Humanism, like democracy, is a word that labors under an excess of meaning. It can mean acknowledging the value of human beings, or denying the existence of God. In Ireland, “humanist” is still sometimes used as a euphemism for “atheist,” in a hangover from the days when Irish atheists were as scandalous and exotic a species as Beverly Hills poststructuralists. Yet there are Christian humanists as well, for whom human beings are valuable precisely because they are an image of God. So not all humanism is secular.
Nor do all those who deny the existence of God install humanity in His place. Nietzsche thought this was just to replace one idol with another. For him, the death of God also spelled the death of Man. Hitler believed in neither God nor humanity, and the same was probably true of Frank Sinatra. Some humanists believe there is a yawning chasm between humanity and the rest of Nature, without necessarily claiming that humanity should reign sovereign over the world around it. Harder-nosed humanists, by contrast, believe that badgers and centipedes were provided for our use and enjoyment, rather like fluffy dressing gowns in posh hotels, and that the phrase “animal rights” is a logical absurdity. Humanism here means something like “human supremacism.” But not all humanists are supremacists, just as not all animal lovers prefer animals to human beings, except for the English.
Humanism can mean a belief in an essential human nature, or the view that this nature is essentially positive. But you can sign on for the first without endorsing the second. Not all humanists are starry-eyed about humanity, as these essays by Edward Said make clear. For some, humanism means primarily a cultural movement associated with the European Renaissance, while for others it suggests a method of sociological analysis that allots priority to structures rather than individuals. Sociological antihumanists, however, are not always gratuitously nasty to defenseless little old men whom they chance upon in the street. Spinoza, who was renowned as a saint among philosophers for his gentleness and compassion, was also a full-blooded determinist for whom human beings were mere functions of natural laws. So he was an ethical humanist but a theoretical antihumanist. Some uses of “humanism” are too fuzzy, and some are too technical.
One should not look to Edward Said’s posthumously collected lectures in Humanism and Democratic Criticism to sort out this semantic mess. As a card-carrying humanist, Said is remarkably casual in these pages about just what humanism amounts to. At one point he describes it as “the achievement of form by human will and agency,” hardly the most lucid of definitions. What he is after in these illuminating lectures is what one might call a reconstructed or self-critical humanism–one that retains its belief in human value and in the great artistic works that embody it, but which has shed the elitism and exclusivism with which literary humanism is currently bound up. We would still read Dante and Proust, but we would also extend the very meaning of humanism in order to “excavate the silences, the world of memory, of itinerant, barely surviving groups, the places of exclusion and invisibility.” In this way, Said the cultivated middle-class academic converges with Said the courageous champion of the oppressed.