Humanism and The Tradition of Dissent

Madison’s age was more sanguine than our own in thinking it possible to define the boundary between “nature,” presumably received in a state of immutable purity from the hand of the Creator, and the “second nature” of a corrupted and alterable – albeit highly resistant – custom. But to determine that boundary, even if it should exist (which is doubtful), would be a digression that it is not essential to the theme of this paper. As “second nature,” custom imposes its own “natural” law. To persist for generations, patterns of living and of perceiving the world must be at least sufficiently consonant with a people’s deepest drives and responses to commend themselves to their unconscious choices and defenses. The enduring values we hold spring from social and historical sources that claim a certain and largely unconscious ultimacy over us. “Nature” and “second nature” are a single process of concrete historical development in the life of a people or a civilization. This is not to say there are no choices. But the character of the choice-maker brings with it assumptions, perceptions, and preferences. Intelligence, while morally and intellectually autonomous, is hardly unconditioned, and certainly far from free of the unconscious influences of social and personal history that play upon it.

None of these psychic forces bearing upon the life of the mind and shaping the purposes and aspirations of each of us should lead us to conclude that we are mere victims of history or impotent agents acting out a mean and impoverished moral and affective life. On the contrary, we owe our capacity for freedom, our dignity, and our feeling of personal significance – in short, all that provides a sense of moral self-worth and transcendence – to unconscious assimilation of a personal “place” in on-going human community with a concrete history, heritage, and “destiny.” The individual removed from this moral and spiritual envelope, projected by a social history and group memory, has no basis for feelings of personal worth and/ or enduring value in time, a profound psychological need that Ashley Montagu has called “social immortality.” We can surrender belief in a personal life beyond the grave, Montagu has argued, but we cannot remain whole and healthy without at least the implicit assurance that we live vicariously in the spirit of a surviving community.

Often this prompting is expressed in the desire of people to have children and grandchildren, assuring them of “biological immortality.” And, no doubt, for millions of human beings down through the ages this form of personal self-transcendence has been the most immediate and secure expression of the desire to project the self beyond the boundaries of individual existence. For many, this must have seemed the only means to survive beyond their term, to renew their life in their descendants. Yet we must ask whether this effort to cheat death through biological replication has ever been sufficient, or even primary. Has it not rather served as the fleshly conveyance of a less tangible moral and social legacy? Painter and poet forfeit family and renounce all prospect of engendering living descendants in an effort to wrest a more spiritualized form of immortality from their art. Soldiers advance upon almost certain death rather than violate the bond that closely joins them to comrades and country. Even average, unheroic people called upon to make no extraordinary sacrifices, expend their lives at tedious and distasteful tasks, not because they would actually perish or suffer ostracism by forsaking them, but because their sense of self-esteem – their internalized imperative of what family and public expect of them – drives them on. We all live to “find our place” or “make our mark” as members of a surviving community. Even our most individualized and privatized of cultures has not lessened this imperative. One can argue, on the contrary, that it has increased its intensity by throwing the whole force of psychic vulnerability upon each isolated self. In this atmosphere, competitiveness is less a license for free expression than a social demand to validate one’s being, each against all. In its effect on the human psyche a highly privatized culture acts as the secularized successor of the old Pauline-Augustinian doctrine of the necessity of individual salvation, but without the compensation of eventual heavenly community among the elect. Human solidarity is extinguished irrevocably. We should not be surprised that recrudescence of the most self-centered fundamentalism accompanies the social solipsism of this present period. A state of moral privatism seals hermetically the windows of the human spirit, granting a fading hope of psychic security that soon delivers its devotees to the most available form of absolutism, whether it be that of Caesar or of God.

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