The pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Protagorus famously said “Of all things the measure is Man,” which is usually paraphrased as ‘Man is the measure of all things’. Despite it’s poetic value, Protagorus’ statement represents what is essentially the pinnacle of human arrogance. This paradigm of thought is reflected in religious beliefs about humanity’s eternal destiny, superiority over wildlife and the earth, and the supposed importance of individual purity and morality. But it was also a cornerstone of enlightenment ideals, which still strongly influence secular thought.
Yesterday I met an atheist in my town through a Unitarian Universalist event. He is a fascinating British man who gave me some great ideas to chew on. One of which is a provocative philosophical concept called inhumanism, which at first blush sounds horrifying until the meaning is explained. As a self-identified progressive Humanist, this idea appeared to contrast strongly with certain tenets of my own philosophy.
The first part of The Double Axe was written during the war and finished a year before the war ended, and it bears the scars; but the poem is not primarily concerned with that grim folly. Its burden, as of some previous work of mine, is to present a certain philosophical attitude, which might be called Inhumanism, a shifting of emphasis and significance from man to not-man; the rejection of human solipsism and recognition of the transhuman magnificence. It seems time that our race began to think as an adult does, rather than like an egocentric baby or insane person. This manner of thought and feeling is neither misanthropic nor pessimist, though two or three people have said so and may again. It involves no falsehoods, and is a means of maintaining sanity in slippery times; it has objective truth and human value. It offers a reasonable detachment as rule of conduct, instead of love, hate and envy. It neutralizes fanaticism and wild hopes; but it provides magnificence for the religious instinct, and satisfies our need to admire greatness and rejoice in beauty.
Essentially, inhumanism is about shifting the focus off of humanity, and the myth of anthropocentrism, and onto the universe at large, which we are inseparable from. No longer should we view ourselves as the center of the universe. Instead we should recognize that we are but one tiny part of an enormous whole.
The catalyst for such a worldview shift should be obvious. With looming ecological, geopolitical, and economic disasters staring us down, we, as if looking up the barrel of a gun, must stop denying the nature of reality, and admit that the world, and the universe may go on without us very soon. We should recognize that at the very least, the destruction of civilization as we know it may very well be inevitable.
The prognoses appear grim on most fronts. As exemplified by the sobering title of the great intellectual Noam Chomsky’s 2014 article for In These Times:“The End of History? The short, strange era of human civilization may be coming to a close.” Whether it be the possibility of nuclear war, environmental collapse, or socio-economic upheaval, we are facing some damn scary hypotheticals as a species.
There is still human optimism, but much of it seems naive or pragmatic at best. I am no scientist or economist, so I could be wrong. Like most people, I am only capable of second-hand knowledge of such matters. Maybe human civilization will rise to the challenge and work it’s way out of the messes we are facing. Maybe something unforeseeable will occur which changes everything. Who knows?
But it seems like the cracks in humanity’s optimism are showing. Are we really so confident? Is progress inevitable? Are we just hitting another speed bump along the road to victory?
Why do we assume that the Earth needs us? Can we imagine a universe without humans? It seems almost scandalous to suggest that humanity may just be a passing fad, subject to the arbitrary whims of the universe’s ever-changing taste in cosmic fashion.
A concept so unorthodox as this can easily be opened up to the charge of unproductive pessimism or fear-mongering. I think at it’s worst, a sense of hopeless, nihilistic determinism could be a potential side-effect. At it’s best however, it could challenge those who can accept it to reprioritize their lives accordingly. For example, I continue to feel more and more inclined to see art as a more noble ‘purpose’ so to speak, of mankind’s existence. Rather than being concerned with humanity’s self-aggrandization, illusions of progress, and anthropocentric fantasies, maybe we should focus more on living a life of beauty and harmony while we are here.
I believe that these sort of ideas should probably be tempered by the pragmatic ideals of Humanism. Progress can still be valued, even if demoted to a lesser role; human optimism has a important psychological role to play; and sometimes artistry and beauty must compromise with the ugliness involved in facing difficult humanitarian crises. Secular Humanism and inhumanism may not be as mutually incompatible as they appear. Maybe more complementary.
I’d encourage you to check out the Dark Mountain Manifesto, from the website dark-mountain.net created by a group of artists and activists. They create art and writings based on this philosophy of inhumanism, which they somewhat euphemistically label uncivilisation. If nothing more, it will give you some food for thought. It resonates with my skeptical side; especially when it comes to criticizing political, economic or scientific optimism.
This story has many variants, religious and secular, scientific, economic and mystic. But all tell of humanity’s original transcendence of its animal beginnings, our growing mastery over a ‘nature’ to which we no longer belong, and the glorious future of plenty and prosperity which will follow when this mastery is complete. It is the story of human centrality, of a species destined to be lord of all it surveys, unconfined by the limits that apply to other, lesser creatures . . .
. . . Today, humanity is up to its neck in denial about what it has built, what it has become — and what it is in for. Ecological and economic collapse unfold before us and, if we acknowledge them at all, we act as if this were a temporary problem, a technical glitch. Centuries of hubris block our ears like wax plugs; we cannot hear the message which reality is screaming at us. For all our doubts and discontents, we are still wired to an idea of his- tory in which the future will be an upgraded version of the present. The assumption remains that things must continue in their current direction: the sense of crisis only smudges the meaning of that ‘must’. No longer a natural inevitability, it becomes an urgent necessity: we must find a way to go on having supermarkets and superhighways. We cannot contemplate the alternative.
–Dark Mountain Manifesto, via dark-mountain.net
Thank you for considering my perspective. Your opinion matters to me, and I’d love to hear from you in the comments.
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