Real Humanism Fosters A Truly Beautiful Culture
My Battle Against Hitler, the memoirs of the Catholic philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand, is not merely of historical interest. The book is culturally important because it highlights the philosophical arguments with which von Hildebrand objected to the Nazis’ corruption of German culture.
One historical example of this cultural corruption would be Hitler’s perversion of art into propaganda. But surely if we think hard enough we can recognize today similar examples of a debased culture finding expression in phony artworks.
The philosopher Roger Scruton gives many examples of fake art in his justly famous BBC TV program, “Why Beauty Matters.” Take, for example, the hideous architecture inflicted on all of us who live in modern cities.
You may not have been explicitly aware of that fact before Scruton sharply drew it to your attention. But perhaps you have still noticed, all on your own, other modern outrages. Perhaps you felt queasy as a television program or a movie depicted human relations in a false and propagandistic way.
The true place of art and beauty in culture, placing it in right relation to political reality, is a key question often neglected by modern political philosophers. But the Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain (1882–1973) was not one of them. A contemporary of von Hildebrand, Maritain was another great Catholic whose thoughts on art and culture are still relevant today. Maritain delivered a series of lectures in French in the 1930s that spoke of “integral humanism” (the English translation of a phrase he used to sum up his proposed cultural ideal).
These lectures made a splash in the Catholic world for a brief time, circulating in English translation either under the (not so bad) book title of Integral Humanism or (even better) of True Humanism. Decades on, the further secularization of society has long since drowned out the book’s talk of what a “Christianly-inspired” ideal would be.
But as my philosophical colleague David J. Klassen pointed out (in an important study published in the 2011 Philosophy, Culture, and Traditions journal), the time is ripe for “reconsidering Maritain’s political philosophy.” Klassen argues that Maritain’s ideal of “true humanism” might be better proposed in a pluralistic democratic society under the name of “religiously inclusive humanism.”
The ideal of “true humanism,” for example, inclusively embraces all the “great pagan wisdom.” The teaching of notable pagans like Aristotle, observes Klassen, advises us not to exclude from society “all reference to the superhuman,” and not to implement as public policy the “denial of all transcendence.”
Klassen calls this an “open definition of humanism” because of its universal appeal to classical principles. Such principles refuse to locate all official sources of meaning only in this secular world. But in our increasingly secular society how can similar public openness to the divine ever happen?
“Maritain suggests that remarkable Christian leaders will arise,” notes Klassen, who will “persuade others of the advantages of the Christian conception” of society. This conception would still allow pluralism, but not pluralism of the lowest common denominator. Rather, pluralism would exist purposively, to foster a free embrace of the leaders’ proposed ideal of “Christian integral humanism.”
The Christian leaders who will successfully persuade others to pursue this ideal of “true humanism” can only succeed one way. Klassen emphasizes how Maritain saw they would have to be people who “will practically exhibit to those capable of comprehension that their conception is in conformity with sound reason, not that they will do so by rational argumentation.”
I think such leaders will be people who make a religiously inclusive appeal that insists art and culture return to the beautiful. A renewed artistic vision of real beauty could thus practically exhibit the truth of what many people have notyet grasped through rational arguments.
Where is real beauty? Maritain argued true humanism is “nourished at the heroic sources of sanctity.” True humanism “leads men to sacrifice and to a truly superhuman grandeur, because in that case,” he said, “human suffering opens its eyes and is borne in love.”
These words remind me of von Hildebrand and others who resisted the totalitarian spirit. Their stance illustrates the truth of what Maritain predicts for us: “States will be obliged to make a choice for or against the Gospel. They will be shaped either by the totalitarian spirit or the Christian spirit.”
What if we ourselves were to defend the ideal of true humanism? For starters, we could insist on fostering a culture where beauty matters.