Glen T. Martin
25 September 2022
Human beings have long struggled with the immense question of who and what we are in relation to the surrounding cosmos. For more than 2500 years, since the famous Axial Period in human history, we have asked the question of a divine dimension, of ultimate reality, and our relation to this dimension. The question of humanism arises within this context.
Where should society focus in its educational, spiritual, cultural, and religious endeavors? Should we orient ourselves toward the ultimate dimension—toward Brahman, Tao, Allah, Dharmakaya, Yahweh, or li—with a mode of sacrifice, a tapasya, that limits human flourishing in the service of the divine, or should we emphasize an imperative to focus on human flourishing and reasonable self-sufficiency in the light of the divine?
Perhaps something of this dialectic surfaced in the rebellion of Buddhism against classical Hinduism. If Atman is Brahman, then the point of life becomes an inner process of transcendence of the diverse panorama of this world of incidentals in pursuit of a oneness that ultimately obliterates that world, that sees it as maya, not fully real, illusion. For Lord Buddha, it was not just a matter of a needless cultural, educational, and social focus on ultimate metaphysical realities that was a distraction from the path toward human fulfillment and flourishing. Rather, it was an entire ethos that diminished human flourishing by ignoring the fact that this concrete life in the here and now is the key to human liberation and freedom in living. As 2nd century south Indian Buddhist, Nāgārjuna declared: “There is no difference whatsoever between samsara and nirvana” (see Martin, 1991).
In the West perhaps this dialectic can also be seen in the philosophical world view of Aristotle in relation to his teacher Plato. Plato’s two world model oriented human life away from the concrete world of everyday by climbing the ladder of insight and awakening to ever-higher levels of abstraction, leaving behind the particulars of the world because they were not fully real, mere shadows dancing in a cave of ignorance. His student Aristotle re-envisioned the non-physical forms, the eidos, that were the goal of the Platonic ladder of transcendence. Aristotle embedded these forms within the concrete world of particulars and saw them as integral to the dynamic of development that characterized all things. The purpose of life then became development, self-realization within this body, this society, and this world of life on Earth rather than transcendence toward some other intelligible world.
A third historical example of the embrace of humanism as opposed to an otherworldly orientation of persons and societies can be observed in the Italian Renaissance of the 15th century. Renaissance thinkers repudiated medieval conceptions of society and human destiny which claimed that the destiny of this life was fulfillment in the supernatural world, in heaven. They actively embraced this world, this life, and the development of human flourishing upon this Earth. Perhaps Pico Della Mirandola best exemplifies this Renaissance humanism with his famous 1486 “Oration on the Dignity of Man” in which he asserts that God gave human beings the dignity of freedom so that we could flourish fully in this world and this earthly life as true creators of our destiny.
In spite of Renaissance humanism, a new cosmology entered civilization in the late 17th century when Sir Isaac Newton systematized the findings of early modern scientists such as Galileo and Kepler. The world was now seen as a physical mechanism, with all things reducible to their atomistic elements, and governed by deterministic laws operating according to an efficient causality allowing no room for purpose, teleological direction, or development (see Harris 2000). The religious consequences of Newtonian cosmology were immense.
God’s relation to the world was transformed from that of an active energy immanent within the everyday world to that of a remote creator at the very beginning who played no role in the deterministic cosmos after its initial creation. Although there have been, of course, some materialists and atheists since ancient times, both East and West, the origins of a truly modern secularism and positivism occurred during this period of the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe.
Thomas Hobbes was perhaps the first prominent representative of this new ethos. In his Leviathan (1687), he declared that human beings are determined by their physical bodies and brains to strive for nothing other than “power after power.” They strive throughout their lives in egoistic, selfish, and violent ways. He declared himself a materialist and an atheist. Government and the social order for him have no role to play in any supposed education or development of citizens because human nature is fixed from birth. The function of government and the social order is power only—the use of force and authority to keep the peace, to regulate human egoism, selfishness, and violence from becoming too destructive.
About the same time as Hobbes’ assessment of human nature, capitalism began to emerge with the assumption that this system of human economic exchange constituted a discovery of the proper functioning of human economic relations. Capitalism assumed a universal egoistic self-interest within each person or corporation toward pursuing private profit in competition with other persons and businesses. Capitalism also assumed that the economic laws of investment, actualized through various forms of production of goods and services and their returns on investment with increase in private wealth, was the “natural” and only objectively confirmable form of human economic relationships.
During this same period of early-modern deterministic cosmology, the modern sovereign nation-state was born. At the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 at the conclusion of the 30-Years War in Europe, a system of territorially bound nation-states was defined in which governments possessed excusive sovereign authority over their internal affairs and sovereign independence in relation to one another externally. Like capitalism, this form of governance by dividing the world into atomistic, absolute territories with external relations revolving around economic competition and backed by political and military power, became an unquestioned assumption of the modern era that has persisted to this day.
With the development of complex machinery, technology, and the discovery of fossil fuels for running that machinery, the modern world exploded in a series of industrial revolutions that have transformed not only human living in the world but has damaged the ecological framework of the Earth portending climate destruction and possible human extinction (Rifkin 2011). Capitalism to this day generates vast accumulations of private wealth in the hands of a few and vast misery and deprivation for the majority. It was this economic structure of capitalism during the 19th century that dialectically gave rise to the movement for socialism, for economic equality and justice.
Extreme wealth and extreme poverty, along with environmental destruction, the hallmarks of capitalism, gave rise to the economic analyses of Karl Marx and others exposing the hidden dynamics of this system with its inevitable deleterious human and environmental consequences. Capitalism, as a product of the Newtonian world view, is inherently atheistic since it assumes an economic determinism predicated on mistaken psychological assumptions about the egoistic structure of human nature.
Nevertheless, the emergent socialism of the 19th century saw that capitalism played upon people’s religious aspirations as part of its ideological penumbra of self-justification. Much of early socialism proclaimed a materialist humanism that disavowed talk of a divine dimension used to justify the poverty of our human situation. The aspiration of socialism was, in general, toward a human community of kindness and economic solidarity in which economics was directed toward serving the needs of all rather than the wealth of a few.
The early-modern assumptions behind the power-system of territorial sovereign nation-states and behind the exploitation-system of capitalist “free enterprise” remained part of the ideological framework behind the socialist revolutions in China and the Soviet Union. Rather than human liberation, these assumptions resulted in the totalitarianism of controlling governments, just as capitalism with its so-called free enterprise resulted in the totalitarianism of ruling class wealth and power. In both cases humanism is lost if by “humanism” we mean an economic, social, and cultural framework directed to comprehensive human well-being and flourishing.
Marxist humanism has features in common with the “secular humanism” that continues, along with Marxism, as a major movement in today’s world. Both reject any talk of the “supernatural” as not only counterproductive but meaningless. We must concentrate on human well-being by taking responsibility for our own economic and social development directed to the common good and the welfare of all. Integral Humanism, by contrast, embraces this responsibility within a larger framework that does not exclude the rootedness of human existence within its planetary and cosmic contexts.
In the 20th century the concept of “integral humanism” has been developed by various thinkers, expanding and perhaps significantly changing the narrower ideas of secular or socialist “humanism.” For example, French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain published a book by this title in 1936. He argued that the focus on human well-being should be fundamental, just as “humanism” had always argued. However, Maritain presented sophisticated arguments against the communist vision of humanism and why a Christian vision provided a more complete understanding of human beings and their well-being by taking into account their larger [cosmic-spiritual] contexts.
Similarly, in the mid-1960s, Indian politician and scholar Deendayal Upadhyay argued that India needed an “integral humanism” drawn from its ancient moral, spiritual, and humanistic traditions that repudiated Western notions of progress through either capitalism or socialism and provided a comprehensive third way toward social progress. Nevertheless, neither of these thinkers considered a powerful new paradigm that emerged in the 20th century entirely superseding the early-modern Newtonian paradigm and providing us with a truly “integral” understanding of the world in stark contrast to the Newtonian understanding.
Since the work of Max Plank in 1900 and of Albert Einstein in 1905, a vast paradigm shift has taken place in scientific cosmology. Revolutions in natural science since the early 20th century (as manifested in both quantum and relativity physics) contradicted early modern cosmology and have introduced an entirely new conceptual paradigm, that is making the distinction between the natural (physical) world and a hypothetical “supernatural” realm untenable. The physical world is not made of some substance called “matter” that is opposed to another possible substance called “mind” or “spirit.” The reality of the natural world is that consciousness, with many modes and levels, is inherent in the cosmos from the very beginning. Human beings are understood to be directly connected to the holistic foundations of the cosmos.
The new scientific cosmology reveals the world as a dynamic explosion of energy with consciousness inherent in energy at all levels. There is zero evidence that the foundations of the cosmos involve some supernatural being transcending the world who created it ex nihilo. The evidence is that the Ground (which is no-thing) is integral to every dimension and aspect of the world. Integral humanism recognizes this holistic reality. In recognizing this reality, it also becomes cosmic humanism.
Today, the secular humanist distinction between what is natural and the “supernatural” has lost its force. For decades, Quantum sciences have been revealing that there is no such thing as “matter” as a separate substance, there are only energy fields within ever-larger fields, corresponding to levels of consciousness, ultimately rooted in a plenum in which relations are non-local and instantaneous and within which the concept of separate parts entirely loses its meaning. Leading contemporary physicist Henry Stapp writes: “A radical shift in the physics-based conception of man from that of an isolated mechanical automaton to that of an integral participant in a non-local holistic process that gives form and meaning to the evolving universe is a seismic event of potentially momentous proportions” (2011, 140).
The cosmos arises incessantly through a “non-local holistic process” that new paradigm thinker Ervin Laszlo calls “the Akasia field,” recalling the ancient Hindu conception of the universal Ground of Being (2014). Early modern science conceived of man as an “isolated mechanical automation.” Today we are co-creators with the cosmic ground of being. Capitalism’s reductionist view of human beings includes that of an “isolated mechanical automaton” beholden to the iron laws of economics. By contrast, contemporary economist Kate Raworth affirms that economics has to do with the way we choose to design our relationships, not with the discovery of pre-existing laws (2017). The new paradigm liberates us from capitalism.
Similarly, the nation-state with its mechanistic territorial sovereignty and its militaristic relation to all other nations assumes humans and their territories as “isolated mechanical automatons.” If Pakistan acquires nuclear weapons, India must do likewise. If China extends its southern border in the Himalayas and promotes major economic links around the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean, then India must respond with an increase of military might in the region. The nation-state system mechanically determines its own imperatives. The World Bank and the World Trade Organization determine India’s most basic economic functions, not the moral imperatives embodied in the Constitution of India.
Neither capitalism nor territorial sovereign nation-states manifest the new-paradigm reality—that is, they are not and cannot act as “non-local participants in a holistic process.” As a result, economics fails to serve human needs, and sovereign nation-states pour endless resources down the toilet of militarism while threatening to wipe out humanity in thermo-nuclear holocaust. Swami Agnivesh, who was Vice-President of the World Constitution and Parliament Association (WCPA) during the last 5 years of his life, focused on the millions of children who suffer horribly in bonded labor conditions within India while the rich indulge their lives unmindful of this immense suffering. Global economic imperatives interfere with India’s ability to address this horrific reality.
Humanism, if it is not outdated by the distinction between the natural and supernatural worlds necessarily becomes integral humanism and fully actualizes itself in cosmic humanism. Scholar James McGrath explains that “cosmic humanism locates human beings in the whole cosmos, not simply in the miniscule slice of space-time we call ‘history.’ It’s not a contained view of human beings. It’s open to all kinds of cosmological views of what the universe is and what human beings might be as highly evolved expressions of that same universe. Cosmic humanism explodes the recent, linear, historicist views of what human beings are by locating the human condition in a vastly greater context—a literally cosmic one” (2022).
During the mid-1960s, Pundit Deendayal Upadhyay provided intellectual and moral leadership in the promotion of integral humanism. He rejected what he took to be the big government promotion of socialism under Nehru and the Congress Party, which he said was an import from the West. Rather than following the “isms” of the West (such as capitalism or Marxism) he asserted that the Indian tradition provided its own unique path to proper development that included dharma or proper education, wisdom, and developmental goals, artha, or meaningful work in relation to a community that provides for all its members, kama, the satisfaction of desires through culture, art, and reasonable moderation, and moksha, the highest goal, which is release from bondage and return to the One.
Like Swami Agnivesh, who in addition supported ratification of the Constitution for the Federation of Earth, Upadhyay stressed the origin of all things in the One, with the consequence that all human beings are brothers and sisters. Vasudhaiva kutumbakam was a favorite slogan of both thinkers.Western individualism sets the individual person against society, government, and all such corporate entities, whereas integral humanism recognizes the interdependence and common origin of all human beings within a community oriented to the common good and the welfare of each.
Upadhyay’s integral humanism was accepted at the Bharatiya Jana Sangh National Convention of 1965 and again, in 1985, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) accepted it as its basic philosophy. The power of Upadhyay’s integral humanism lies in its holism that sees economics, culture, person, and society as a nexus of interrelated developing paths that draw their strength from their synergistic interactions. These interrelated paths have a cosmic foundation in Indian thought—all diversity of religions, cultures, nations, and persons arise from the One and at bottom point back to the One.
In my view, however, the limitation of Upadhyay’s integral humanism is that it does not carry holism far enough toward civilizational and cosmic holism. Rabindranath Tagore rightly declared that “it is the mission of civilization to bring unity among people and to establish peace and harmony” (206, 214). Sri Aurobindo rightly observed that the divine “creates in itself a self-conscious concentration of the All through which it can aspire” (1973, 49). Integral humanism cannot be limited to any one sovereign nation defined by territorial borders and hence implicitly declaring itself separate from the rest of humanity.
Even though during the 1960s India was a newly independent sovereign nation-state and was still trying to find its national direction and voice, the concept of sovereign nation-state that defined it after 1947 was yet another Western “ism” (“statism”) going back to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. By contrast, an integral humanism that challenged the idea of the sovereign nation-state was already found in the thought of Mahatma Gandhi upon which Upadhyay draws. Gandhi’s humanism is astutely articulated by Professor Geeta Mehta in her essay “The Integral Humanism of Mahatma” (1998).
Even before the climate crisis and the advent of nuclear weapons, Gandhi advocated world government. On 5 August 1942, he introduced the following resolution into the Indian National Congress:
While the Indian National Congress must primarily be concerned with independence and defense of India in this hour of danger, the Committee is of the opinion that the future peace, security, and ordered progress of the world demand a world federation of free nations, and on no other basis can the problems of the modern world be solved. Such a world federation would ensure the freedom of its constituent nations, the prevention of aggression and exploitation by one nation over another, the protection of national ministries, the advancement of all backward areas and peoples, and the pooling of the world’s resources for the common good of all (Hudgens 1986, 14)
Gandhi’s humanism centered on the divine imperative for a life of both individual integrity and social solidarity actualized through the self-realization of truth and nonviolence. The imperative for truth and nonviolence applied not only to India but to humanity and was at the heart of all the world’s religions. He embraced a cosmic humanism that portended a radical transformation of all human life within a civilization of satyagraha and ahimsa, within a civilization that radically transformed the militarized sovereign nation-state toward nonviolent membership within a world federation of nations.
For Gandhi, such a radical transformation of human life, already envisioned in the Vedic tradition and crystalized in the Bhagavad Gita, was also the vision at the heart of Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity. It is a vision that requires overcoming the gigantic structural impediments to its realization in the form of global exploitative capitalism and militarized sovereign nation-states. The freedom of nations, as Gandhi’s resolution affirms, is inseparable from a new world system based on “the pooling of the world’s resources for the common good of all.”
The profound integral humanism of Jacques Maritain or Deendayal Upadhyay must become cosmic and it must become global in its scope and vision. This humanism is embodied in the Constitution for the Federation of Earth under which nations become free precisely because they are no longer impelled to militarize and economically compete, and within which their economic problems are solved by a system that “pools the world’s resources for the common good of all.”
Upadhyay’s thought pointed beyond, to human self-transcendence, just as did that of Maritain. Both pointed to growth, development of our higher human capacities, and transformative self-realization on the part of humanity as these arise from a uniquely Indian or Christian context. All of this ultimately requires embrace of the Earth Constitution, which had not yet been written. Our lethal problems are no longer merely national. In the past half century, they have all become global (see Martin 2021). Our humanism must supersede both the sovereign nation-state and globalized capitalism.
Our lethal planetary problems must be solved by a global vision and planetary transformative initiative. The Constitution for the Federation of Earth forms the central tool for actualizing that vision. Maritain and Upadhyay point the way toward a vision that must become transformative at the global level. Our most fundamental context is planetary and cosmic, never centered in sovereign states. Such states are themselves a fundamental part of the problem. This article has attempted to reveal the necessary unity between integral humanism, cosmic humanism, and a transformed world order under the Earth Constitution.
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