On human dignity & the symbolic dimension of human life

Life in the complex, intense entanglement of human drives, social conditions and universal value consciousness is the core of a humanist worldview. The factual and normative dimensions of human existence are distinguishable, but not separable. Every action is an interpretation, and every interpretation will have practical consequences. The Renaissance humanists preceded us in this realization.

Characteristic of Renaissance humanists is their open, undogmatic attitude towards all sources of knowledge that were available in their time. (…) Renaissance humanism is more an attitude and a life style than an elaborated, systematic philosophy; it is more a philosophy of beauty than one of morality. Renaissance humanism, moreover, is profane and sacred: the relationship between the profane and the sacred is not a mutual opposition, but rather a complementary relationship. The visible and invisible reality are each other’s mirror image. (…) Man is the only creature, according to Mirandola, that is not definitely determined and formed, but can go its own way. That way can be full of beauty and compassion, but it can also be a way full of self-destruction and chaos.

We find the special position of man in the cosmos not only in Pico della Mirandola, but also in Buddhism and Christianity. Buddhism holds that man is the only being able to directly, thus without reincarnation, attain nirvana. Every other being, even a demon or a deity, must first become human before it can attain nirvana. Christianity sees man as created in the image of God, from which image he derives his exceptional value. From the preceding comparison, the question arises whether humanism is a specific world view amidst other world views, or whether it can better be interpreted as an undercurrent present in various world views, or perhaps both. These options do not necessarily exclude each other.


But dignity and self-determination, however essential, are insufficient if they lead to an anthropocentric world view; if they isolate man from nature and from the experience of the ‘wordless.’ Contrary to the humanism of the Renaissance, modern and postmodern humanism suffer from anthropocentrism to a great degree. In its preference for a scientific world picture and an autonomous, individual self-determination, 19th- and 20th- century humanism has lost the feeling for the inherent beauty of nature and the inexhaustible creative power of the human spirit. Humanists often seem to think that a profane, secular philosophy of life is irreconcilable with a sacred, spiritual philosophy of life.

Nothing is less true. Connectedness with nature and the ‘nameless’ does not have to imply that the laws and powers that we experience therein can only be understood as laws and powers strange to us. If we experience ourselves as part of nature, then the experience of the transcendental does not necessarily have to take on the form of an inaccessible being, a god or fate. If the experience of the transcendental puts us on track of the hidden coherence in the cosmos, angels and devils are no longer independent creatures, but symbolic products of our own consciousness. Then good and evil as extensions of those angels and devils are no longer external moral constants, but the result of the functioning of our consciousness, and with it, of our perception of reality.

To my mind, good and evil are real moral values, but solely as ‘modi,’ that is, as forms of human consciousness and behavior. Good and evil belong, just as demons and fairies, to the world of mental phenomena and subsequently to the world of observed oppositions. The oppositions observed by us fix themselves in our consciousness as factual oppositions, by which we lose sight of the fact that we ourselves are part of it. A teacher who understands this secret can be a good guide.

(Uit: Fons Elders, On human dignity 1992)

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2 Responses to On human dignity & the symbolic dimension of human life

  1. Wim Duzijn says:

    Dag JASPER. Tijdje geleden dat ik je website heb bezocht. Met instemming dit artikel gelezen. HUMANISME is een zaak die ik altijd verdedigd heb.

  2. admin says:

    Hallo Wim, leuk om je weer eens op mijn blog aan te treffen. Dat is blijkbaar nog niet geheel tot vergetelheid gedoemd. Fons Elders was docent aan de universiteit voor Humansitiek, maar helaas al weer jaren weg toen ik daar kwam studeren. Dit is uit zijn oratie, waarvan ik een paar exemplaren heb kunnen redden. Als je het leuk vindt kan ik je er een opsturen.

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