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Humanitarianism: The Idol of Our Age

Humanitarianism has become the implicit faith of our time. In his new book, Daniel Mahoney offers a sharp indictment of its fatal flaws: its denial of transcendence, its inability to confront the reality of evil, and its refusal to acknowledge that human beings’ attachment to the particular is precisely what enables them to access and understand the objective moral order.

Daniel Mahoney’s new book, The Idol of Our Age, offers a sharp indictment of the humanitarianism that has become the implicit faith of our time.

He begins with the thought of Auguste Comte, who created a “rational” religion of humanity that would bring humanity “from a theological and military order to a scientific and industrial one.” in which there would be no separation between men. Comte taught that the arc of history inexorably bends toward the unification of nations and cultures. What matters most is the intrinsically good human nature that we all share, not the political, cultural, or religious distinctions that differentiate us.

Humanitarianism may seem like the true form of Christianity and the fulfillment of classical philosophy, but it differs from them in three significant ways.

First, it declares that there is nothing transcending human nature. It lowers the horizon for human contemplation and action to understanding and sympathizing with our fellow human beings. But, as Mahoney argues, “what is highest in man finds its ultimate source in what is higher than man. Without deference to the Beings, Forms, and Limits that inform and elevate the human will, man risks becoming a monster to himself, enslaved by his own self-deification.” Detaching man from the transcendent means that we live only for the present, with no concern for what is to come. It should be no surprise that contemporary Europe suffers a deficit of births, because only a people that looks to the future will bring children into the world.

Second, humanitarianism sees human nature as evolving and perfectible, not a boundary that our desires and aspirations must learn to respect. Evil is merely a social phenomenon, not a force that is in some way intrinsic to human nature. Humanitarianism therefore lacks the force to stand up to that evil from without, and to repent of it from within. Humanitarianism remains unable “to come to terms with the drama of good and evil in the human soul,” and therefore cannot take seriously the full range of possibilities for right political action.

Third, humanitarianism is scandalized by the particular. It exalts humanity in general and believes that nations will pass away. In its Christian variety, it emphasizes moral principles over the person of Jesus Christ. But particularity is necessary to finite human existence. We do not live in an abstract “family” or “humanity;” we live in our own family and our own nation. As Mahoney writes, these particularities mediate our understanding of more general concepts: “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.”

In place of humanitarian sentiments, Mahoney argues that we need a “listening heart,” a cognitive and moral faculty with access to the objective moral order that transcends mere subjectivity. He treats different foes of humanitarianism in America and Europe, including Orestes Brownson, Vladimir Soloviev, Benedict XVI, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. He also offers a trenchant critique of the humanitarian leanings of contemporary thinkers, such as Jürgen Habermas and Pope Francis. In particular, Mahoney calls attention to Francis’s disturbingly indulgent appreciation of anti-Catholic, left-wing tyrannies with humanitarian aspirations.

The Idol of Our Age is a diagnosis and critique, not an exhaustive treatment of its sources, many of which could have used more sustained engagement. Nonetheless, Mahoney offers a helpful corrective to the thought and feelings that have become instinctive in our politics and in Christian communities. I once heard a Jesuit scholastic say that his greatest theological influences were Eric Voegelin and Leo Strauss—not because those two were great theologians themselves, but because they had made him see that he believed more in a contemporary gnosticism than in true Christianity. Perhaps a future Jesuit, liberated from his present humanitarianism, will one day say the same of Dan Mahoney.

 

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