The Bigness of our Littleness: Humanism and Individualism


IMG_0690Late in his life the philosopher Richard Rorty—well known to be an atheist—was asked by an interviewer if he could define “holy.” I suppose the interlocutor thought Rorty would be stumped by the question, or even perhaps show some sympathy for one religion or another. Rorty was not stumped by the question. He responded,

“Holy: the hope that some day my remote descendants will live in a global civilization in which love is pretty much the only law.”

For a humanist, that is the holy. Holy doesn’t have to do with particular spots; or particular words or books; or even particular ideas. “Holy” is a place where and when the basics of humanism are realized: one, the dignity of every person; and two, world community.

Cosmologist Carl Sagan once described the earth as “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” Sagan loved to underline what the poet ee cummings called “the bigness of his (humankind’s) littleness.”

Stereotypes. Humanists are often condemned for being individualists. In truth, we are the farthest thing from individualists. Individualists are those who take their guns to the store. The ones who say that one god or another takes a personal interest in them. The ones who see themselves on a cosmic stage where their own good or evil leads to eternal punishment or reward. The ones who believe that personal belief trumps communal reason. The ones who believe in the bigness of their littleness.

Yes, a bedrock insistence among humanists is the inherent worth and dignity of every person. This is not to say that we celebrate the bigness of our littleness. We know the littleness. (That’s why we love Carl Sagan.) Rather, it is that we understand that the insistence upon individual rights—individualism—is the most selfish of ways of being. But the insistence on individual conscience is an absolute responsibility.

Humanists know that the self itself is the ultimate contradiction. We know the self, our own self, is not unique—all the sentient beings on the planet have the experience of self—that experience is the common thread, the lingua franca, of sentience, of consciousness itself. It’s why even cockroaches run and amoebas jump when they’re poked. They have a sense of self.
We do well to respect all sentient beings.

Yet the individual is an essential building block of life. Evolution occurs in individuals, not populations. Populations are changed by individual mutations. And in the same way, human thinking is changed by unique ideas. This is the contradiction. We are communal animals depending for our very survival upon free thought and individual conscience. World community is a goal exactly because of the damage nationalism and patriotism cause to this personal freedom. Ours is a communitarian value in opposition to the notion that one individual or another, one tribe or another, or one nation or another have some exceptional right to be.

We are all in this together. That’s the wisdom of humanism. We are all in this together because our littleness is huge. Because we primates trying to do better. Because we are on a planet that is like “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” And our hope is for a global civilization “in which love is pretty much the only law.”

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