The English philosopher Roger Scruton is a titan of our age -- or would be, if temperance, discipline, subtlety and wisdom were prized as highly today as they were by the humanists of his parents' day. In The American Spectator, Scruton writes movingly of these humanists who raised and taught him. He says that while he "was skeptical toward that kind of humanism, I never doubted its nobility of purpose." To train up the human mind to highest excellence and generosity was its purpose. It aimed to produce intelligence trained by disciplined habit and continual contact with greatness. "It was devoted to exalting the human person above the human animal, and moral discipline above random appetite. It saw art, music, and literature not simply as pleasures, but as sources of spiritual strength."
It was great-minded and full of a sense of duty, which duty including carefully passing on the inheritance of human achievement. The humanism of that generation included an aspect of veneration, and the humility that accompanies it. Being more acquainted with loss and misery, this first post-Second World War generation had a more robust appreciation for the fragility of civilization. It welcomed all wisdom to task of securing and preserving it.
Scruton continues, "And it took the same view of religion. Humanists of the old school were not believers. The ability to question, to doubt, to live in perpetual uncertainty, they thought, is one of the noble endowments of the human intellect. But they respected religion and studied it for the moral and spiritual truths that could outlive the God who once promoted them."
Alas, that original generation of those humanists is dying off, and in its place with have a new generation entirely. We have, indeed, a wild, destructive class of men. But also -- let's face it -- a pretty hilarious one.
We have a whole generation of scolds and pedants altogether unaware of their pedantry. We have the New Humanists. Some may say that this band of ruffians will bequeath to mankind nothing of value, but I say otherwise. They will least be remembered for the image they set loose upon the streets of London, a great howling cartoon on wheels: an ad banner on a city bus reading, if Professor Scruton has reproduced it accurately, what must be among the most magnificent public statements ever: "There probably is no God; so stop worrying and enjoy life."
Now I ask the reader to consider such a statement, pronounced in a public place with all the flourish and boldness of modern political theater, and estimate the number of times he has ever beheld such a remarkable juxtaposition of simultaneous innocence and arrogance as that ad banner. It is a stark staring caricature or cartoon on wheels. The New Humanist has managed to ridicule himself, unwittingly. He has momentarily silenced irony and disarmed parody by becoming his own satire.
The key is the second word. Whatever possessed the British Humanist Association to add this note of ambiguity or uncertainty -- such is not their habit -- must be accounted a marvelous whim of Providence. The New Humanist has outdone himself, and insured his memorial across time. Had he neglected that one beautiful word -- "probably" -- he would have been forgotten forever, but since has he left us this marvelous tableau of cluelessness, we shall have something to remember him by. The New Humanist ad's suggests a man perfectly bereft of self-awareness.
But while we can have our fun at the expense of the New Humanist, it should be recognized that part of the hilarity participates in a darker logic -- that of a Western world actually turning toward the madness advertised on the London bus. It is not a world phenomenon. Far from it: the world appears to be turning the other way. But it sure would be a sad conclusion to the grand story of Western humanism, to end at the feet of these blank negations and self-parodies.