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The western humanist tradition 

The western humanist tradition
The western humanist tradition

Stan van Hooft

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date: 23 July 2018


Western humanism is not a single strand of thought. Indeed, so various is the use of the term ‘Humanism’, that it is almost impossible to give a single and unequivocal definition of it. It first came to prominence in the Renaissance of the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries when it was discovered that ancient philosophers and writers could be as inspirational and informative as to the values by which to live as could the sacred texts of established religion. The study of the ‘humanities’ inaugurated at that time still undergirds the traditional idea of the university as a seat of higher learning. Today, however, the term is often associated with a militant form of secularism that utterly rejects religion, mysticism, and the sacred.[1,2] Secular humanists of this stripe can be found arguing against religious instruction in schools, and defending science against creationists and other religious dogmatists. However, not all forms of modern humanism are polemical in this way. There are also forms of psychology and psychotherapy that describe themselves as ‘humanistic’. Describing itself as a ‘third force’ in psychology alongside behaviourism and psychoanalysis, humanistic psychology fully acknowledges individual autonomy and the pursuit of self-actualization in the lives of all individuals.[3] Such an acknowledgement also marks the discourses of the ‘medical humanities’, which are sensitive to the existential and personal attributes of clinical patients. Nor was humanistic psychology unaware of the significance of spirituality. Some of its practitioners, such as Abraham Maslow (1908–1970), were instrumental in developing the field of ‘transpersonal psychology’, which ‘is concerned with the study of humanity's highest potential, and with the recognition, understanding, and realization of unitive, spiritual, and transcendent states of consciousness.’[4]

My aim in this chapter is not to describe any of these humanistic movements in detail. Nor is it to provide a detailed narrative in the history of ideas which would explain their emergence. Rather, it is to explore certain themes in the Western philosophical tradition upon which humanism in its many forms has drawn. This, in turn, will reveal that some of these themes offer considerable potential for a humanistic spirituality.


The Athenian philosopher, Plato (427–347 bce), saw the world as unstable and dangerous. It was full of variation and unreliability and he longed for a realm of eternal changelessness. The metaphor that he used to express the nature of our world was that of mud: a substance that weighs one down and prevents free movement; that obscures, endangers, and pollutes the realm of existence. If the world seemed inhospitable to us in this way, then a new realm of reality would have to be posited to be the object of our longing. Accordingly, behind the deceptive and hazardous appearances of worldly things there lay a realm of eternal ‘Forms’, which were posited as the timeless and flawless archetypes of the things of this world. Each individual thing was what it was by virtue of its drawing its reality from an archetypal essence that existed in the realm of Forms. However, it could never be a perfect example of that essence. It could only be a pale copy. Being immersed in the material substance of this realm of beings, it could only aspire to the quality of perfect Being, which the realm of Forms represented.

Plato's conception of knowledge drew upon these metaphysical theories. The problem that he faced in this domain was that of uncertainty and irreconcilable disagreement. His mentor and friend, Socrates, has been put to death by the citizens of Athens because those citizens had not been able to understand the intellectual work that Socrates had been doing amongst them. They were immersed in a socially-constructed sphere of opinion, while Socrates had sought to open them to a rationally constructed sphere of wisdom. The citizens of Athens had rejected ‘Philo-Sophia’, the love of wisdom, and preferred their mythical beliefs in the gods of tradition. No agreement could be reached, it seemed, by debate alone. People were too readily swayed by rhetoric and by their desire for comforting beliefs. How could true and certain knowledge be established then? By turning away from this world and discovering non-worldly objects of knowledge, the clarity, beauty, and primordiality of which would convince even the most sceptical. Such objects of knowledge included the Forms, especially the Forms of Goodness, Beauty, and Truth. Wisdom and certainty could not be found in this world because it was full of distractions and obscurity. Even our senses can be deceived by so simple a phenomenon as a straight stick that looked bent in water. How much more could our ideas be swayed by the force of public opinion and the skills of wily orators? Better to concentrate on the eternal and certain Forms.

However, with what could we exercise such concentration? If our physical bodies were the seat of appetites and desires, and if these appetites and desires, in turn, were the source of the distractions that draw us away from the Forms, then what hope have we of attaining wisdom? Plato's answer was that we were possessed of a soul that was not only the source of our rational powers, but also of a unique desire and enthusiasm: namely, the longing for wisdom. This inner fire, unique to human beings, burned with a love of Truth, Beauty and Goodness. It yearned for union with those other-worldly Forms—a union that, if achieved, would ensure the attainment of true knowledge, spiritual beauty, and moral goodness. The existential task of life, then, was to seek to extricate the soul from its bodily and worldly entrapments, and set it free to fly to that metaphysical space beyond this world where it could enjoy its fulfilment in spiritual rapport with the Forms.

Plato created images and metaphors to express these theories that have resonated throughout the Western tradition. Most notable was The Republic's story of the cave in which we are asked to imagine human beings imprisoned and held in such a way that they could only see the shadows of objects cast upon the wall of the cave by a fire within it. One day a prisoner breaks free of his chains and sees the real objects, the shadows of which he had thought constituted reality. However, even this revelation is not enough for him. He ventures out of the cave and sees reality as it is illuminated by the sun and he realizes that only in this bright light can the world be known for what it is. The most important reality to come to know is the other-worldly light in the light of which this-worldly things can be known. This man's soul has achieved a kind of freedom, enlightenment, and wisdom that the other prisoners in the cave could not even dream of.

Then there is the story of Diotima, the prophetess who, through the mouth of Socrates, provides the final speech on love in the Symposium. Diotima's teaching is that love between human beings in this world is but a preliminary lesson in the ascent to wisdom, which our souls long to pursue. While worldly physical love give us a taste for beauty, and a passionate and partial experience of it, we should grasp this mere glimpse and use it to acknowledge our need of a fuller, purer rapport with Beauty as such. In this way, worldly love can be a first step on a spiritual ascent in which the soul sets itself free from mortal and physical involvements in order to secure a vision of the Form of Beauty. The love that would blossom when that vision is achieved would be more glorious than any flawed and worldly love between bodily beings. It would be a love of the Forms.

However, the most striking figure in Plato's oeuvre is Socrates himself. Socrates has guided his life by the nostrum that the unexamined life is not worth living. Self-knowledge and rational critique are of crucial value to him. See him now in his prison cell condemned to drink the poisonous hemlock for having tried to dissuade the youth of Athens from their mythical beliefs in the gods of Olympus. He comforts his friends and assures them that, despite his condemnation, the life of a lover of wisdom is a worthy one. He convinces them that his soul is immortal and speculates that the souls of good men go on to places of bliss and contemplation. If one has spent one's life in the pursuit of Goodness, Beauty, and Truth, then one will enjoy communion in the afterlife with others who have also attained such wisdom. One's soul will then, at last, be free from the distractions and temptations of worldly existence, and will enjoy a peace and fulfilment that it is difficult for human beings enthralled by this world to even imagine.

Plato's philosophy was assimilated by the fathers of the early Christian church in order to provide the conceptual framework for the Christian religion. Indeed, it could be said to echo in its structure and basic concepts the metaphysical beliefs of almost all of the great world religions. These religions all teach that we have a soul the destiny of which is more important than that of our bodies and whose nature is akin to, and destined for, a realm of reality more perfect and more glorious than this material world. Most religions are Platonic in form.

However, this is not the theme I wish to explore here. My point is that, despite Platonism's affinity to religious thinking, it can also support certain strands of humanism. This strand of humanism sees human existence as containing, or aspiring to, a ‘transcendental’ dimension. Such humanists argue that human beings have dignity and value because their existence opens them to a transcendental realm, which takes them out of the everyday realities of quotidian existence. This dimension need not take the form of religious faith, but it nevertheless constitutes a love which gives truth to the claim that ‘man does not live by bread alone’. On this conception, human beings are seen as beings whose spiritual nature places them midway between the animality of beasts and the divinity of gods.

A further crucial point is that the capacity of human beings to be open to a transcendental dimension is inherent in those human beings themselves. Whereas Christianity asserts that human beings can seek to attain the ultimate transcendence: God, only with the assistance of God's grace, and whereas Judaism envisages God as reaching down towards humanity in order to enter into a covenant with the people He had chosen, humanists believe that our longing for transcendence and our openness to it are features of the human condition that are not dependent upon any supernatural or metaphysical agencies or initiatives. It is humanity itself that is open to the transcendental dimension. At no point does Plato appeal to anything like divine revelation or grace. Whereas more ancient Greek thinkers and those of many other traditions sought to discern the truths whereby we should live in mythological texts and narratives, and whereas the ‘religions of the book’—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—depended upon what was believed to be the written revelation of God to his people, Plato inaugurated the tradition of using human reason unaided by myth or dogma to discover wisdom and ascend to the transcendent. He distrusted written texts and presented his philosophy in the form of dialogues in which anyone of normal intelligence could engage in discussion with a view to achieving insight. There was need for neither divine inspiration nor the unique access to wisdom claimed by gurus or the spiritually enlightened.

I would submit, however, that what the Platonic tradition has in common with religion, and where it is not consistent with the spirit of humanism, is that it is driven by fear of the threats that a changeable world contains, by distrust of desire and of the appetites of the body, by a need for certainty in knowledge, by a longing for moral assurance, by a desire for immortality, and by a tendency to turn spiritual intuition into metaphysical doctrine. For a more fully humanistic account of spirituality we will have to turn to that other great philosopher of ancient Greece—Aristotle.


Aristotle (384–322 bce) was a scientist, as well as a philosopher. He spent years of his life in minute and painstaking studies of living organisms and plants. He described the intricacies of the many sea creatures that he found in the rock pools of Lesbos. He made studies of the anatomies of human beings and other animals. (He never doubted that human beings were indeed animals.) He postulated explanatory hypotheses about the motions of planets and stars, as well as of earthly bodies. He was fascinated by rock formations and by the patterns of the weather. He was not persuaded by a bent-looking straight stick to distrust his senses, but sought to explain such phenomena. A lifetime of such studies could not have been engaged in by a thinker who thought that the world was nothing more than a dangerous and doleful staging point for a more perfect form of life in a realm of transcendence.

Aristotle was also interested in the arts and gave an account, still recognizable by modern psychology, of the effect that drama had on its audience. His theory of politics recognized the interdependence of human beings, and his ethics urged us to fulfil the better parts of our human natures so as to achieve worldly happiness. When he turned to metaphysics and to the ultimate explanations of reality, he did posit a ‘Prime Mover’ in order to account for motion, but at no point did he give this entity the characteristics of personality or divinity. Aristotle's world was this world: a quotidian world of natural processes, understandable change, human interactions, and achievable hopes. Most importantly this was a world in which human beings could, if they used their rational capacities, improve their lot, ameliorate their condition, and achieve happiness. It was a world that was deeply meaningful without having to be consecrated by metaphysical or religious entities in order to be a home for human beings.

Nevertheless, Aristotle did acknowledge, and indeed, celebrate, the transcendental dimension of human existence. His analysis of human subjectivity makes this clear. His conception of the human soul was not that of some pilgrim presence in the body whose destiny was to continue in a blissful, eternal, disembodied existence in an afterlife, but of an energizing principle that moved the body towards the fulfilment of four teleological functions—to live, feel, think, and contemplate. Living involved biological processes and instinctive appetites. Feeling involved desires, emotions, and motivations—both those of which we were aware and those of which we were not. Thinking involved practical understanding of the world and those rational, means-end calculations that enable us to attain what we desire and to make a success of our worldly enterprises. Contemplation involved reflection upon those realities that we could not change by our own means: realities like the rules of logic and the laws of nature, the values inherent in ethics and politics, the beauty of art, and the nature of the gods. These were matters the contemplation of which would take us out of our everyday existence and into a spiritual realm in which we would fulfil the potentialities of our human natures. If happiness is achieved by fulfilling our human potentials and if the capacity for contemplation is one of those potentials, then no human life would be complete without some engagement with transcendence.

A happy human being, for Aristotle, is one who lives a life free of bodily deprivations, in harmony with others, with responsibility towards her environment and community, with equanimity, and with sensitivity to the ultimate realities and values that give meaning to such a life. Human beings have within themselves and amongst themselves the spiritual resources to live such a life without recourse to any other-worldly, metaphysical, or divine sources of insight.


Another strand in the traditions of humanism is represented by a mythical figure of ancient Greece—Prometheus. As described by the ancient poet, Hesiod (active between 750 and 650 bce), Prometheus is a semi-divine Titan who stole fire from the gods in order to give it to humankind. For giving to human beings this supposedly divine power, Prometheus was condemned to be chained to a rock where an eagle's talons would eternally claw at his ever-renewing body. Many writers and artists have celebrated the deeds and suffering of Prometheus in gratitude for the capacities that he is said to have bestowed upon humanity. Given these capacities, human beings could now control their own destinies. Rather than living at the behest of the gods or at the whims of fate, human beings could develop the knowledge and technologies that would allow them to bend the forces of nature to their wills and harness the resources that the world offered them.

The most striking implication of this myth was the vision of humanity that it fostered. Human beings were seen as having stolen power from the gods, and as having acquired the ability to control and improve their own lives. This vision of human strength and self-affirmation, of defiance of the gods, and of power over nature has been bequeathed to us in the spirit of modern science and technology.

Humanism and modernism

We have now seen the development of at least three traditions of humanism: the Platonic, the Aristotelian, and the Promethean. These traditions have developed and intermingled so as to produce the complex and multifaceted face of humanism today.

The first, Platonic tradition involves a turning away from the world in order to find wisdom and spirituality in a metaphysical realm. Even in the cases where this realm did not comprise religious entities and events, it postulated such abstract and idealized human capacities as free will, pure reason, and the moral law, and hoped for the realization of such perfectionist ideals as complete release from suffering, absolute purity of heart, a bond of love with the infinite, an irrefutable scientific theory of everything, world-wide unanimity in beliefs and values, perpetual peace, and the total elimination of injustice everywhere in the world. These concepts and ideals are Platonic in that they devalue anything that is imperfect, changeable, or uncertain. The Aristotelian tradition is more complex. It stresses the need to be at home in the world and happy in life even as we contemplate their unchangeable realities. It speaks of the perfectibility of human beings in muted tones and shows a reverence for the changeable world, as well as for the fragile, vulnerable, fallible, and mortal condition of being human.[6] However, it is the Promethean tradition, with its celebration of science, progress, and technology, that has had the greatest effect upon modern civilization and spirituality.

The history of how these three traditions interacted and influenced each other, and of how Prometheanism emerged triumphant, is fascinating. Despite the work of such philosophers as Epicurus (341–270 bce) and Seneca (ca. 1 bce–65 ce), the celebration of human, worldly existence that Aristotle inaugurated was all but driven underground in the West by that religious graft onto Platonism called Christianity. However, with the rediscovery of the ancient Greek and Roman legacies in the Renaissance, new explorations into the human condition and into the workings of nature without the strictures of biblical authority were begun by Petrarch (1304–1374) in the humanities and Galileo (1564–1642) in the natural sciences. Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466–1536) rejected the authority of tradition and studied the bible as a human historical document. The culmination of these various streams of thought was the Enlightenment: a movement that its greatest philosopher, Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), interpreted as giving humanity permission, for the first time, to think for itself.

Once the Enlightenment had taken hold there was no stopping its development into the Promethean modernism with which we are familiar today. It was soon taken for granted that human beings had both the capacity, and the right to take hold of nature and of history in order to make a better world in accordance with human standards of happiness and progress. In politics the divine rights of kings and hereditary rulers were replaced by liberal ideas of the rights of man, the sovereignty of the people, and uncoerced, democratic participation in politics. The idea that the moral standing of all human beings was equal despite race, class, ethnicity, gender, religion, or language was the fulfilment of an Enlightenment dream for all humanity. The sciences flourished and gave rise to technological wonders that have lightened the burden of daily living for millions around the world, and created an effluorescence of comforts and gadgets to delight consumers everywhere. Modernism is, above all, a belief in progress and in the human ability to harness that progress for the betterment of humankind.

However, this unquestioning faith in technological, political, and social progress is waning today. The exploitation of the environment and of third world peoples that has come in the wake of technological developments constitutes a dark undercurrent of this so-called progress. As the costs of modernism and the problems of technological development mount, new solutions will have to be found. The key point, however, is that it is human beings that will have to find these solutions. The modern Promethean belief is that time and human ingenuity will eventually solve these problems. No one today seriously believes, as Martin Heidegger had put it, that ‘only a god can save us.’[7]

One reason for this is that Promethean modernism has ‘disenchanted’ the world, to use Max Weber's phrase. A modern scientific explanation is typically ‘reductionist’ in the sense that it seeks to reduce natural phenomena to push-pull causal mechanisms, and ‘materialist’ in the sense that it accepts as cogs in those mechanisms only entities or forces that can be described in physical and measurable terms. There is neither mystery nor meaning in such mechanistic conceptions, even as they deliver to human beings the power to harness their new knowledge to the purposes of technology. While modern science has freed us from belief in magic, miracles, or the healing power of shamans, it has robbed nature of any inherent depth or beauty. Infinity has been reduced to very large numbers and mystery to a problem yet to be solved.

Even the social sciences have sought to explain human and social events in causal and quantifiable terms. The positivist sociology of Auguste Comte (1798–1857) and the behaviourist psychology of B.F. Skinner (1904–1990) sought to reduce human reality to the play of blind forces on the model of the physical sciences. In the hands of many analytic philosophers this led to a conception of human reality in which anything that could not be explained by science was seen as the mere expression of emotion. Moral norms, aesthetic values and political ideals were reduced to the desires and preferences of individual human beings. And these desires and preferences, in turn, were nothing more than manipulable dispositions towards self-serving behaviour. In this way Promethean thought unknowingly delivered mechanisms of social control into the hands of political power and the advertising industry.

Today, we tend to approach the world and one another as resources. We have come to understand nature and people in largely instrumental terms. We have lost the Aristotelian capacity to contemplate them in their essence. We have silenced the Platonic love of the transcendent. As a result, the only joys we are left with are the fleeting seductions of consumerism and the infantile distractions of popular entertainment.[8] We have a human world—a world whose conceptual construction is based on human knowledge systems[9] and whose functional efficiency is based on human ingenuity[10]—but it is a world that lacks a spiritual dimension.

Towards a humanist theory of spirituality

What resources for spirituality can humanism give us then? Can the Platonic and Aristotelian traditions be revived to enrich and spiritualize the Promethean ethos that dominates our lives? What would a humanist theory of spirituality look like?

Three answers to that last question can be gleaned from Plato. First, it would be a theory that was rationally understandable and discursively accessible to anyone of average intelligence, rather than one handed down by mystery-mongering manipulators or new-age gurus. Secondly, it would understand human subjectivity in ways that showed it to be open to transcendence. Thirdly, it would point to forms and sources of transcendence that answer to our love and yearning for goodness, truth and beauty. From Aristotle we would learn that human subjectivity has the capacity to contemplate such forms of transcendence, but that they are to be found in this world, rather than in the realm of metaphysics. They are not to take the form of supernatural entities or powers with which we would stand in a relationship of subservience or worship. We must not reject the lessons of the scientific legacy that Aristotle inaugurated and seek a theory that would allude to magic, miracles, or any agencies not amenable, in principle, to human understanding. Our humanism must ground a theory that allows us to engage thoroughly with the material world, rather than escape into a spiritual ivory tower.

In order to understand such a humanist theory of spirituality we need to explore the word ‘transcendence’. We might begin by saying that it refers to what we cannot know. What we can know is the world we live in. Knowledge is the way we structure that lived world through our empirical experiences, conceptual classifications, and scientific explanations. Knowledge is a form of possession of the world. Of course, the world may contain cognitive and scientific puzzles to which we have no ready solutions, but we know why they are puzzles and we know, more or less, how to go about solving them. The Promethean outlook that modernism has bequeathed to us assures us that human knowledge and human progress are without limit so long as we focus on what is objective, real, and given us in worldly experience. Our known and lived world is a world of objects understood, social formations adhered to, and rules followed. It is a world in which things have a use, others have a role, and I have obligations. It is a world of productivity, efficient service delivery, and economic growth.

However, we are dimly aware of something more. We are aware that beyond the Promethean structures of knowledge that we use to apprehend, classify, and possess this world, there are things that cannot be known. I use the word ‘things’ because grammar requires a noun to be placed in this sentence, but what I am referring to are not things. If they were they would be included in the inventory of worldly items and would be assimilated into my practical- Promethean way of thinking as objects to be known or problems to be solved. No, these ‘things’ are beyond the world, ungraspable, and unassimilable. They are, from the point of view of worldly knowledge, mysteries. They are transcendent.

The first of these transcendent mysteries is my own subjectivity. Why do I love those whom I love? Why am I committed to certain moral values? Why do I love the music I love? Why do I find the world so awe-inspiring? Who is the ‘I’ in these formulations? These questions have no satisfactory answers. The selves that are the object of such reflections are psychological constructs at least one step removed from our existential inwardness. Our subjectivity is not structured by our concepts and understandings, and cannot be rationally grasped or explained. It cannot even be intuited through reflection or seen through introspection. It is manifested by how we experience the world rather than by how we understand ourselves. It is the hidden depth of who we are. We can have no cognitive grasp of ourselves because we are not objects to ourselves. Subjectivity cannot be an object of experience.[11] Even if I were to reflect on myself, the subject of that reflection would not be the object of that reflection, and so I would always escape myself. Accordingly, there can be no direct awareness of subjectivity. We cannot be aware of awareness as such. We can only know the quality and forms of our subjectivity by reading them off the objects that appear to us in experience. It is because I experience visual objects that I know that I can see. It is because I am delighted to see my beloved that I know I love her. It is because of what I do that I know what my commitments are.

However, I can infer what the existential quality of my subjectivity is. Let us return to Plato's cave, but this time imagine that there is no light in it at all. It is so dark that I cannot see anything. There are no visual objects that I can see. Darkness is, after all, not a thing that I see, but the absence of any seen things. While there may be objects that I am experiencing non-visually—sounds, movements of air, or the touch of my clothes on my body—my visual field is empty. I can be aware that my eyes are open, but this awareness makes my eyes—not my seeing—into an object of my proprioception. What then is happening here? It is not only that, objectively, my eyes are open and functioning. It is also that I am open to my empty visual surroundings. I am looking. As soon as the lights come on, that looking will be rewarded by alighting upon objects that I can then see. However, without the light, my sight is in a pure state of emptiness, lack, and seeking. Accordingly, looking in total darkness is an accurate analogy for pure subjectivity. My subjectivity is a reaching out to the world and is already in a relationship to it of longing. However, this relation is transcendent in that it is not itself an object of knowledge. My subjectivity is a transcendent reality.

Plato envisaged subjectivity as imprisoned in a dark cave and seeking the light by which it could attain knowledge. However, then he turned that seeking subjectivity into a metaphysical entity called the soul and suggested that it had an eternal destiny in a life hereafter. In this way, he turned a transcendent mystery into an object of knowledge. He gave the status of a knowable, metaphysical entity to the inner core of our being. Moreover, this metaphysics gives us a life-long responsibility for the destiny of our immortal souls. Accordingly, it also gives us a self-centred mission in life—a mission that involves our souls controlling the inclinations of our bodily existence, directing our attention to the realm of Forms, and thereby deflecting us from responding to the transcendent and spiritual dimensions of the world we live in. If only Plato had retained Diotima's conception of the soul as a lack and emptiness which we seek to fill with such objects of love as Beauty, Truth, and Goodness.

A second transcendence to which the lives of all of us are attuned is ‘the Other’. This phrase, with its capital ‘O’, comes from the writings of Emmanuel Lévinas (1906–1995).[12] He describes human encounters as a meeting between our hidden subjectivity and the face of another person. When we are conversing with someone—especially someone we know well—we look into their face and experience a remarkable epiphany. We think we know this person—and in everyday terms we do—but we also feel that their face discloses an unknowable mystery. We experience a depth and an infinity, as Lévinas calls it, which tells us that we are in encounter with a reality that cannot be known. That Promethean form of cognitive possession is not possible in response to a disclosure of the infinite mystery of the Other. The irony is that the better we know someone in an everyday psychological sense, the less we know them in this deep sense. The person from whom we buy our railway ticket might as well be a machine—and nowadays often is—but the person we love is a transcendence to us. Our relation to the Other is not one of cognitive possession, but one of longing and openness. Indeed, Lévinas argues that the Other draws us out of our own egoistic self-preoccupation so that we become a being-for-the-Other. Our very subjectivity—that transcendent mystery to ourselves—becomes a real self and a social being insofar as it is drawn towards the Other.

For Lévinas the implications of this are ethical. He concludes that what turns our empty subjectivity into an active participant in the world is our responsibility for others—a responsibility that has been evoked in us by the epiphany in our lives of the Other. Rather than our existential selfhood being constituted by a Promethean act of self-affirmation, it is constituted by our responsibility for the Other—a responsibility born of responsiveness to that Other. The term ‘Other’ becomes here a name for that transcendence our love of which constitutes both myself as an ethical person and the other person as the object of my ethical responsibility. As Lévinas puts it, the Other evokes in me my goodness. Note the echo here of the Platonic thought that Goodness is one of the transcendent objects of our longing. However, while Plato locates that object in the realm of metaphysics, Lévinas locates it in the human world. Rather than taking Diotima's path away from love of others to a metaphysical realm, Lévinas urges us to find goodness and beauty here in the world through authentic encounters with others.

Notice also how the themes of Beauty and Goodness have come together here and have become further names for transcendence. To include Truth in this synthesis we will need to return to Aristotle. What we need is a non-Promethean, non-possessive conception of knowledge of the world. Such a conception can arise from Aristotle's notion of contemplation. Aristotle realized that of all the things we think about there are some that are beyond our capacity to possess or to manipulate for our own purposes. Our Promethean reach does not extend to the laws of nature themselves or to the immensities of the universe. We cannot change the laws of logic and mathematics, the human goal of happiness, the demands of sociality, and the nature of beauty or goodness. If we have a capacity to think about such things at all it must be in a mode of thinking that is marked by awe and reverence. Such contemplation would allow us to love the world without seeking to possess it: to understand the world without turning it into an object of technological manipulation.

Aristotle included the gods amongst the objects of this capacity for contemplation, and theologians have elaborated on this by describing a pantheon of supernatural beings for us to worship. Humanism would reject such objects, but not the capacity for contemplation that is posited with them. This capacity provides us with a mode of knowing, the objects of which are transcendent. If the objects of worldly knowledge are defined as truths, then we may call the transcendence which is an object of non-Promethean, contemplative knowledge, ‘Truth’. This does not explain very much, but then we are talking about a mystery. It is a mystery, however, to which we respond with yearning. It is this yearning that pushes us to ever greater efforts at discovery and understanding. It is what leads us to reject creationist explanations for the existence of reality, for example, as lacking, not only intellectual warrant, but also any respect for the mystery of existence. Such putative metaphysical explanations close off our yearning for Truth and give us a pseudo-certainty.


Spirituality is reverence, love, and humility in the presence of transcendence. While religions give the names of their gods to this transcendence, humanism gives it other names: Subjectivity, the Other, Beauty, Goodness, and Truth. Humanism's deepest intuition may well be that these names signify but one reality.


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