BY MARIA POPOVA
“Cynicism about society is not the only option besides a credulous conformity to this social aeon or a credulous looking-forward to the one that is to come.”
BY MARIA POPOVA
In his timeless and increasingly timely 1972 inquiry into human nature and its capacity for destructiveness, the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm proposed the notion of humanistic radicalism — a mindset and movement that “seeks to liberate man from the chains of illusions,” one which “postulates that fundamental changes are necessary, not only in our economic and political structure but also in our values, in our concept of man’s aims, and in our personal conduct.” A few years later, in his treatise on the art of living, Fromm argued that any attempt to save our civilization from fatality must begin with liberation “in the classic, humanist sense as well as in the modern, political and social sense.” He wrote: “The only realistic aim is total liberation, a goal that may well be called radical (or revolutionary) humanism.”
But this systematic movement toward humanism as a form of insurgency and an instrument of cultural, social, and political liberation began a decade earlier with the Austrian-American sociologist Peter L. Berger (b. March 17, 1929) in his 1963 classic Invitation to Sociology: A Humanistic Perspective(public library).
Berger makes the case for what he terms “sociological humanism”:
Clearly sociology by itself cannot lead to humanism, as it cannot by itself produce an adequate anthropology… But sociological understanding can be an important part of a certain sense of life that is peculiarly modern, that has its own genius of compassion and that can be the foundation of a genuine humanism. This humanism to which sociology can contribute is one that does not easily wave banners, that is suspicious of too much enthusiasm and too much certainty. It is an uneasy, uncertain, hesitant thing, aware of its own precariousness, circumspect in its moral assertions. But this does not mean that it cannot enter into passionate commitment at those points where its fundamental insights into human existence are touched upon… Before the tribunals that condemn some men to indignity because of their race or sexuality, or that condemn any man to death, this humanism becomes protest, resistance and rebellion.
But because such sociological humanism is predicated on a skeptical questioning of the status quo, its certitudes, and its hubrises, it can often be mistaken for resigned disenchantment or, worse yet, for cynicism — that sewage of the spirit. Berger weighs the crucial difference between cynicism and the healthy skepticism of sociological humanism:
Sociological understanding leads to a considerable measure of disenchantment. The disenchanted man is a poor risk for both conservative and revolutionary movements; for the former because he does not possess the requisite amount of credulity in the ideologies of the status quo, for the latter because he will be skeptical about the Utopian myths that invariably form the nurture of revolutionaries. Such unemployability in the cadres of either present or future regimes need not, however, leave the disenchanted man in the posture of alienated cynicism. It may do that, to be sure. And we find just such postures among some younger sociologists in this country, who find themselves driven to radical diagnoses of society without finding in themselves the capacity for radical political commitments. This leaves them with no place to go except to a sort of masochistic cult of debunkers who reassure each other that things could not possibly be worse.
Echoing Bertrand Russell’s assertion that construction is both more difficult and more satisfying than destruction — for cynicism is, at bottom, a destructive kind of resignation — Berger adds:
This cynical stance is in itself naive and often enough grounded more in a lack of historical perspective than anything else. Cynicism about society is not the only option besides a credulous conformity to this social aeon or a credulous looking-forward to the one that is to come.
Another option is what we regard as the most plausible one to result from sociological understanding, one that can combine compassion, limited commitment and a sense of the comic in man’s social carnival. This will lead to a posture vis-à-vis society based on a perception of the latter as essentially a comedy, in which men parade up and down with their gaudy costumes, change hats and titles, hit each other with the sticks they have or the ones they can persuade their fellow actors to believe in. Such a comic perspective does not overlook the fact that nonexistent sticks can draw real blood, but it will not from this fact fall into the fallacy of mistaking the Potemkin village for the City of God. If one views society as a comedy, one will not hesitate to cheat, especially if by cheating one can alleviate a little pain here or make life a little brighter there. One will refuse to take seriously the rules of the game, except insofar as these rules protect real human beings and foster real human values. Sociological Machiavellianism is thus the very opposite of cynical opportunism. It is the way in which freedom can realize itself in social action.
It was Machiavelli, after all, who wrote half a millennium ago that “there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.” And today, we need nothing less than a new order.
Complement this particular portion of Berger’s Invitation to Sociology with Fromm on the common laziness of optimism and pessimism, Leonard Bernstein on why defying cynicism is a countercultural act of courage and resistance, and Rebecca Solnit our grounds for lucid hope.