Enlightenment humanists need to fight the postmodern culture that views us as a mere genetically or culturally programmed zombiesby Raymond Tallis / February 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
There is no question more interesting, important and emotionally charged than what it is to be human. The unswerving commitment of many leading intellectuals over the last 100 years to promoting an utterly debased account of human nature is therefore profoundly depressing. We are told that a human being is not such a fine thing after all; that men and women are beasts (and beastly beasts at that); or that they are well-nigh unconscious automata, culturally or genetically programmed to further their own interests or those of their genes.
Vehemently anti-humanist views, once the preserve of far-right misanthropes such as Joseph de Maistre, are now commonplace. As Kenan Malik says, at the turn of the new millennium “we might think of man as weak, wretched, barbarous, savage, inhuman… But never again, it seems, as dignified and noble, or as the measure of all things.”
School children who study William Golding’s Lord of the Flies-a GCSE set text-get marks for noting how thin is “the veneer of civilisation” and how badly civilisation suits us. They will get no additional marks for wondering how, if this is the case, civilisation got going in the first place and how it seems to continue from day to day.
Anthropologists, artists, biologists, philosophers, assorted gurus and prophets are guaranteed a respectful hearing for asserting an astonishing variety of negative accounts of mankind: that we are the playthings of genetic programmes which may have adapted us to Stone Age life but not to human life as it is today; that unconscious forces rule our lives so that the humanist notion of the self is an illusion; that we are all brutalised victims and brutal victimisers of each other; and so on. If you assert, as 10,000 postmodernists and their followers have asserted, that our knowledge is subsumed entirely into abusive power, that our reason is an instrument of oppression, that disinterested enquiry is a sham, and that there is no truth available to humans outside of coercive communities of discourse, then tenure is guaranteed and international stardom not far behind. Anything, in short, that trashes the Enlightenment notion of a human being as a creature of reason, with generous as well as selfish impulses, and as a more or less free agent, will improve your career prospects.
If, on the other hand, you suggest that the true vocation of a human being is not always…