Daniel Mahoney’s new book, The Idol of Our Age, offers a sharp indictment of the humanitarianism that has become the implicit faith of our time.
He begins with the thought of Auguste Comte, who created a “rational” religion of humanity that would bring humanity “from a theological and military order to a scientific and industrial one.” in which there would be no separation between men. Comte taught that the arc of history inexorably bends toward the unification of nations and cultures. What matters most is the intrinsically good human nature that we all share, not the political, cultural, or religious distinctions that differentiate us.
Humanitarianism may seem like the true form of Christianity and the fulfillment of classical philosophy, but it differs from them in three significant ways.
First, it declares that there is nothing transcending human nature. It lowers the horizon for human contemplation and action to understanding and sympathizing with our fellow human beings. But, as Mahoney argues, “what is highest in man finds its ultimate source in what is higher than man. …
Second, humanitarianism sees human nature as evolving and perfectible, not a boundary that our desires and aspirations must learn to respect. …
Third, humanitarianism is scandalized by the particular. It exalts humanity in general and believes that nations will pass away. In its Christian variety, it emphasizes moral principles over the person of Jesus Christ. But particularity is necessary to finite human existence. We do not live in an abstract “family” or “humanity;” we live in our own family and our own nation. As Mahoney writes, these particularities mediate our understanding of more general concepts: “human beings experience common humanity only in the meeting of diverse human and spiritual affirmations and propositions that arise from the concrete human communities in which we live.”
I’m reading Alan Jacobs’s “The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis,” which addresses itself to the problem of post-World War II humanitarianism as an end in itself, combined with a technocracy capable of governing but incapable of inquisitiveness about the essential purpose and telos of human beings.