Martin Heidegger’s Letter on Humanism is one of the great works of the 20th century. It was written in 1946 after his experience of the war and being stripped of teaching duties as Rectorship of Freiburg University as well as losing his membership in the Nazi party. The Letter is an attempt to re-cast his past work on a current and future path, seeking to save humanity from inhumanity.
The Letter remains controversial for many reasons, not least because Heidegger refuses to see Nazism as the name for the inhumanity threatening our world. Instead, he attributes the dehumanization of mankind, including Nazism, to a general homelessness that has its roots in what he calls the age of Technik.
I am just finishing up a semester-long seminar on Heidegger’s Letter on Humanism, a course I try to teach every other year. I always end the course by reading the one text on Heidegger’s Letter that I find both intelligent and provocative.
In Rules for the Human Zoo: A Response to the Letter on Humanism, Peter Sloterdijk sets Heidegger’s text in the context of humanism. While this may seem obvious, it is not. Heidegger goes through a history of humanism in two short pages of his text, and never addresses it again. But for Sloterdijk, the text is to be read as a last effort to save a dying humanist tradition.
The core of the humanist tradition, in Sloterdijk’s provocative telling, is the book as love letter. Books, he writes, citing the poet Jean Paul, “are thick letters to friends.” Humanism, as love letters, are messages sent out in printed form looking for friends. A humanist writes a book to move others to love what he himself loves. Humanism is thus a “communitarian fantasy” in which “participation through reading the canon reveals a common love of inspiring messages.”
The power of humanist writing is the power to communicate love of humanity to others whom one does not know. It is to awake in others the love for being human, for living as human, in the way and manner of a human being. And for most of Western humanism, the essence of that human being that inspires such love and devotion has been the human capacity to think, to reason, and to create. It is because humans can create beautiful works of art, found great empires, and devote themselves to truth and to God that humans are different from animals and worthy of our love.
Humanists must, Sloterdijk knows, distinguish themselves from animals. Thus:
Anyone who is asking today about the future of humanity and about the methods of humanization wants to know if there is any hope of mastering the contemporary tendency towards the bestialization of humanity.
Sloterdijk sees humanism as the effort to tame the human beast—the beast in the human. It is the desire to influence for the good the constant tension in human beings between beastialization and humanization.
It is because humanism is always one side of a struggle against a perceived threat of the bestialization of human beings that humanists must, of necessity, stand apart not only from animals, but also from mass culture. Sloterdijk presents this point in the context of Roman humanism with clarity:
Ancient humanism can be understood only when it is grasped as one opponent in a media contest: that is, as the resistance of the books against the amphitheater, and the opposition of the humanizing, patient-making, sensitizing philosophical reading against the dehumanizing, impatient, unrestrained, sensation-mongering and excitement-mongering of the stadium. What the educated Romans called humanitas would have been unthinkable without the need to abstain from the mass culture of the theaters of cruelty.
From these premises, Sloterdijk makes the surprising claim that humanism, “the question of how a person can become a true or real human being becomes unavoidably a media question.” The great event of our time, in Sloterdijk’s telling, and that which ends the humanist endeavor, is the telecommunications revolution. The end of the book, the loss of the medium of high culture that will distinguish itself from the masses and thus the massification and bestializaiton of man is, he writes, a death knell for the very idea of a humanity that is to be held separate from and higher than animals.
Hannah Arendt fought her life against efforts of human rights activists to reduce man to a living being and against the dreams of social scientists to make of man a predictable member of a mass.
Her fight was, on her own terms, the fight to preserve an idea of the human distinct from animals that also powers Heidegger’s exploration of humanity in the Letter on Humanism. Sloterdijk’s account of Heidegger’s effort, and his judgment of its unavoidable failure, is well worth your time this weekend. It is your weekend read.