Newell 2017: Holland, Grayling, & the origins of Humanism

What better way to alleviate the shoulder wearying stresses of a Thursday than a lively debate? This years Newell Classics Event offered just such a locus amoenus. The topic was nothing less divisive than the origin of our modern humanistic values. Given that these are the values likely shared by myself and the five or so readers of this blog, you can imagine how it piqued my interest.

On one hand (μεν) was historian and hedgehog enthusiast Tom Holland arguing for a Christian basis while on the other (δε) stood philosopher Anthony Grayling who tended to favour a classical origin. Arguments were marshalled with wit and verve and – I dare say – both were wrong and both were right. (Boo! Cop out! …leave me alone).

Holland’s delivery was in many ways, perhaps ironically, the kind of stuff we’d recognise form classical handbooks on rhetoric: the gesticulation, the lowering of the voice to draw one in, the odd quotation or two delivered as if an exemplum and so on. Grayling I saw as something akin to a 19th century “Christian Gentleman” in demeanour (a construction he argued had at least as much to do with humanism as Christianity). He was pleasantly loquacious with his puns (CofE = Christmas and Easter), jokes (bathtub Aristotle anyone?), and his sardonic quotations of scripture.

Or perhaps that was just my fanciful take on things…

Many were the cuts and thrusts exchanged throughout. I shan’t try to replicate every single point each made but I’ll try to give a fair impression with some observations strewn throughout.

Holland focused, interestingly, on the inherent alien nature of Graeco-Roman civilisation. But whereas Dodds famous treatise focused on rationality and so on, Holland drew the salient differences between us and them as being down to the Christian values we’ve subsequently developed. In charity, kindness, in the revulsion we feel for the dead babies cast down the Tagytos, lie the origins of our modern western Weltanschauung.

That is not to say that these values weren’t and aren’t present elsewhere: To my mind there’s much to be said for the role of evolutionary behaviour in promoting kind/mindful behaviours. On the other hand, I immediately though of how the Emperor Julian’s (regnavit 360-3) failed idiosyncratic attempt at a religion (calling it tradition is a misnomer) found itself having to co-opt and emulate Christian institutions such as the hospital to win over converts.

The Romans were apex predators in Holland’s words, and while we might admire them we should be conscious of our distance and differences. He went on to claim that the very universalism humanism claims to derive directly from Christianity and contrasts it with other world religious systems, such as Islam.

Grayling’s own presentation took a different tack and focused in part on the apparent infeasibility of Christian doctrine when it comes to eschewing the material world, planning not for the morrow and so on. He focused on its need to borrow from “a richer, older, tradition” (his words) several times. There were some interesting philosophical comparisons between Jesus’ preaching and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics to illustrate this.

If I had to summarise his argument, and I fully admit doing so is always a kind of butchery, I’d say it came down to Christianity not being able to stand on its own two feet and humanism being born when European scholars started turning to the Classics for inspiration. Whereas Holland argued humanism was Christianity (Anglicanism?) light, Grayling argued it wasn’t capable of providing the foundations in the first place.

I almost got the impression he might have gone on to argue that both humanism and Christianity are mutually divergent descendants from Classical thought.

I was struck by how radically different both speakers’ view of antiquity was. Given the classical focus of this blog I’ll indulge a little by writing about it. Holland was very much concerned with straight cause and affect in the same way a Philologist would discuss filiation and derivation. He boldly focused on our differences and the ruptures between our (post-)Christian world and the classical past.

Grayling’s entire conception of antiquity seemed to me to be so much like a 19th century gentleman’s that I was forcibly reminded at the huge yawning gap between what Classicists write (or did, before insipid theory-mania) about and public perception of antiquity.

Christianity might have borrowed from earlier, richer, traditions but so did the Greeks and Romans. It’s why Classicists pay so much attention to the near east and have developed sophisticated models of cultural interaction. I’m not so sure Christianity (though hardly my cup of tea!) was necessarily poorer either. Boethius seems to me just as good as Aristotle, Claudian was certainly a Christian, writers like Iuvencus wrote on New Testament themes and so on.

In fact, what both speakers seemed to veer away from admitting was that while Christianity did affect Classical antiquity (for H, making it kinder; for G obscuring it) in turn our very conception of antiquity has a Christian bent. Why did Grayling cite Aristotle and not, say, Herakleitos? The man known to later Judeo-Christian tradition simply as “the Philosopher” owes just as much for his lengthy nachleben to Christian, Jewish, and Islamic commentators as his own brilliance.

I just don’t see how we can clearly discern the routes of humanism from amongst the tangled, obscure origins of western culture. We’ve all read our Scheid and Ando and Dumezil… for me at least there’s nothing secular about the Roman Empire: If anything I’d argue it was only Christianity’s partial break with the Classical tradition that enabled a secular culture to form in the first place. How can we entangle all of that to assign pride of place to either or?

Anyway, these are thoughts for another time. Suffice to say it was an enjoyable and stimulating event and that I’m glad I attended.

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