Humanism and The Tradition of Dissent

The strains on our social institutions at the present time, the rupture of psychological bonds that have heretofore linked person to person, and each succeeeding generation to both a human past and a future, are symptoms of a culture striving for the impossible: the attempt to design a “society” of encapsulated, self-contained members. For reasons already expressed, such “persons” cannot exist, could find no significance in their lives if they did exist, and could not associate themselves into a “society” that defined “relationships” in such nugatory, narsissistic terms. The doctrine of self-fulfillment now widely preached, and which many are attempting to put into practice with such individually and socially catastrophic results, is a recipe for producing whole generations of “liberated” beings without social identities or communities for such identities. Egotism and self-depreciation, epidemic drug abuse, emotional illness, and juvenile suicide are the inevitable results of a view of life that severs the individual from the social and intergenerational arteries of his or her nurture and well-being.

The extreme example of this contemporary type is perhaps most starkly illuminated by reports of those generally affluent young adults who profess to feel no sense of obligation to their parents. They owe their parents nothing, not even gratitude. Their logic is impeccable, if we grant the assumption of absolute moral self-containment from which they operate: their parents chose to have children; they as the children had no part in that decision. Therefore, all obligation flows from the parent; none, not even gratefulness, accrues to the child. The attitude reveals the impotence of a “myself only” solipsism that has amputated itself from the human past – and thereby from any claim upon the future, including the claim to belong to that future. Prospect assumes retrospect. An a-historical age aborts its future, no less than its past. History that lives is the spine of the present; it is contemporaneity underneath the skin. We live for the future by grace of the past. All that we can do for the past is to receive its gift gratefully – the only way the past can be assimilated. Without this reciprocity of historical fidelity between the human future and past the channels of transmission are clogged, and each moment of life dies a solitary death, isolated and ungrieved.

It was a wise scribe who first parsed the fifth commandment so as to link possession of the future with moral commitment to debts due the past: “Honor thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.” (We note that this is the only law of the decalogue that comes with a limited warranty.) To honor the history that nurtured us is to meet a condition for coming into possession of our destiny. We thereby close the circuit through which the life forces flow. To transmit individuality – which means transmitting the cluster of cultural values and behaviors that reproduce individuality – requires a long social experience of individualized interactions, a fact that a consistent ethic of privatism denies and, if long continued, must finally destroy.

Here then is the apparent paradox of individual freedom and the maintenance of self-reliant character in an ongoing humanistic society: those cultural traits and values that make it for the greatest degree of individuation are at the same time the most completely and profoundly interpersonal and intergenerational in origin and structure. They are communal traits. If we believe that our American society and its antecedent Anglo-Saxon and continental (European) cultures have given us a higher degree of individuation and personal autonomy than that possible to attain in most previous human cultures, we should look to the quality of social feeling and empathy for persons inherent in our specific traditions that supports those values. The “free” individual is thus a social creation. Only a rich social morale can foster and reproduce such persons, and the nexus of that creativeness is within community, and by means of the institutions that a sense of community sustains.

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