Luminous realm of values
Christopher Hitchens used to tell a story. A good natured but stupid 'nature' class teacher, Mrs Jean Watts, had one day ventured to explain that grass and leaves were green as god's gift to mankind. He paraphrased her: 'This is an excellent thing and proof of the glory of god, because he could have made vegetation orange or red, something that would clash with our eyes, whereas green is the most restful colour for our eyes!' Nine-year-old Hitchens concluded: 'That's bullshit!' Bang. Done. The Eureka moment from which he extrapolated all the other idiocies that flow from humans presuming to speak for god.
For me the matter was less certain and more complex, but no less fundamental. And it applies much more widely than just to matters of religious authority proper. The purview is all human reasoning.
Let's take a detour via Jean Paul Sartre's 1946 lecture, 'Existentialism and Humanism', which some have argued should have been translated as 'Existentialism is a Humanism'. The distinction is not as inconsequential as it may seem. The translation of this lecture from the French by Philip Mairet contains the sentence: 'Thus we have neither behind us, nor before us in a luminous realm of values, any means of justification or excuse.' A sentence that, when considered carefully, is not just profound, but one of the most elegant literary renditions of any idea in the modern era. In fact, it was such a perfect phrasing that I wondered whether there had been a mistranslation of 'numinous' for 'luminous'. I had to check various sources, but in those I can lay my hands on it is at least a universal mistake, if it is a mistake at all.
What would be the difference in meaning? The sentence with 'luminous' is elegant and borders on the brilliant. It evokes the visual of a brightly illuminated, and illuminating, path of values that is in fact a fantasy across literary, ethical, and æsthetic dimensions. Is there any confusion about Sartre's meaning? Not to me, but I suspect that a large and growing number of people will have trouble with this because it has no literal interpretation that makes sense. You have to be able to think in abstract and unfixed meanings across multiple topics, stretching from history to philosophy, and from politics to religion. It is not at all amenable to a reductionist determinism that seeks to pin down an inherent and atomically reducible, precise meaning contained in the words. As if the words could stand alone and apart from intention and audience.
For fundamentalist audiences, however, the word 'numinous' would be more fortunate because it restricts meaning to theologically defined values. That meaning would be more limited than any intention one might derive from 'luminous', which can attach to any paradigm being proposed as a bright and shining example that illuminates human thinking on ethics and moral action. How one can explain this profound difference to the intellectually stunted people who cannot think figuratively is not a problem I can address, let alone resolve. However, it does mean that such people will never understand fully what it is to be human, and to be humanist. That demographic includes a surprisingly large cohort of nominally educated people who would shrink away from considering themselves the fundamentalist literalists they are.
This is not a game of semantics. The different meanings being considered are important in understanding Sartre's description of mankind, which he argues is forlorn, as if abandoned by a higher authority, and therefore without choice about reaching judgements and making decisions for which it must accept absolute responsibility. Translate that to individuals: every grown human is individually responsible for its decisions and actions. No excuses, no absolutions, and no choice. No fence-sitting either. Even inaction is a decision.
That was my childhood realisation. It wasn't a single event or realisation, like that of Hitchens's 'bullshit' moment, but a progressive, growing awareness of the unreliability of authority figures to act in a manner deserving of emulation or respect. I watched, as a child, the ritual humiliation of other children, sometimes also my own, and wondered why it was necessary to cruelly and sadistically pursue such powerless agents over many quite petty matters, apparently just to make them cry or watch the mounting terror widen their eyes and turn their faces pale. It is a refined sort of bastardry that seems particularly ingrained in Protestant conceptions of righteousness, but has spread into all sorts of other authority domains. Orwell talked about it spellbindingly in a recollection of his schooldays, 'Such, such were the joys'.
As a powerless child I was unable to deliver a clip around the ear for the adults who were thus abusing children; that came only years later. So I was left to consider how I would have acted, in each instance, to attain reasonable outcomes sans tears or trauma. I was moved, in my own head, to also come up with the justifications for why my methods were better, imagining how I would argue my causes with the grown-ups.
I have not ever found anything like an illuminated path, or any particularly brilliant insights into any system or formula from which humanist values can be derived. I am tempted to conclude that such a simple-minded approach is precisely what we call religion, ecclesiastical and secular. It has always been hard work to consider each event that requires ethical judgement as separate from any other, and to analyse every dynamic of the specific context individually. Every time. That is what I think is ethics and moral action: intellectual effort, not deference to predetermined. fixed rules. Deference is the opposite of ethics. It is reliance on a codex, or algorithm, to reduce all complexity to meaninglessness, and to apply a predetermined judgement, like a wrecking ball, regardless of its moral character or consequences.
Looking again at the Sartrean luminous realm of values, it becomes possible to see the vast bulk of reductionist determinists banishing humanism with the darkness of a kind of anti-ethics that is the unthinking reliance on uncritically adopted, and therefore infinitely corrupt rules. In that darkness we find the specks of light that are people who actually do think, and who do make an effort to analyse, form judgements, and act on them. They become, in that conception, the specks of starlight that prevent an otherwise dark universe from being completely black and void.