The Great Weight of Death – A Response to Progressive Humanism

It was in 1955 that a photography exposition, entitled The Family of Man, first opened in New York City. Its main objective was to show, or more precisely, to express the universalism of human nature. All in all, it succeeded, becoming a durable heritage in photography for posterity. You may have never heard of this exposition, but chances are you’ve seen some of its photographs. French writer, Roland Barthes, summed up the spirit of the exposition in this way:

From this pluralism, you magically take away a unity. Man is born, works, laughs, and dies in the same fashion everywhere. And if there still remains in these actions some ethnic particularity, you can, at least, agree there is an identical nature at the heart of each one of them. Their diversity is only a formality and doesn’t deny the existence of a common mold.

Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange (1936)

However, in his Mythologies, Barthes believes The Family of Man sentimentalizes human nature to the point where he sees “spiritualist intent” in the works of the photographers chosen for the exposition. By way of example, he considers birth and death. On the subject of death, Barthes concludes that a “natural approach” towards human life, that is to say seeing our mortality as a temporal fact and nothing more, is erroneous because it oversimplifies the experience. As human beings, what are we supposed to understand about death? Which aspect of it should we be more concerned about, its historical context or its mere existence?

Barthes proposes the use of a progressive humanism to examine History, stating that Nature, itself, is historical and can be modified freely over the course of time. Therefore, it would serve us better to see Nature as a symptom of History, not the other way around. In other words, if you ignore the historical context of a certain “universal event”, like death, you will have an incomplete picture of what it actually is, because in the end, death and birth can mean different things to different people. It seems to be a strong theory which unfurls methodically and logically, but Barthes neglected to address one inescapable truth that he mentioned briefly. This “spiritualist intent” to which he makes reference may not be an accidental observation on his part. On the contrary, many would say he stumbled upon an intentional relationship between the human race, universality, and a spiritual realm.

According to a national poll from the Pew Research Center carried out in June/July 2012, 91% of those surveyed affirmed that they believe in God or some “universal spirit” while 7% of those surveyed affirmed that they don’t believe in God or some “universal spirit”. It is impossible to deprive people of their interior thought, but what can be said about those who choose to ignore that these thoughts exist? Upon discovering one of the more philosophical purposes of The Family of Man, Barthes dismisses it in favor of another philosophy. This dismissal may either be of little circumstance or one of the gravest errors he will have ever made. Another French writer, whom you may have heard of, Victor Hugo, in his seminal novel Les Misérables, describes the phenomenon of the human soul as a “spectacle greater than the sea and the sky.”

Even with a “schoolmaster” as rigorous as History, whose lessons should suffice to teach and correct us, it is the great weight of a physical death that maintains one of the most powerful influences over our actions in the present. More specifically, it is the fear of this death and what comes after that regulates the choices (whether good and timely or bad and reckless) of an overwhelming majority of the general population. Given the atrocities of past wars, one would expect a gradual, if not complete, decrease in human conflict. But we don’t see that, to our great dismay. They continue without any foreseen end. As a blunt example, the United Nations has much historical context with which to examine death. The cause of war has been scrutinized relentlessly, but in the end, nation-states do not seek peace simply because our ancestors did the same (this way of thinking would go against the rational logic of many countries), but because we hate destruction and death. It’s true that human beings resemble the other creatures of the earth, inasmuch as we eat, sleep, and tend to our own bodies in the quest to protect ourselves from the ravages of an impartial mortality, but what separates us from the “zoological order”, as Barthes disapprovingly calls it, is our capacity to understand the moralistic world, something which can be learned thanks to the experiences of our forebears.

Using the terminology of Barthes, a significant History of our ancestors is not just the bare facts of their existence or even the context of those facts, but what drove them to make such or such choice in the course of those unfolding facts, thus giving us a particular History. What good is the study of History anyways if it is only a chain of abstract events? Are we obligated to see it as only an intransigent Thing or is it a mold that continuously receives the free will of our actions? If the answer comes to us through the latter, we must take care to notice what it is that actually creates History…me and you.

Our human race has committed the same mistakes again and again. There are two very incongruent worldviews that attempt to explain this fact, theism with its spirituality and acknowledgement that mankind, alone, does not have the ability to answer every question it may ask itself, and humanism with its rejection of spirituality in favor of human reasoning. Death tends to be the one universal event that initiates all of us into the greatest mysteries our existence has to offer and a certain king who lived in Antiquity, named Solomon, expressed his assessment of the affair in the writings of Ecclesiastes. His reasoning unmistakably led him to the belief that man is not a Creator, but created. All of us were given an allocation of time in which to come to grips with a preexisting world and its Nature:

All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth? […] It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart. (Ecclesiastes 3:2-21,7:2)

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Éditions du Seuil, 1957. Print. 

“Pew Research Center for the People & the Press/Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life
Religion & Politics Survey.” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life 
Project Poll Database. N.d. Web. 14 Oct. 2013. 


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