23 October, 2009

liberal v. tragic humanism

Terry Eagleton has an enjoyable essay out in which he, inter alia, addresses the phenomenon of "new atheism" as preached by the likes of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. That is, an atheism that is more properly understood as rabidly anti-theism, and which believes in a crusade against the religious impulse rather than just a recognition of its limitations. Hitchen's brand of atheism has long bothered me, and I think Eagleton has a good explanation of why. Anti-theism has at its heart a naivete about the human condition. Not only does it not understand that irrationality and myth making is an abiding, necessary, and often very meaningful part of our natures, it has very facile and utopian views about the extent to which our supernatural impulses can be extricated through the application of rational analysis. In that way, it shares the flaws and dangers of all ideologies that believe that man can and should be "perfected".

That doesn't mean that we must embrace religion to be fully human, and Eagleton, like myself, still considers himself a humanist. Thus, his division between "liberal" humanism (a term that may admittedly spark confusion due to its seemingly redundant nature) and "tragic" humanism:

The distinction between Hitchens or Dawkins and those like myself comes down in the end to one between liberal humanism and tragic humanism. There are those who hold that if we can only shake off a poisonous legacy of myth and superstition, we can be free. Such a hope in my own view is itself a myth, though a generous-spirited one. Tragic humanism shares liberal humanism’s vision of the free flourishing of humanity, but holds that attaining it is possible only by confronting the very worst. The only affirmation of humanity ultimately worth having is one that, like the disillusioned post-Restoration Milton, seriously wonders whether humanity is worth saving in the first place, and understands Swift’s king of Brobdingnag with his vision of the human species as an odious race of vermin. Tragic humanism, whether in its socialist, Christian, or psychoanalytic varieties, holds that only by a process of self-dispossession and radical remaking can humanity come into its own. There are no guarantees that such a transfigured future will ever be born. But it might arrive a little earlier if liberal dogmatists, doctrinaire flag-wavers for Progress, and Islamophobic intellectuals got out of its way.


I'm suspicious of Eagleton's talk of "radical remaking", but I generally take his point. Humanism and liberalism can get far too optimistic for me, and conservatism usually has too much of religion, fatalism, moralism, and dogmatism to really get at what humanity is about. There is a need to recognize the tragedy of our "self-dispossession" and really own our fundamentally odious natures (which religion excels at, but whose medicine is worse than the disease), but at the same time affirm the agency, beauty and freedom of humanity. "Tragic humanism" gets close for me.

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