Friday, September 3, 2010

James Lee, Antihumanist

Yesterday, James Lee strapped bombs to himself, entered the headquarters of the Discovery Channel, took hostages, and was finally felled by excellent police marksmanship.  Lee was an environmental terrorist, a self-conceived martyr who told police he was “ready to die” for his cause.  That cause was the elimination, or at least serious diminution, of humanity.  Lee published a manifesto on the Internet, as part of which he said, “[a]ll programs on Discovery Health-TLC must stop encouraging the birth of any more parasitic human infants and…programs encouraging human sterilization and infertility must be pushed.”  Sentiments like these seem to arise from a pathological loathing of the very species to which Lee belonged.  Literally suicidal, such views are a triple-distillation of so-called mainstream environmentalism.  They represent the torture and abuse of a philosophy that was one of the loveliest flowers of the Renaissance, the creation of cultivated, principled Christians like Erasmus of Rotterdam and St. Thomas More:  humanism.

Renaissance humanism was starkly different from its modern, capitalized namesake.  Unlike the 20th century Humanists, in Renaissance Europe the humanists were sincere Christians.  More, who was Chancellor of England under Henry VIII, even died for his faith.  Unwilling to belie his Roman Catholicism, More stoically submitted to execution rather than sign an oath supporting Henry’s divorce of his first wife, Catherine.  In his genuine martyrdom, More stands today in nonviolent relief against the montage of Islamic killer-suicides, and now also as a silent rebuke to James Lee.  More and Erasmus and their colleagues also remind us how far the humanistic stream has traveled from its wellspring.

In 1453, Moslem Turks finally sacked the ancient city of Constantinople.  Originally founded by the first Christian emperor of Rome, the city had withstood over a thousand years of attacks and invasions.  During that time, the territory ruled by the Christian emperors of the Eastern Roman Empire dwindled to little more than the environs of the walled city itself.  However, behind those walls, Christian scholars preserved the ancient wisdom of pagan Greece and Rome.  When the Turks finally conquered the city, or more likely just before, refugee librarians escaped with precious scrolls containing Plato, Homer, and the rest of the classical canon.  These refugees traveled to Italy, where knowledge of pagan literature, history, and philosophy had vanished in the European Dark Ages.  In about 50 years after the fall of Constantinople, all Europe would blossom in a rebirth of scholarship and confidence in the human ability to prevail in this world.

Among the early champions of the new-old wisdom were the humanists.  Learning the old languages and reading the classics in the original Greek or Latin, the humanists believed that human institutions should be tested by reason.  Originally, the idea was an electrifying challenge to the medieval orthodoxy.  After centuries of unlettered faith, Europe entered a period of learned speculation on all matters under Heaven.  Animated by a spirit of reverence for humanity itself, though often balanced by a wise understanding of how far most humans fall short of the ideal, these educated, humane men advanced the moral culture of Western Civilization by maintaining a creative balance between tradition and reason.

Modern secular Humanists could not be more different from the sainted Thomas More.  In the 20th century, the Humanist movement discarded some crucial elements of its Renaissance ancestor.  Chief among those elements was, of course, belief in God.  A skeptic about religion himself, CONSVLTVS would have to be blind not to see the utility of religious faith.  As a case in point, in abandoning religious faith Humanism also abandoned traditional morality.  However, as we should know by now, human beings positively demand a moral order by which to structure their lives.  In the absence of traditional morality, Humanism has simply taken on the orthodoxy of the Left, including feminism, Marxism, and—significantly for James Lee—environmentalism.

He was not the first environmentalist radical.  That movement has often straddled the line between civil disobedience and vandalism.  Still, comparatively few environmentalists have taken direct action like Greenpeace.  Thankfully, and unlike radical Islamists, violent environmentalists are extremely rare.  The Unabomber was one such, and James Lee was another.  Whatever we may think of the movement as a whole, it is likely that we will hear in the near future denunciations of Lee’s crimes from the high priests of the Green faith.  Conservatives should welcome these denunciations and refuse to impute Lee’s violent impulses to the rest of the Greens.  However, Conservatives should also confront the anti-human philosophy of Lee and identify it for what it is:  the ultimate fruit of abandoning tradition in favor of uncorrected reason.

Though a wonderful tonic in 1500 A.D., reason is easily abused.  When not corrected by an understanding of history and tradition, reason can produce abhorrent conclusions such as those of James Lee.  Like his Islamist counterparts, Lee had no reverence for humanity.  The ancient Greeks expressed through their art a reverence for the human form.  The physical perfection of their bronze and marble statuary was an assertion of spiritual beauty as well.  This celebration of the best in humanity, conveyed to Europe through the manuscripts rescued from Constantinople and the heroic art left in ruins all over the Mediterranean, was for centuries a hallmark of Western Civilization.  Now, James Lee has struck against that tradition, having lost his way in the labyrinth of reason uncorrected by the empirical lessons of history.  His legacy, thus, is yet another cautionary tale, another warning against the rejection of tradition.

This is not to say that the medicine for our ailing body politic is a return to unlettered, medieval faith, or to inflexible social norms.  We cannot return to the past, and any attempt to worship it will yield the kind of stasis that eventually gripped Constantinople.  Just as it is a mistake to reject tradition in favor of radical innovation, at the promptings of uncorrected reason, it is likewise a mistake to abandon reason altogether.  We require a balance between reason and faith, between custom and innovation.  This balance has persisted throughout most of the past five centuries in Europe, as well as the majority of our own Republic’s history.  However, for the past five decades, we have accelerated the pace at which we are discarding traditions.  Today, to return to the creative equilibrium that has characterized Western Civilization, we must reawaken the Conservative instinct and renew those traditions that represent the experience of our people.  If James Lee in some way helps to startle a few on the Left into questioning their fundamental assumptions, we may find some meaning in his death.


  1. I have been trawling the "Transhumanist" blogosphere to find out what the (ahem) nouveau positivists have up their sleeves for us. There, believe it or not, "humanism" is slowly being turned into an equivalent term for "racism" -- as in "human race." Humanism means to me the idea (in contrast to the medieval concept of the world as a meaningless stopover on the way to eternity) that during our lives on earth, we must attend as much to being human as to being future citizens of heaven. The unlettered faith you speak of was an ecclesiatical emphasis on transcendence of the here and now -- an amelioration of suffering by assuring believers that it was temporary and "unreal." Then, like Socrates before them, the humanists intended to bring philosophy (and humanity) down from the clouds. Everyone from Aquinas onward leaned on science to set the spark of change. As it plays out, now science is the religion of the age. Where the medieval Church was all spiritualism, the ultra-modern scientific church is all about physicalism. I am not inclined to follow either at the expense of the other. James Lee was one whose "logic" was the bloodless, dispirited view of humanity that sees human beings as just so many interchangeable units in a vast impersonal machine, to which the only moral judgments applicable or necessary are utilitarian calculations. So what if we shoot a few units to make a point? It's not stupidity (nor idealism) on his part. It's just an ugly view of the human condition. If we can't rejuvenate or remodel the classic old concept of the soul into something the "scientific progressive" understands, then what do we have, CONSVLTVS? That's what I'd like to know ...

  2. GTChristie, you touch it with a needle: "If we can't rejuvenate or remodel the classic old concept of the soul into something the 'scientific progressive' understands, then what do we have, CONSVLTVS? That's what I'd like to know ..." I certainly don't know for sure, especially about souls, but here are some ideas.

    First, we have to acknowledge the facts, no matter how unpleasant. My orthodox friends on the Left are ready to accept, for instance, the growing distance between the God of the Bible and whatever unknowable Creator is left after science has had its say. But they are emphatically not ready to accept that, in the mix of nature and nurture that produces human behavior, the portion of nature is rather large after all. This is because to the extent there really is a definite human nature, then there really may be deep wisdom in traditions that have evolved to account for human beings as they are. And such traditions offend Leftist doctrine.

    To make our point, it seems to me we can only advocate as clearly and faithfully as possible for those institutions best suited to preserving liberty. We do not need precisely the same social norms that we had in the past, for our material and political conditions really are unprecedented. My guess is that as different countries in the world continue experimenting with social environments, something like the optimum mixture of tradition and innovation will emerge.

    Before you start thinking I'm a modern-day Pangloss, let me add a depressing codicil. Nothing in history suggests to me that we are guaranteed what we seek from social institutions. The optimum mixture of tradition and innovation surely will emerge, but it may be optimum for stability or security rather than for liberty. It is more likely to be something authoritarian, either via the soft tyranny of Europe or the harder tyranny of China. That is why I am so concerned to advocate for traditions that seem most congenial to liberty.