- An Historian's Notes for a Miloszan Humanism
"O my love, where are they, where are they going"—Czeslaw Milosz, "Encounter" (1978, 3)
The awkward term "humanism" has served as the title of too many movements and ideals, and seems drained of significance, like a wrinkled old balloon. To speak of revising and retrieving the term for a new form of humanism, as will be done here, is to invite many possible misconceptions. In a strict, traditional meaning, in the context of Renaissance humanism and its later reflections, humanism refers to an attempt to affirm the dignity of the human spirit, and to renew modern culture by a return to antiquity. These goals were to be achieved through the study of human things (res humana), by means of scholarship and literature, history and the arts. In regard to the possibilities for humanism today, and drawing on the poetry and essays of Czeslaw Milosz, I wish to suggest the following theses:
• A new humanism, appropriate to our world, and to a hoped-for world civilization, can be intellectually and spiritually grounded in 'old humanism' and its medieval and Renaissance background.
• A new humanism would be a valuable position, even a source of joy, because of its purposes: to provide resources for personal liberation and the confrontation of certain poisonous contemporary cultural and political realities with ancient alternatives. [End Page 191]
• A Miloszan humanism would prove beneficial because it would neither project an ideal humanity nor offer an historicist project for transforming humans into a new humanity.
• Such a humanism, further, would rely on real contact with the living and the dead, which is an important dimension of Milosz's poetry, neither wishing humans away nor idealizing them, and implying the importance of broad study of the human tradition.
• The goal of humanism would then be, not to humanize the world, but to craft an engaged, highly cultured and scholarly standpoint, and thus to humanize the scholar, or rather, to humanize the self.
This is to suggest a view of literature and scholarship as the deliberate unfolding of dimensions, and the search for possible connections to various traditions of the human past as part of our own efforts to achieve personal liberation, "penetrating this forest of ruins," in the phrase of religious historian Gershom Scholem, who sought to rescue the Jewish past from oblivion, and thereby to find a foothold in a terrible present time—for Scholem, the 1920s. In a letter to Meta Jahr in 1920, Scholem said that he had experienced a merger of his historical scholarship and kabbalism, claiming, perhaps ironically, that he had become a makubel or kabbalistic practitioner (209). Any humanist approach that would be valid today must greatly expand the range of literary traditions and antiquities under study, something that has recently been called for in an admirable essay by Milan Kundera, "Die Weltliteratur."
The humanist is a specialist in rare fragments, which are collected out of the distant past, arranged and explained like beautiful seashells. Scholarship, when it is true to the past, causes these fragments to glow as if with renewed life, thus allowing them to become part of our own spiritual world. Since the Middle Ages, the pursuit of a spiritual form of life often involved the juxtaposition and interchange of reading, reflection, prayer and meditation. A growing awareness, cultivated in the school of Chartres, that "truth is the daughter of time," as Bernard of Chartres exclaimed, led to the incorporation of history and study of the human tradition as part of a developing humanist approach to scholarship. Bernard's motto, Veritas filia Temporis, we may note in passing, was a learned reference to the Attic Nights of Aulus Gellius (see Chenu 162; Ginzburg 27).
Any broad discussion of humanism must offer some reflections on the [End Page 192] revival of interest in the Greek and Latin classics, a hallmark of humanist culture, during the Middle Ages and also during the later flourishing of humanism in the Renaissance. Various modern attempts to revive a moralising, normative humanism, such as the New Humanism of Irving Babbitt, have failed. After all, even the classics-loving poet T.S. Eliot could not...