Thursday, September 21, 2017

Renaissance Man? Lessons from a Lost Classic on Secularism

In the current (Sept/Oct 2017) edition of The Humanist, former president of the American Humanist Association Lyle L. Simpson marks the centennial anniversary of the modern humanist movement with a brief summary of its improbable beginning in a Minneapolis Unitarian Church, while also mentioning its ancient origins with Greek and Roman literati Epicurus and Lucretius.
Epicurus' teaching, "centered on each of us maximizing our life here on Earth instead of our life being regulated by the gods"  was "spelled out in detail" in Lucretius' poem "On the Nature of Things" writes Lyle, and was later translated into Latin and adopted by the Medici family, Florentine rulers in the early 1400s, as a code for living.
Missing from Lyle's abbreviated history was an entire movement generally referred to as Renaissance Humanism, beginning with the efforts of Italian poet Petrarch, promoting the idea of human progress—only three centuries removed from the Dark Ages—  and as an alternative to the static outlook of Catholic scholasticism. Petrarch's belief was that in order for humanity to advance and regain "cultural excellence"—and thus "progress"—Classical-era texts and histories of needed to recovered, restored, and thoroughly studied and then emulated in life. He considered the Greek and Roman classical age as the high point of civilization, and emphasized the need to get back to a culture modeled after it. From the late 1300s to the 1600s, humanists went about searching "private and monastic libraries, [the region of] Byzantium, and [interviewing or uncovering works by] Muslim scholars and merchants," (1)  collating and cross-checking translations for accuracy. The rebirth of the Classical age was the goal, and that would be progress.


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September 16, 2017
Thomas Christian Williams introduced attendees to the NOSHA September monthly meeting to the signature accomplishment of Constantin-François de Chassebouef, compte de Volney: his book Les ruines; ou Méditations sur les révolutions des empires; author and book hereinafter referred to as Volney, and the English title The Ruins of Empires, or just Ruins. Williams' lecture, titled "The Modern Day Relevance of Volney's Ruins" suggested that there can be lessons for humanity in this book he calls a "lost classic," "lost" even though it was popular in the late 18th and through much of the 19th centuries.
Williams and Bust of Volney
Perhaps the most interesting points about the history of the author and book is that Volney was acquainted with Benjamin Franklin, who, in turn, introduced him to Thomas Jefferson during the fledgling days of the American republic. Jefferson apparently liked Ruins well enough to attempt (anonymously) translating it into English, completing about 80 percent of it before abandoning the project to pursue running for the office of President. The remainder of the translation was completed by Joel Barlow and first published in the United States in 1828. The book was read by George Washington (the pre-Jeffersonian edition), Frederic Douglass (Volney was also an abolitionist), Abraham Lincoln (who wrote an essay about it), atheist crusader Robert Ingersoll, poets Walt Whitman (whose "Leaves of Grass"  is based upon) and William Blake, and women's rights pioneer Elizabeth Cady Stanton. With a list of readers such as these, it should  easy to believe in Williams' claim that this book of "secular general principles" is one "our species needs in the tumultuous opening decades of the 21st Century," and is one "people could use to build a peaceful, prosperous, and transparent democracy."
Williams is, by some accounts, the world's leading expert on Volney's Ruins, and that pedigree would be hard to deny. His expertise on the different editions and translations of the book can been seen on the Amazon website under comments section where he himself contributes to reviews of several versions of the book, including in some of them "Five General Rules to Purchase a Jefferson-Barlow Translation". He is the searching, diligent 15th Century humanist in this respect—making sure the Jefferson translation is properly identified, while giving background on other editions, motivated by the belief that a true understanding and implementation of Volney's works would be a progressive move forward. Unlike the Renaissance Humanists, though, his reflection to the past is not toward the cultural Shangri-la of the classical Greek era, but rather to a much more recent period of—primarily—intellectual history known as the Enlightenment, of which Volney and Jefferson  could be considered exemplary heirs.
For today's reader, getting through a translation of an 18th Century French work will probably prove to be cumbersome and tedious. One reviewer describes it as a "belated example of 'philosophic' polemics," so, dear reader,  be prepared to add to the already slightly arcane language layers of hyperbole and obscure allusions; and wading one's way through it could become an even slower slog for all but the most dedicated scholar. It is here where Williams' world class expertise is again on display by distilling  the highfalutin and flowery prose to straightforward interpretations for the modern day audience.
Volney was a secularist, who believed the cause of the demise of empires was rooted in a conflict between fundamentalism and modernity; the fundamentalist system of morality  being based on "metaphysical assertions," where modernists' moral code is based on the "physical realities" of nature.
ISIS Execution Event at Ancient Palmyra: Cause and Effect of Fundamentalism
And the most evident of all physical realities to living creatures is based on the imperative to survive. Humanity—in the form of  governments and groups and individuals alike—can flourish only by accepting this basic natural law and encourage an ethic of "enlightened self-interest," which Volney defines as self-interest combined with education, moderation, and always applying the Golden Rule. This ethic, Williams writes in Amazon, is "a direct challenge to Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Social Contract—if you refute the Social Contract, you refute the moral foundation of the big government social programs that exist in the world today."
The principle of enlightened self-interest, at least Volney's definition, may not sit well with many humanists who believe that government social programs are not a bad thing in themselves; on the contrary: it can be shown that they help mitigate many excesses of "self-interest" run amok, unfettered by any enlightened constraints, which has resulted in gross concentrations of wealth and political power in a world of capitalist economics.
But Volney’s ideas of a morality based on naturalism over the "metaphysical assertions" of religions; his promotion of  strict separation of church and state; and his abolitionist stance on slavery should be enough for secular humanists to at least familiarize themselves with his work, but not, as did the Renaissance Humanists, for the purpose of a nostalgic trip back to the past—where they believed were better books and a better life—to aid any attempt to emulate or recreate it in the present.
NOSHA extends its appreciation and thanks to Mr. Williams for his interesting and thought-provoking presentation!
—Marty Bankson

(1)The Teaching Company, LLC. (2007). https://thegreatcourses.com Great Scientific Ideas that Changed the World, Steven L. Goldman, Professor. "Progress Enters into History"

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Where Everybody Knows Your Name: A Case of Mistaken Identity

Someone once told me that opening up your Facebook app was like going to the neighborhood bar. The lyrics:

"Sometimes you want to go     
Where everybody knows your name,
     
and they're always glad you came.
     
You wanna be where you can see,
     
our troubles are all the same
     
You wanna be where everybody knows
     
Your name.
"

soon came to mind and continue—complete with the sappy melody from the Cheers sitcom theme of the '80s—to initiate a daylong ear worm every time I think about it.

For my purpose, the barroom analogy may be well-suited. Whether  you sit there reading, scrolling—latte or Red Bull within arm's reach of your keyboard—or with elbows and forearms prone on the counter guarding the  micro-brew standing between them,  with a co-relaxant/conversationalist on the next barstool, the inevitable interloper will walk through the door. How she got here if she were not otherwise on a "Friends with" list or a page group member, we may not know, possibly gaining entry through algorithmic aberrations of the Facebook master plan to have eventually everyone become friends of everyone else. But your space is public, just like the pub, so no explanation is ultimately necessary—it just happens. But this character is not the overly-welcomed Norm or the just-irritating trivia monster Cliff of Cheers, but a full-on goddamned troll; and just when you thought the day's stress was evaporating with each passing minute, she's on a mission. The analogy fails when, as most in-the-flesh disagreeable strangers keep to themselves in public settings like pubs,  the newcomer, seeing a group expressing opinions contradictory to his own, is more likely to grab a stool at the far end of the bar. Likewise the troll without the cover of his basement or bedroom, or the road-raging driver without two tons of Ford F-150 armor is effectively neutered. Isolation seems to bring out the worst in us.

***

The rather extended lead-in here is to illustrate that possible mistaken or just haphazard confluences of associations of people with others or groups that would not, on the face of it,  appear as natural matches, in fact, occur; and when confined to the internet, telephones, or other non-physical modes of contact they can lead to very acrimonious verbal exchanges. This is not news to anyone who participates on social media or has ever had to deal with an inept customer service rep; and it is not news to frequent visitors to group pages like our own NOSHA page. There can be some interesting speculation on how these ill-matched conversationalists end up in the same place though.

There can be some confusion to the assumed general outlook and reason for being of the NOSHA organization itself, which can carry over as a misrepresentation in the social media. Some incorrectly assume that disbelief in the supernatural—all variations of atheism, etc.—is, pretty much, the beginning and end of the conversation, when, for NOSHA, it is really just the beginning. The American Humanist Association recently published a brief and insightful look into this topic  with a very brief review of historical highlights of atheism through the ages and a statement of principles of humanism, concluding with quotes from influential writers and scientists involved in AHA.

With the advent of the New Atheism in the mid-2000s came a resurgence of interest in the topic, and a new cottage industry of book and essay writing and speaking tours was born, followed not long after by the more contemporary communications available through social media, blogs, and  podcasts. The underlying theme of most of it was that atheism was a "movement". The NOSHA Facebook discussion page doubtlessly benefited from this surge, now approaching 1,000 members, doubling the number from five years ago. And since the New Orleans Secular Humanist Association was founded before both New Atheism and social media, it could be considered a placeholder when referencing the birth, development, and outlook of similar groups that have sprung up since.

But atheism—in itself—cannot be the foundation of a movement: the dialectical refutation of an idea (or, in this case, gods) can lead only to a 'higher" truth, not a validation of itself as the end. It is only a method, a tool. Negation alone leads to nihilism. So it should come as no surprise that lately cracks have  begun showing in the unity of the mission, perhaps the most glaring being the woeful attendance at the 2016 Reason Rally in Washington. Some blamed the scheduling at the beginning of summer, but much of it was due to atheist "purists" refusing to attend in reaction to programming geared more towards social justice and identity politics issues.  Podcaster David Smalley most recent contribution to the cybersphere is titled Eating Our Own: How You Can Save the Movement, which acknowledges that there are divisions within "The Movement," but tries to demonstrate that none of the divisive issues can be of more importance than keeping The Movement together. One would need not look far to find other examples or commentary on the subject.

But there are some bad actors who are atheists, let's face it; and the web is being populated with more white nationalists/supremacists and closet fascists by the day, not to mention the standard complement of politically mainstream Democrats and Republicans—many avowed atheists— that hold unprogressive notions antithetical to the goals of humanism. Smalley can't be further from the truth with his call for unity for unity's sake. All atheism may be created equally, but where one proceeds with it is what matters.

A recent dust-up on the NOSHA Facebook group page is what drew my attention to this conflict. It happens sometimes, but I suppose we should still—in the spirit of humanism—maintain a policy of open membership to anyone requesting it, and even let members speak their piece, even if that opinion involves an obviously anti-humanist agenda. That same antagonist, on the other hand, should expect pushback. If he (in this case) is unaware of the ideals of humanism, he needs to be informed, given that some may see NOSHA as primarily a gathering place for "just" atheists. Once informed that the tenants of humanism stand in sharp contrast to his own agenda, but he relentlessly pushes on, "speaking one's piece" becomes miserable trolling in its worst form.

In this case, the reactionary atheist interloper decided to leave the group. That happens sometimes as well, reminding me of another interesting analogy that compares entry into Facebook Land to "....like being hit with the braggart Christmas letter every single day—Johnny is doing this, Jane is doing that—thereby making you feel bad about all the things you're not doing. It's pushing you to participate in a game you didn't really want to play." (1) We have too many positive things going on, and that may, just may, be our "braggart Christmas letter" to reactionary and misanthropic atheists who really have nothing much other going on themselves.

CHEERS!

Havens, Sara. The Bar Belle, Vol. 2. lulu.com: 2015


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An afterword, taken from the AHA's link above.....

“It is quite possible to be an atheist and be quite deluded about other things other than religion. ‘Atheism’ is an empty category. ‘Humanism’ may be deluded about human potential, but at least it is a hopeful and non-exclusionary delusion!” – Joyce Carol Oates, AHA Humanist of the Year and prolific author.