Marilynne Robinson on Human Exceptionalism
I’ve just gotten around to reading closely Marilynne Robinson's most recent collection of essays—When I Was a Child I Read Books. Robinson, maybe our best novelist, is a challenging writer. She writes as a Congregationalist, a Neo-Puritan, a liberal Protestant. That means she writes as unfashionable liberal, one who really believes in the God of the Bible and Biblical anthropology, its account (in both the Old and New Testament) of who we are as creatures. So she writes against the ignorant, degrading scientism and economism of our secular sophisticates, the ignorant enthusiasm of our evangelicals, and the Catholics who don’t accept the democratic theological foundation of the generous political liberalism of reformational Calvinism.
Let me just introduce you to the challenge of Robinson’s deep and wonderful account of who we are and what we’re supposed to do. It is, let me emphasize, not conservative, certainly not politically conservative. But it can be helpful to civilizational conservatives—in addition to generous liberals—in resisting the excesses of the creeping and sometimes creepy libertarian drift of our times.
It's highly unlikely that much of anyone who reads Robinson's essays, including me, could either agree or disagree with everything she writes. The Puritans, Tocqueville tells us, made an indispensable contribution to our country's egalitarian idealism and to our high opinion of ourselves as beings with souls, but that contribution has to be handled with care in the interest of protecting ordinary, decent middle-class life from too much intrusive, politicized moralism.
What, according to Robinson, is “human nature”? It’s “a difference.” How can we see that difference? By comparing “a world where there is a human presence and one in which there is no creature more like us than the apes.” What would the world be like without us, but with the apes?
“What would we not find in such a world?” For one thing, “civilization.” Robinson, “a humanist,” is “profoundly impressed with civilization.” There’s little that moves Robinson more than defending civilized enjoyments—such as the leisurely reading of good books—for us all. And she points to the humane achievements of civilization as a key piece of evidence that we were made for more than mere survival. Although she observes that when we underrate ourselves we end up underrating the apes too, there’s no denying there’s no ape civilization. There are no ape poets and novelists, no ape Bible, no ape scientists, no ape technology of any consequence, and, strictly speaking, no ape virtue.
But, from a natural view, there’s nothing necessary or even desirable about civilization. As Socrates says in the Republic, the highly civilized city is both luxurious and feverish. Its seemingly bloated desires produce violence against nature and war. The city of “utmost necessity,” which Socrates, for contrast, describes first, isn’t really human. It’s free from distinctively human desire, and there human beings--members of our species of social animals—live according to nature. There’s no need for legal justice, and there’s no need for virtue as anything more than obedience to social instinct in general. There’s no need to worry about overpopulation or a birth dearth. There’s no kinkiness or polymorphous eros; our desires for sex and food and simple and easily satisfied. That means there’s no religion and no philosophy—both of which seem, from a purely natural view, to be rooted in superfluous human desires.
Nature doesn’t need or arguably isn’t completed by civilization. That’s because nature is complete without “human nature.” As Robinson says: “nature did not need to hear the word ‘Eureka.’” Nature didn’t need to discover itself or hear “the word ‘nature.’” The world would be a whole precisely by being “content never to inquire into its own workings.” The world would be content without words.
Inquiry stands outside of nature. It exists only because “The presence of human consciousness is a radical, qualitative change in the natural order.” It’s not that consciousness is unnatural, but it radically changes what nature is. We conscious beings are “mysteries to ourselves,” as much as nature without us is not so mysterious. So every scientific attempt “to fold us into nature, to deny an exceptionalism” is at the expense of what we really know or, better, don’t know. Or even better: It’s at the expense of the knower. What such scientists deny is that the inquirer—the scientist and animals with consciousness in general—can’t be wholly integrated into the world he can otherwise describe.
Those scientists for whom “the very idea of human exceptionalism is held to scorn” have to ignore facts anyone with eyes can see. Who can realistically deny that “our doings on this planet” have been “wildly exceptional,” one exception after another to natural rules that would hold if the mystery that is the particular members of our species were extinguished? For Robinson, here’s the relevant “scientific fact”: “The human brain is the most complex object known to exist in the universe. By my lights, this makes the human mind and the human person the most interesting entity known to exist in the universe.” That’s not to say the person is the mind, but that the natural piece of equipment called the brain makes the mind and so the person—personal identity—possible. The person is clearly more wonderful and less comprehensible than the stars.
Consciousness allows us persons to “stand apart from nature,” but it doesn’t really allow us to explain why we have the natural capability to do so. It allows us to be alienated enough “to the extent of posing a mortal threat” to the future of life itself. We are part of nature, but without us there would be no “damage” to nature. That damage could only be completely repaired if we conscious beings disappeared from nature. It could also be repaired, transhumanists (unlike Robinson) can add, if we could detach consciousness from nature. But the truth we don’t exist as disembodied consciousness but as whole beings, as exceedingly complex animals. There are radically different kinds of animals in our world.
Robinson notes the Darwinian observation that nature has given members of our species a “moral sense.” But it’s not so clear what that means. As it appears in particular individuals and as a feature of either “religions or reason,” “it is unreliable at best, and highly vulnerable to inversion or perversion.” The truth is that members of our conscious species have “a vast need for a moral sense, to which our best instincts are clearly by no means equal.” For us, talking about the evolutionary moral sense does little to illuminate the potential for good in conscious, inward, civilized beings with acquired virtue or character or the human potential to do cruel and malicious damage to ourselves and others, not to mention to the rest of nature. Instinct doesn’t give conscious animals what they need to live well with each other or in nature. The inadequacy and unreliability of our natural moral sense is one sign among many of our exceptionalism; it gives us the choice to be much better or much worse than the other animals.
Robinson reminds us of the famous account of our moral “inversion or perversion” of the poet W.B. Yeats: “The best lack all conviction, and the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” When “we nod in recognition” that this observation is as true in our world as it was in Yeats’, we are also reminded that Yeats’ own “sympathies were with Fascism.” It’s between tough and impossible to give a Darwinian account of Fascist intense conviction, which seems to have very successfully negated the natural moral sense of so many. It is equally tough to give a Darwinian account of our undeniable need for especially the best of us to have a “higher standard” than empathy to fend off the horribly murderous harm that is readily done by Fascism (and Communism). That’s not to deny, of course, that the allegedly higher standards provided by perverted religions and philosophy have also done much harm—harm neo-Darwinian “new atheists” often call attention to but also really can’t explain.
Religions and reason—theology and philosophy—are, at their best, about much more than social bonding and selfish calculation. To be civilized is to have both conviction and passionate intensity that flow from both inquiry into and faith in who we are as intelligent, conscious beings with an inward life and a singular destiny, born to love and die. Robinson points to our Calvinist, Puritanical Founders for examples of believers who devoted themselves, out of love of God, to social justice oriented around equality without condescension. She also points to the Neo-Puritanical impulse that animated the antebellum, abolitionist Oberlin College, which was open to everyone, including blacks and women. There, everyone received a liberal education and everyone, including the instructors, did manual labor, and the serious study of the arts and sciences was a necessary prelude to the study of divinity.
Robinson explains that was Calvin—and our Puritans—who turned liberality—or generosity—from “an aristocratic virtue" into "a Christian imperative,” a virtue that could be the core of genuinely liberal education for us all, a virtue that is at the foundation of much of what is best about our exceptional civilization, including its history of progressive social reform. As Robinson quotes Calvin, it’s “the manifold agility of the soul” that allows us, with ingenious inventions, generous intentions, and an illuminating imagination, to elevate the lives of us all that displays “certain proofs of the divinity of man.”
The denial of the exceptionalism of human nature—of our profound potential for civilization and our singular displays of “morally significant behavior”—is the result of the study of science without “the vigorous and critical study of the humanities.” The “proof” of the comprehensive explanatory power of neo-Darwinism, for example, is of nothing but “the failure of education in our schools and also in our churches.” We’ve “lost our immunity to nonsense” that was given to us by our Biblical-poetic-philosophic literary tradition.
What are the consequences of accepting a nonsensical or obviously reductionistic understanding of human nature as true, one that’s learned much more than based on one’s own experiences? Robinson sees them in the fiction of her students. Their characters have “radically limited self-awareness, a minimum of meaningful inwardness, very little ability to choose or appraise their actions.” The characters “have little true individuality”—no real character. That, of course, is bad for the quality of fiction, but it's also bad for the narrative with which we all understand who we are. It’s a narrative that makes us less profound and less civilized than we really are meant to be. “Education of every kind,” Robinson observes, “can have the deepest consequences for any individual’s sense of himself or herself.”
Robinson observes that her students’ “most common problem is also their deepest problem.” It’s problem that "has been educated into them.” By saying that this education has been “[b]y means direct and indirect,” she suggests, of course, it comes both from the classroom and from the pop-scientific expertise that informs so much of our sophisticated culture, a “throwaway scientism...almost always presented as learned hypothesis if not outright 'information’ about our kind.”
Robinson’s students are distorted by an acquired “tendency to undervalue their own gifts and to find too little value in human beings.” They have too little understanding of who they are as beings singularly distinguished by gifts, by natural capabilities that make each of us exceptional. We undervalue ourselves, she often emphasizes, when we think of ourselves as basically productive beings necessarily obsessed with personal security, when we don’t think of ourselves as generously, lovingly, enjoyably, and responsibly free from material necessity for lives worthy of poetry and high civilization.
The unempirical “lowering of ourselves in our own estimation” has, in truth, been a key part of “the process of disabling our most distinctive achievement—our educational system.” The truth is “we sink deeper and deeper into the habit of mutual condescension, tending always toward mutual impoverishment.” Robinson acknowledges that it’s impossible to reach this conclusion without seeming “to idealize a past that was dreadful in many respects.” And Robinson is nothing if not an egalitarian, idealistic reformer—a fervent partisan of justice. From that “social justice” perspective, what’s different and worse now is “a drift toward cynicism…and from willingness to take responsibility for our life as a community and a culture.”
Most of all, what’s exceptional is not our species or our civilization but the “radical singularity” of each particular human life. “The significance of every human destiny,” Robinson confidently asserts, “is absolute and equal.” That means we exceptional beings don’t exist either to lose ourselves in some whole allegedly greater than ourselves or to incessantly fend off extinction. “The cult of the individual,” in Robinson’s eyes, “is properly aesthetic and religious.” One’s own “transactions of conscience, doubt, acceptance, and rebellion are privileged and unknowable.” It’s an empirical observation that if each of us is fully transparent before anyone, it would have to be before a personal God.
There’s a sense in which “the vernacular form” of the truth about each of our singular inwardness and personal destiny is the “idea of the Western hero, the man of whom nothing can really be known.” So any idea of some “opposition” between true individuality and “responsibility to society” is false. It’s seeing society “from a little distance” that allows the reformer to serve its properly uncynical civilizational mission on behalf of the personal identities of equally and absolutely dignified beings. That’s what exemplary Calvinists, such as the abolitionists, did, and that's surely what Robinson does through her writing.
Political activism may get people invested in politics, and affect urgently needed change, but it comes at the expense of tolerance and healthy democratic norms.