The best way for us to sketch the earlier situation might be a comparison with the last attempt at a revival of the humanistic program, i.e. with the project of a „third humanism“. The phrase was coined in 1921 by the German philosopher Eduard Spranger . Yet, the most famous supporter of the movement was Werner Jaeger. The leading idea was that classicism, which the philologist Jaeger identified with Antiquity, was a source that still could be tapped to enliven Western culture. The classical ideal could furnish us with elements for a new ordering of life and spirit after the troubles of the first World War and of the Post-War era. Jaeger considered his own endeavour, to borrow an image from Plato, as the third wave after the Italian Renaissance and the Classicism of the Weimar writers Goethe and Schiller.
Today, we can smile in front of the well-meaning naivety of the enterprise. But it did not lack some grandeur. As for me, don’t expect from me an attack on the value of classical education, on the contrary.
In any case, Jaeger’s third wave, like the two earlier ones, supposed that classical education could help man towards a fuller development of his own humanity. Such a culture of man had been considered for centuries as the content of humanitas, since Aulus Gellius identified this word as the Latin rendering of the Greek paideia . As a consequence, teachers of classical languages have received since the 15th Century the name of „humanists “. By this token, calling the care for the Ancient World and its literary remains in 15th Century Italy „Humanism“ was not amiss. Such is the origin of the use of the word “humanism” as an historiographic category. This happened for the first time in the 19th Century, more precisely in 1859 under the pen of the German historian Georg Voigt .
The whole enterprise was grounded on a presupposition: Man was to be promoted. More precisely, humanity had to be promoted. It always was a matter of common knowledge, and still more after two wars, that really existing men are not always, perhaps even hardly ever equal to the requirements of their own humanity. The human was rather a normative than a descriptive concept. But the positive value of humanity was taken for granted and never called into doubt. Today, we are tempted to identify our task as pleading on behalf of a fourth, or n-numbered humanism.
Our present situation vis-à-vis the humanistic project
The question of humanism has taken a new form, which is deeper and more radical. Up to now, the leading question was: how can we promote humanism? This meant: defending it against any form of the non-human. Today, the question is: should we defend humanism?
Humanism itself is feeling the flak. We could adapt a famous utterance of Schopenhauer about morals and say: Preaching humanism is an easy task, giving reasons for it is a trickier business. It is still easier to attack the enemies of humanism,—whether the danger is real, exaggerated or merely invented als scarecrow, need not bother us here. Today, humanism is only defended against its enemies. Let me quote as illustration a sentence from a book by the English social philosopher John N. Gray (not the Gray of Venus and Mars). I hardly agree with the positions of this gentleman. Yet, this sentence seems to me to shed a grim light on our predicament. It does not deal with the idea of humanism as such, but it deals directly with the project of the Enlightenment. Gray writes: “In the late modern period in which we live, the Enlightenment project is affirmed chiefly for fear of the consequences of abandoning it. […] Ours are enlightenment cultures not from conviction but by default” . We may say the same about the idea of Humanism, that is closely related to Enlightenment.
To formulate this as a thesis, and with some exaggeration: what we mean today with „Humanism“, is in fact the negation of a negation, and not an affirmation: Fundamentally, our Humanism is only a antiantihumanism.
Stay up to date: sign up for our newsletter
For insights and analysis subscribe to our biannual journal