Humanism and the New Pessimism

What should humanism stand for in the decades to come? Are the assumptions and values of humanism easily transferable to these new conditions? Many would see even posing such a question as laughable. Is not humanism as a voice of reason, progress and optimism, thoroughly discredited in an age where such things ring hollow?

It’s true that many of the promises of the twentieth century have proved to be illusory. And even when they have been realized, only a relatively few have benefitted. Looking to the future, even if we take the more alarmist forecasts with a pinch of salt, the changes ahead are going to be enormously challenging. Climate change, population growth, peak oil, failed states, rogue states, religious fundamentalism and terrorism, just to name the most menacing of them, all smoulder in sullen anger. And the Western nations seem oblivious to the dangers, preferring instead to wallow in celebrity culture, “reality” programmes, and an untenable sense of entitlement to the resources of the world.

So, for humanism to have something worthwhile to say in the years to come we will need to adjust to the difficult conditions ahead. Promises of sunlit new uplands where our children will achieve more than us no longer ring true. Whichever adjustments are made, they will all have to involve some accommodation of humanism and pessimism. But what is meant by either term in the current context?

We have, for example, the unvarnished pessimism most famously articulated by Arthur Schopenhauer. Each separate misfortune, he wrote, seems “to be something exceptionable; but misfortune in general is the rule.” And even more gloomy, he wrote that the “safest way of not being very miserable is not to expect to be very happy.” Whatever the power of these insights, they are too debilitating for any workable humanism. We need to remain active participants, while seeing the world as it actually is. One thinker who has understood this problem and articulated a useful understanding of contemporary pessimism is Roger Scruton, an English philosopher and political conservative. Scruton rejects simple unalloyed gloom, preferring to see pessimism as a necessary corrective to unrealistic expectations of utopians and pedlars of false hope. His pessimism takes note of constraints and boundaries and counsels taking a second look before rushing in to grand new commitments.

One of the great errors of twentieth century optimism was to misread the message of science as an onward march toward perfection. Few people committed this error more openly than Marxists, though paradoxically it is their neocon opposites who have more recently taken on this attitude. Cumulative acquisition of knowledge was read as progress toward ever-better outcomes for us all, whether delivered by the state or the market. This is not the way things happened, which in turn fuelled the equally baseless reactions that we now see in postmodernism, creationism and many forms of religious irrationalism.

A common feature of these anti-modern reactions is their antipathy to science, but it remains true today that the principal agent for offering a realist view of the world is science. Science has led the way in discrediting all the old illusions preferred by religions, mystagogues and romantics. Science has showed us we are not the center of the universe. Thank you Copernicus. Science then showed us we are not the apex of the great chain of being. Thank you Darwin. And today science is revealing our genetic make-up and the workings of our brain. Thank you Watson, Crick and Franklin.

Each of these breakthroughs has enormous implications for our world view. And none of them give strength to optimism, nor to its close relation, scientism. Each of these successive demotions of humanity gives strength to a more humble assessment of our role in the cosmos. This is what Erik Wielenberg, in Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe, has called naturalistic humility. So what is being talked about here is not the blanket gloom of Schopenhauer, nor an hysterical anti-science reaction. Neither are we intending a systematic critique of optimism, as Albert Schweitzer undertook, although we should endorse Schweitzer’s prediction that the time has come “when pessimistic and optimistic thought, which have hitherto talked past each other almost as strangers, will have to meet for practical discussion.” Using Scruton’s language, this practical discussion will take the form of looking askance at extravagant promises, from whichever source, of liberation, ecstasy, fulfilment or paradise, knowing they are more likely to bring forth their opposites.

Scruton had the traditional left in his sights as purveyors of utopias and pedlars of false hope, but no institution has come close to rivalling monotheistic religion in this respect. The genius of Western monotheistic religions is their ability to disguise a colossal conceit under the fake shroud of humility. These religions speak of humility and submission before God while at the same time assuring believers that they matter to the creator of the entire universe and that a favored seat in heaven awaits them. This ability to rebrand conceit as humility is surely the greatest marketing triumph in human history. And the power of its promise renders it impervious to most reasoned criticism.

By stark contrast, the naturalistic humility of non-supernaturalist systems offers no consolation to disguise the true meaning of being inconsequential. This has been a theme of atheist writing from before the birth of Christianity. Lucretius asked, insightfully, what the gods could possibly gain from our gratitude that would motivate them to create a cosmos just for us. Spinoza was urging us in the direction of naturalistic humility when he recommended the perspective of sub specie aeternitatis, or “under the aspect of eternity.” Baron d’Holbach, author of the first explicitly atheist philosophical system, cited human anthropocentrism as the first of the delusions people labor under. And Bertrand Russell had the same thing in mind in a 1941 article called “On Keeping a Wide Horizon,” where he wrote: “To me it is very consoling to sit and look at a mountain range, which took thousands of ages in the building, and to go home reflecting that it is not after all so bad that the human race has achieved so little in the paltry six thousand years or so of civilization. We are only at the beginning.” Wisdom of this nature is the starting point of what could be called an atheist spirituality, what Albert Camus understood as the “desperate encounter between human inquiry and the silence of the universe.” And when one comes to examine the principal strands of an atheist spirituality, it seems they boil down to three; unity of mind and body, interdependence of all living things, and the continuity of humanity with the rest of life. None of these are conducive to an inflated sense of one’s own importance, or even that of our species. And each of them is informed at a fundamental level by science. This is the intellectual bedrock of naturalistic humility.

Many humanists are uncomfortable with the notion of atheists talking of spirituality. But it is a mistake to bequeath to non-humanists this language and the human needs it expresses. It ends up limiting the range of humanist thought and experience that impoverishes us all. We don’t need to like words such as spirituality, but it is the simplest way to engage with religious people in a way that concentrates on what we have in common rather than what divides us. One of the many failures of twentieth century optimism was the supposition that prosperous people would have no need of any form of transcendental temptation. We now know this to be untrue, and the language of atheist spirituality helps fill that human need without resorting to enticing dogma or supernatural promises that enflame the sense of self.

We now need to look a bit more closely at what distinguishes a specifically humanist pessimism from other varieties. We’ve already distinguished humanist pessimism from Schopenhauerian gloom. Some contemporary pessimism comes close to seeing the problem acutely. There is, for instance, the Dark Mountain Project, so-called because of a poem by that name from 1935 by Robinson Jeffers. His obsession was with the popular appeal of fascism and Stalinism. Eight decades on, the evils have changed, but the underlying dangers remain the same. Dark Mountain’s website proposes the Eight Principles of Uncivilisation and criticizes three great fallacies of our civilization: the myth of progress, the myth of human centrality, and the myth of our separation from nature. All this is very sensible and quite in line with a lot of atheist thinking. But Dark Mountain then wanders off into vague dreams about writing new stories we can live by and writing with “dirt under our fingernails.”

The Dark Mountain Project illustrates some of the strengths and some of the weaknesses of pessimism. And if we are to articulate a humanist pessimism, there are several pitfalls to avoid. The first of them is the smugness that so many prophets of doom affect; almost the same degree of smugness that earlier apostles of inexorable progress exuded. It’s easier to predict things will turn to custard than to look for positive outcomes. John Stuart Mill wrote in the 1840s: “I have observed that not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage.” The extreme version of this has now got its own name: apocaholism, or the addiction to seeing awful disasters around every corner. An associated ailment is that prophesying gloom absolves one of the responsibility of working for a better world. Writing myths we can live by, with or without dirt under our fingernails, is not going to help alleviate mass poverty or prevent climate change. No better example of this is the currently fashionable defeatist John Gray who, after lambasting humanists and others for their commitment to progress, offers nothing better in return than to ‘seek the company of mystics, poets and pleasure lovers rather than utopian dreamers.’

John Gray’s other weakness, one also shared by the Dark Mountain Project, is to assume there is no valid space between utopianism and apocaholism. But there is, and this is space twenty-first century humanism can occupy. And the many insights from Schweitzer’s philosophical fusion of optimistic and pessimistic thought should play a large role in helping fill this space wisely. True resignation, Schweitzer wrote, comes not from world-weariness but from a far deeper appreciation of how precious and beautiful life can be, despite all that can be thrown against us. So, in spite of a greater awareness of the difficulties ahead, we refuse to give up working for a better future. Pessimism, in this sense, is a necessary companion to meliorism, which is the idea that progress is still possible, but that it will take a lot of dedication and hard work to achieve, and will take place in a context of frequent failures and need to reassess.

If we can no longer presume an uncomplicated progress towards a better future, neither should we assume an equally-inevitable downward slope to hell. Some of the more shrill postmodernists liked to shout that modernity led us straight to Auschwitz. And many other types of anti-humanist have insisted that no humanism is possible after Auschwitz or the Gulag. Oddly, many of them still seem to think that monotheistic religion is still possible in such circumstances. The work of Tzvetan Todorov has been valuable in this context. Far from evading this reality, Todorov’s humanism begins at Auschwitz and the Gulag. Any intellectual journey that begins at such unpropitious starting-points must recognise the evil that people can do to one another. But the next point must also be made: that the possibility of good remains. With nothing in it for them, with no special reason to act bravely or considerately, countless people nonetheless did behave in this way. That unaccountable fact gives far more ground for hope than a rationalized, abstract persuasion of ultimate perfectibility, whether in heaven or on earth. Todorov offers a way forward: ‘A maxim for the twenty-first century might well be to start not by fighting evil in the name of good, but by attacking the certainties of people who claim always to know where good and evil are to  be found.’

Following on from Karl Popper or Isaiah Berlin in the twentieth century and Todorov today, contemporary pessimists will be wary of peremptory dismissals of valued habits of mind or patterns of public discourse that get labelled out-dated or somehow offensive to the current zeitgeist. And they will be careful not to sneer at the institutions that uphold the democratic values we cherish. To take an example, upholding the values of secularism is no less valuable and necessary, even when postmodernists and others label it as a leftover of Western metaphysics, or an outdated metanarrative, or some such nonsense.

These things, then, are features of a specifically humanist pessimism. Humanist pessimism sees Western monotheist religions as one of the principal purveyors of false hope and hubris. And from this, a consciously atheistic flavor to our humanism is an important condition for naturalistic humility if we are going to be consistent. But equally, pessimistic humanism is no less determined to help improve the human lot. And much of this will be done best by defending institutions of non-corrupt governance, accountable leadership, and general approval for the performance of civic duty.

The twenty-first century humanist is going to have to defend all over again what had once seemed like entrenched freedoms while also being more circumspect about the values we extol. Three examples will be enough to illustrate the kind of changes needed. John Stuart Mill’s 1859 essay On Liberty is rightly recognized as a humanist classic. But Mill’s optimism that truth and reason will always prevail in the open marketplace of ideas has not been borne out by events. Liberty looks more frail in an age of manufactured consent and short attention spans.

A century after Mill, the American humanist Paul Kurtz spoke of exuberance as the essentially humanist condition. But, looking at this choice of word now, it’s clear that this took for granted too many things, such as access to limitless resources and the boundless opportunities such plenty afforded. Here we can turn, once again, to Aristotle for help in recalibrating the humanist stance. For the twenty-first century, we can see that it is not exuberance at one end of the spectrum, nor despair at the other, that defines the humanist stance. It is perhaps the middle ground of acceptance. Acceptance that life is basically unfair, but, for all that, I do have certain skills and attributes that, with luck, I can use to the benefit of myself and those I love. Acceptance that my dreams can no longer be stratospheric without presuming to darken the lot of many others. Acceptance that my achievements are going to be small, short-lived and inconsequential. Acceptance that there is nothing out there that gives a damn whether I do well in life, am a good person, or deserve an eternity in divine company. Acceptance that, notwithstanding all this, I still have an obligation to be a good person, in full knowledge of an utter extinction of this effort and all that constitutes me. Acceptance that, however inconsequential my life is, it is a rich paradise when compared with the lives of millions of other people, and it may well be that working to alleviate their condition is actually the best way I can spend my time. In this way, acceptance is borne of gratitude and will lead to a joy for living considerably better grounded than a brash exuberance.

The third point relevant to humanism in the twenty-first century is that religion has not gently disappeared, as generations of optimists have casually predicted. Many humanists in the 1960s liked to see themselves as superior to older-style rationalists because they were less confrontational about religion. In her 1967 Conway Memorial Lecture, Marghanita Laski spoke of the secular responsibility to build a new society. Why? “I think the answer must be, because we have won – whether by our own efforts or by the increasing incompatibility of religion and society I would not care to say. But unbelief in religion, in both its fundamental tenets an in its institutions, is the order of the day.” We now know that the humanists of the 1960s were wrong and it was the supposedly old-fashioned rationalists who had a clearer understanding of the resilience and power of religion. God is back, as many commentators have observed, and he’s in a mean temper.

What this means is that we can’t expect to vanquish religion simply by strength of argument. This was the error the old-fashioned rationalists made. Religion doesn’t work like that. Humanism, when seen through a pessimistic lens, understands that the dialogue will go on forever, in the manner of Karl Jaspers’ notion of limitless communication. Each side will twist and turn, react to new conditions quickly or slowly, as is in their nature. Each new generation will need to renew the argument, often the same argument their predecessors engaged in, against an ever-renewing swarm of religiously illiterate believers. Far more likely than either side ‘winning’ is that the divide between religion and non-religion will become utterly irrelevant long before victory by either side has been achieved.

Many anti-humanist critics believe that humanism is not up to the task of responding to the challenges imposed by the more demanding twenty-first century conditions. But if we look carefully through the vast corpus of humanist thought, there is plenty of material to help and guide us. H G Wells, so often caricatured as an uncritical apostle of progress, was consistent in his warnings not to take progress for granted or to presume the universe was anxious for our welfare. Writing in the gloomy aftermath of the First World War, he ended his Outline of History with the sage warning that human history “becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” The perennial truth of that warning can serve as the guiding leitmotif of twenty-first century humanism. And the first lesson in this education was the realisation of the “complete indifference of the universe to us and our behavior.” Wells’ many dystopias are well overdue for rediscovery.

In the even gloomier aftermath of the Second World War Albert Camus spoke of pessimism and courage as essential qualities of a new authenticity which could withstand the paralysing influences of fanatical ideologies and nihilism. As with Wells, Camus’ work is waiting patiently for us to return to it when we are ready. So is this understanding of humanism, written in 1968 by the English sociologist Ronald Fletcher.

Humanism, it seems to me, has to recognize an inescapable undertone of tragedy in the world. Ultimately, the situation of mankind in the world is a tragic one. Human life is transient…All that we are, all that we love, all those things, people, and values to which and to whom we are attached by love, perish. Nothing of an individual nature seems permanent. Nothing is certain. Humanism can offer no consolation.

This refusal to offer the consolations born of hubris is what makes humanism such an important asset to the twenty-first century. Consolations, whether the right to clutter up some corner of the cosmos with a supposedly immortal soul, or some sense of undeserved entitlement down here on earth, are no longer a sustainable or credible way to engage with our surroundings. But where many twentieth century humanists sought to substitute these conceits with fragrant promises of moving inexorably toward a new heaven on earth, humanists of the twenty-first century will be less willing to offer any sort of secularized consolation that might act as a buffer to soften the blow of realizing our finitude and irrelevance to the order of things while retaining the moral duty to work for the betterment of others.

To recap: any serious humanism of the twenty-first century will need to offer us lessons in pessimism. Or, more accurately, realism filtered through the gauze of pessimism. The sort of realism that rejects gloom in the same way as it rejects exuberance. The first step will be to move away from the damaging anthropocentrism of many twentieth-century ideologies, which accord humanity a privileged place in the cosmic scheme of things. Panaceas, utopias, ideologies and quick-fix solutions, from whichever source, will be viewed with skepticism. Twenty-first century notions of progress will focus more on the effort needed for any positive change and the harder, rougher road, more strewn with potholes that will need to be traversed. In the twenty-first century we will do better to speak of our human responsibilities to the earth and to one another than of our rights as individuals. And twenty-first century humanism will foster acceptance and gratitude for the small joys of life. We also need to be reminded of the unremitting cruelty of life lived according to the rules of natural selection, and of the inevitable inability of the shibboleths of contemporary society – satisfaction through work, material prosperity providing peace of mind – to deliver according to their promises. Acknowledgement of interdependence and all that entails will need to be a cornerstone of twenty-first century humanism. And the leaders of twenty-first century humanism will be those who can build all these insights into their life and still find reason to smile.




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About the Author

Bill Cooke is author of several works of humanist thought, including A Wealth of Insights: Humanist Thought Since the Enlightenment. He is International Director for the Center for Inquiry.

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