The Magazine

Remains of the Day

A post-mortem on the 'great five-hundred year Humanist experiment.'

Jun 1, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 35 • By CHRISTOPHER BENSON
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Descartes, the architect of the Enlightenment, built a "palace of reason," but its basement of "clear and distinct" truths was haunted by the specter of doubt, leaving religion and morality spooked. The gift of rationalism was science; the curse was "the childlike utopianism that spawned the French Revolution." To Descartes's "I think, therefore I am," Rousseau delivered his own riposte: "I feel, therefore I am."

With his backstage pass, Carroll takes the reader behind the scenes to see that

The eighteenth century was directed by the problem caused by the loss of faith. It was the decline of Christianity that led to the schism between reason and romance. .  .  . The schism remained, and in the nineteenth century, when reason was not prospering in natural science it began to inflict its own curse, the rationalization of the world, just as Romanticism turned increasingly toward the skull, and became nihilistic.

Kant's rationalist ethics was the last best hope for humanism to stand on its own feet. To his credit, Kant furnished the moral basis for liberal democracy and universal human rights--the greatest achievement of humanism. But for all its promise of being a "religion of humanity," Carroll argues: "The brilliance of Kantian ethics suffers from a superficiality, its failure to take account of the power of the demonic in human nature, the weak, subsidiary, and circumscribed role of reason, and above all that, as Luther thundered, faith is only to be encountered in the dark, where the individual is in chains, without freedom."

Part three chronicles the fall of humanism, as rancor and chaos weakened cultural authority. Rancor was directed toward God and the church while chaos presented two faces, akin to the ancient Greek masks of tragedy and comedy: one face nihilism and the other liberalism. Carroll delineates three stages of the fall. The first stage is a mockery of old cultures. Marx insisted that "the world was determined by economics and the iron logic of History" whereas Darwin posited that nature ruled through natural selection. One casualty is the human, reduced to "the skull disguised as the great ape," and the other is religion, "only the illusory sun, around which man revolves, until he begins to revolve around himself."

The second stage is "dynamic nihilism," a fight back. Meditating on the figure of Abraham, Kierkegaard wrestles with "the core Protestant contradiction--that I have no free will, but am responsible." Carroll contrasts two treatments of Abraham: "While Rembrandt's doubt was that humans are not up to the divine call--the stuff out of which they are made is too poor a quality--Kierkegaard's is that they no longer hear the call. They are lost in inwardness; trapped in subjectivity." Abraham experiences the leap of faith, but the modern knight of faith cannot depend on such a miracle; he is subject to crippling doubt, guilt, and paradox.

Like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche pronounces modernity a failure: "Either there are the uncontrolled Dionysian excesses of Romanticism, gushing feeling without any ordering principle; or the banal pedantry of rationalism--the dry scholar, the dull priest, the painstaking bureaucrat--eyes closed to the demonic." Unlike Kierkegaard, Nietzsche does not lean on the Christian faith because it represents the last surviving "redemptive illusion." Man overcomes nihilism through tragic sensibility, greatness of character, or invented values. None of these solutions is adequate for the fight, so "Nietzsche launches his last value, amor fati--to love fate."

Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were experimental pharmacologists. With Kierkegaard, the Reformation was on Prozac. With Nietzsche, the Renaissance was on Viagra. Neither medication stopped the encroachment of nihilism, so the third stage in the fall of humanism is resignation. Freud invites modern man to recline on his sofa, where "the last glorification of the humanist I is psychobiography, pieced together from dreams, the only story left that has meaning, kept safe and intact in the unconscious."

Part four marks the death throes of humanism, final attempts in the 20th century "to build anew within the wreckage," to give "metaphysical weight" to the weightless world, whether in the novels of Henry James or the films of John Ford. The last chapter delivers an account of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, when Osama bin Laden smashed against the West like a metaphysical wrecking ball, destroying its Twin Towers of humanist will and reason. Now we are, quite literally, at Ground Zero.

Some of the finest books are ambitious to the point of hubris, synoptic to the point of oversimplification, and courageous to the point of rashness. The Wreck of Western Culture risks the flaws to achieve the merits as it traces five centuries of Western humanism, beginning with the Renaissance credo "I am everything," transitioning to the Reformation credo "I am nothing," and ending with the nihilist credo "I am against everything." The Undertaker has written a memorable requiem, but he hints, much like Pope John Paul II,
at what exists beyond the gravesite of false humanisms: a return to the "I am" of Jesus. If Jesus is God's supreme man, then true humanism is possible through an imitation of him.

Christopaher Benson is a teacher and writer living in Denver.