The Specter of Humanism

Do definitions of “classical education” sound like the garbled message proudly announced by the player at the end of the line in a game of telephone? Well, that’s pretty much what is going on.

Contemporary American notions of “classical education” have acquired so many distortions along the chain of transmission that if we hope to uncover what education really ought to be, we will need to take a different route back to the sources than the “classical” one that goes through Doug Wilson and Dorothy Sayers. 

Writing in Wartime

So instead of taking Wilson’s Moscow, Idaho as the point of departure, we will start instead from Waco, Texas: the home of Baylor University, seat of professor Alan Jacobs. Four years before Dorothy Sayers’s 1947 “Lost Tools of Learning” address, just as the tide was turning in WWII and victory over Hitler came into sight, five truly brilliant Christian thinkers were giving intense interest to the question of education, all at the same time, despite being only faintly aware of each other, in most cases. Professor Jacobs’s fascinating book, The Year of Our Lord 1943, is the story of these five coincidentally linked thinkers (C.S. Lewis, Simone Weil, W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, and Jacques Maritain)—and the tragedy of their intellectual projects.

Intellectual histories do not usually read as tragedies. But that is exactly how it feels to read The Year of Our Lord 1943

I believe Jacobs intended as much. In the book’s preface, he includes a description of a long tracking shot from Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil, a shot culminating in a huge explosion. The whole shot, he says, can give us a picture of his “narrative method,” i.e. the way he follows his five characters as they each go about their own intellectual projects, intersecting and occasionally even interacting here and there, but ultimately each on their own errands. Jacobs concludes: “What might correspond to the explosive device of Welles’s film I leave as an exercise for the reader.” 

Understanding what the bomb is, and why the book is a tragedy, starts with a curious word that appears in the book’s subtitle: “Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis.” What is this word, “humanism,” doing here? 

It is, in fact, the key not only for understanding this cryptic reference to an “explosive device,” but also to understanding both Jacobs’s descriptive project (i.e. what he’s trying to show us about these mid-century writers) but also Jacobs’s own normative project (i.e. what he’s telling us we ought to do, right now). So what does he mean by the word “humanism”?

Heretical Humanism

Jacobs acknowledges that his usage is unorthodox, and that besides Maritain, his subjects would probably reject it (Weil, something of an antagonist to Maritain, did so explicitly). Nevertheless, he persists in calling his quintet “humanists”:

All of them are engaged in projects of thought that arise from the humanist movement of the Renaissance and its reconfiguration in the aftermath of the encyclicals Dei Filius and Aeterni Patris. All of them believe that, to borrow once again Mark Greif’s useful phrase, that they are living in ‘the age of the crisis of Man,’ and that that crisis can only be resolved by the restoration of the specifically Christian understanding of the human being as such… And they also share the conviction that this restoration will not be accomplished only, or even primarily, through theology as such, but also and more effectively through philosophy, literature, and the arts. It is through these practices, which I believe are best called ‘humanistic,’ that the renewal—or if necessary the revolutionary upheaval—of Western civilization will be achieved. That was the project that these figures, in the various ways and with their sometimes fierce disagreements, shared.

The humanist “project,” then, is the renewal of Western civilization, whose necessary condition is a restoration of the Christian understanding of man, and the means of such a restoration are the humanities: philosophy, literature, and the arts. This is not far off from the conclusions of other writers in this symposium. So what is Jacobs, in The Year of Our Lord 1943, telling would-be reformers like us? 

Here is how the book concludes: “If ever again there arises a body of thinkers eager to renew Christian humanism, they should take great pains to learn from those we have studied here: both what they agreed upon and what divided them.”

And further: What happened to them? I said earlier that the book is a tragedy. How so? 

Tragedy of a False Spring

In a curious afterword, Jacobs breaks from his quintet and turns to a younger writer, Jacques Ellul, who heroically and at great danger to himself lived out the war in internal exile in France. But after the war, Ellul did not look out at Europe and harbor saccharine thoughts about the bright prospects for a Hitler-free world. He saw, instead, the opposite: the “horrifying triumph of the Hitlerian spirit.” In other words, while the Allies may have defeated Hitler on the field of battle, the Führer won on the field of the soul. 

Hyperbole? This is, in fact, something one of the book’s protagonists, C.S. Lewis, warned of—in fighting against Hitler, even in beating him, we ran the risk of becoming him.

In Ellul’s mind, we succumbed. This is the meaning, I think, of Jacobs’s cryptic prefatory allusion to the car bomb explosion in Touch of Evil

In the context of World War II, the first reference is obvious enough: the bomb is The Bomb, i.e. the atomic bombs America dropped on Japan. But even The Bomb and all of its terrifying power are merely an image of a larger triumph, a synecdoche for the real victor of the War: technocracy. This is Ellul’s “Hitlerian spirit”—the rule of technique.

The Year of Our Lord 1943 reads like a tragedy because it is the story of a false spring. Like the rhododendron in my backyard that inexplicably went into full bloom this past January, months before the twenty or so others on my property. It put out dozens of blossoms as if we were in the middle of spring, only for a sudden storm later in the winter to tear them all off.

So these Christian humanists of 1943. They were a fulguration of humanist intellectual light that burst forth with a brilliant fire just moments before the full reign of technocracy fell across the West like a dark, heavy curtain. They were doomed from the start.

The Transhumanist Triumph

That is not to say that these humanists were unaware of their impending defeat. In fact, their writing is taken up with just such a possibility (one does not wish to say “inevitability”). In The Abolition of Man, Lewis warns that if the technocratic rulers (the “Controllers”) achieve mastery, they will take the technological weapons of their “war against nature,” so far constrained to seemingly benign activities like curing diseases and giving us the ability to fly across oceans, and turn them against men, and make war not merely on inanimate nature, but on human nature itself.

So Lewis predicted in 1943. Here in 2021, that war against human nature has been forthrightly declared. That is precisely what the transhumanist project is—an attempt of the technocrats and technologists to annihilate human nature and thus eliminate the human stickiness that gums up the machines and algorithms that, absent human interference, would (in their dreams) run the world with perfect efficiency.

This sounds, if anything, like a political problem. What in the world does it have to do with humanism? 

For one, the regime of technocracy is enforced and propagated—more than anywhere else—in the schools, as Jacobs’s exposition of Ellul makes clear:

All human beings under technique [Ellul’s word for the technological regime and its mindset] are instruments of something—are technicians—and Ellul argues that the primary function of education within this regime is to use psychotechnique to create those technicians: “Education no longer has a humanist end or any value in itself; it has only one goal, to create technicians.” And the educational system is vital to the sustenance and extension of technique: “It is the findings of educators which ceaselessly nourish the improvement of technique.” The people whom Eliot called “educationists” are very proud of the efficiency and objectivity of their system; but for Ellul, “What looks like the apex of humanism is in fact the pinnacle of human submission: children are educated to become precisely what society expects of them.” As Maritain would put it, “technique is intrinsically antipersonalist.

Assaulting the stronghold of technocracy, particularly its educational keep, requires a root and branch rejection of transhumanism, of technocracy, and of the ways of thinking that have led us there. How deep do the transhumanist roots go? How dramatic an amputation must we make?

Infernal Origins

Raïssa Maritain, wife of Jacques, offers a shocking indictment for the originator of the technocratic way of thinking:

Lucifer has cast the strong though invisible net of illusion upon us… He persuades us that we can only love creatures by making Gods of them… Not the least of the devil’s victories is to have convinced artists and poets that he is their necessary, inevitable collaborator and the guardian of their greatness.

This is a sharp rebuke to the Romantic valorization of the imagination as the “great instrument of moral good,” as Shelley called it.

Simone Weil attacked the imagination along identical lines: “Man has to perform an act of incarnation, for he is disembodied [désincarné, i.e. dis-incarnated] by his imagination. What comes to us from Satan is our imagination.” 

This attack on the satanic character of imagination is crucial—and not just because of the way it fatally deflates the kindergarten cult of the imagination that so annoyed me in grade school. We are approaching one of the toughest, bulkiest knots holding together the technocratic project. Imagination is, to use Ellul’s term, a psychotechnique that promises us that we can transcend human nature, and nature altogether, on our own initiative. 

If you can dream it, you can do it, the first Imagineer promised. 

Ye shall be as gods, the serpent promised.

That is the promise of nothing other than Magic.

How (Not) to Be Magical

Now, humanism is indeed a spell—but it is not an enchanting one: “You and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has laid upon us for nearly a hundred years,” Lewis wrote, echoing Maritain and Weil. W.H. Auden said something similar, in a discussion of the proper role of art:

Art is not Magic, i.e., a means by which the artist communicates or arouses his feelings in others, but a mirror in which they may become conscious of what their own feelings really are: its proper effect, in fact, is disenchanting.

For all of its scientific pretensions, technocracy is magical—not scientific. Technocracy makes war upon nature—and upon human nature most of all—which means that it denies reality and seeks to unmake it. This is precisely the opposite of science, which in its proper form is interested in nothing but reality itself. The spirit of unmaking, this is the Luciferian spirit par excellence.

For all of its prattling on about “data,” the engineering of the technocratic world is not scientific at all—it is magical. By contrast, with art—properly understood—we do not transcend nature; we mirror reality back to ourselves, shorn of illusion, showing us who we are as we really are. Art thus requires, before anything else, intense concentration upon reality (and is thus, a sibling of science).

How does art “show us who we are as we really are”? Jacobs offers, by way of example, the opening passage from Weil’s essay “The Iliad, or The Poem of Force”:

The true hero, the true subject, the center of the Iliad is force. Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man’s flesh shrinks away… For those dreamers [“if you can dream it, you can do it!”] who considered that force, thanks to progress, would soon be a thing of the past, the Iliad could appear as an historical document; for others, whose powers of recognition are more acute and who perceive force, today as yesterday, at the very center of human history, the Iliad is the purest and the loveliest of mirrors.

The Iliad is no mere historical curiosity; like all art it shines, but what it shines back at us is not a luminous future of promise, but reality: force and slavery. In the same breath, she says the Iliad is a mirror, pure and lovely. But how could the bloody depiction of human force and slavery be pure and lovely?

“The word ‘loveliest’ arrests the reader,” Jacobs writes. “But for Weil anything that reveals the truth to us is lovely.” Weil’s quote here, on the “purest and loveliest of mirrors,” is clearly an allusion to Philippians 4:8:

Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

The Road to Rome

Greater minds than I have addressed the antagonism (or unity) of Athens and Jerusalem, of reason and revelation, of pagan philosophy and Judeo-Christian scripture. But here, it seems to me, Paul enunciates with even more loveliness the creed that the Italian Renaissance humanists encountered in Pro Archia Poeta, Cicero’s stirring courtroom defense of his friend, the poet Aulus Licinius, a defense which Jacobs briefly quotes in his explanation of why “humanism” claims to sit at the center of “human” things. In this apologia, Cicero famously refers to “de studiis humanitatis ac litterarum,” humane and literary studies. What does it mean to call the study of poetry, history, and philosophy “humane”? Cicero explains:

And indeed, all the arts which pertain to humanity have some common link, and are held together as if by some familial relation.1

The answer to our question, why the “letters” are in fact “humane letters,” lies in this one word, in English rendered “familial relation.” What is this “cognatio,” this kindred link, that makes of the disparate artes a humane unity? I believe it is that disenchanting quality that Lewis, Auden, and Weil speak of, that spell that dissolves illusions and restores the bewitched to their right minds. The humane letters possess the unique ability to present to us, through lovely images, the truth about reality. And by perceiving reality in a lovely mirror, we come to know it—and so, to love it, which is just another way of saying that art teaches men to love what is good.

That is precisely what Cicero implies in this rhetorical question to the Roman jury in the same oration:

How many images of the bravest of men—not merely for contemplating, but also for imitating—have the Greek and Latin writers left to us?2

What did these lovely images do for Cicero?

Now had I not been persuaded in my youth by many lessons and many books, that nothing in life is to be desired more than glory and integrity, and that in their pursuit, the excruciating torture of the body, the danger of death and the danger of exile, are all to be taken lightly, then I would never have for your sake subjected myself to such terrible strife and to the daily attacks of desperate men.3

In emphasizing the primacy of reality, let us not mistake what is apparent to the senses as the last word on what is real (the materialist error). Nothing could be more apparent to the senses than the excruciating torture of your body, but as Cicero says, such suffering is to be taken lightly if by enduring it you can obtain “laudem atque honestatem,” glory and integrity.

Here we encounter yet another parallel with St. Paul. In Romans 8:18, the Apostle writes, “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” He does not say that suffering is an illusion, or that suffering does not matter—only that it should be taken lightly in comparison to reality in its fullness: “the glory which shall be revealed.” 

Is the Bible One of the Great Books?

As instructive as these Pauline parallels are, in drawing them we confront a stumbling block, one that according to Jacobs, those champions of the “Great Books,” the University of Chicago’s Mortimer Adler and Robert Maynard Hutchins, stumbled over, and which neutralized the effectiveness of their educational reforming mission. What is it?

Auden, in his earthy and pithy way, called it the temptation of “using Christianity as a spiritual benzedrine for the earthly city.” This is the subordination of religion to temporal ends, i.e. instrumentalizing worship of God. Doing so would simply repeat the mistake that got us into this mess in the first place. As Lewis writes in a short 1942 essay:

It is impossible in this context, not to inquire what our own civilization has been putting first for the last thirty years. And the answer is plain. It has been putting itself first. To preserve civilization has been the great aim… how if civilization has been imperilled precisely by the fact that we have all made civilization our summum bonum? Perhaps it can’t be preserved in that way. Perhaps civilization will never be safe until we care for something else more than we care for it.

So let us return to our earlier definition of the humanist project, that of renewing Western civilization and our conception of man by means of the humanities, and make an amendment. The study of the humanities and the renewal of civilization must be set in their proper place, or fail. The temporal must recognize and be subject to the primacy of the spiritual. But this is just another way to say that we must know and love reality, since the temporal is by nature subject to the spiritual. 

The tension between religion and culture is something T.S. Eliot reckoned with. The progressive error is to try and advance culture while basely using or even ignoring religion; the pietistic error is to neglect culture altogether to protect religion. Eliot saw that both must be avoided. Jacobs writes of Eliot:

He tries to avoid these errors, and also those of simple unification, by describing culture as the incarnation of religion: the embodiment in a wide series of practices, from harvest festivals to fox-hunting, of a set of core beliefs, convictions, and obligations.

What does the “incarnation” of religion mean? 

Eliot explains: “While I am aware of the temerity of employing such an exalted term, I cannot think of any other which would convey so well the intention to avoid [mere] relation on the one hand and [absolute] identification on the other.”

We recall Weil’s contention that our imaginations dis-incarnate us; it is the role of art, of the humane letters, to incarnate our minds in our bodies. While religion will be ruined if made into the benzedrine of the city, the humanities—in their proper place—are just what the doctor ordered. But they are no chemical uppers made in a lab; we need no such thing. We require only the hearty food and good drink of human culture to put some meat on these bones and restore us to the pink of health. 

Such is the humanist task today.

Ryan Hammill is the Executive Director the Ancient Language Institute. He is also a co-host of the podcast New Humanists.

This is the third essay in our symposium, “The Future of Classical Education.” See the introduction and a list of all the essays here.

  1. Etenim omnes artes, quae ad humanitatem pertinent, habent quoddam commune vinculum, et quasi cognatione quadam inter se continentur.
  2. Quam multas nobis imagines—non solum ad intuendum, verum etiam ad imitandum—fortissimorum virorum expressas scriptores et Graeci et Latini reliquerunt?
  3. Nam nisi multorum praeceptis multisque litteris mihi ab adulescentia suasissem, nihil esse in vita magno opere expetendum nisi laudem atque honestatem, in ea autem persequenda omnis cruciatus corporis, omnia pericula mortis atque exsili parvi esse ducenda, numquam me pro salute vestra in tot ac tantas dimicationes atque in hos profligatorum hominum cotidianos impetus obiecissem.

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