Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Descent of Man: Human, Post-Human, and Subhuman

At the time it first appeared, humanism seemed "a strange construction of... incommensurable parts" (Gillespie). Especially in hindsight it appears incompatible with Christianity, but only because of what it later became, long after it had shorn itself of its Christian roots.

From our transhistorical vantage point, it seems "an anti-Christian revival of pagan antiquity, a turn from what Nietzsche called slave morality to the master morality of the Greeks and Romans" (Gillespie). Remember, although ancient Greeks and Romans stressed virtue and honor, they also had no problem with infanticide, slavery, brutal torture, and horrible treatment of women.

And by the 20th century, this (per)version of humanism had prevailed. Christian humanism devolved to secular humanism, and here we sit today with the postmodern, post-literate, post-intellectual and post-noetic barbarians not only inside the gates, but in control of virtually all the disseminators of "culture" -- the news media, the arts, primary education, academia, professional organizations, and even perhaps most religions, e.g. the National Council of Churches, or reform Judaism (AKA, the Democrat Party with holidays thrown in).

Clearly, humanism answers a human need. But is it a legitimate need? Or, can it be made legitimate? The good news is that humanism "made the Renaissance and the modern world possible" (Gillespie). But one must immediately qualify that statement by noting that it also made the Renaissance and the modern world possible.

Is it really just a matter of all things human cutting both ways, of every blessing coming with a curse, and vice versa? Or, is there perhaps a proper way to be human? This is an idea that has always intrigued me, from my earliest days in graduate school. That is, when you train to be a clinical psychologist, you are training to be a "healer of souls." That being the case, there must be an explicit or implicit model of how a soul is supposed to function and what it is designed to "accomplish."

As I wrote in my book, only with the emergence of life do we have this new cosmic category called "pathology," because only when things need to go right, can something go wrong.

But the same holds true for the human subject. If it is not designed to do anything -- if it is just an absurd cosmic accident -- then it can have no intrinsic purpose and therefore no pathology. At best, "psychotherapy" would be purely analgesic, just a matter of reducing pain (or increasing pleasure) -- even when the pain is providing critical feedback about a life wrongly lived. But that is precisely the problem: you cannot say that a person is living his life "wrongly" if there is no ultimate purpose to life.

Recently our resident troll articulated the humanist position with his characteristic coarseness, that this is indeed a chaotic and meaningless cosmos except for the "meaning" that human beings invent and impose upon it. The whole problem with this approach is that this is not "meaning" properly so called, any more than a paranoid delusion is meaningful. Rather, it is pretending that the meaningless is meaningful, precisely. Frankly, I have much more respect for the secular humanist who is intellectually consistent, and who lives life as a true nihilist and anarchist.

But no human can consistently live this way, because it is not human to do so. Nor is it even "animalistic," for animals are anything but nihilistic. Rather, they well understand the purpose of their lives, and are never at a loss for "what to do." To paraphrase Schuon, animal instinct is their "collective intellect," whereas for man, the intellect properly so called is his instinct. We are born to know, and not only that; rather, we are born to know truth, otherwise our knowledge is ultimately of "nothing."

Nor is there any intrinsic limit to what a human may know. That is, he may know, and know absolutely. Or, you could say that he knows that the Absolute exists, if only because he can absolutely deny it, as do the neo-retro-atheists.

The question is, what is man that man should be mindful of him? You will have noticed that the more secular humanism "succeeds" in its project, the more it fails, because it converts potential humans into infra-humans exiled from their own spiritual archetype, their own salvation. Rampant narcissism, the cult of celebrity, neo-pagan body mutilation, the exaltation of the instincts, the most base impulses and sentiments masquerading as art -- if that is what humans are, who needs them?

But again, this is only a crude caricature of humanism cut off from the very impulses that brought it into being. The answer is surely not to suppress the human, as they do in the Islamic world, or in Communist China or Korea, or on leftist campuses, with their politically correct thought police, oppressive speech codes, and coercive totolerantarianism. Note the irony that they too have their implicit idea of what it is to be a proper human, but that it is imposed from on high, when one of the inviolable features of a true humanism would be the freedom to discover this on one's own.

Again, Petrarch tried to steer a middle course, on the one hand rejecting "Aristotelianism on essentially nominalist grounds," but also rejecting "the nominalist contention that God's omnipotence made all human freedom impossible." To a large extent, the new humanists found their inspiration in some of the earliest Christians, who were not only more intimate with ancient, pre-Christian wisdom, but also free of the institutional corruption that had gradually developed during the middle ages.

What makes a human a human? We cannot merely be rational beings, for if that is the case, then the ideal man is more of a machine than a human. In that model, the least human would be the most human, an obvious absurdity (which is why naive positivists and materialists such as Charles the Queeg are so creepy to us).

Rather, Petrarch regarded humans as primarily willing beings, which immediately goes to the question of freedom. Although reason can never account for man's freedom, if his freedom operates outside reason, then it is no longer free. Rather, it is merely "absence of constraint," which is neither here nor there. In this regard, the existentialists are absolutely correct that freedom without truth is nothingness, so that to embrace the nothingness makes one more human. An absurdity, yes, but existentialism does not pretend to be otherwise, which is to say, other than wise.

Way out of time. To be continued....


River Cocytus said...

The 'imago dei' that humans have (which we would hold separates them - or can - from the beasts) consists of three things, I am told: Free will, uniqueness and relation.

The complements to these three are reason, distinction, and incompleteness, I believe. I think I might work out why I think this is. We struggle always with our individuality because to disclose individuality as the highest thing is to preclude at least relation (and thus the source of our growth) or to disclose freedom or reason.

Petey said...

That makes a lot of sense. Absolute freedom = Father. Absolute Uniqueness = son. Absolute relation = Holy Spirit.

Anonymous said...

... the "meaning" that human beings invent and impose upon it. The whole problem with this approach is that this is not "meaning" properly so called, any more than a paranoid delusion is meaningful.

... one of the inviolable features of a true humanism would be the freedom to discover this on one's own.

So, your contention is that we are free, but only free to discover what is already there, not to create meaning ourselves. Seems like a pretty poor version of freedom to me, although I guess it's an interesting point of view. It strikes me as much more deterministic and materialistic in flavor than existentialism. Apparently our nature is fixed and all we can do is conform to it or not.

Perhaps the middle ground you are looking for is the viewpoint that humans are participants in the creation, which is ongoing. We don't impose order on chaos, nor are we merely subservient to an external order. Instead we contribute our little bit of ordered creativity into a world which is full of both chaos and existing structure.

Northern Bandit said...


only free to discover what is already there

That's what the word "discover" means, dude! How can you discover something that doesn't exist?

You can create something which doesn't exist (e.g., Art) however that's a different matter.

Petey said...

Really, its just a matter of reinstating formal and final causation, without which nothing makes sense anyway.

Petey said...

I might add that we are "lured" by a hyperdimensional archetype that is inexhaustible in its potential, so it's hardly as if there is some "static" thing that one is to become. Rather, to a large extent, moving toward it is being it -- or, its being infuses our willing, thinking, and creating.

mushroom said...

I tend to think of art as discovery, too.

Van said...

"Rather, Petrarch regarded humans as primarily willing beings, which immediately goes to the question of freedom. Although reason can never account for man's freedom, if his freedom operates outside reason, then it is no longer free. Rather, it is merely "absence of constraint," which is neither here nor there."

Exactly right. In the absence of correct restraint there is no Freedom, only incompletion, error and chaos, as is obedience to incorrect constraint. There can of course be no freedom without free will, and unless the person is willing (and acting) in a correct manner, nothing will be created but error and illusion.

aninnymouse said "...only free to discover what is already there..."

You're free to make up whatever you want, but freedom is not free to make error equal to accuracy... if you make, and persist, in error, you are free to imagine you've made something worthwhile, and to evade acknowledging that things aren't adding up, but those who've correct their errors and seen correctly, will correctly see your creation as mere chaos.

Acting 'freely' without attaining correctness, isn't Freedom, it's just pointless activity twitching across the canvass.

For our willing to have a possibility of real meaning, it first of all must have the possibility of being in error, but also there must exist an actual correctness, Truth, which it seeks after, and which forms the shape of those constraints.

Capital "R" Reason is the process of combining knowledge, calculation and imagination towards the resolution of a goal. That goal, to be worthwhile, has got to be directed towards (from?) the ideal One, of which the individual is a Many, of.

Many... an incomplete representation of the One? Hmmm....

An example of a notion... there's an 'optical illusion' picture out there somewhere, which shows in place of what would be a cone, it's lower half drawn in solid lines rising half way up from the base, changing to dashed lines extending further up, and then disappearing just before the apex, which is marked with a single dot for it's point. The inner I, when it looks at this 'sees' the missing lines; you see the cone, even though a portion of the lines are discontinuous or missing.

In this illustration, Knowledge, is the memory of (presumed) correct integrations previously made, their inter-relations, our actions and experiences shading the lines in more and more, forming solid lines extending from the base and up through the sides, they supply shape and give guidance and lead the inner I to see upwards through the dashed or imagined lines which expectantly follow from them, and draw our vision to see what is not yet there, but must exist, extending towards the final point.

If we've drawn the solid lines of memory incorrectly, our Knowledge will be out of angle and the shape will not hold. We are constantly seeking after the correct angle and shape for those lines, and the hope of correctness, of perfection, keeps the imperfect infused with spirit in anticipation of correctly drawing and completing the shape.


coonified said...

About art...do you guys believe that art is primarily the disclosure of essences, as in creating a representation that approximates the good, beautiful and true? Or can anything useful--as in information-- that emerges out of the unconscious, like images or symbols that reflect primordial worlds in the Jungian sense, also be considered art in a way?

While in the first case, inspiration is the primary condition of the arts existence, the latter seems to be only informative in the sense of patterning out and making objective the negative part that is usually hidden from the normative type. Both obviously involve a revealing and permeation from the outside of some sort, but a difference remains in that one preoccupies itself with the supremely good object, and the other with the negative object.

Like you said, though. People often numb themselves to the greatest indicator of "of a life lived wrong"--pain...and pleasure. If a picture exposes this pain, is it a lessor art for being depressed? Is it bound to mere utility, of being a map to study, or a picture to remember how vain things can be if we don't turn the right direction. W. Blake, for e.g., was certainly not only focused on the mythological good. There is also the bad: demons, soul of a flea (personification of natural forces), and poems like the chimney sweeper and others.

Alot of art now days, and maybe in the past (I don't know), seems to be that of a degraded aestheticism, or the elevation of misdirected emotion over the proper direction of the psyche. People just don't know that there's a difference between a misdirected emotion exteriorized, and one that is properly channeled towards permanent things, i.e, Principles, etc, etc.

It's important for the reason that ones definition of art, the definition that a person is most heavily invested in, paints a pretty accurate picture of what that person might look if the same artistic force translates and ripples over into other categories like morality or science.

Just some thoughts.

coonified said...

Avatar is the most horrible movie I've seen in a while, btw. Horrible. But the kids love it!

Northern Bandit said...

Yeah Avatar is the absolute distillation of neo-pagan, anti-American utopian leftist fantasies. Awesome technology though, which no other country on earth could have produced.

julie said...

I'm with Mushroom re. Art - it is discovery, or at its best it is revelation. Either way, it discloses a truth. Even, at times, an unpleasant truth.

Perhaps the key is that it does not glorify the negative, but rather shows things as they are, which may have very little to do with how they appear to the blinded eye. For instance, that awful image of Obama Bob had up a couple weeks back: it actually was painful to look at. It reflected a revealed truth, as the artist saw it, which was decidedly horrid. A representation of the lower vertical, so to speak. Though I'd guess that in the eyes of those adjusted to the darkness, they see something of the higher vertical in it, and might call it beautiful.

I'd add that sometimes abstract art is revelation, as well - but only when it internalizes certain universal truths/ structures about what makes an image Art. Just as there's a fine balance between freeform jazz and random chaotic noise.

julie said...

See here for visual examples. Especially today's.

Van said...

I think that Art, in the schematic sense, is a selective representation of the Artist's values. Explicitly, or implicitly, the Artist reveals their soul, and through our response to it, we reveal ours.

And it seems to me that the Artist and the viewer may not necessarily see the same scene either... much of what is revealed is subjective, and what the Artist chooses to portray in their art, and the style they transmit it through, affects how clear or unclear any 'message' they have may be, but then I think that's secondary to the Art's revelation.

The more objective the contents of the art, the more clear the composition, the more crisp the stylization, the more likely it is that the Artist and the viewer (consumer?) will be able to reap a similar revelation from it... but that assumes a lot of commonalities between them to begin with, as well as whether the theme of the Art (and the soul that is being revealed) is a high or low one.

Here's a fine place to browse through several different styles of master artists, as well as interesting essays on them.

Northern Bandit said...

The fulsome stench of raw scientism permeates
(where else?) Berkeley nowadays. What is it with such people? How is it that they seem so unable to think clearly about anything at all?

They are prone to blatant absurcular reasoning: for example, the fashionable idea of adaptive behavior in humans called "reciprocal altruism". Despite the piles of PhDs and this benighted elite seems oblivious that if something is reciprocal then it is not altruism by definition, and vice versa.

Yet this codswallop is the height of sophistication on the academic cocktail party circuit (or so my academic pals tell me).


tao9 said...

Way OT & late to the party (haven't posted here since 2008):

Bob or anyone seen "The Book of Eli" ?

It is good.


Anonymous said...

NB: have you considered the possibility that all those PhDs might be right and you simply don't understand what they are talking about? I know, difficult to imagine. I also can't really figure out why you would find the cited article so offensive. Everything humans do has a biological basis, what's so horrible about trying to tease those out?

Reciprocal altruism is primarily a phenomenon of animal behavior, and like all such phenomenon is found in humans in radically altered forms, if at all. Its reality as a natural phenomenon is entirely independent of whether it is "really" altruism by your definition or anyone else's. Technical terms often often mean something different from the vernacular words they derive from.

In evolutionary biology, an organism is said to behave altruistically when its behaviour benefits other organisms, at a cost to itself. The costs and benefits are measured in terms of reproductive fitness, or expected number of offspring. So by behaving altruistically, an organism reduces the number of offspring it is likely to produce itself, but boosts the number that other organisms are likely to produce. This biological notion of altruism is not identical to the everyday concept. In everyday parlance, an action would only be called ‘altruistic’ if it was done with the conscious intention of helping another. But in the biological sense there is no such requirement. Indeed, some of the most interesting examples of biological altruism are found among creatures that are (presumably) not capable of conscious thought at all, e.g. insects.

Anonymous said...

Bob, you ask a lot of questions, make alot of conjecture as if these things were in any doubt.

However, you already know the answers. There is nothing actually in contention here.

You are posing "thorny" questions to your readers, but I daresay you are not confused at all. You know who you are and what you are doing.
You know "the score" quite well.

Am I right?

And there is a reason for that. You could do us all a favor by not playing "coy." Give it to us straight.

If you had no other audience but yourself, would you maunder on about the foibles of the existentialists in the grassy meadows of your mind?

I think not.

Write to us as you partake of Knowledge in your deeper sections, the ones you reserve for yourself.

That may more helpful guidance to your "flock" than the re-tread intellectual "controversies" you are setting out for sale here.

Your instinct is to teach, and to keep it somewhat conventional, but I say, go ahead and unveil yourself without reserve.

Does the world need another professor? Not likely.

Does it need another seer?

Aye,that it could.

What is the worse that could happen?

tao9 said...

Back OnT:

Chesterton's biography makes the case that St. Francis himself made, if you will, "...the Renaissance and the modern world possible." Poet, troubador, soldier, saint.

Ortega y Gasset speaks of the unassailable feeling man has of being lost, disoriented, and that the day-to-day "orientation" he does feel he possesess is simply an inventory of materiality and a repertory of received "convictions."

His conclusion is that being "lost" is true condition and the gateway to transcendence and the immanence of consciousness--a soul.
(Some Lessons on Metaphysics; Norton, 1969)

The great thing is that the "Lessons" are his transcribed lecture notes from a class he gave at Salamanca in 1932. Too bad there's no video!

Gagdad Bob said...

"What is the worse that could happen?"

The worst? More readers like you.

mushroom said...

"Hearing you shall hear and not understand, and seeing you shall see and perceive; ...Lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, so that I should heal them." -- Matthew 13:14,15 -- Jesus quoting Isaiah 6:9,10

That used to be a much more troubling verse to me than it is now.

coonified said...

"And it seems to me that the Artist and the viewer may not necessarily see the same scene either... much of what is revealed is subjective"

True that. I've gotten into a couple of "arguments" lately about whether or not lil Wayne or Allen Ginsberg qualify as poets. You probably know what I say about the issue, but my "opinions" still don't keep some from thinking that they are "able to distinguish fine art when [they] see it;” And there drops another facebook "friend," not that I need anyone else at the moment anyway.

But just as the trinity relates to ontology as such and all the rest to the realms of cosmology, i.e., all other numbers, or etc, etc, and all that, I suppose what I’m tryin’ to do, what my “subjective” element is trying to do, is to elevate and distinguish an art that relates to and translates downward trough symbolism and even language (the word) the resolve of fallen nature back into virginal primordial nature, which I suppose is itself a sort of art of God, or something analogous to it.

Art of God vs. profane art…Just tryin’ to work it out.

Anonymous said...

When one compares the end result of other living entities with the innumerable purposefull marvels and wonders of their material composition, it does appear as far as purpose goes, that the whole is lesser than the sum of it's parts. As far as purpose is concerned with man, he can say - I am therefore I think.

Warren said...


>> Despite the piles of PhDs

"Despite"? Don't you mean "because of"?

And the fact of Aninny taking issue with you should greatly bolster your confidence in your statements.

Warren said...

>> go ahead and unveil yourself without reserve

Yeah, or maybe you could talk Dupree into exposing himself to us. (Just give us fair warning beforehand, m'kay?)

Van said...

Best argument for materialism and determinism ever:

I heard Howard "Yeargghhh!!!" Dean to Rachel Maddow when she asked him if Coakley was at falt for losing 'their seat'

Dean says “A lot of this isn’t anybodies fault…uh… well, except maybe George Bush’s…

NoMo said...

Never thought I'd be saying this, but "thanks Teddy!".

That's a twist.

son of a preacher man said...

coonifed said:

"I suppose what I’m tryin’ to do, what my “subjective” element is trying to do, is to elevate and distinguish an art that relates to and translates downward trough symbolism and even language (the word) the resolve of fallen nature back into virginal primordial nature,..."

May I suggest everything by Hank Williams Sr.

NoMo said...

a better link