An Atheism that Is Not Humanist:

Catholicism, conservatism, and antihumanist politics

posted by Simon During

Rarely do I learn more from a scholarly book than I have from Stefanos Geroulanos’s An Atheism that Is Not Humanist Emerges in French Thought. Geroulanos’s central thesis is compelling but simple: French antihumanism, in its theoretical mode, was based on a radicalized “negative anthropology,” i.e., the idea that man is a negating animal, as articulated in a widespread rejection of neo-Kantianism, first by Heidegger and then passed on to French thinkers like Bataille and Blanchot, largely via Alexandre Kojève and his “end of history” argument. Instead of the homo absconditus that Ernst Bloch was to locate in Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann’s “Protestant anthropology,” we have here a “last man,” heir to those “negations” of the world named freedom, history, and individuality, whose historical realization reveals that humanness is ultimately based upon a relation to death. And to the degree that this antihumanism continues to order thinkers like de Man, Derrida, and Foucault, it has also shaped many Anglophone intellectuals of my generation. Geroulanos tells a story that thus illuminates us too.

But of course, like all scholarly analysis, Geroulanos’s has its limits. It does indeed embed atheist antihumanism into its social and historical setting—but rather as a backdrop than as a shaping force. Which is to say that Geroulanos’s analysis is incompletely sociological. In the end, it belongs to a mode of intellectual history that recoils from imputed, provisional, typologically grounded theses upon which the classical sociology of knowledge depends. This is especially worth noting since Heidegger’s nonhumanist existentialism needs to be read, not just against neo-Kantianism, but against Marx and Weber and their heritage, including precisely that sociology of knowledge developed by Karl Mannheim, in dialogue with Lukàcs, from about 1917 on, one of whose polemical purposes was to reveal positive “intellectual history” as reductive. The young Mannheim (to stay with him for a minute) insisted that the modern era was primarily politically regulated, and it’s a sign of the particular limits of Geroulanos’s method that his interest in the politics of antihumanism is never allowed full extension, even if he offers an illuminating account of interwar left-wing humanism, for instance.

So we don’t really find an answer to the obvious question: what were atheist anti- humanism’s politics? Geroulanos does note that after 1945 these politics tended to switch from right to left, but that seems a more mysterious and important phenomenon than is here quite allowed for. One specific problem in this context is that Geroulanos’s sense of the prewar French ultra-right is too indebted to Zeev Sternhell’s partisan analysis, which means that he uses the term ‘fascism’ too vaguely and readily.

Likewise, while Geroulanos shows that atheist antihumanism developed in dialogue with French Catholic antihumanisms, he shows little interest in the politics and institutional bases of irreligion in the period. Presumably, for instance, it was partly the extraordinary difficulties involved in institutionalizing atheist antihumanism that kept alive what we might call the nonhumanist irreligious inhabitation of religion (i.e., either irreligion that affirms ecclesiastical structures or doctrinal truths, or irreligion under the guise of a religious persona or mask), and which we sometimes find encouraged by Leo Strauss or, in France, by Charles Maurras and his followers.

Even were this a place to pursue such historicist enquiries, I would be incapable of taking them far. But let me open a way by making a couple of observations. The atheist antihumanism that Geroulanos describes is both philosophical and programmatic: it is consciously and strategically antihumanist. As such, it emerges from a looser, larger constellation that we might call irreligious non-humanism. By that I mean all those forms of art and thought that were neither religious (in the Judeo-Christian sense) nor humanist, that is, which, while rejecting theism, neither conceived of the human as a value nor thought of history as the gradual and progressive realization of human potential. Such irreligious non-humanism reaches back into classical antiquity—from this point of view, classicism is not a humanism—but takes a recognizably modern form after about 1830 in figures (who otherwise may share little) like Schopenhauer, Stendhal, Flaubert, Thomas Hardy, Henry Adams, Samuel Butler, Wittgenstein, George Sorel, etc. Although Geroulanos would appear to think otherwise, I’d contend that it first becomes programmatically antihumanist in Nietzsche (who declared himself insufficiently Saint-Simonian to “love humanity”) and in Proudhon, although he uses the concept of “human dignity” against bourgeois liberal and statist humanisms, and so can be described as a humanist antihumanist. At any rate, irreligious non-humanism is structurally connected to anti-enlightenment conservativism simply because it implies the rejection of progress, and by the same stroke, and no less determinedly, the rejection of democracy. This is true even if many irreligious non-humanists did not identify themselves as conservative at all.

Observation number two: One important moment in the mutation of irreligious non-humanism into atheist antihumanism occurred in 1911, when T.E. Hulme had a meeting with Pierre Lasserre in Paris. T.E. Hulme was then an obscure English critic, attached to Orage’s avant-garde little magazine New Age. He was becoming Henri Bergson’s leading proselytizer in Britain, and he was soon to translate Sorel’s Reflections on Violence. He had published the poems that would help to define imagism. He was also a polemicist for a new kind of Toryism: one removed from Disraeli’s Burkean appeal to King, Church, and people, and aligned instead to anti-romanticism and to what would later be called “modernism.”

For his part, Lasserre was then Action Française’s leading literary intellectual, Action Française being a powerful ultra-rightist movement, at the time still loosely allied to the Catholic church but led by the irreligious Maurras, and which simultaneously affirmed royalism and popular nationalism against republicanism, socialism, and democracy. It did so under the banners of order, hierarchy, and classical French civilization. In effect, it too detached conservatism from romanticism, as well as from a de Maistrean political theology that interpreted the struggle between revolution and reaction primarily as one between Satan and God. But it never solved the problem of how conservative irreligious non-humanism might make of itself a political, as well as an intellectual, force. Although it could mobilize violence on the streets, it never attracted meaningful electoral support.

Lasserre was then most famous for his book on French romanticism, which was to popularize the notion that romanticism began with Rousseau and that it energized progressive revolutionary action. As Hulme himself was to put it, in his proto-Orwellian journalese, romanticism fomented the mindset in which “you don’t believe in a God, so you begin to believe that man is a God. You don’t believe in Heaven, so you begin to believe in a heaven on earth,” and which, therefore, “falsif[ied] and blur[red] the clear outlines of human experience.” Within this strand of conservative thought, then, human experience could be posed against doctrinal humanism. And for it, characteristically, human experience was most lucidly and finely delineated in the seventeenth-century literature of the passions, most particularly, for the French, in Racine. Lasserre’s argument had a transnational impact: the young T.S. Eliot drew upon it in his wartime extension lectures, for instance.

Indeed, after the meeting with Lasserre, Hulme was gradually to turn away from Bergsonian philosophy of life to embrace a more antihumanist political Toryism, now not just a modernist classicism, but what he thought of as the new objectivisim that was being worked out in thinkers like Husserl, George Moore (of the Principia Ethica), and Maurras himself. This move would prefigure, and probably influence, his friend T.S. Eliot’s gradual conversion to an English rendition of Maurras’s politics (and his turn to English seventeenth-century poetry).

Hulme, Maurras, and Eliot’s antihumanism is important because it takes us to the border where atheist antihumanism, in its search for an institutional base, meets orthodox and reactionary Catholic antihumanism. Little illuminates the difficulties of occupying this border more than Action Française’s highly charged relation to Catholicism, which, despite the breadth of the movement’s support among French Catholics, would culminate in its formal prohibition by Pius XI in 1926 (the same year, interestingly, that Carl Schmitt broke with the Church). And I think it likely that the antihumanism that develops in and out of Heidegger and Kojève, and which Geroulanos illuminates so well, is also, at certain moments, shaped at this border.

One remembers, in particular, Maurice Blanchot. As a young man, he had been a radical, sometimes terror-embracing ultra-rightist in Action Française’s slipstream. But, as Geroulanos shows, he receded into post-Kojèvean antihumanism from about 1942 (in a world where the institutional barriers to secular nonhumanisms were breaking down). But, while a “negation of God,” Blanchot’s thought is famously hard to call irreligious. Let’s say that it is as if Blanchot chooses the other side of Pascal’s wager: he makes a bet against God, a bet that the world is not just immanent and Godless but “catastrophic.” That’s a wager that can’t pay out—it’s staked in a kind of madness—except insofar as it rescues you, if not exactly from atheism, then from mundaneity. At this point, maybe “atheist antihumanism” can be conceived of as positioned against ordinary social being, and belongs in that sense to the right, even where (as was the case for Blanchot in the 1960s) its sponsors join the radical left. At the very least, it is where the world is judged catastrophic in terms that Maurras and Racine and Pascal, those conservative nonhumanists, share.

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One Response to “Catholicism, conservatism, and antihumanist politics”

  1. avatar Gabriel Hankins says:

    That sequence is very enlightening, Simon, though I’m not sure I follow the first step in Geroulanos’s reasoning—I have to admit Kojeve’s reading of Heidegger seemed terribly obscure to me at the time I read it, as it apparently was to much of his Paris audiences! Heidegger clearly dissents from humanisms of all sorts, explicitly, but only to reground human being, and thereby a non-”humanist” anthropology, on its determinations in the larger world. “Das Man” aside, those determinations are clearly social and linguistic as well as natural, to use precisely the wrong categories, I suppose. Heidegger clearly represents an anti-humanist conservative with already quite troubled relations to Catholicism. But I follow the train of your thinking on the need for an institutional basis in Hulme, Eliot, et al; the French picture is clearly more difficult. Sartre’s kind of humanism dominates Foucault’s generation, as the enemy, for one thing. How to historicize the friend-enemy relations of the humanists, that’s a question!

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