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Sunday, May 18, 2014

Me vs the Humanists



Stephen Fry narrates a charming video extolling the humanist approach to happiness and the meaning of life, and I recommend you watch it.

Stephen Fry: How Can I Be Happy?

He says theists look outside themselves for meaning whereas humanists look inside.  In the main, I think this is true, although I might qualify it by saying theists search for meaning outside as well as inside themselves.  Fry goes on to explore some of the meanings a humanist can find - for the humanist, he says, there is no single over-arching meaning.  Everything Fry says is humane and persuasive.

But I remain a theist.

To explain, I'll share a couple of incidents from Hugo's Les Miserables.  I never saw the movie, but I listened to the unabridged audio version during my daily commute over a course of several weeks.  Anyway, let's look at two characters Fantine and Thernardier.

After being seduced and abandoned by a no-good, Fantine unwisely entrusts her daughter Cosette to the Thernardiers and goes to work in a city.  There, she is besieged by Thernardier's demands for additional money - for clothes, for medicine.  She loses her job when it comes to light she's an unwed mother.  She resorts to prostitution, and eventually sells her front teeth to a dentist to buy "medicine" for Cosette.  She winds up in a charity ward, universally despised (save by Jean Valjean and one nun) as a slut who got what was coming to her.  Her only joy through this ordeal is the hope of being reunited with Cosette.  The moment she learns that she will not see Cosette again she dies in a paroxysm of despair.

Thernardier, meanwhile, abuses Cosette emotionally and physically the whole time.  She is basically the slave of the household from a tender age.  The money Fantine sends, enriches himself.  Thernardier is bad every which-way.  He robs corpses at the Battle of Waterloo, is an extortionist, kidnapper, forger, and thief.  He blackmails Marius, one of the heroes, who pays him on condition he never darken the streets of Paris again.  Thernardier goes to America to be a slave-dealer.  The novel doesn't say, but I'm convinced Thernardier does quite well for himself.  Everything in his resume suggests he would be an excellent slave-dealer.  I'm sure he ends up with a big fine house filled with expensive furniture and that moreover he is happy.  In time, he becomes an elder statesmen, and young people ask his advice, which he dolls out in a liberal fashion.  He eats and dresses well and lives comfortably.  He has a beautiful mistress.  He dies at a fat old age in the middle of a pleasant dream with a smile on his face and is respected and mourned by his community.

The thing is - and I wouldn't want to be either one of these people - I think it would be better to be Fantine than Thernardier.  Mind you, Fantine blames herself for her woes; whereas Thernaridier thinks quite highly of himself, and - if my conjecture's correct - people around him end up thinking highly of him, too.  I still think it would be better to be Fantine, which I cannot justify without resorting to some meaning outside myself.  So I remain a theist.

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