What Is Humanism?

There are two reasons why it is important today to answer this question with a sufficient degree of precision.

The first is that humanism is often conceived today exclusively in terms of secular humanism, as an affirmation of the dignity of man, or humanity, understood in naturalistic terms, and as a negation of theism and sometimes of any real spiritual dimension.

The second is that humanism has long been confused with or in substance identified with what Irving Babbitt called humanitarianism, the sentimental, romantic view of humanity that underlies the modern ideologies, not least underpinning (in the distinctly modern dialectic and synthesis of romanticism and rationalism) the abstractly universalist notion of human rights, and is thus deployed as a polemic weapon against traditional views of human nature. Increasingly, humanism is attacked and rejected by critics of today’s dominant political correctness as simply part of the latter’s propagandistic terminology.

These partly related developments are most unfortunate. In order to clarify and specify at least much of what I mean by humanism, I will now publish Babbitt’s essay ‘What Is Humanism?’ from his first book, Literature and the American College, published in 1908.

Babbitt was critical of some of the dogmatic positions of orthodox Christianity, although defending other, ethical aspects of it as essential elements of true humanism. But he explicitly and repeatedly affirmed the existence of a higher level of “meditation”, above the humanistic level of ethical “mediation”. Thus not only the less dogmatic tradition of Christian humanism, but Babbitt’s own New Humanism, which was also influenced by his own contribution to the introduction of Eastern thought – primarily Buddhism and Confucianism – in the West, is reconcilable with spirituality and religion as I understand and defend them.

His criticism of humanitarianism, and, more generally, of the modern dynamic of combined rationalism and romanticism, I have devoted much space to in my texts not least in the category Value-Centered Historicism. In this criticism, he sometimes includes modern philosophical idealism among his targets; Babbitt seems to have kept a significant distance to his philosophical colleagues – Royce and others – at Harvard in the Golden Age of American philosophy.

Partly following Folke Leander and Claes Ryn but going much further than they, I have tried to show why and how idealism needs to be defended as not invalidated by this criticism; why and how idealism must rather be reformulated in a way which assimilates the New Humanist criticism.

Although dubious and weakened forms of idealism have certainly supported and indeed been part of the distorted humanism that is humanitarianism, the modified and adjusted idealism that would result from the incorporation of the Babbittian analysis is of course likewise harmonizable with the superior spiritual level of “meditation”. I submit, in accordance with my extensive argumentation in my various articles and shorter texts in the Philosophy category (with all its three sub-categories) and other publications, that such idealism is an essential part of true humanism.

Readers familiar with these texts will also, when reading Babbitt’s essay, see more clearly the reasons for my suggested personalistic supplementation and modification of Babbitt’s humanism.

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All original writing © Jan Olof Bengtsson
"A Self-realized being cannot help benefiting the world. His very existence is the highest good."
Ramana Maharshi