Culture and Barbarism

An essay by Terry Eagleton over here, of which the last paragraph is the most illuminating:

'The distinction between Hitchens or Dawkins and those like myself comes down in the end to one between liberal humanism and tragic humanism. There are those who hold that if we can only shake off a poisonous legacy of myth and superstition, we can be free. Such a hope in my own view is itself a myth, though a generous-spirited one. Tragic humanism shares liberal humanism’s vision of the free flourishing of humanity, but holds that attaining it is possible only by confronting the very worst. The only affirmation of humanity ultimately worth having is one that, like the disillusioned post-Restoration Milton, seriously wonders whether humanity is worth saving in the first place, and understands Swift’s king of Brobdingnag with his vision of the human species as an odious race of vermin. Tragic humanism, whether in its socialist, Christian, or psychoanalytic varieties, holds that only by a process of self-dispossession and radical remaking can humanity come into its own. There are no guarantees that such a transfigured future will ever be born. But it might arrive a little earlier if liberal dogmatists, doctrinaire flag-wavers for Progress, and Islamophobic intellectuals got out of its way.'

I've beefed with Eagleton before, just so you know.

I'm slightly less angry this time round, because I think I share Eagleton's 'tragic humanism' and the desire to 'radically remake' oneself (see post here). However, for me there is no gap between a 'vision of the human species as an odious race of vermin' and the belief that we must 'shake off a poisonous legacy of myth and superstition'. By Eagleton's reckoning, I'm both a liberal and a tragic humanist.

How does that work? Well, Eagleton paints liberal humanists as those who believe that reason's conquest of superstition will solve the world's problems. I think this misrepresents what Dawkins and Hitchens actually think. Superstition is only one aspect of an infinite array of methods humanity uses to lie to itself. Destroying it will prevent certain evils from occurring. It won't lead to freedom.

As Eagleton says, the only thing that will lead to freedom is a thorough remaking of humanity. He argues that understanding and assimilating religious or socialist beliefs, even if they are irrational, will bring us closer to this 'transfigured future'. I respectfully disagree. Plato thought in similar ways, and so I shall repeat the misgivings I voiced in my recap of the Republic: TWO THOUSAND FIVE HUNDRED YEARS AND HUMANITY IS STILL WAITING FOR YOUR IDEAL CITY!

Let's be clear. I agree with Eagleton that an intimate awareness of our essentially venal natures is imperative in motivating us to be better people. We are little more than animals, and knowing that will make us strive very hard to be something more than animals. BUT! We also have to be realistic. We will never adequately conquer our natures to the extent that we'll be able to usher in a utopia. Three thousand years of recorded human history and people are still just as evil as they were before. Religion, or any ideology, hasn't changed this state of affairs. Ideologies are human creations that cater to human needs. They do not transform the essential character of humanity, and they never will.

I'm not trying to be defeatist. I'm just acknowledging two basic principles. One: that humanity will always be inspired by the possibility of transcending the drudgery of our life on earth. Two: that no matter how much an individual may be inspired in this way, humanity as a whole won't be able to escape itself. Now. Do you put your faith for a better world in irrational imaginings, or hardened realpolitik? I would soften the two alternatives, and have them working side by side. Let's have rational values to inspire us -- protecting and advancing basic human rights will be a start. As for achieving this, transforming humanity will be put on the back-burner, and we'll rely on pragmatic utilitarianism -- weighing up one interest against another, and balancing them in such a way as to minimize the evil we do to one another.

Apologies for stuffing my dogmatic doctrinaire liberal intellectualism down your throats. I need to get an outlet for these things...

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