Defining Humanism

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.


Why and What You Should Know About the NDAA

On New Year’s Eve President Obama, despite serious reservations, signed into law a bill that has generated much controversy and charged rhetoric over the last few weeks. That annual bill, the National Defense Authorization Act, specifies the budget and expenditures for the Department of Defense. But the 2012 NDAA is not restricted to the technicalities of the budget. Embedded within the act, as carefully broken down by Glenn Greenwald in an article for Salon, are several sections enabling indefinite military detention without trial and expanding the scope of the War on Terror even further.

The section in question, “Subtitle D- Counterterrorism,” codifies the following:

  1. The indefinite detention, without trial, by the military and under military rather than civilian jurisdiction, of certain classes of persons;
  2. The persons covered by the Bill include not only persons who are part of terrorist groups, but also those who offer substantial support to terrorist groups, a vague standard that in recent cases has been applied to lawyers and human rights activists;
  3. U.S. Citizens are, in certain circumstances, also subject to indefinite detention by the military;
  4. The use of funds to build a facility in the US for Guantánamo detainees and the transferring of those detainees to the US for any reason is prohibited, rendering the closing of Gitmo impossible.

Some argue that the NDAA merely codifies detention authority that the administration and the military have already claimed, both in their actions and in the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force. This argument does hold some weight, particularly because the NDAA’s purposeful ambiguity, as well as Obama’s stated concern about “certain provisions that regulate the detention, interrogation, and prosecution of suspected terrorists,” makes it difficult to determine exactly how the provisions will be used.

But even if it is the case that the NDAA does not constitute a major change in policy (which Greenwald and others dispute), the fact that the NDAA’s provisions put the legislative weight of Congress behind such policy is no small tragedy. From the ACLU to Human Rights Watch to Ron Paul (who called one of its earlier versions “a slip into tyranny”), the NDAA has been denounced for its frightening disregard for the rule of law and the US Constitution. ACLU’s executive director, Anthony D. Romero, had particularly strong words about the bill’s signing:

President Obama’s action today is a blight on his legacy because he will forever be known as the president who signed indefinite detention without charge or trial into law…We are incredibly disappointed that President Obama signed this new bill into law even though his administration has already claimed overly broad detention authority in court. Any hope that the Obama administration would roll back the constitutional excesses of George Bush in the war on terror was extinguished today.

Sadly, what is clear is that the NDAA further entrenches what was already unjust and legally questionable policy. The fact that the bill passed both the Senate and the House, as well as avoided a presidential veto, is unfortunately not a testament to its validity or harmlessness, but to just how much compromising of constitutional values we’ve let ourselves swallow.

The NDAA is the latest manifestation of the crisis mentality that has gripped Washington since the so-called War on Terror began. It seems that we are living in a chronic state of emergency, in which a policy as un-American as indefinite detention is justified simply by claiming that it is keeping us safe. As Elaine Scarry writes in her recent book Thinking in an Emergency, there is an unspoken presumption in times of emergency that either one can think or one can act. We bypass deliberation exactly when it becomes most necessary. Arendt agreed, believing that in exceptional times deliberation and judgment must come to the forefront in all political matters. For her, the faculty of judgment is not the ability to know right and wrong abstractly, but the ability to tell right from wrong, in a given situation.

In the case of NDAA, Congress has washed its hands of its responsibility to think, to determine what is right and wrong in this War of Terror. Instead Congress and the President have handed off authority to the military to use as it sees fit, taking refuge in the bill’s ambiguous phrasing to avoid having to take a real stand. In their unwillingness to say, in law, that indefinite detention is wrong, our politicians have made what was an implicit policy an explicit statement: this is what America does.

You can read Glenn Greenwald’s article here, the ACLU’s statement here, and Obama’s written statement on the detention provisions here.

-Anna Hadfield