“Some of our comrades conceive this humanism as though it were a young, fair-haired girl walking through a scented meadow, a damsel wreathed in flowers.” So reported Hélène Iswolsky, daughter of the last tsarist ambassador to Paris, citing a Soviet poet and “fanatical adherent of out-and-out communism” as to why the new Stalinist humanism was the real one, so long as it was defined correctly. “The picture is certainly attractive, and yet I must reject it,” the poet continued. “Something within me revolts against it. … We are always talking about ‘love, joy, and pride,’ which form the ingredients of humanism, but our younger writers are too apt to forget the fourth element of humanism, which is expressed in the austere but beautiful idea of hatred.”
A disciple of Christian publicist Jacques Maritain, Iswolsky was not herself immune to hatred. She detested communism, it is fair to say, and championed her own master’s Christian claim to the mantle of humanism (she was part of a so-called “post-revolutionary movement,” biding its time until a crisis of the Soviet regime would allow Christianity to be rescued). As these and many other humanisms did battle, it is not surprising that some people searched for an alternative to the whole debate. In the 1930s, everyone had their own “true humanism” (the title of one of Maritain’s most important books, at least according to his first American translators). In an era in which there was “no humanism except mine!”—as Stefanos Geroulanos’s chapter title has it—irritation, and exhaustion, with the choice followed.
I deeply appreciate Geroulanos’s enterprising reconstruction of the origins of French antihumanism, in a book whose threshold achievement is to spell out, with impressive erudition, how originally surreptitious theoretical moves were made in the first half of the twentieth century that, by the 1950s and ‘60s, would come to have massive effects on intellectual life. Moreover, I especially appreciate his reconstruction of the welter of contending humanisms out of which, given their density, it is now more understandable that antihumanism emerged as a response. That it did so only for a few pioneers in the 1930s, that the 1940s were still the scene of multiple claimants to the title, and that as late as the 1950s, volumes could still flow from the presses with titles like “the conflict of humanisms today,” makes Geroulanos’s archeology of the earlier period no less compelling.
“Humanism”—so Michel Foucault argued at one point—“is a theme or, rather, set of themes that have reappeared on several occasions, over time, in European societies; these themes, always tied to value judgments, have obviously varied greatly in their content as well as in the values they have preserved.” He explained:
In the seventeenth century, there was a humanism that presented itself as a critique of Christianity or of religion in general; there was a Christian humanism opposed to an ascetic and much more theocentric humanism. In the nineteenth century, there was a suspicious humanism, hostile and critical toward science, and another that, to the contrary, placed its hope in that same science. Marxism has been a humanism; so have existentialism and personalism; there was a time when people supported the humanistic values represented by National Socialism, and when the Stalinists themselves said they were humanists. From this, we must not conclude that everything which has ever been linked with humanism is to be rejected, but that the humanistic thematic is in itself too supple, too diverse, too inconsistent to serve as an axis for reflection. And it is a fact that, at least since the seventeenth century, what is called “humanism” has always been obliged to lean on certain conceptions of man borrowed from religion, science, or politics. Humanism serves to color and to justify the conceptions of man to which it is, after all, obliged to take recourse.
There is thus a long story of the deployment of humanisms prior to Geroulanos’s short story of the climactic battle over the title that prompted its abandonment. Whether in the long or short view, though, the problem with humanism is that there are too many kinds. Inevitably presupposing other commitments, on which it either silently relies or separately defends, the invocation of humanism is either diversionary or unnecessary. If you say you are a humanist, you still haven’t told me what you are for.
But what if the same is true of “antihumanism”?
In chronicling the adventures of antihumanism, Geroulanos’s emphasis is, rightly, not on unity, but, from the first pages of his study, on different forms of thought, which shared little besides an austere and beautiful hatred of the whole idea of “humanism.”
There is no gainsaying the difficulty of converting hate into hard philosophical work, of course. And there is no denying how hard it must have been to undermine humanism—which, of course, is alive and well, some days almost as if the developments Geroulanos lovingly chronicles had never occurred. Remarkably, Charles Taylor, for instance, in his recent neo-Catholic tome A Secular Age, can redeploy Maritain’s own anxiety about the so-called “exclusive humanism” of secularism just as if none of Geroulanos’s figures had ever reacted to warring claims of true humanism by suggesting that the category made no sense. In this regard, the more antihumanism, the better.
Ultimately, however, there remains the question of what should supplant humanism. And it is especially pressing as it turns out that the critique of atheist humanism undertaken by Geroulanos’s protagonists frequently sounds a lot like a flirtation with Christianity, especially mystical Christianity, which humanism had at least overthrown intellectually. Or, at a minimum, the rise of antihumanism, as Geroulanos so conscientiously and intrepidly reconstructs it, meant the revival of theological questions. Whether these various proposals were genuinely “beyond the Christian confine” is, I think, more than a question of terminology. But Geroulanos’s various antihumanists do not even share this much.
Indeed, one might contend that Geroulanos’s story, emphasizing a widespread “negative” campaign, modeled on negative theology, against blasphemous humanisms, is unsatisfactory if its outcome remains negative alone. The historical proponents of negative theology, after all, believed in a God of whom they required themselves and others to speak without idolatry. But by comparison, it is unclear what figure a project of negative anthropology leaves resplendently on the throne. And if so, one must wonder whether the critique of humanism ends up mired in the difficulty that gave rise to it. To say that negative anthropology “pointed beyond” the “duet of humanism and antihumanism,” and therefore “toward a new series of possibilities,” is too weak a defense of it: the existence of these “new possibilities” might do little to solve the basic problem of moving from critique to construction.
The deep structure of Geroulanos’s book, in some ways, teaches this deep lesson: it proceeds from an attack on humanism that Geroulanos unifies, to a welter of antihumanisms that he pluralizes. “No antihumanism except mine!” is the predictable result. Further, as Geroulanos shows, the postwar scene allowed for the ginger revival of some forms of humanism that claimed to avoid the brunt of the critique of the old humanism; Maurice Merleau-Ponty brilliantly adopted this tack.
So it is that by shortly after World War II, long before its glory days, antihumanism had already taken on the worst quality of the humanism it wanted to supplant: there were too many kinds. And in the end, the same charge that brought humanism low applies to antihumanism itself. It is either diversionary, or unnecessary. Not that every notion ever linked with antihumanism is to be rejected, you might say, but that the antihumanistic thematic is in itself too supple, too diverse, too inconsistent to serve as an axis for reflection. We are still looking for austerity, and therefore beauty, but hatred—including hatred of humanism—is not it.