A Great Sign for a Grand Philosophy
edited: Sunday, December 25, 2005
By Gene Gordon
Not "rated" by the Author.
Posted: Monday, December 16, 2002
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Humanism is in need of something big and special to save it. The author knows he has the answer!
Humanism, it seems to me, is all stuffed up (like the big nose above) and cannot breathe. Is it just that stuffy feeling from sitting long hours at dull meetings, only octogenarians in attendance? Or is it the stuffiness of the drawing room full of tea hour intellectuals and musty academics?
Sure I exaggerate, but no one will deny that Corpus Humanismus has a case of the sniffles if not a downright bad cold.
Paul Kurtz makes an admirable attempt ("The Future of Humanism,” Free Inquiry, Fall 1983) to diagnose the illness: Humanism, he writes, “lacks an inspiring message" and "lacks charismatic leadership." Humanism is beset by "cantankerous individuals... internal squabbles." Humanism can be "narrowly political and strident," and has "no broad base of financial support."
While these allegations are all too true , they merely describe symptoms and side effects. The correct, fundamental and simple cause came to me as I suffered over our crying contradiction: Why the rich magnificent history and heritage of Humanism on the one hand, the poverty of its performance, negligible growth on the other? Why do religions (even newfangled crazy cults) expand and thrive? Why the enormous surge in parties and movements for a Marx a Mao – even a Mussolini, for god’s sake?
Well, one feature is common to every flourishing organizations but entirely lacking in Humanism: in a word, a SYMBOL. Humanism, ages old and world wide, is symbolically unidentified.
Christianity is fortunate: it is recognized by the cross - perhaps the oldest and most universal of all symbols devised by Homo sapiens. Those two arms stood from the beginning of history it seems for east, west, north, south - for earth, water, fire, air. And all this long before the Catholic Church. The horizontal arm was said to symbolize the ‘terrestrial, worldly, feminine, temporal, destructive, negative, passive, death.’ The vertical? ‘Celestial, spiritual, masculine, eternal, creative, positive, active, life.’
The six-pointed Star of David, symbol of Judaism, also goes way back to the ancient world where it was a magical sign, a protector against evil spirits. When the Nazis forced Jews to wear the yellow badge on their sleeves, the Star of David became a symbol of martyrdom and heroism.
A simple cross with arms bent has become the most hated symbol in the world - the swastika. But since the Bronze Age the swastika has represented fire, the wheeling sun, or perhaps crossed bolts of lightning. It served as a good luck charm; it signified prosperity.
The Mayas employed the swastika as did the Navajo. It is found on Buddhist inscriptions, Byzantine buildings, Celtic monuments, Greek coins and especially vases. The swastika is still seen all over India today as a symbol of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism. But with the Nazis it became a symbol of race hatred and world-ravaging aggression.
Such is the potency of the symbol that the head of the most powerful state must bow to its elemental force. In 1955 President Dwight Eisenhower returned to Washington from a peace meeting with Soviet Prime Minister Bulganin. Emerging from the airplane he stepped into a heavy rainstorm. An aide rushed up with an umbrella. But the Eisenhower party pushed it away and the President walked soaking wet to the terminal. Why? Seventeen years earlier, when another Western leader returned from a peace conference with a certain infamous dictator, the umbrella had become a powerful symbol of appeasement.
People invest symbols with such enormous emotional force that for a John Bull, for an Uncle Sam, men and women will lay down their lives.
Yet people live for symbols too, and so must Humanists. But what symbol can do justice to the lofty philosophy of Humanism? Prometheus leaps to mind immediately. No name can be better associated with Humanism than that of Prometheus. But Prometheus is a Greek god. A god is not a symbol: a god requires a symbol, for a symbol is a visible sign that stands for the invisible, the abstract. The dove is a symbol of peace.
We need a crescent, a cross, a star, a sign simple but striking. Hmm... - let's see. I’ve got it! As Symbol of Humanism I propose (it'll look cute as a button) the NOSE!
Wait! Hear me out. Sniff into this further before you laugh. Whose is the most famous nose in all the world? Can it be mere coincidence that the greatest human proboscis on the planet adorns the face of its greatest freethinker? Cyrano de Bergerac was a materialist in the mold of Giordano Bruno and risked the same fiery execution at the stake. Cyrano was, during a very dangerous time, an atheist so aggressive as to make the late Madalyn Murray O'Hair look like a powder puff. The nose of Cyrano de Begerac, great Hero of Rationalism - can there be a more outstanding symbol of Humanism?
Or take Ovidius Naso. This Roman whose very name is nose... this supreme poet was a humanist, a rationalist, a lover of Lucretius the materialist.
And so it goes. In fact and in fiction, lusty life-affirming characters are always those with liberal allowance of noble... - why, look at Bardolph, Tristram Shandy, Pinocchio!
"Give me a man with a good allowance of nose,” demanded Napoleon Bonaparte. "When I want any good work done, I always choose a man with a long nose."
Gogol in a vivid profile fixed for all time the symbolic value of the nose. Jack London, in "A Nose for the King,” did the same. Both Science and Art cry for the adoption of the nose as Symbol of Humanism.
You still think I'm joking? Consider this: With the nose as our symbol the world will cheer. "Why, Humanists are humorous!" Yes, we are human with a sense of humor big enough to laugh at ourselves. We are not deadly serious. No, we do not kill for our cause - for the cross, for the crescent; we don't slaughter for the swastika, for the Star of David.
Humanists, following the flag of the NOBLE NOSE, will never hunt humans, harm them, slay them.
And so – because Humanism is a humble philosophy – I submit in all humility this apparently preposterous proposition: LET OUR SYMBOL BE THE NOSE!