Cultures change – but slowly. For example, the hunt fails over and over again. A clan settles down and we are farmers and no longer “hunter-gatherers.” Waves of immigration, like the ones that settles our country, force cultural change and cultural conflict, say between immigrant groups or between immigrants and their children. Something is invented – an automobile to take a familiar example. At first it’s just a way to get around. But down the road, so to speak, it changes where we live, who we live with, and how and where we spend our work and leisure time. Cultures interact. Sometimes the result is enrichment, sometimes destruction. Even when alone, language and custom people the mind – so we’re never really alone.
Culture is yesterday’s presence today. We don’t choose our culture; it chooses us. So, culture is conservative. For the humanist, this is disturbing. Perhaps, that helps explain why humanists don’t pay much attention to history. We are “modernists.” We’re suspicious of traditional ways of doing things, and of traditional institutions – e.g. churches, the military – and of “establishments” in general. For example, Thomas Jefferson called for a revolution every generation. A child of the Enlightenment just like today’s Humanists, he feared the tyranny of the past. He even wrote a letter to James Madison advocating a new constitution for the Republic every 20 years. Luckily, Madison persuaded him that this wasn’t a very realistic or a very good idea.
Culture makes us who we are and at the same time leaves spaces for us to make and remake ourselves. Some cultures do a good job of equipping us for change and others do a poor job of it. So, sometimes we’re in tune with our culture and sometimes we fight it in the world out there and inside ourselves too. Human beings want control. We are radicals. We construct and reconstruct our environment – houses, cities, air conditioning, etc. – to suit ourselves. By contrast, most living things like plants and bacteria and insects have to be what they are and where they are. Most animals behave instinctively. Of course, we have our instincts too. But, we have figured out how to re-shape instincts by choice and style as with sexuality or nourishment.
By now, you probably realize that we’re looking at how evolution and history work. Both are harsh masters, destroying what cannot deal with its environment, enabling what can. Nature “tooth and claw” was how early evolutionists talked about it. “Survival of the fittest” is how popular culture had it. History too can be a path to destruction or survival. It tells us that “We’ve always done it this way,” can be a suicide note for individuals and for societies. As the American philosophy, George Santayana, put it, “He who does not learn from the past is condemned to relive it.” Generals, we say, who re-fight the last war in the present one, lose.
In the spaces between biology and culture, we find societies. We find big cities and small communities that are both existential and functional. In them, we share our lives and achieve our goals. John Dewey, for example insisted that for education to be effective, the school had to be both a community and a classroom. Religions aim at salvation in the next life and are sanctuaries in this one. In the spaces between biology and culture we find instrumental institutions like political parties, scientific research, health care agencies and military units. We find existential institutions too like kinship and friendship. We get a clue to their meaning when we reflect on the anomalous phrase, “business friendship,” the corruption of friendship by opportunism.
All too often Humanists fail to grasp the complexity, richness, and promise of institutions. Historically, this echoes the individualistic impulse of the Enlightenment, an understandable reaction to the authoritarianism and collectivism of so much of human history. Against this, the French Revolution proclaimed the “Rights of Man” and not just the rights of Frenchmen. Jefferson wrote of inalienable and natural rights and not, as was true a bit earlier in the Colonies, of the “rights of Englishmen.” It was left to romantics and traditionalist to talk of nation and community. But, understandable or not, modernism seems indifferent to our “second nature.” The disdain for institutions – exhibited in the inadequate ways Humanists deal with tradition and organization – is, ironically, a strategy of limitation not freedom. It deprives humanism of its tools and its history. The sociability of the social animal is, as it were, ignored.
Reflection: Think of a conservative value that is also a Humanist value. Clue: Take another look at Module III’s discussion of worth, dignity, and respect. Would our discussion of culture and history lead you to re-write that discussion? Why? Why not?