I am a humanist, but not that kind of humanist. Humanism is a term that gets thrown around a lot these days—but like most terms that once had a strong philosophical foundation, humanism has been so thoroughly detached from its philosophical substance it is another empty term in public consciousness. That said, it is an important concept and one that Catholics should reclaim.
All students of philosophy, both irreligious and religious, will learn that humanism—whilst having antecedent roots in Cicero and Plotinus—was really the result of Catholic anthropology. Humanism, on one hand, is a life embodied by the art of reading and writing—“the man of letters.” But more explicitly as it relates to philosophy, humanism is the belief in human nature, that human nature has a telos (or end), and that the end of human nature is eudemonia (or happiness). Humanism also extols the dignity of mankind, seeing humanity as occupying a special place within the world—Judaism and Christianity call this dignity and specialness the imago Dei.
When studying humanism St. Augustine looms large. Augustine is widely seen as the father of humanism, and the tradition of anthropology that Augustine established helped shaped and form the emergence of humanism come the Renaissance and beyond. After all, part of the core of Augustine’s philosophy of the self, rational introspection, and the importance of reason to humans and humanity’s ability to understand oneself and one’s nature, was one’s search for understanding oneself, which led to the discovery of God since one is made in the image of God. True self-knowledge, then, is also a coming into communion with the Divine.
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The problem, however, with neo-Platonism’s proto-humanism was that it extolled only man’s capacity for reasoning. Reason may help cultivate virtue and push humans toward the want for knowledge of the One (the neo-Platonic conception of God), as Plotinus rightly knew, but neo-Platonism erred in never extolling the beauty and goodness of the human body or the material world. While the Manicheans and Gnostics were heretical Christians and heretical Platonists, there is a certain truth in seeing the heresy of the Manicheans and Gnostics as ultimately rooted in neo-Platonism’s tacit rejection of the goodness of matter. It was precisely this worrying tendency of seeking flight from the material world in neo-Platonism which had come to take on a theologized character in Manicheanism that Augustine confronted in Confessions.
This is the great achievement of Catholic humanism—it promotes a true dignity of the fullness of human nature, which includes the body. Everything that God decreed was good, and so too does this extend to materiality. Though through the Fall humans no longer have the harmonious union between eros and logos, which necessitated the incarnation of the Word to restore the imago, but not even the Fall renders the body and materiality evil. This is why the Apostle Paul obsesses over the importance of resurrection—which itself is the other half of the incarnational drama, without the resurrection of the dignified human body the incarnation of the Word loses its power.
The incarnation of the Word, in taking on material corporeality, brings an added dignity to the human body beyond simple creation and imago Dei. The importance of the Word becoming incarnate into the world is also important in understanding the restoration of imago Dei in Augustine’s anthropology. The incurvatus in se—the inward curve to the self—is the root of all sin; it is the attempt to find wisdom and happiness apart from the source of wisdom and happiness. In other words, “man is the judge of all things.” This was the Original Sin that destabilized the unity of desire and reason. The end result is humans seeking happiness through pure concupiscence without the ordering force of logos and being perpetually unsatisfied and alienated with their soul. Christ’s incarnation, since Christ is Word and wisdom—the logos as the Early Church understood—also embodies the unity of eros and logos, of desire and reason, in his perfect nature. The Word’s incarnation, as Augustine knew and wrote about in De Trinitate, reflects and embodies the highest calling man can strive for—the restoration of the imago Dei.
St. John Paul II best summarized this calling for excellence and dignity in Theology of the Body and in his constant claim that humans are “called for greatness.” Properly speaking, Catholic doctrine and Augustine’s philosophical anthropology does not view desire as something bad. It is something good—desire is written on the human heart for wisdom and happiness as the Catechism proclaims which should properly lead one to God. As Augustine wrote, “Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.” The problem of concupiscence is when it detaches itself from the source that it seeks.
Plotinus knew that man’s search for truth brought him into a henosis (union) with the One. But Plotinus’s work carries the implied detachment of reason from the body, something that Catholicism strongly opposes. Catholic concerns over “restriction” of bodily action is not a constraint against liberty, it is the highest promotion of liberty: true human flourishing. Those who denigrate their bodies, and their souls in the process, only grow more and more alienated and conflicted with themselves. We are called to greatness with dignity; it is startling that our society has greatness and dignity confused with alienation and denigration.
Today’s “humanism” is hardly the dignified humanism of Augustine, Giovanni Mirandola, or Erasmus. It is essentially an anti-humanism that rejects all the core tenets of traditional humanism and maintains the highest end of humanity is free choice to be whatever one wants to be. Basically modern “humanism,” which is no humanism at all, is a rebellion against humanism—the ultimate outcome of Hobbesian anthropology that reduces humanity to mere “matter in motion” with nothing more than an insatiable desire for power, consumption, and material self-advancement. The self-exhausting end to Hobbes’s materialist anthropology is trans-humanism, itself the logical end of the implicit atheism and sensual hedonism that his anthropological philosophy begets.
Rather than happiness being internal and rooted in the health of the soul, which when found and cultivated, dignifies the human body and the whole world, Hobbes and anthropological liberalism lowers the bar to the lowest common denominator in man. As Leo Strauss explained in Natural Right and History, Hobbes’s explicit hedonism and implicit atheism rejects the entire Greco-Christian ethical tradition of excellence. “Free Choice” rather than teleological flourishing, sensual hedonism rather than bodily dignity, and ethical egoism rather than common good, are the new heights for humanity to strive for. That is to say there is no striving for excellence at all.
The humanism of Hobbes, and the “secular humanism” of today, is no humanism at all. It advances a fallen man, rather than an incarnate Word, as the highest image of existence. It advocates for a modified Epicurean hedonism, rather than virtue ethics, as the highest calling for human behavior. It de-humanizes the human body, through an implicit atheism, and calls this de-humanized and exploited body true dignity. Secular humanism celebrates the destruction of the human body and the incurvatus in se as the highest expression of freedom and human flourishing.
Anthropology, which is the study and understanding of what it means to be human, has far reaching consequences regarding which school of anthropology dominates culture. Catholic philosophy inaugurated the elevation of anthropological philosophy precisely because Catholic philosophy, with its marriage to the incarnation of the Word, must get human nature and human existence right. At the heart of Catholic anthropology, which is ultimately founded in Augustine, values and extols the virtues of the body, magnanimity, and prizes ontological flourishing—life—as the heart of human existence and living.
Hobbesian anthropology, on the other hand—and Hobbes’s anthropology dominates the heart of Western liberalism—values egoism, emancipation, and is rooted in not harmony and life as Catholic anthropology is, but conflict and violent death. After all, Hobbes maintains that the starting point of human existence is not the harmony of man and God in a beatification vision, but a “war of all against all” in the state of nature that exhausts itself in a life that is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Hobbesian anthropology, and the Whiggish myth of progress, is flight from the human condition—it logically and necessarily exhausts itself in what C.S. Lewis called the “abolition of man.”
In Hobbes’s account humans are a random assortment of atoms bouncing off each other that propels us into motion. In Augustine’s account humans are made in love to love, in wisdom for wisdom, and in communion for communion. Happiness and flourishing is our end, not material possession, choice, or emancipation, and we know, as Catholics, where human flourishing is to be found. The happy human cannot be happy unless he is in communion with the source of the beatitudes. And culture will not beget life unless it has the source of life at its center.