Posts Tagged ‘humanism’

Idle dreaming

March 1, 2013

Heard the harp this morning, on the heels of a strange and intricate dream involving a visit with Eric Idle at his English country estate, which was somehow laid out on a pattern based on his Galaxy Song [2012].

I don’t usually place much stock in dreams but this one was fairly vivid. But, a quick search turns up nothing about an English estate. He lives in LA. His auto-biography  is interesting, though.

Not sure that was worth getting up to report. Now for something completely different…

More good midterm reports yesterday, from Evan on Performance Enhancing Drugs in sports, Celecita on happiness, Sean on Batman the fatalist-deontologist, and Andrew on free will. All helped me think more about how to respond to the implied (yet good-natured) misanthropy of Vincent’s report the day before, the one he introduced with this image:

save planet

I’ll bet she’s fun at a party.

It’s true enough that too many people tread the earth too heavily, and that we’d all be better off with a lighter collective footprint. If we’re talking about culling the excess, I have a list of names I’d like to start with. Many live (part-time) and “work” in the District of Columbia.  I don’t think they’ll report voluntarily to Vincent’s euthanasia chamber. (Captain Kirk explained the trouble with those back in the future of my childhood.)

But much as we’re a problem, we humans are also the only likely bearers of a solution in sight. If saving the planet means exterminating the humans, count me out. I love horses and whales but I’m finally still a humanist, maybe even a bit of a speciesist. I think we can do better.

[Einstein was a humanist. But so is Seth MacFarlane, named Harvard’s Humanist of the Year in 2011. He’s behind Neil Tyson’s new Cosmos, too. Guess there’s more to him than vulgar bears and stupid boob songs.]

I’ve always assumed that choosing to “do better” implied a robust affirmation of free will, and I still think my own motivational psychology requires something like that. But Andrew gave the best succinct answer I’ve heard to the classic pragmatic question on this interminably insoluble issue: What practical difference does  it make to any of us, whether we possess free will or not?

The difference is one of focus: instead of appealing to each individual to do better, to pull him- or herself up by his or her own moral bootstraps, an enlightened-but-determined society would concentrate its efforts on improving the psycho-social-material environment. With better “inputs,” Andrew said, we’ll all do better.

I agree. Let’s not “throw the moral business overboard,” in William James’s memorable phrase. Let’s not give up on one another.

“Thank you Plato”

November 16, 2012

Thank you Shakespeare, thank you Jane Austen!

That’s what Alain de Botton imagines “religious atheists” exclaiming in “church,” instead of Thank you Jesus!

Well, no thank you. But it’s a good TED Talk anyway, a nice complement to Don Cupitt’s Jungian nonrealist God-talk (that we talked about yesterday in CoPhi). And, conveniently in time for the holidays and the latest “war on XMAS“!

Alain de Botton is of course a humanist, like Don Cupitt. “Commitment to co-humanity has become my religion,” says former Father Cupitt. Humanists aren’t in it for merely-personal salvation, they seek more and better life here and now. If you don’t believe in heaven or hell or god, as Edrell said in class yesterday, you’re going to want to make life on earth as beautiful as can be. It’ll never be “perfect” by Plato’s standards or even by ours, but surely we can make it better.

So on that note: please sign our petition. Thanks. “God” bless.

Saturday morning humanism

August 18, 2012

Awoke to these fine words of the great humanist Erasmus. (Desiderius Erasmus, not “Erasmus B. Draggin.” With the Magliozzi’s lamented departure I must take my Saturday morning wisdom where I find it.)

Why should I desire a temple when the whole world is my temple? Nor can I want priests but in a land where there are no men… And therefore there is no reason why I should envy the rest of the gods if in particular places they have their particular worship, and that too on set days—as Phoebus at Rhodes; at Cyprus, Venus; at Argos, Juno; at Athens, Minerva; in Olympus, Jupiter… so long as the world in general performs me every day much better sacrifices.

Of course, every temple has corners in need of attention, renovation, or replacement. But I’d have to concur, on balance the  world “’tis a goodly one” much of the time.

And so I’ve not “wasted another perfectly good hour…”

Humanism for all

March 19, 2012

We’re into the 15th century in Co-Phi, commencing JMH‘s discussion of The Printing Press and the Age of Martyrs. We begin with

Zen, Renaissance & Reformation, Pomponazzi & Macchiavelli, “School of Athens,” Copernicus

This was a seed-time for Buddhism, and Nagarjuna was one of the chief gardeners. He out-Buddha’d Buddha, denying not only the reality of the self but also the possibility of repudiating it. “There is not any right doctrine,” just meditations seeking enlightenment.

The Japanese Zen master and haiku poet Ikkyu Sojun was on the Spartan side of Buddhism too.

We eat, excrete, sleep, and get up; This is our world/ All we have to do beyond that/ Is to die.

Now that’s a minimalist! (But don’t forget the Eros.) It must not have been a Buddhist who said life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans. (I don’t think John Lennon was a Buddhist, but Yoko maybe?)

But, with Halloween approaching we can better appreciate his timely dream of pontificating Buddhist skeletons. [Never mind about Halloween... April Fool's Day maybe?]  Babble about “God” and  ”the Buddha” and you will never find the true Way. The true Way makes skeletons of us all. As Woody Allen once said, it’s important to recall that one day we’ll all “thin out” and should hope to be well thought-of when we do.

So my concern about the sensualist monk would be that he look to his legacy, and not squander his only embodied opportunity to contribute positively to the great and ongoing human story. We’re all dead in the long run, but those we touch are not all dead yet.

I wonder, too, if Ikkyu Sojun wasn’t also impressed by William James’s insight that life in the flesh, besides its potential for great passing pleasure, is also a vehicle for natural transcendence? James said: “I am sorry for anyone who has never been touched by the spell of this mysterious sensorial life, with its irrationality & supreme felicity.”

The Renaissance was the rebirth of ancient wisdom, midwifed by Petrarch and others in their infatuation with Cicero and the “sturdy and virile” Stoics, and in their rejection of “the stupid Aristotelians” and their regurgitated syllogisms. As we noted the other day, this was the seminal moment of Humanism.

Who are humanists? Glad you asked.

Pioneers of Renaissance Humanism were inspired by the discovery and spread of important classical texts from ancient Greece and Rome which offered a different vision of life and humanity than what had been common during previous centuries of Christian domination.

There are all kinds of humanists, not all of whom explicitly or implicitly (as JMH suggests) exalt science above faith. Besides the notorious and villified (but usually quite harmless) Secular Humanists, there are American Humanistsreligious humanistsChristian humanists, pragmatic-pluralist humanists, Unitarian Universalist humanists, humanists who subscribe to Manifestos, and more. It’s a coalition of humanists and secularists who have organized next weekend’s Reason Rally in Washington.

People like Rick Santorum are sick of the separation between church and state, as defended by JFK. Humanists are sick of people like Santorum.

It may be difficult to generalize about humanists and secularists, but what they do all exalt is the priority of human welfare on earth as the most appropriate locus of human concern. Raphael’s School of Athens captures the mood precisely in Aristotle’s earth-first gesture. (Raphael evidently did not share Petrarch’s contempt for The Philosopher.)

Aristotle of Stagira (384 – 322 BC) (according to Dante Alighieri “The Master of those who know“) stretches his hand. He holds a copy of his Nichomachean Ethics – and he indicates with his gesture the worldliness, the concreteness, of his contributions to philosophy… Does his brown and blue colored clothes represent the two elements water and earth (probably to show that his philosophy is grounded, material), whereas Plato’s two colors represent fire and air?

Philosophy Professor Pietro Pamponazzi of Padua and Bologna, “doubt’s philosopher,” like me “fundamentally peripatetic,” defied Pope Leo’s condemnation of mortality. All his books “concluded that the soul is mortal.” He was a straight shooter:

One of his students demanded a straight answer on the question of the soul, “leaving aside revelation and miracles, and remaining entirely within natural limits.” The straight answer was that he agreed with Aristotle and Averroes that the independent soul of a human being needs its body, and it exists only in its body.

And, in a claim of special interest to me and my students in “Atheism & Philosophy,” he “rejected the idea that people need threats of heaven and hell in order to be moral.” Even my dogs know that… or at least they act like they do. The fire-and-brimstone screamers who periodically camp in front of our student center could learn a thing or two about canine virtue.

Pomponazzi (like the guy in the video below) also spurned ghosts, demons, and angels. And here’s the most surprising fact about him, in this age of martyrs: he “lived a full life… and was considered the greatest Aristotelian of Italy.”

Niccolo Machiavelli “was not the conniving politico his name implies nowadays” but he does sound Nietzschean: “These [Christian] principles seem to me to have made men feeble.”

Luther was no peripatetic, and no scholastic. “In vain does one fashion a logic of faith,” in fact he said rational proofs deny  faith. “The Holy Spirit is no Skeptic,” a claim JMH calls “Luther’s gift to the history of doubt.” But plenty of the faithful had their doubts. “If we do not trust the Church to know the truth,” as Luther implied we should not, “why should we trust ourselves?”

Calvin was even nastier than our previous text let on, ordering people burned and decapitated for disagreeing with his theology. But recall, his theology entails predestination and the foreknowledge of an omniscient God. What could those “practical atheists” have done differently? Where’s the sense in punishing them for what they couldn’t change?

Nicolas Copernicus, the great heliocentrist, did not quite own up to his own Copernican Revolution. On his deathbed he said the solar-centered view was useful for calculations. Practically true, pragmatists would say. True plain and simple, most of us are now prepared to go out on a limb and say aloud.

Here to talk about Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, the death of heliocentrism, and the rise of scientific humanism is the author of Demon-haunted World:

So, Groups Five, you can research Copernicus (et al)  if you want to know more than our text delivers, or– if you prefer– read on and ask us some questions about Francois Rabelais, whose poetically-dedicated posthumous words seem to leave little doubt as to his state of belief. “Sleep, gluttony, wine, women, jest and jibe: these were my gods, my only gods.” If that sounds glib, read Gargantua’s letter to Pantagruel. It’s deeply thoughtful and profound, about death’s legacy (“…in you and by you, I shall remain in visible form here in this world”) and with an emboldening message we still need to hear, these many centuries later: Nowadays the humanist’s life is available to all.

“The Swerve”

December 23, 2011

The Swerve may sound like another baseball book, like a secret hidden pitch, but in fact it’s the story of the “hidden natural explanation for everything that alarms or eludes you,” namely atoms: it’s all “atoms and void and nothing else.”

But “nothing else” is very misleading. Stephen Greenblatt‘s account of how the fifteenth century rediscovery of LucretiusDe Rerum Natura modernized and humanized the world is chock full of unexpected atomic configurations. One of them is Montaigne‘s cosmic speculation about going around the wheel more than once. It’s an intriguing, demystified, naturalistic intimation of Nietzsche’s version of the ancient hypothesis of eternal recurrence:

“Since the movements of the atoms are so varied,” he wrote, “it is not unbelievable that the atoms once came together in this way, or that in the future they will come together like this again, giving birth to another Montaigne.”

And if you can believe that, is there much you can’t believe?

But it’s far truer to the spirit of Lucretius’ hero Epicurus (and to his heroes Leucippus and Democritus) to recognize the incredible improbability of the swerves that resulted in you and me. The fundamental humanist insight is that we probably go around just this once and had better grab our gusto while we can.

I do love the way Greenblatt concludes, with Thomas Jefferson’s proud, fearless, under-sung declaration: “I am an Epicurean.”

The printing press and the age of martyrs, part 1

October 26, 2011

We’re into the 15th century in Co-Phi, commencing JMH‘s discussion of The Printing Press and the Age of Martyrs. We begin with

Zen, Renaissance & Reformation, Pomponazzi & Macchiavelli, “School of Athens,” Copernicus

This was a seed-time for Buddhism, and Nagarjuna was one of the chief gardeners. He out-Buddha’d Buddha, denying not only the reality of the self but also the possibility of repudiating it. “There is not any right doctrine,” just meditations seeking enlightenment.

The Japanese Zen master and haiku poet Ikkyu Sojun was on the Spartan side of Buddhism too.

We eat, excrete, sleep, and get up; This is our world/ All we have to do beyond that/ Is to die.

Now that’s a minimalist! It must not have been a Buddhist who said life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans. (I don’t think John Lennon was a Buddhist, but Yoko maybe?)

But, with Halloween approaching we can better appreciate his timely dream of pontificating Buddhist skeletons. Babble about “God” and  “the Buddha” and you will never find the true Way. The true Way makes skeletons of us all. As Woody Allen once said, it’s important to recall that one day we’ll all “thin out” and should hope to be well thought-of when we do.

The Renaissance was the rebirth of ancient wisdom, midwifed by Petrarch and others in their infatuation with Cicero and the “sturdy and virile” Stoics, and in their rejection of “the stupid Aristotelians” and their regurgitated syllogisms. As we noted the other day, this was the seminal moment of Humanism.

There are all kinds of humanists, not all of whom explicitly or implicitly (as JMH suggests) exalt science above faith. Besides the notorious and villified (but usually quite harmless) Secular Humanists, there are American Humanistsreligious humanists, Christian humanists, pragmatic-pluralist humanists, Unitarian Universalist humanists, humanists who subscribe to Manifestos, and more.

What they do all exalt is the priority of human welfare on earth as the most appropriate locus of human concern. Raphael’s School of Athens captures the mood precisely in Aristotle’s earth-first gesture. (Raphael evidently did not share Petrarch’s contempt for The Philosopher.)

Aristotle of Stagira (384 – 322 BC) (according to Dante Alighieri “The Master of those who know“) stretches his hand. He holds a copy of his Nichomachean Ethics – and he indicates with his gesture the worldliness, the concreteness, of his contributions to philosophy… Does his brown and blue colored clothes represent the two elements water and earth (probably to show that his philosophy is grounded, material), whereas Plato’s two colors represent fire and air?

Philosophy Professor Pietro Pamponazzi of Padua and Bologna, “doubt’s philosopher,” like me “fundamentally peripatetic,” defied Pope Leo’s condemnation of mortality. All his books “concluded that the soul is mortal.” He was a straight shooter:

One of his students demanded a straight answer on the question of the soul, “leaving aside revelation and miracles, and remaining entirely within natural limits.” The straight answer was that he agreed with Aristotle and Averroes that the independent soul of a human being needs its body, and it exists only in its body.

And, in a claim of special interest to me and my future students in next semester’s “Atheism & Philosophy” course, he “rejected the idea that people need threats of heaven and hell in order to be moral.” Even my dogs know that… or at least they act like they do. The fire-and-brimstone screamers who periodically camp in front of our student center could learn a thing or two about canine virtue.

Pomponazzi also spurned ghosts, demons, and angels. And here’s the most surprising fact about him, in this age of martyrs: he “lived a full life… and was considered the greatest Aristotelian of Italy.”

Niccolo Machiavelli “was not the conniving politico his name implies nowadays” but he does sound Nietzschean: “These [Christian] principles seem to me to have made men feeble.”

Luther was no peripatetic, and no scholastic. “In vain does one fashion a logic of faith,” in fact he said rational proofs deny  faith. “The Holy Spirit is no Skeptic,” a claim JMH calls “Luther’s gift to the history of doubt.” But plenty of the faithful had their doubts. “If we do not trust the Church to know the truth,” as Luther implied we should not, “why should we trust ourselves?”

Calvin was even nastier than our previous text let on, ordering people burned and decapitated for disagreeing with his theology. But recall, his theology entails predestination and the foreknowledge of an omniscient God. What could those “practical atheists” have done differently? Where’s the sense in punishing them for what they couldn’t change?

Nicolas Copernicus, the great heliocentrist, did not quite own up to his own Copernican Revolution. On his deathbed he said the solar-centered view was useful for calculations. Practically true, pragmatists would say. True plain and simple, most of us are now prepared to go out on a limb and say aloud.

So, Groups Five, you can research Copernicus if you want to know more than our text delivers, or– if you prefer– read on and ask us some questions about Francois Rabelais, whose poetically-dedicated posthumous words seem to leave little doubt as to his state of belief. “Sleep, gluttony, wine, women, jest and jibe: these were my gods, my only gods.” If that sounds glib, read Gargantua’s letter to Pantagruel. It’s deeply thoughtful and profound.

NOTE TO STUDENTS: Thursday’s scheduled exam  in H1 & SOL has been moved to Tuesday. If you have questions you want considered for inclusion, post ‘em to the class blog by Saturday.

Maimonides and other medieval doubters

October 24, 2011

We’re still looping JMH’s medieval Mediterranean loop, with Maimonides, The Zohar, the Scholastics, Ockham, and Nicholas. But (NOTE TO STUDENTS) we’ll have to loop quickly because midterm report presentations begin today, and we’ll be reviewing too.

Moses Maimonides was thrilled by “Falsafah” but also committed to the faith of his fathers. Guide for the Perplexed tried to straddle belief in prophecy and rationalism, while upholding the pretense of unspoken “secret knowledge.” But surely our deepest perplexity is not for unspilled secrets, it’s simply a reflection of our conflicted yearning for “rationality” in the face of ancient ancestral superstitions that command our most reflexive loyalties. We want to keep faith with community and tradition, a faith perceived as “indispensable in regulating our social relations.” But we want also to reason our way out of the hole of ignorance and fear. (“What do you mean, we?” Good question.)

People need religion for political and emotional reasons; [but] for ideas our best options are reason, meditation, and resignation. Maimonides saw “the mass of religious people” as “the multitude who observe the commandments, but are ignorant.” He argues that when ancient information, either that of Aristotle or the Jewish sages, is contradicted by the growth of a scientific discipline, the ancient information must be discarded in favor of truth.

The Dalai Lama has said strikingly similar things. He and Maimonides would evidently agree: One “should never cast reason behind him, for the eyes are set in front, not in back.”

The Zohar, on the other hand, “claimed that Jewish law did not need to be defended rationally at all, for its gestures were part of the secret-knowledge rites that had to be done to fix the broken world.” Secrets again, invoked to justify the suspension of reason. Don’t believe it, “naive popular belief” needs no favors.

On the subject of Jewish (and other) mysticism, it occurs to me that my colleague Rabbi Rami Shapiro– with his occasional talk of God being manifest in everything– is a kind of mystic. On the other hand, to the extent that he talks much more than occasionally on this and many other themes of ultimate concern, he’s not a mystic at all. The whole point of philosophizing and theologizing is to seek the right words, or at least better ones, while the most committed mystics have given up on the power of language to compass reality. I’ll have to ask him about that.

Rami on religion:

At its best religion is about personal freedom, social justice, compassion for all living things, and realizing your connection with God. At its worst it is about power and control. Religion is rarely at its best.

Well, who or what ever is? (But did you see Game #3? Albert often is at his best.) [Postscript: did you see games #4-5? Success is often rewarded with over-attention. Oh those bases on balls.]

Gersonides agreed with Aristotle: “God had no knowledge of the goings-on of life” and could not be “thanked, praised, or petitioned.” Not a view likely to appeal to those patronized “masses.” Not much of a God either, with all his omni-attributes shelved or axed. Who needs Him? Just some old philosophers, mostly.

How do you nurture a mystic? Besides having  your pupil read Gersonides, I mean? You could follow Hildegard’s path.

Hildegard was only eight when she was sent to a wealthy Benedictine convent… She said she had visions from a young age, and she wrote tomes full of vibrant allegorical visions and charges of impiety.

Writing about visions: there’s something paradoxically heightening about the act, but also something inimical to the vision’s claim to mystic purity and authenticity. But maybe that’s only if it’s not your own vision, I s’pose, and true mystics aren’t that concerned with sharing vision. Anyway, Hildegard was one impressive lady.

And then, the Spanish Inquisition.  Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition. Is it still too soon to joke? But it was no joke when “in 1492 the Jews of Spain were  given three months to leave or convert.” Under the circumstances it’s not hard to understand the appeal of mysticism and the desire of the displaced to find something savory in exile.

The Scholastics too are usually parodied, and deservedly so in my opinion. But none of them really “argued about how many angels danced on the head of a pin” or soundless trees falling in forests. Nobody worth discussing, anyway. Too bad, it would make a good Python skit.

Aquinas may not have argued about angels but he was one scholastic who was very good at identifying other arguments of all kinds, including a “little beauty” suggesting that all of nature can be accounted for by rational principles, hence “no need to suppose God’s existence.” A saint said that!

Ockham had a famous razor, but what does it mean? What is the “simplest explanation possible in all things” and how do you know it when you hear it?

Nicholas of Autrecourt was called “the medieval skeptic” and, says JMH, denied we could ever really link cause to effect: a Humean before his time. But others insist “he was no skeptic.” It’s hard to know, he burned all his writings except a couple of letters, in one of which he challenged the Prime Mover’s existence.  What else can you tell us about him, Groups Five? (HINT HINT NUDGE NUDGE: this is a good extracurricular research opportunity).

Finally JMH notes the rediscovery by Petrarch (not to be confused with Plutarch, whose inspiring statement about mind as a “fire to be lighted” adorns a bench on our campus in General Washington’s walnut grove) of Cicero and his “nonreligious concerns about human happiness,” which she says heralds the birth of modern humanism, beginning finally to “shift attention away from arcane theological disputes toward more productive avenues”… It’s about time.

Medievals & scholasticsM&SDark AgesAbout HumanismManifestos

Postscript. Just for the record: Nashville’s Walden was overrun yesterday, and the World Series is all tied up. Leaves are falling, time marches on.

“Humanists believe in life before death”

April 22, 2011

“What’s the difference between a Humanist and a New Atheist?”

That question came up in class the other day. I suggested the opening line of the Humanist Manifesto, as a beginning:

Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.

Here’s another good source: Greg Epstein’s Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do BelieveEpstein mentions an impressive roster of Humanists including Thomas Jefferson, John Lennon, Churchill, Sartre, Voltaire, Hume, Rushdie, Confucius, Vonnegut, Twain, Bil Gates, Warren Buffett, Darwin, & Einstein. Humanism is the fourth largest “lifestance” in the world today, nestling just behind Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism… and without really trying. Epstein writes:

We humanists take one look at a world in which the lives of thousands of innocent children are ripped away every year by hurricanes, earthquakes, and other “acts of God,” not to mention the thousand other fundamental injustices of life, and we conclude that if the universe we live in does not have competent moral management, then so be it: we must become the superintendents of our own lives. Humanism means taking charge of the often lousy world around us and working to shape it into a better place…

Humanists believe in life before death.

Amen. Most so-called New Atheists believe all that too, they just don’t say it enough. They should spend at least as much time and energy articulating their affinities as their aversions, and should be as clear about their own good intentions.

Anthony Grayling has taken a stab at that with his new Good Book: A Humanist Bible, “a powerful secular alternative to the Bible.”

The Good Book consciously takes its design and presentation from the Bible, in its beauty of language and arrangement into short chapters and verses for ease of reading and quotability, offering to the non-religious seeker all the wisdom, insight, solace, inspiration, and perspective of secular humanist traditions that are older, far richer and more various than Christianity. Organized in 12 main sections—-Genesis, Histories, Widsom, The Sages, Parables, Consolations, Lamentations, Proverbs, Songs, Epistles, Acts, and the Good—-The Good Book opens with meditations on the origin and progress of the world and human life in it, then devotes attention to the question of how life should be lived, how we relate to one another, and how vicissitudes are to be faced and joys appreciated. Incorporating the writing of Herodotus and Lucretius, Confucius and Mencius, Seneca and Cicero, Montaigne, Bacon…

And so the next rendition of my Atheism class begins to resolve itself. Last time the theme was “Atheism and Spirituality.” Next, it’ll be “Atheism and Ethics.” Stay tuned.

And happy Earth Day!

be kind

December 3, 2010

They did a nice “On Point” radio tribute to Kurt Vonnegut yesterday, to mark the opening of his new library in Indianapolis.  Novelist Jonathan Safran Foer mentioned one of my own favorite Vonnegut riffs:

Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—”God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

“I am a humanist, which means in part that I have tried to behave decently without expectations of rewards or punishments after I am dead.”

Vonnegut once wrote that his works could be replaced by the seven-word telegram he received from a High School student: Love may fail, but courtesy will prevail.

The show closed with his simple, powerful “message to future generations”:

Please accept our apologies.

alive

October 22, 2010

We talked about the varieties of humanism yesterday.

I really like the version that sees humanism fundamentally as an expression of the love of life.

Humanism is, in sum, a philosophy for those in love with life. Humanists take responsibility for their own lives and relish the adventure of being part of new discoveries, seeking new knowledge, exploring new options. Instead of finding solace in prefabricated answers to the great questions of life, humanists enjoy the open-endedness of a quest and the freedom of discovery that this entails.

 

This sentiment was given unexpected voice recently by Michael Gerson, George Bush’s old speechwriter, writing of Christopher Hitchens’ joie de vivre and his special talent for friendship.

In earlier times, without derision or irony, this would have been called “humanism,” a delight in all things human — in wit and wine and good company and conversation and fine writing and debate of large issues. Hitchens’s joy and juice put many believers of my acquaintance to shame — people for whom religion has become a bloodless substitute for life. “The glory of God,” said St. Irenaeus, “is man fully alive.” Hitchens would hate the quote, but he proves the claim.

I don’t think Hitch hates the quote. I don’t. The best humanists are fully alive, as Hitch seems to be in these sadly dwindling days of his cancerous physical decline. Glorious days.

The days, as Emerson said, are Gods.


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