just society. Toynbee never forgot. Articulate and combative, he understood that humanistic inquiry is a moral enterprise, an unfinished project of exploration and improvement. And he knew that humanists must be crusaders, that their strength lies in their capacity (and willingness) to confront members of the public with hard questions about themselves.
Ian Beacock, in Why we need Arnold Toynbee’s good life – Ian Beacock – Aeon.
Aside from issues of life and death, there is no more urgent task for American intellectuals and writers than to think critically about the salience, even the tyranny, of technology in individual and collective life. All revolutions exaggerate, and the digital revolution is no different. We are still in the middle of the great transformation, but it is not too early to begin to expose the exaggerations, and to sort out the continuities from the discontinuities. The burden of proof falls on the revolutionaries, and their success in the marketplace is not sufficient proof. Presumptions of obsolescence, which are often nothing more than the marketing techniques of corporate behemoths, need to be scrupulously examined. By now we are familiar enough with the magnitude of the changes in all the spheres of our existence to move beyond the futuristic rhapsodies that characterize much of the literature on the subject. We can no longer roll over and celebrate and shop. Every phone in every pocket contains a “picture of ourselves,” and we must ascertain what that picture is and whether we should wish to resist it. Here is a humanist proposition for the age of Google: The processing of information is not the highest aim to which the human spirit can aspire, and neither is competitiveness in a global economy. The character of our society cannot be determined by engineers.
Leon Wieseltier, in Among the Disrupted – NYTimes.com.
Just after the war Auden visited Harvard to read a poem to the Phi Beta Kappa Society. One of the dominant figures of American culture at that time was James Bryant Conant, Harvard’s president, who, captured by the techno-utopian mood of the war years, was striving to modernize the university and transform it into a research powerhouse focused on science and technology. In so doing he emphasized the humanities, especially the classics, far less than Harvard had done through much of its history. Auden told Alan Ansen, “When I was delivering my Phi Beta Kappa poem in Cambridge, I met Conant for about five minutes. ‘This is the real enemy,’ I thought to myself. And I’m sure he had the same impression about me.”
via Text Patterns: Audens two cheers for democracy.
A humanistic education cultivates not only the ability to absorb humanistic content, but also the capacity to hear the resonances between one text and another—or to combine disparate texts and ideas in such a way as to create new resonances. It is a capacity that Christians cultivate in practice of worship. We read portions of the Hebrew Bible alongside portions of the New Testament; we set down the needs of the world alongside the verses of a psalm; we lift up the prayer of one worshiper alongside the prayer of another. These texts reach us in the varied circumstances of our lives and, through the many ways they are combined in worship, help us to find new meaning in ancient words.
via Stephanie Paulsell, Christian humanists | The Christian Century.
It is likely enough that human life has no moral significance – that nothing really matters. The long travail of evolution, the procreant urge, may have no purpose in view that concerns us. Born at all adventure, we and all that is animate on the face of the earth may be predestined for a meaningless annihilation. Our wisest course may well be to enjoy our hour of sunshine without thought or plan. All life is carried along in this perpetual flux. The poppy lifts its head to the sun, and its petals fall. Flies he never so high, the eagle comes to the earth at the last a sorry bundle of unbuoyant feathers. Ox and ass, mouse and man, none escape. The very planet itself, for all its encircling tumbler-pigeon flights, is doomed.
Llewelyn Powys, Rediscovering the Essays of Llewelyn Powys | The Winnipeg Review
I recently discovered a 1944 essay by T. S. Eliot called “The Responsibility of the Man of Letters in the Cultural Restoration of Europe” that addresses this transformation and provides a very concise summary of the Christian humanist response to this social transformation. This passage in particular is key:
I have suggested that the cultural health of Europe, including the cultural health of its component parts, is incompatible with extreme forms of both nationalism and internationalism. But the cause of that disease, which destroys the very soil in which culture has its roots, is not so much extreme ideas, and the fanaticism which they stimulate, as the relentless pressure of modern industrialism, setting the problems which the extreme ideas attempt to solve. Not least of the effects of industrialism is that we become mechanized in mind, and consequently attempt to provide solutions in terms of engineering, for problems which are essentially problems of life.
Alan Jacobs, Problems of Engineering and Problems of Life | The American Conservative
What do I mean by religious humanism? The theologian Max Stackhouse recently provided a simple but suggestive definition. “Humanity,” Stackhouse wrote, “cannot be understood without reference to God; and neither God nor God’s revelation can be understood except through the lens of thought and experience.”
Gregory Wolfe, via Image ◊ Journal ◊ Editorial Statements ◊ Religious Humanism: A Manifesto.
It might sound odd to cite Alain de Botton as a critic of complacent self-regard, but this is central to his stated purpose. Attending to the religious roots of humanism can prod us out of seeing secular humanism as natural, the default position, and incite us to ponder our need for discipline, structure, community, and so on. At one point he commends the Christian perspective, that we are ‘at heart desperate, fragile, vulnerable, sinful creatures, a good deal less wise than we are knowledgeable, always on the verge of anxiety, tortured by our relationships, terrified of death — and most of all in need of God’. — Theo Hobson
via Richard Dawkins has lost: meet the new new atheists » The Spectator.
Humanism in theory isnt enough. You need to be confronted with actual humans to really feel it. It has become increasingly clear to me that I am not a member of any “black race.” That there is no such thing. I am, very much, a black person. This describes my history, my culture, my dialect, my community, my family, my collective experience with America. But there is nothing in my bones that makes me more like other “black persons” than like anyone else.
via You Know Nothing of My Work – Ta-Nehisi Coates – The Atlantic.