French philosopher Alain Finkiel kraut’s subtle essay on humanism and its discontents grapples with a big question: How did the West’s noble ideal of universal humanity—the belief that, beneath the particularities of race and culture, we’re all brothers, duty–bound to respect one another’s equal rights—fail so disastrously in the twentieth century? Unleashing the carnage of the last century were two ideological monsters: National Socialism and communism. The first killed in the name of excluding whole groups of men and women from the ranks of the human: antihumanism perfected. The second killed in the name of achieving universal humanity: humanism perverted. Because of these murderous ideologies, more than 100 million people lost their lives. Why did humanism prove so weak in the one case and fuel political atrocity in the other?
In the Name of Humanity is the seventh of Finkielkraut’s books to appear in English translation and is the most unambiguously conservative in spirit. In an influential earlier work, The Defeat of the Mind—kind of a Gallic Closing of the American Mind—the author defended an enlightened humanism against the forces of multi culturalism and cultural relativism arrayed against it in French and European intellectual life. Here, while far from embracing multiculturalism or relativism, Finkielkraut offers a more critical assessment of the humanist tradition, which he now believes to be inadequate as a foundation for political morality.
The book opens with a compressed history of the idea of universal humanity prior to the twentieth century. Painted with a wide brush, it consists of four principal stages. In the first stage—the millennia of prehistory—man reserved the title “man” only to those who belonged to his community and shared his customs. The stranger who bowed before strange gods, whose way of life was irredeemably different, wasn’t fully human.
In the second stage, the Bible and philosophy—Jerusalem and Athens —gave the West the ethical and intellectual means to explode the age–old distinctions that separated people into the human and nonhuman. To the people of the covenant, Finkiel kraut recalls, the God of the Bible commanded: “Every sentence you pass shall be the same whether it be on native or stranger” (Leviticus 24:22). This unprecedented “gift from on high,” as the religious thinker Emmanuel Levinas calls it, made possible the recognition of men’s similarity to each other beneath the dizzying variety of historical traditions. Ancient philosophy, by distinguishing the natural from the merely conventional, allowed for a kindred discovery of a single humanity. “With the rise of philosophy,” Finkielkraut holds, “truth freed itself from the chains of tradition. It sought a place for itself among all reasonable souls, everywhere and in every climate.”
The single humanity of the ancients, though, remained distant from the modern world’s egalitarian ideal of universal humanity. The nature that the classical philosophers uncovered was an ordered nature, a world of high and low, and this, they argued, entailed a natural hierarchy among people: some were born to rule and some to follow and serve. (Aristotle famously defended slavery if it reflected natural differences in capacities.) Though the Christian Middle Ages promoted “a nonexclusive form of love” for each member of the human race that went beyond the ancient Greeks, Finkiel kraut notes, it still believed that the universe possessed a hierarchical order, and likewise that God made distinctions between people, fitting some for mastery and others for slavery.
Over time, however, this “vertical” relation between man and man began to flatten as the ordered cosmos of the ancients made way for the morally neutral nature of the moderns—stage three. Though Finkiel kraut isn’t clear about this, he seems to be arguing that Christianity helped usher in the modern world as the Christian vision of human fellowship began to erode belief in natural slavery. Finkielkraut devotes several pages to the mid–sixteenth–century debate between Ginés de Sepúlveda and Bartolomé de Las Casas, two Spanish men of the church. The debate centered on what to think of the odd, feather–clad natives the Spaniards had found when they arrived in the New World more than fifty years earlier. Were these people men at all? Could the king lawfully declare war on them before preaching the gospel to them? Could they be enslaved after they became Christians? Sepúlveda believed the natives to be as inferior to Europeans as children were to adults, and hence natural slaves. Las Casas thought otherwise: the natives were different, yet their enslavement was not justified by their nature. In so arguing, Las Casas left behind the hierarchical cosmos.
The Enlightenment unleashed a new force, democratic equality. With it, however, came a new problem. The Enlightenment’s restless skepticism made it impossible to guard the egalitarian impulse by appeals to the natural or sacred foundations of the world. So how to justify human equality in this fourth stage? Finkielkraut suggests—and here his argument, expositing Pascal and Tocqueville, gets quite obscure—that it is man’s imagination that fills the void left by nature and grace, creating new egalitarian social forms. Man’s democratic imagination, he explains, is by the nineteenth century “climbing over the widest walls, seeping into every symbolic and geographic crack that might divide humanity.” Compassion and sympathy—the imaginative identification with our fellow man—become the watchwords of the most advanced philosophy. As this new form of democratic coexistence takes root, one’s brother becomes anybody, friend and foe, native and foreigner. Thus we arrive at the dawn of the twentieth century, in a West in which the concept of universal humanity had reached “its most spectacular development.”
But the humanist tradition, bereft of a natural or supernatural foundation, proved at once malleable and defenseless when confronted with the twentieth century’s rising tide of ideological politics. Influenced by Arendt’s classic book The Origins of Totalitarianism, Finkielkraut sees in both National Socialism and communism a “murderous denial of finitude” in which history becomes the object of a volcanic human will, unlimited by anything outside the will. For the fevered partisans of these ideologies, man made his world; he didn’t receive it as given. Humanism, sharing this modern belief in man’s construction of the world, had no standpoint from which to criticize events as they began their slide toward ruin.
National Socialism snapped humanism like a thin reed. Finkiel kraut interprets Nazism not as regression to the old order of natural differences among men but as a revolutionary movement—a “secular religion,” as the French political theorist Raymond Aron termed it. Where conservatives had focused on man’s sinfulness and weakness, Finkielkraut stresses, the Nazis cast sin outward, onto the Jew, and viewed history as a project in which the racially superior would exterminate the inferior, treating them as subhuman. Stalinist communism saw history as a project, too, though its goal was to achieve at any cost the humanist ideal of universal man—an ideal it believed was written into the laws of history. If individual men resisted the progression toward this goal, so much the worse for them: the Gulag awaited.
National Socialism’s crushing military defeat during World War II and the crumbling of the Berlin Wall in 1989 ought to mean that we are wiser today. Yet Finkielkraut seems profoundly ambivalent about the “humanitarian sensibilities and humanitarian forms of action” that dominate the post–totalitarian liberal democratic present. Humanism, he says, takes two forms today: the desire to relieve suffering and the promotion of the borderless world of globalization and the Internet. Neither provides a satisfactory basis for political morality.
Take the desire to relieve suffering. For Finkielkraut, the humanitarianism of the Red Cross or France’s “Doctors Without Borders,” ignoring the political causes of suffering in order better to staunch the flow of blood, is an understandable re sponse to a century of previously unimaginable violence. But if we start looking at the world through the politically and morally neutral eyes of the doctor, he thinks, we’re being as reductive in our own way as the political fanatic. Seeing in the other man “only the torments that overwhelm him,” the political morality that follows ignores “his being or reason for being, the world he wants to build, the causes of his persecution and suffering, the meaning he gives to history and perhaps his death.” It is to sentimentalize the human world and rob it of much that makes man dignified.
The humanism of those who celebrate the cosmopolitan universe of the Internet and globalization is scarcely more adequate, Finkielkraut feels. It substitutes the playtime of the tourist—clicking his mouse or eating foreign cuisine—for real cultural engagement. It also robs man of his full dignity and excellence, which requires a true sense of cultural, even national, belonging to flourish. The way toward the universal is through a strong sense of the particular. Finkielkraut laments a contemporary false dichotomy between superficial tourism and renascent barbarism.
In the Name of Humanity ends with an alternative to this false dichotomy: “To build a common world with a shared idea of humanity, based on gratitude.” With Arendt, Finkielkraut defines gratitude as an ethos that holds that “all that is given to man and is not constructed, chosen, or desired by him is not necessarily oppressive or alienating.” Gratitude would look to the past, if not with reverence, at least with respect; it would acknowledge that man is not the Lord of Time; it would embrace the fact the man appears in history as men and women, plunged into their various cultures and beliefs; it would provide a basis for a moderate humanism.
What should we think of this analysis of our contemporary condition? Finkielkraut writes with great skill; In the Name of Humanity is often poetic and moving. But at times I longed for the clarity of a historian of ideas like Isaiah Berlin or the willingness to make arguments of an analytic philosopher. Finkielkraut’s style, typically French, asserts when it should argue, and too often what needs spelling out simply hangs on the page begging for development. What, exactly, is Christianity’s role in ushering in the modern humanistic worldview? Finkielkraut can’t tell us. Does his ethic of gratitude seek to restore a richer understanding of the excellences of human nature or look to religion as a response to the weaknesses of contemporary humanism? Or what? Finkielkraut doesn’t say.
Moreover, Finkielkraut’s critical acumen occasionally deserts him. Is it really true that the sentimental humanitarianism of today’s Doctors Without Borders, if taken as the fount of our moral vision of the world, “may be just as cruel” as the lethal secular religions of the twentieth century? Finkielkraut can’t truly believe it, but he says it anyway: it sounds impressive. Globalization and the Internet do risk eroding the world’s variety and making us think we can get culture on the cheap. But the information revolution also brings wealth to people long used to economic misery, and globalization gives some men and women the only access they’ve ever had to high culture. Finkielkraut’s view of these dramatic changes is too bleak.
Such criticisms aside, however, In the Name of Humanity is a significant book. Finkielkraut is right to see the weakness of an ungrounded humanism, just as he is right to call for a way of life that restores to the world a dimension of givenness. Solving the deeper problem that Finkielkraut leaves unaddressed—how such a restoration might happen—is the challenge we face today.
Brian C. Anderson is Senior Editor of City Journal, author of Raymond Aron: The Recovery of the Political, and co–editor, with Michael Novak, of Lexington Books’ new series, Religion, Politics, and Society in the New Millennium.