he distinguished French Catholic political thinker Pierre Manent perfectly describes the humanitarian temptation that afflicts the Western world today. “The great danger of contemporary humanitarianism,” Manent wrote in 2000, “is of habituating peoples to despise political reflection, even politics itself and its concrete conditions of existence, as if the affirmation of humanity was sufficient in itself.” He continued:
Each epoch knows some temptations. The revolutionary temptation persisted for a long time in the West. Today, we experience the humanitarian temptation, which appears more sympathetic. But, in a certain manner, these two temptations are in continuity, and belong to the very same project: to abolish the political existence of men which separates human beings into nations and classes.
An excerpt from Daniel J. Mahoney’s new book, The Idol of Our Age: How the Religion of Humanity Subverts Christianity (Encounter Books).
Even as we insist that human beings live in closed cultures, utterly sufficient unto themselves, our elites blindly announce the unification of a “humanity” which is escaping national loyalties and national identification. Unbeknownst to ourselves, we are adherents of 19th-century French philosopher and sociologist Auguste Comte’s “religion of humanity.” Comte was the “prophet” of the movement of humankind from a theological and military order to a scientific and industrial one, and of the dawn of a great “Occidental Republic” that would culminate in the comprehensive unity of the human race. He was the theorist of “democratic pantheism” par excellence since, in the future that he imagined and announced, there would be no more separation between either God and man or peoples and nations. Manent, following his teacher Raymond Aron, calls Comte “the sociologist of human and social unity.” In this understanding, Humanity becomes its own paramount theme. The movement toward a unified humanity is “irresistible,” but it must be “institutionalized and organized” through “the organization and institution of the religion of humanity.” As Manent shows, Comte makes explicit the implicit faith of the late modern world.
Like Comte, Manent suggests, our intellectual elites “can only see human unity.” The philosophical idea of humanity, which first came to light in the 18th century in French and German enlightenment thought, is now accompanied by what can only be described as “religious enthusiasm.” What Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Kant announced as a humanizing “Idea” to soften and regulate the mores of modern peoples, we treat as a “self-evident truth.” All who question it are met with “sacred indignation.”
Nations seemingly were discredited by the two world wars of the 20th century, and, as a result, Europe, Comte’s avant-garde of humanity, sees unity where it only incompletely exists. Human beings still live in political communities, plural nations, and regimes, which are the only homes we have for common action, for true political life. These communities “mediate” and “concretize” our sense of the universal but are met by our contemporaries with what Manent calls “vigilant hostility.” We increasingly despise mediation and the political expression of our humanity. In truth, human beings experience common humanity only in the meeting of diverse human and spiritual affirmations and propositions that arise from the concrete human communities in which we live. We see and feel these communities every day. But our intellectuals and opinion-makers are prisoners of the “invisible” unity of the human race that only true believers can see. The humanitarian temptation takes the form of an intolerant and indignant “religion of humanity,” which excoriates all those who do “not see humanity as an immediate reality,” as a self-evident truth. In multiple ways, Auguste Comte remains the secret ruler of souls.
Adieu to Politics
If Erik Voegelin is the most helpful guide to understanding the not always obvious eschatological dimensions of Comte’s project, the great French political thinker Raymond Aron provides crucial guidance for understanding Comte’s desire to abolish the political realm of human existence in its entirety. As Aron points out, Comte assumed that the positivist era, the age of science, industrial society, and a religion of human unity, would leave war behind once and for all. Europeans were the avant-garde of humanity, paving the way for the abolition of war and the full reconciliation of the human race. As Aron comments in Main Currents of Sociological Thought, history failed Auguste Comte in the years leading up to 1945.
But with the end of the Cold War, Europeans have proceeded as if they are indeed the harbingers of a post-political humanity that will leave borders and sovereignty behind. As Manent has argued in Seeing Things Politically, they can adhere to this quasi-Comtean religion of humanity largely because they continue to rely on the United States for their military protection. In the 1970s, in Aron’s masterwork on Clausewitz, Aron himself called the “farewell to arms” “the great illusion” captivating the European mind and soul. He was convinced that Comte, like Marx, had woefully underestimated the political, imperial, and tragic dimensions of human history. “History as usual” would persist even in the age of science and technique, since human beings cannot escape being political animals. To believe otherwise was to give in to a hope supported only by faith.
Comte may not have been wrong that Napoléon misjudged his age by hurling France into the conquest of Europe and by restoring a military regime in place of representative institutions. But the same Comte hated “representative and liberal institutions” and applauded Louis Napoléon’s coup d’état in December 1851. Comte denounced British-style parliamentary institutions as the “metaphysical” instruments of windbags and had next to no concern for political liberty. He even wrote the Russian tsar a letter in the introduction to the second volume of his System of Positive Polity offering to instruct him in the lessons of positive philosophy. Comte’s concern for the “fundamental reorganization of European society” and the establishment of a unified human race was unsullied by any concern for political liberty or self-government.
Do contemporary adherents of the religion of humanity show much more respect for the self-government of nations and peoples? They, too, seem to treat political liberty as a metaphysical concern belonging to another moment in human history. In this connection, everyone observes the “democratic deficit” in the European project, but nothing is done about it. Elites affirm the “irresistible” character of “globalization” and the necessary erosion of civic life at the national level (is there a dirtier word today than “nationalism,” which is almost always arbitrarily confused with humane national loyalty?).
Like Comte’s original positivism and its accompanying religion of humanity, contemporary partisans of human unity are all too happy to say goodbye to both politics and the Christian religion. Depoliticization and de-Christianization are two great preconditions of the movement toward a unified humanity, now freed from all need for political or religious mediation and concretization. Comte thus hovers in the background not as a prophet of a new age, of a new historical dispensation, but as the half-deluded theorist of a secular religion that remains the temptation of our age.
The humanitarian lie is in important respects less horrifying than the totalitarian one, but it is rooted in the same contempt for the political nature of man and the same ignorance of the human soul. The illusions of humanitarianism remind us of the protean character of the ideological lie under conditions of modernity. At its center is a willful denial of the political and spiritual nature of man in any substantial sense of the terms.
The Passivity of Contemporary Humanitarianism
Manent has also pointed out that contemporary humanitarianism is remarkably passive, allowing its adherents to detach themselves from the great “communities of action,” such as nations and churches. Instead, they find salvation for themselves in strident affirmations of individual and collective autonomy, and not in deference to the grace and goodness of God.
One of Manent’s most striking insights is that the religion of humanity in its dominant forms is “not productive of community.” Good works, humanitarian works, are welcomed, of course, but one can love Humanity through a vague and undemanding sentimentality. Loving real human beings is another matter altogether. It involves the exercise of the cardinal and theological virtues, which have little or no place in the new humanitarian dispensation.
In its own way, humanitarianism is neither politically nor morally demanding. It makes the avant-garde of humanity feel smug and self-satisfied, needing neither grace nor the full exercise of the moral or civic virtues. It creates a world that has no place for either magnanimity, the supreme virtue of Plutarch’s heroes or a Churchill or de Gaulle, or humility, the defining trait of Mother Teresa or St. Francis. Secular humanitarianism posits a world without heroes or saints, a world in which the capacity to admire what is inherently admirable is deeply undermined