Saturday, May 3, 2014

Humanism and Tyranny Over the Mind of Man

I started to write this post when we were in Maui but never got around to finishing it. It will be brief.

One day, while reading The Agony and the Ecstasy (a biographical novel about Michelangelo), I came across the following passage that described what the author imagined was going through Michelangelo's mind as he began conceiving what he wanted to portray in his David:
"[The David who had been traditionally depicted after having slain Goliath] was only a small part of the meaning of David, who could represent the daring of man in every phase of life: thinker, scholar, poet, artist, scientist, statesman, explorer: a giant of the mind, the intellect, the spirit as well as the body. Without the reminder of Goliath's head [which had theretofore been traditionally included in art depicting David], he might stand as the symbol of man's courage and his victory over far more important enemies ..."
As I read this passage, as well as others, I was reminded of the feelings I had when I first studied the Renaissance in university and encountered the concept of humanism. Man was not inherently evil and bad (as the church had taught for centuries), but good. He was not a worm who crawled through a life that was "nasty, brutish and short." He was rather a being that was capable of achieving great things. The human intellect should be celebrated, rather that diminished. The mind should be free, rather than constrained by superstition and ignorance. Celebrating the magnificence of humankind did not detract from the glory of God, but rather enhanced it.

There are many religious leaders today, including Mormon apostles, who decry "humanism" and "secular humanism" as evil, and there is certainly no shortage of political demagogues who have embraced this anti-human position. The clang of shackles over the human mind and will are unfortunately still heard in our society, even 450 years since the dawn of a new age ushered in by the Renaissance. Fear and demagoguery are still alive and well today and are used to crush the human spirit and intellect. That is why one of my favorite quotations of all time is the following, written by Thomas Jefferson - another great renaissance man - over 200 years ago:

Would that every child in America be taught this principle, for then the shackles referred to above would surely be cast away forever - or at least until another "Dark Age" settles upon mankind. Freedom of the mind, just like physical and political liberty, is something that must always be cherished and never taken for granted. 

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