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So argues a new book by Daniel J. Mahoney, reviewed currently in City Journal by Gerald J. Russello. Philosophers have been seeking to replace the strictures of both religious faith and politics since the Enlightenment, and it seems that they have nearly achieved their project at last. The new faith does not have a formal name as yet, but several observers have described it as “Humanitarianism.”
Humanitarianism is itself a religion, and as Harvard law professor Adrian Vermeule has argued, modern secularism has its own eschatology (the eternal overcoming of “hatred”), its own sacraments and holidays, and various prohibitions and commandments, usually centered around specific groups. Coupled with the rise of various would-be pagan religions and the cult of the self, these movements represent a retreat from rational reflection on politics.
That eschatology (meaning, the beliefs associated with The End, that is the ultimate destiny) should terrify us all, for it is unbounded by any goal, and barrier, or any moral lines. It simply latches onto the eternal defeat of “hatred,” which is a term that has been denuded of meaning, and now relegated to mean a failure to affirm any other person’s choices or self-definition, no matter how destructive. To fail to affirm is to “hate,” and to “hate” is to be an enemy of all.
But Humanitarianism infects more than one might suppose.
Augusto del Noce [wrote] that, with modernity, “everything becomes purely an object of commerce. This is symbolized by the disappearance of modesty; in the most elementary forms everything is reduced to ‘water, sleep, sex,’ falling, in short, into pure animalism.” Kolnai, too focuses on modesty and the range of intimate relationships that virtue was meant to regulate. For the humanitarian, living up to or in accord with virtue is unnecessary because virtue is unnecessary—the category implies that people may want something that is not good. “Humanitarianism,” explains Mahoney, “ultimately impairs human cognition, since a horizon that deifies undifferentiated ‘human needs’ has a hard time acknowledging the ‘unpleasant,’ the truly morally demanding dimensions of the moral life.” [emphasis my own]
Put another way, we have lost the ability to tell others that their very way of living is unvirtuous. The Left wants to affirm every self-definition one could invent (and label as oppressors those who refuse to affirm), while the Right is afraid of morally censuring anything that appears to be free commerce, even if such trades violate human dignity.
Socialism was difficult to oppose when it first achieved international popularity. It took decades for the horrors of socialism in practice, and the brutality it required, to be acknowledged, and few even today are willing to label Socialism as a religious belief system. But in time, Western Civilization did at least come to understand at some level that socialism was dangerous, and was able to oppose the worse expressions of it (even if now those memories of its horrors are fading again). Can Western Civilization rouse itself sufficiently to recognize this new cult? Time will tell. Perhaps it won’t and will fall into this new totalitarianism, or perhaps, enervated and disunited by the radical individualism therein, busy destroying itself in a vain attempt to defeat “hate,” it will be unable to oppose the other totalitarianism promulgated by China.
Regardless, we should all recognize that “Woke” politics may very well be foretaste of a new totalitarian secular cult.