What is Neohumanism?
Keynote Speech given at 25th Anniversary Fundraising Gala
for the Progressive School of Long Island, April 21, 2010
by Graduate Amal Jacobson
Tonight I was asked to give a speech on Neohumanism, but that of course leads us to the obvious question, “What is Neohumanism?” It’s not an easy question to answer. Is it a philosophy? A way of life? An attitude? Or is Neohumanism a practice — a task we need to rebuild ourselves towards anew with each passing day? The answer, I suppose, is all of the above.
Neohumanism was given by the Indian philosopher, poet and linguist, P.R. Sarkar. He gave his first talks on the subject in 1982, late in his life considering he died only eight years later, but it represents in the trajectory of Sarkar’s thought in many ways a culmination or summation of the ideas he developed throughout his life. Sarkar, being an Indian and being a linguist, often used to start with the etymology behind Indian words. Society, for example. What is society? In Sanskrit, the root language of all the Indian languages, the word for society is samaj, coming from the root word “sam,” meaning “to move together.” And so, for Sarkar, society represented a body of people moving collectively, inclusively, with an inherent dynamicity. To put it quite simply: as a family.
One human family. The idea seems almost throwaway. It’s incredibly simple, and yet it is in its simplicity that the idea gains its true power. If all human beings are part of one human family, then what right do we have to create artificial divisions between one person and another? Between race, religion, nation or creed? How would I behave if I considered other people my fellow brothers and sisters, together with me as my companions as we moved ahead on the path of human progress?
The responsibility here, of course lies with the individual. Much more than a mere philosophy, Neohumanism demands action. It is one thing to think with my head, that all people are a part of my family, and it is another thing to feel it with my heart: to have those feelings demonstrated by my actions. Neohumanism is not just a philosophy, in other words, but a practice.
Universalism is an idea we can all relate to, in theory. I mean, why not? It sounds good, right? How are you supposed to disagree with something as agreeable as universalism? The problem, of course, arises when I try to make the leap from theory into practice. How do I live my life, demonstrably, everyday, in such a way that I can practice a sustained universalism? The answer is a tough one, but it is a simple one, a beautiful one, a powerful one. What, after all, could be more powerful than the power of love itself?
Yes, that’s right, you heard me: love. At the risk of sounding ridiculous, I stripped away all the philosophical intricacies of Sarkar’s vast body of work and brought it down to its bare, most tender essentials: real, human love. And I’m not talking about any kind of love – romantic love, passionate love, Platonic love. I’m talking about empathy – compassion – more precisely, the identification of my self with the other. This, of course, brings us back to why Sarkar called Neohumanism a form of humanism in the first place: because it strikes at the core of our questions regarding human identity. Who am I? What is my role in this world?
The questions sound almost glib, but could not be more deeply relevant to the problems of our postmodern world. You know, the other day I was in the mall, thinking about these very things, and just at that moment I noticed something. My friend was eating an Auntie Anne’s pretzel, and on the wrapping I saw their slogan, leaping out at me: “I snack, therefore I am.” Now, just how perfect is that? It seems innocent enough, but if you’ll bear with me for just one moment, just think about that for a second. Think about its implications. I snack, therefore I am. The slogan, once analyzed, relies on several philosophical presuppositions. First of all, it presupposes that my identity is defined by some sort of exteriority, rather than by anything inside. In other words, I am Amal because I am twenty-five years old – because I am a man – because I am American. Who am I? Well, my favorites movies are blah blah blah, and I really love this kind of music but I really hate that kind of music. I’m like vanilla and you like chocolate. Once properly analyzed it becomes clear that, “I snack, therefore I am” actually explicitly states that I am actually nothing but an amorphous glob, only given identity once I consume their product. A scary thought, once you stop and think about it.
So, the question remains: who are you? Who are you, really? Are you an American? Most of the people are in this room, I suppose. But what about the people who aren’t? We have something in common with them too, don’t we? Okay, of course we do. So, beyond being American, who are we really? What race are you? Myself personally, I’m half-Mexican, half-White. But what in God’s name does that even mean? I don’t know. I grew up this way, and I have absolutely no clue. Okay, so beyond that. I am a man. Beyond that, even, I am a human being.
But what else am I? Do I have the courage to transcend my boundaries, to challenge my barriers, to rise above distinctions, and see myself for who I really am? Do I have the audacity, the temerity, even, to call myself as I really am: do I have the courage to call myself a child of the Divine? This, of course, brings us to the most powerful dimension of Neohumanism: a dimension that is difficult, frightening, and yet cannot be ignored – the spiritual dimension.
Spirituality is often something we don’t want to think about, don’t want to consider, because of its religious implications. But who said I was talking about religion? Other people balk at spirituality for other reasons: after all, if something is merely spiritual, then maybe it sounds nice, but what it could it possibly offer us, concretely, in the building of a better world? The question Sarkar would ask, however, is different: if you try to ignore spirituality, then what are you left with in its absence? Stuff? Clothes? Food? Fragmentary, transient objects that my mind desperately clings to in order to formulate an even more fragmentary identity? We have already seen the concrete results of this kind of materialism: I snack, therefore I am. Materialism has led the world to be consumed by unparalleled consumerism and exploitation: of the planet, of the eco-system, of animals and of my fellow human beings. By considering matter as the be-all and end-all of existence, we have preoccupied ourselves solely with trying to get as much of this material stuff as we possibly can, almost always in an unsustainable way. It is destructive, it is unsustainable, and more deeply, it is fundamentally anti-human.
To return to our original question, what is Neohumanism? Neohumanism is a philosophy, a practice, a way of life, that teaches us to live sustainably in this world – to live with the spark of love and flame of moral courage. It is an educational system that teaches us from a very young age to identity ourselves not as belonging to clan X or to tribe Y, but to identify ourselves as fundamentally being a part of one integrative, cohesive, divine whole. We are all part of one family of creation, and the only way to guarantee that we continue to function here on this Earth, sustainably, is by treating one another with compassion, with respect, and with the knowledge that just as my life is important to me, so are the lives of others equally important to them. What is Neohumanism? In the words of P.R. Sarkar, Neohumanism is “the [cultivation] of love for all created beings of the universe.” No small task, indeed.
But let’s bring this down to the human level. What does it mean, to live as a neohumanist? To be educated in Neohumanism? The answer to this is easier than you think: just take a look around – take a look at your children. I went to a Neohumanist School – The Progressive School of Long Island. I know what it means, to be taught these ideas, and to have them cultivated in my childhood from the age of five. I am the result. Your children are the results. We are all imperfect, but we have come here on this planet to do something, each and every one of us. My coming is significant, and your coming is no less significant. If we are all part of a cohesive, united human society, then it means that we all have something to contribute. This is the essence of Neohumanism: armored with love, there is no power on Earth that can stop us from doing great things – together.