Critical versus naïve Humanism

(Chapter taken from my new book: Auf der Suche nach Sinn und Ziel der Geschichte – Leben in der Ära der Streitenden Reiche. German Original currently presented to a publishing House. The English translation is – at least for the time being – accessible on the internet “In Search of Meaning and Purpose in History„).

If /this book/ succeeds in proving that Sapiens remained the same morally as well as intellectually since the beginning of history, then this proof will lead us to a newly understood humanism, which I would like to distinguish from its predecessor, by calling it “critical humanism“. It knows about conscience common to all people, but unlike naive humanism it does not assume that education and enlightenment suffice to fundamentally reform man and society. Naive humanism is based on an illusion: It believes that it is enough to open man’s eyes to certain truths, because, from then on, he would be able to create a future where there are no more wars, no greed, no oppression, and – who knows – perhaps no evil of whatever kind. Unfortunately, that is no more than a nice idea. Or, as Neil Postman says: “We all build castles in the air. The problems come when we try to live in them”. For such a naive interpretation of history stands in stark contrast to everything we know about the past. Conflicts of interest have determined the whole course of history, even if they have not always been expressed to the same extent – there have indeed been happier and much less happy epochs as Thucydides already knew[2]– but the conflicts of interests of individuals, groups and states did nevertheless always exist, and they asserted themselves quite often against moral conscience. There is nothing to suggest that in this respect our present time is breaking with the past.

The Aberrations of Naïve Humanism

Naive humanism is painting a future paradise. By means of enlightenment exercised by gentle or more often violent persuasion, it relies on turning a few screws either in the human psyche or in society, politics or the economy in order to put an end to all previous evils. That is why this kind of humanism constantly ran the risk of being abused by totalitarian forces of both the far left or far right ideological camps. The violent enforcing of happiness on others in the name of some noble ideals has brought greater harms on mankind than individual greed or selfishness (Koestler, Arendt, Lewis). It is also responsible for the fact that many trendy cynics even doubt that human society can be improved at all.

Nevertheless, naive humanism will always exist as a positive force in the form of the lived example. If someone, with the greatest material sacrifices that he is ready to impose on himself, personally demonstrates his ideas of a good and right life without enforcing them on others, then we are dealing with the saints of former times.

But the saints who thus sacrifice themselves for their ideals are exceptions, they were never the rule. As soon as we accept the difference between history made and history conceived, that is between man’s deeds and his moral conscience, we turn to humanism in its critical shape, as we are well aware that the immediate, short-term benefit, that is, the pursuit of power, profit, personal, tribal, national advantages at the expense of others, may easily push human conscience aside and even dominate it for a long time. To this day, this fact is most clearly demonstrated in interhuman relationships. As a rule, people only accepted others as equal if these were able to assert and to defend themselves. To name just one among thousands of examples: France and Germany only embarked on a path of reconciliation, after they realized that they would never be able to defeat each other once and for all. The entire history of the Warring States, which will be told in this book, is proof of this thesis.

The new Anti-Humanism

Critical humanism is therefore faced with a double front: on the one hand, it differs from its naïve counterpart, naïve humanism; on the other hand, it sharply distinguishes itself from the recently reemerging anti-humanism. In our time, as in the past, the latter is confronting us in the form of hatred of foreigners (xenophobia), which fundamentally denies human equality. Anti-humanism not only gives priority to one’s own clan, tribe, ideological group, nation and religion – which is natural to a certain extent, as it would make no sense that I cling to my own group, conviction or style of life if I don’t believe that they are right – but it goes far beyond this natural attitude as it wants to discredit others, namely and their way of life and beliefs. In extreme cases anti-humanism designates other people as subhuman and denies their right to life and human dignity.

The Dialectics of Excessiveness

Because of the unfortunate thirteen years of the last century, where this anti-humanism was made an official ideology in Nazi-Germany, we have recently seen a complete ideological turnaround: Naïve humanism expresses itself – often in a downright intolerant and combative way – as a love of foreigners that even tends to the extreme of self-abandonment. Michel Houellebecq, the highly controversial but arguably the most influential among present-day French writers, speaks of “Submission”. I already said that from a historical point of view naïve humanism manifested itself exceptionally in men that former times used to call saints because they demonstrated to the people around them how love could bridge all divides. But the trendy naïve humanism of our present time is more akin to totalitarian endeavors, because its proponents aim at enforcing their ideals on others, whose often perfectly justified interests they blatantly disregard. Recent developments throughout Europe show that naïve humanism, which out of moral arrogance overrides the interests of a majority of the population, is essentially responsible for the fact that a broad current of anti-humanism now raises its ugly face again.

In other words, naïve humanism does no good when it disregards all the teachings of history made (it is mostly averse to its study for this very reason). In the words of Max Weber, it replaces responsible ethics (Verantwortungsethik) with wishful i.e. ideological thinking (Gesinnungsethik). This has never worked. Let us for a moment turn back to all those societies, some of them of the most peaceful kind, which, between the 16th up to the 19th century, received the first European foreigners with open arms because they believed that their own desire for peace would protect them from the conquerors. They had no idea of the fate that awaited them as they were ruthlessly exploited by the colonizers and some of them even completely destroyed. A peaceable disposition or even love has never been able to achieve anything against superior weapons and the greed for prey. Precisely because critical humanism insists on the intellectual and moral equality of human beings, both in good and in evil, it never forgets the basic fact that most human beings – despite the conscience common to all of them – are, first of all, guided by their immediate interests. If politics were to be consistently directed by naïve humanism, it would at best result in well-intentioned stupidity, at worst it leads to inner division and unrest. Once a majority of the population feels threatened in its interests and therefore opposes the will of an elite minority, it easily happens that the love of foreigners decreed from above turns into its very opposite: into the hatred of foreigners and anti-humanism. This disastrous dialectic of a policy that the majority considers excessive may currently be observed in several European states. Like no other movement, anti-humanism as a reaction against the wishful thinking of its naive adversary has poisoned the intellectual climate in post-war Europe.

1 In peace and prosperity, states and individuals have better sentiments, because they do not find themselves suddenly confronted with imperious necessities; but war takes away the easy supply of daily wants, and so proves a rough master, that brings most men’s characters to a level with their fortunes (Book III, chapter 10).

[3]Preliminary data shows that in 2013, global carbon dioxide emissions were 61 percent higher than they were in 1990, when negotiations toward a climate treaty began in earnest. As MIT economist John Reilly puts it: “The more we talk about the need to control emissions, the more they are growing… in the 1990s, as the market integration project ramped up, global emissions were going up an average of 1 percent a year; by the 2000s, with “emerging markets” like China now fully integrated into the world economy, emissions growth had sped up disastrously, with the annual rate of increase reaching 3.4 percent a year for much of the decade. That rapid growth rate continues to this day, interrupted only briefly in 2009 by the world financial crisis“ (Naomi Klein 2015, Pos. 275, 443).

[4]In her brilliant, militant and courageous study on climate change and what should be done about it, Naomi Klein places the greatest trust in a mass movement from below: “It really is the case that we are on our own and any credible source of hope in this crisis will have to come from below” and later: “… mass uprisings of people… represent the likeliest source of “friction” to slow down an economic machine that is careening out of control.”Elsewhere, she calls for the opposite: decisive state intervention “it /cleaning up the mess/ won’t happen on a voluntary basis or on the honor system. It will have to be legislated – using… tough regulations… “ (Pos. 292, 7980, 4550). In the times of Warring Empires, not even that is enough. Only a World Government is capable of imposing measures that by reducing every single individual’s footprint will guarantee mankind’s common survival.