Humanism and the Paradox of Politics

By Milam, Michael C. | The Humanist, November-December 1995 | Go to article overview

Humanism and the Paradox of Politics


Milam, Michael C., The Humanist


The political climate in America, at least that generated by and maintained in the popular media, appears to become more polarized, impassioned, and irrational every day. According to the talk-show hosts - and even by the very manner in which the media presents the opinions of average citizens - a shallow, narrow, minded, and prejudiced diatribe deserves just as much consideration as a subtle, well-reasoned position. Rational political debate on a national level - the keystone of any democracy - is dangerously lacking. As a result, the student of history shudders when considering this climate of glorified hysteria, demagoguery, scapegoating, and intolerance, because tolerant and prosperous times rarely follow periods of passionate chaos. Now that the United States is about to begin another presidential election year, it certainly is time to reflect upon the attitude that a humanist should adopt under such circumstances.

It has been often lamented that humanists seem unwilling or unable to take a more active role in politics - or, at least, that they seem unwilling or unable to organize into an effective force for social change. The irony in this situation is only too apparent. Humanists consider themselves to be intelligent, rational human beings with a genuine care and concern for humanity in general, yet humanists all too often consider the messy realities of partisan politics outside the proper sphere of their efforts as humanists. Then, too, from the perspective of humanism, political compromise and expediency an too often lead to lessons in how humanistic aspirations are turned into inhumane systems: the Enlightenment ideals of Voltaire and Rousseau twisted into the Reign of Terror; Marx's ideals of economic equality and social justice corrupted into the Gulag Archipelago; and laissez faire (or "supply side") economics - the well-spring of political liberalism - used to justify the virtual enslavement of a large working class by a small elite.

So as the end of the twentieth century approaches, the very idea that social justice can be achieved through political action is thrown into question by a justifiable pessimism. There seems to be a general feeling that the humanist, even while burning with the intense desire for social justice, is forever alienated from meaningful political action that just when a humanist politics is so necessary, it is so impossible. This paradox is nothing new. On the contrary, it has been present throughout the history of Western civilization. In fact, the paradox of politics is definitive of humanism and brings out, once again, the central dynamic of Western culture: the eternal conflict between the individual and the collective.

Before we consider the uneasy relationship between humanism and politics, however, a redefinition of both words is in order. Since the birth of humanism in the city states of ancient Greece, humanists have taken pride in rationality and integrity above all. Rationality, in this enlightened sense, is the ability of reason to harness and put to creative and benevolent use the primal emotional energies and proclivities of humankind's animal nature. Integrity, the companion of rationality, is the ability to put one's professed beliefs into the reality of action. Simply stated, integrity is the courage to make word and action coincide. Together, rationality and integrity bring a certain clarity and set of standards to human existence, allowing the human being to gain an objective point of orientation in life free from the unexamined dictates of mere self, interest and day-to-day existence. These traits are what make an individual an individual and not a bee in the hive or an ant in the hill. Even so, these two traits alone, however important to an understanding of humanism, cannot account for that endemic spirit and orientation - that elan - which characterizes humanism in its more rigorous manifestations throughout history.

Besides rationality and integrity, therefore, the distinguishing feature of humanism is an affirmation of life on its own terms. …

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