Before he philosophized with a hammer, Friedrich Nietzsche counted Greek metre. In 1868, the University of Basel appointed, or “called” as German academics put it to this day, the twenty-four-year-old Leipzig student a professor in ancient Greek language and literature. For several years, Nietzsche played the professional philologist, publishing erudite articles, arguing with fellow scholars over minutiae, and introducing students to the discipline of philology. By 1875, he had had enough. In detailed notes for a planned but never completed book titled We Philologists, Nietzsche excoriated his fellow philologists and the system of education that had produced them. He insisted, as he put, that he had nothing “against the science of philology itself.” His concern was tangential to the complaints, already common in the late nineteenth century, about hyper-specialization but also more basic: how had Greek and Roman antiquity come to be the basis for modern, elite German education? “That there are scholars who devote themselves exclusively to researching Greek and Roman antiquity,” he considered fair and even praiseworthy. But why did these same specialized scholars, of whom he was one, teach Germany’s future elite in Gymnasien (secondary schools that served as the primary path to university admission)? And why were these two ancient cultures, separated from the present by millennia, the models for modern Germany? Because, explained Nietzsche, the modern philologist’s indefensible, almost sacred prejudice for Greek and Roman antiquity had led to the conflation of the (Roman and Greek) classical with das Humane. To study these ancient languages and literatures was to study the human.
The problem of philology’s prejudice was not, for Nietzsche, simply anachronism; more and better history would neither diminish the prejudice nor improve the German Gymnasium. The problem was the assumption underlying the entire educational system––the continuity, moral salience, and universality of the human. As a corrective, Nietzsche proposed to distinguish between das Menschliche and das Humane. Whereas the Latinate “the human” (das Humane) referred to a free-floating abstraction, the vernacular das Menschliche referred to concrete forms of life.
The “human,” suggests Nietzsche, does not refer to a universal human solidarity, a sense of human co-belonging, or compassion, but rather to the projection of that vague ideal onto a past in order to legitimate present interests and concerns. The classical human was an invented tradition not a universal insight. The problem with the human, if we think beyond the prejudice of the philologist, is not simply academic. It can be a particularly insidious concept, because it can be (and has been) used to give a moral sheen to abstract assertions, to mask dubious assumptions, and even to distract from the concrete realities of lives led here and now.
Nietzsche’s harangue against the human hung over me as I read The Year of Our Lord 1943. In his most recent and characteristically engrossing book, Alan Jacobs focuses on a group of writers, who, in the midst of war, not only believed in the possibility of the human but also thought that the failure of Western cultures to answer the question, what is human? had proved disastrous. W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, Jacques Maritain, and Simone Weil wanted more humanity. But mostly they sought a sure measure by which to judge right from wrong and true from false, or in Jacobs’s pithy refrain, a “foundation of value” upon which to secure a world out of joint. This desire enveloped Jacobs’s protagonists, shaping how they related to themselves and the wider world.
A key feature of this shared disposition, as Jacobs describes it, was a certainty about the sorry state of the world. The longing for what C.S. Lewis called “Moral Reality” or Jacques Maritain the “integral humanism [of the] new Christendom” was nurtured by a prior moral judgment, namely, that the world teetered on the edge of destruction. The longing for a “foundation of value” went hand in hand with a narrative of abject decline and the presumption of a paradise lost.
And yet, as Jacques Maritain explained, the twilight of civilization was also an auspicious moment. “If twilight ushers in night, night itself precedes day. And in human history it often happens that the first rays of dawn are mingled with the twilight.” For Jacobs’s Christian humanists, the cataclysm of total war––perhaps because of the common ignorance in those earlier war years of the murder of millions of Jews, disabled persons, homosexuals, political dissidents, and all those judged less than human by German National Socialists––could be cathartic. Out of the purifying conflagration of war a truer, more Christian humanism would create a new civilization.
In the opening chapter, “Prosper, O Lord, Our Righteous Cause,” Jacobs uses an anecdote about Auden to demonstrate how this disposition developed and what it entailed. Just weeks after German soldiers invaded Poland in the fall of 1939, Auden went to see a movie on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in a largely German neighbourhood. Whenever Poles appeared on the screen, typically as prisoners of the German Wehrmacht, moviegoers shouted “Kill them! Kill them!” Auden was astonished by the audience’s refusal to conduct themselves in a “civilized” manner; their incivility appalled him and represented, he wrote, a “denial of every humanistic value.” And yet what reason did he have to expect, writes Jacobs, a more “humanistic” response? Unable to answer that question, Auden began a search for a sure measure to judge the “wrongness” of those in the audience that day and eventually returned “to the Christian faith in which he had been raised.”
In this anecdote and throughout the book, “humanistic,” “humane,” “civilized,” and related terms stand in for the moral foundation so desperately desired by Jacobs’s Christian intellectuals. They orient a common disposition in which outbursts in a movie theatre can be taken not merely as bad behaviour but also as harbingers of civilizational decline. For Auden, Eliot, Lewis, Maritain, and Weil, Western civilization faced not only external threats from totalitarianism (presumably a force more foreign than endemic) but, more significantly (as they looked to a postwar world), internal ones. Materialism, technocracy, and liberalism had corroded some right order, some humane way of living together.
All of these desires, moral judgments, and the disposition that cultivated them entailed a further, historical claim about causes and possible solutions: the calamity of modernity was a failure of education and could only be redressed by a restoration of humanist learning. Auden’s hope for a humane civilization, Eliot’s search for a Christian tradition, Maritain’s integral humanism and universal human rights, Lewis’s Tao or First Platitudes or Natural Law, or Weil’s Romanesque Renaissance––each represents, according to Jacobs, an effort to renew humanist traditions of learning not just for knowledge of humanity but also its redemption. Jacobs describes his protagonists as humanists because they believed that an education based on literature, philosophy, and the arts was not just moral ornamentation or a cultural marker of prestige and class, but the vivifying instrument that could renew civilization. And he describes them as Christian humanists because they based their hope and, for a time, believed that these humanist traditions, properly understood, could help restore Christianity’s lost dominance in “shaping of Western societies.” A Christian humanism would renew humanistic value and civilization and recover the human from the malignant forces of modernity.
But what, as Nietzsche asked of his fellow philologists, were Jacobs’s Christian humanists actually recovering when they invoked “the human”? And why did they presume that the “foundation of value” could be found in “humane,” “civilized,” and “humanistic” traditions of learning and not just social structures, norms, prejudices, and tastes––that is, particular cultures of meaning, not universal orders? What legitimate reasons did they have to expect humanist practices of studying philosophy, art, and literature to restore a common (and salutary) “Christian understanding of the human being as such” that would, in turn, rehabilitate and sustain a new and better world?
They derived some of their confidence––paradoxically perhaps given their other claims and commitments––from, I would contend, a rather modern, if inverted, notion of secularized history. Whereas certain eighteenth-century narratives of Western history, such as Immanuel Kant’s cosmopolitan history, emphasize the progress of reason and humankind’s moral development, Jacobs’s figures emphasize inevitable historical decline precipitated by punctual events, points in time where everything seems to have gone wrong. According to such a historical logic, the crisis of 1943 stretches back centuries and can be traced, depending on who is recounting the history, to eighteenth-century French läicité, Baconian instrumental rationality, early modern gnosticism, or the Protestant Reformation. These histories, as Jacobs sometimes notes, reinvent more than they recover. They also require sweeping narratives told from a height that allows them to hover above any counter-narrative or complexity. And they all have a moral: the human had been there all along. We moderns have simply forgotten, denied, or obscured the human, and now humanist practices of reading, learning, writing, and telling history can retrieve it.
The best expression of this twentieth-century Christian humanist project, as Jacobs describes it, can be found in Maritain’s Integral Humanism, first published in French in 1936. Maritain argues that a new humanism is needed if the knowledge and shared recognition of human being as a unified and universal entity is to be fully recovered, and he details two options for what shape it could take: Renaissance anthropocentric humanism or integral humanism. The former, he writes, represents a “pure atheist position” that denies for humans any supernatural end or good that all political and social communities could recognize. The latter represents the “pure Christian position” that “transcends every civilization and every culture.” But this integral humanism, which Maritain terms the “true religion,” finds its fullest embodiment in the very particular metaphysics, historical imagination, and ethics of a relatively recent neo-Thomistic Catholicism.
Maritain’s “integral humanism” exhibits what, recalling the prejudice of Nietzsche’s philologists, we might call the prejudice of Christian humanists. Maritain consistently and frankly acknowledges the basis of his integral humanism––early twentieth-century French neo-Thomism and neo-medievalism. But why should this particular theological account stand in for the human anymore than a nineteenth-century, German classical humanism?
Like Jacobs’s Christian humanists, most European intellectuals between the two world wars sought a new humanism. Beyond that initial invocation of the human, however, they rarely agreed on much more than a commitment to an abstraction. Catholics (themselves split among traditionalists, modernists, and ultra-modernists), Communists, Protestants, Dadaists, Futurists, and liberals were pulled by often very different epistemological, ethical, political, and social commitments, even though, as Stefanos Geroulanos has shown, each claimed to possess the one form of knowledge or practice that could rescue the human from the enervating, superficial, decadent, individualistic, liberal, and just false humanism of modernity. After the Second World War, intellectuals, scientists, and writers continued to pose the question of the human, even if in a slightly different key, especially in a number of international conferences with “modern,” “man,” “the human,” and “humanism” in their title, testifying not only to the persistence of the question of the human but also to the failure to answer it.
In 1949, the Swiss theologian Karl Barth attended one such event in Geneva titled “For a New Humanism” along with a group of European historians, philosophers, and writers. It was organized by the Rencontres Internationales de Genève, an initiative of intellectuals who had come together, as they put it, in the centre of a “continent ravaged and fragmented” by war in order to initiate “a cultural dialogue aimed at the universal.” In his lecture, “L’Actualité du Message Chrétien,” Barth spoke of a multitude of historical and contemporary humanisms: ontological naturalism, idealism, existentialism, and classical humanisms. Each of these humanisms represented human “possibilities,” ways of life attempting to be adequate to their “allotted time.” He contended that they were to be engaged, lived out, and cultivated, but also not mistaken for a timeless human nature or natural law. When embraced as subordinate to the fact of God’s self-revelation in the person of Jesus Christ––a significant condition for most of those present in Geneva––each of these various humanisms offered meaningful and true accounts of human being.
Although Barth had little patience for nineteenth-century German liberal theology––for what he considered Schleiermacher’s reduction of religion to individual experience or for a German historicism that submitted Scripture and its promise of revelation to all-too-human constraints––he was a thoroughly modern and critical theologian. And for Barth, who studied biblical exegesis and historical theology, this meant two key things. First, it meant that he had been given into a world (and, thus, a particular time and place) and that this was the only world available to him. The Reformed theologian famously responded to his friend and fellow theologian Emil Brunner, “Nein!” Barth directed his “no” at what he termed “natural theology,” the attempt to secure knowledge of God that takes the natural world, the natural law, or so-called human nature as its point of departure. Any procedure that predicates claims about God on observations about creation, reasoning from creaturely “nature” to divine “nature,” falls victim to Feuerbach’s critical objection—namely, that such God-talk is merely talk about humans but in a loud voice. Barth’s “Nein” extends this objection to knowledge of a supernatural world, a natural law, and supernatural virtues, all of which takes seriously Nietzsche’s critique of a (traditionally Christian) belief in a second, shadow world. Second, Barth’s self-understanding as a modern, critical theologian meant that he took seriously the where and when of his given world. Perhaps there were times and places that responsible Christian theologians would have been justified in attending to more nefarious errors than those of natural theology, but the complicity of Christian theologians and churches with the National Socialists had, for Barth, rendered unimaginable any indulgence of natural law by Christian theologians. Much as Theodor Adorno would later wonder whether it was barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz, in 1935 Barth contended that natural theology and its assertion of timeless universal truths about human nature were indulgences that the Christian church could no longer afford if it were to mount any effective resistance to the heresy of National Socialism and its lasting effects in post-war Europe.
In the here and now of 1949 postwar Europe, insisted Barth, one of the most pressing tasks of thought was to reassess what theologians, philosophers, and historians had long taken to be the audacious claim of Christianity to a universalizable and sure moral order. For Barth, however, any self-evident, self-explanatory, deduced, or intuitive definition or analysis of concepts such as “human” or “God” ran the risk of anthropological projection. Feuerbach, Nietzsche, and Durkheim were right: religion, including the various forms of modern Christianity, was an inescapably human endeavour. For Barth, however, this did not mean that the question of the human or what it means to be human should be completely abandoned. It meant, instead, that such an order need not be, as Jacobs’s figures suggest, thought of as a fixed foundation of moral values and claims about a universal human being, but could instead be a varied and incomplete set of liturgical practices and institutional forms whose function and efficacy are always pointing, like John the Baptist (ecce agnus Dei, ecce homo). Because they are also the ways we humans live and move, wherever we may find ourselves to be in our “allotted time” and make our way in the daily promise and uncertainty of the saeculum.
After Barth’s lecture, one of the event’s attendees contrasted Barth’s lecture to the others and said that it was completely incompatible with them. Whereas the other speakers defined humanism as an attitude to humankind’s past (human traditions and cultural memories), Barth had defined humanism as a particular anthropology. Whereas the former was an “inclusive” humanism, a “collaboration of morals,” Barth’s was an “exclusive” humanism. Upon hearing the word “exclusive,” Barth immediately interjected. Did I give the impression “of exclusivity,” he asked incredulously? According to a transcription of the meeting, the audience uniformly responded, “Oui, Oui!” To which Barth replied, “I regret that.” But then he continued, “It is not exclusivity, but inclusiveness [that defines God’s humanism, about which Barth had spoken earlier that day]. The grace of God is for the world, for the Jews and for the pagans, for us, for me, and also for Mr. Jaspers [a German philosopher also present at the conference].” For Barth, human beings have already been reconciled by God through God become human in Jesus Christ. Barth could not imagine a more inclusive humanism.
Like Jacobs’s protagonists, Barth’s objections to the effort of those in Geneva to establish a new humanism were informed by the experience of two world wars. However, instead of retrieving a form of Christian humanism or nostalgically envisioning a return to a prior age’s mode of moral formation or Christian education, Barth’s response to modernity was to embrace advances made in social, historical, and natural sciences, receiving them as gifts and tools for the Christian theologian’s task of critically reassessing the church’s proclamation in light of its Scriptures. Barth understood such a humanism to be a critique of universal humanisms. He thought that they failed, however, not because they did not index the one to which most humanisms point (whether self-consciously or not), but rather because they presumed an exclusivity endemic to the project of natural theology.
For Jacobs’s Christian humanists, the possibility of moral transformation––the renewal of this world and now––depended on Christians committing themselves, as Maritain put it, to “thinking, living, acting politically in the Christian style,” rather than attempting to “obtain from the world machinery that is only Christian in an external and illusory way.” But for Barth, this just was the problem with distinctly Christian humanisms and the entire what-is-the-human discourse. Its anxiety, its insistence, its crisis sensibility, sometimes despite itself, risked expecting the eschaton here and now in this world.
“There is no Christian style of life,” as Barth put it in Geneva. “There are styles, yes, in different ages. But I refuse to consider this question of one Christian style of life as a fundamental question, a question of faith. . . . I refuse to imprison Christian life in a certain frame.” There is no such thing as a wholly distinct and fully coherent Christian weltanschauung, form of life, or education––or, at least one with any real authority or legitimacy. There is no monolithic Christian tradition; there are only encounters and conflicts, both productive and not so productive, among ever-evolving traditions. Any claim to a comprehensive or total Christian worldview, tradition, or practice always risks mistaking all-too-human activities, from philosophy and theology to art and literature, for certain knowledge of a divine or universal human nature. And this is nothing to lament. Because God’s grace and truth “endures, triumphs, rules, and is effective” in the person of Jesus Christ and in the face of human evil, writes Barth in his lecture, any true Christian proclamation is a “protest “against every form of pessimism, tragedy, and skepticism.” And, I would add, nostalgia.
Humility About the Human
Jacobs engages these mid-twentieth-century figures and their texts with an impressive intellectual generosity. One fruit of this attention and care is Jacobs’s repeated, yet subtle suggestion that his own protagonists recognized that neither their lives nor their knowledge would realize the integrity and certitude they desired and even sometimes claimed––C.S. Lewis’s suggestion that the goods of education and scholarship are proximate not ultimate; Weil’s fear of the “patriotism existing in the Catholic Church”; Maritain’s hope for a humanism that could embrace the plurality of the modern world or his suggestion that education had its (moral) limits; or, as Auden put it in his 1939 poem “Herman Melville,” “Evil is unspectacular and always human, / And shares our bed and eats at our own table.” Perhaps most significantly, Jacobs concludes by suggesting that after the war his Christian humanists may have been chastened by the conclusion of the war, perhaps less hopeful that the cataclysm of war and the annihilation of the Sho’ah (catastrophe) would bring rebirth. After having spent the war years “narrating, dramatizing, and arguing for a richly humane model of personal and cultural formation,” writes Jacobs, his protagonists shifted their attention to different matters––“the kairos moment for Christian cultural renewal had past.” Or, perhaps, it was always to come.
None of Jacobs’s Christian humanists would have endorsed Nietzsche’s skepticism about the human or Barth’s distinctively modern theology, least of all Maritain, who would go on to pursue his same project but under the banner of universal human rights. But it is in these moments of intellectual humility and the frank acknowledgment of human finitude, which Jacobs delicately surfaces only ultimately to highlight, that we might find something that the what-is-human? discourse so often lacks: irony. I do not mean in the cultivated-nonchalant manner of certain pragmatists (think Richard Rorty shrugging his shoulders if that helps) or the cynicism of my childhood anti-hero Bart Simpson, but rather in the sense of an acute awareness of how parochial we humans always are. This ironic parochialism, as Charles Mathewes suggests, constrains both what we can know and what we can do; it reminds us of how situationally and historically contingent our forms of knowledge and life activity are, and how they are formed by the time and place allotted to us. Practiced well, such an irony can become a virtue of epistemic and ethical humility that need not necessarily lessen the desire to know or the hopeful expectation of its ultimate fulfillment. Such a parochialism cannot sustain an extension of sympathy to a boundless, universal human being, but it can focus our attention on the world in which we find ourselves. It can encourage a sustained attention to cracks in the universal sheen of sameness and help sustain practices that manage and constrain the compulsion to lose oneself in a void of universal what is humanness.
It can also help us come to terms with what seems to be our lot, namely, that integrity, fullness, or wholeness of human being is neither something to be recovered (a self, a community, a knowledge), nor is it something (a self, a community, a knowledge) to be defended against whatever might threaten it at any given time and place. Such a recovery and renewal––complete, universal, lasting––is not for a world that sits, since the fall and until its redemption, wholly within the saeculum. Our common world is riven by sinful deeds, disordered loves, and the hubris that full knowledge is rightfully ours here and now. And we, Christian or not, have no exclusive claim upon it.
By focusing on a shared world situated squarely in the saeculum, I am not suggesting that those who confess and hope in Christ cannot lead lives different from those who do not, that they ought not cultivate practices that better order their loves and nurture their faith and hope. I am simply arguing that pride may well be the most persistent of vices, a habit that lulls humans into assuming the sufficiency and truth of their own goodness and knowledge. The human, wrote Blaise Pascal, “is nothing but a subject full of error that cannot be eradicated except through grace. Nothing shows him the truth, everything deceives him.” If we abide the wartime imperative of Jacobs’s Christian humanists to recover what is essentially human, we risk overlooking what knowledge we do have––our all-too-human capacity to mistake proximate for ultimate goods, to mistake our own goodness and knowledge for God’s fullness.