On humanism

by The Editor

SERIES: The Thing About is a weekly Business Day column designed to discuss democratic ideas, ideals, values and principles from a liberal perspective. Today, a look at humanism and the idea that human achievement and potential is often downplayed in the favour of some supernatural explanation for accomplishment. This might seem beneficial – for one it allows one to abdicate responsibility when it comes to destructive behaviour – but that comes at a cost, including an inability to celebrate the great things of which humans alone are capable.

On humanism

By: Gareth van Onselen

19 March 2012

One could credibly generalise the human race suffers low self esteem. After all, it is often our first inclination to seek some supernatural validation of our own affairs, if not explanation for them, rather than to look to ourselves and each other.

Why is that? Why ascribe something so wonderous as the creative impulse to anything other than our own ability? Or draw from it inspiration and pride, as opposed to outsourcing that to a third party?

Certainly human accomplishment is worthy of much praise. In its fullness it is glorious.

That fact alone would seem satisfying. Not so. For many, that is not enough, if it is conceded at all. And, at the other end of the spectrum, the great evil of which human kind is likewise capable, reason enough to excuse our actions as the result of some external influence; for who would want to bear such a burden?

The payoff for that, however, for abdicating responsibility, is to surrender too our capacity to take credit for the majesty that is human achievement.

Some suggest modesty is encouraged and augmented by supernatural explanation but often they confuse celebration and egoism. Pride needn’t run rampant simply by cherishing those things that are marvelous, just as low self esteem needn’t rob a person of their due simply because they lack self worth.

This state of affairs is as much an indictment of human nature as it is regretful. Too often we fail to acknowledge the accomplishments of others, consumed by the intensity of the small universe that encompasses our day-to-day lives. That is our loss as much as it is theirs.

There is little point to art, invention and innovation if it is merely to satisfy self doubt; for it would mean the very essence of life – the joy and pleasure it is able to generate – is similarly it not ours to indulge.

Gareth van Onselen writes in his personal capacity. He is employed by the DA as a Director of Political Analysis and Development. An abbreviated version of this column first appeared in the Business Day.