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Ecohumanism: Protagoras’ Silly DictumAuthor of this text: Kaz Dziamka
fact has been staring us in the face: Man is not the measure of all things.
was Protagoras who, in the fifth century BCE, argued that the source of human
values is human experience and intelligence, not divine revelation. We,
freethinkers, have always cherished his words, have called him the „first
notable Humanist" and have quoted him with relish. Corliss Lamont quotes him
in The Philosophy of Humanism, probably the best book-length exposition
of humanist ideology. Barbara Smoker, a leading British humanist, quotes him in Humanism,
where she describes Protagoras as one of the most important Greek philosophers
to humanist thinking. I quote him in my essay "Why We Need to Teach Secular
Humanism," a rationale for teaching secular humanism in all public schools.
was undoubtedly an outstanding philosopher, a remarkable human being whose books
were unfortunately lost forever, burned or censured by religious fanatics so
that only a few of his sentences have been salvaged. Yet he got it completely
wrong when he said that man is the measure of all things.
Protagoras did not know, could
not know, that the Earth is not the center of the universe, that the observable
universe is insanely huge and probably boundless, and that human beings are not a finished product, but transitory, imperfect, evolutionary beings. Aristarchus
was not yet born, and Copernicus' heliocentric theory of the universe was
centuries away into the future. So was Darwin's law of natural selection.
From a genetic point of view, human beings are virtually indistinguishable from
chimpanzees. With all other forms of life, we share basically the same
fundamental chemistry. „We — meaning
animals, plants, bacteria, and viruses" — says
zoologist Richard Dawkins, are rather uniform. „The replicators that [we] bear,
the genes, are basically the same kind of molecule in all of us — from
bacteria to elephants."
obvious fact is that, as an evolving species, we have retained vestiges of the
organs we used to share with our animal ancestors and have not yet made new
adaptations to help our bodies deal best with the way we now live.
as many Christians and Jews believe, man was created in God's image, then God
is a rather imperfect creature! Just consider this argument from A.J.
Mattill's The Seven Mighty Blows to Traditional Beliefs:
Think … of a number of
defects in the human body which are not attributable to a perfect Creator
designing perfect bodies but which are readily explainable as evolutionary
adaptations which occurred as we went from a four-legged to a two-legged mode of
locomotion.… Erect posture produces weight-bearing stresses on the pelvis
which often results in low-back pain. The changes in locomotion and posture have
also narrowed the birth canal through which the fetus must pass at birth, a problem accentuated by the evolution of a larger brain case and head. The hip
bones have been shortened, thus increasing the distance between the hip and the
lowest rib, thereby leaving the abdominal wall weakened because of insufficient
muscular support, making us prone to hernia. Upright posture also impedes the
circulation of the blood, often resulting in varicose veins in the legs and
hemorrhoids in the lower end of the large intestine.… The fact that the
two-legged posture places a much heavier load on our feet, which have not fully
adapted to the new posture, produces such foot miseries as bunions, calluses,
and fallen arches.
bodies are so imperfect that if you find a person who has a relatively fine
physique, he or she will stand out as a wart on a bald man's head and will
immediately try to make money by showing her boobs or legs or his pectorals on
television or in a newspaper.
even if the physique is tolerable, the mind usually is not. A young pretty girl
may fall for Tom Cruise, or another such nice all-American heart-throb, only to
discover that he is a little too short and dabbles in scientology. To the girl
it doesn't matter. But to think that a scientologist or a Mormon or a Baptist
or a Wahhabi or the Pope might be „the measure of all things" is a truly
genuinely flawless human being would be a marvel to behold. Imagine a creature
who is not too big (or too small), not too fat, not too stupid, not too old (or
too young), not too ugly-a creature who doesn't have bad breath or thin hair
or an incipient cancer or a torn ACL or false teeth or a myriad other uncounted
and uncountable „God given" defects and imperfections, a creature who
isn't hard of hearing and can read without glasses and doesn't believe in
astrology and doesn't laugh like a hyena and doesn't rant about a god who
now turns out to be less educated than an average high school dropout. Can such
human beings ever exist? If they do, we will promptly crucify them and worship
them like gods and be done with them.
problem is that, as Mark Twain has observed in Letters From the Earth,
some of us actually do have the reasoning faculty, but almost no one uses it in
religious matters. The gods and religious dogmas invented by men-Zeus, Zagaga,
Ogyrvan, Pwylt, Jahweh, virgin birth, sacrificial death, crucified saviors,
redemption through suffering, transubstantiation-would be a stunning insult to
the reasoning capacity of any alien who ever happens to visit our planet, this
pathetic speck in a parochial corner of the universe.
No, a combination of a perfect body and a rational mind is as impossible as the
proposition that the Earth is flat and that devils can be put into swine and run
to the sea for a swim.
we should forthwith forsake Protagaros' ancient adage. It has brought us only
misery and misunderstanding. We have yet to respond to David Ehrenfeld's
charge that humanists are arrogant, a charge he argues rather eloquently in The
Arrogance of Humanism.
we have been parroting Protagaros' dictum, we are accused of anthropocentrism
and find ourselves vulnerable to attacks not only by our enemies but by our
potential friends as well. Our anthropocentrism has infuriated the religious
Christian Right-which is fine-but it has also alienated us from our
potential allies: ecologists, secular environmentalists, in particular.
is time to abandon Protagoras' silly dictum and move on to a higher,
biocentric, form of humanism. I suggest we call it „ecohumanism" and forge
an alliance with secular environmentalists. Perhaps this alliance should be our
political platform for the 21st century, now that millennial madness has
subsided and no Second Coming has predictably occurred.
is biocentric politics powered by science, reason, and secular humanism.
Ecohumanism thus conceived could emerge as the only viable political
challenge to the anti-human and anti-environmental stranglehold of corporate
capitalism, particularly in the form of the vicious, imperial American
military-industrial complex. So
far, secular humanists have been irresponsibly diverse in their political views.
Paul Kurtz, editor of the most influential secular humanist magazine has long
argued that Free Inquiry "does not endorse political candidates nor
political parties" and that FI recognizes „the wide variety of
political viewpoints among secular humanists." So it is not so uncommon to
encounter those who vote for Bush and his pro-corporate agenda, support
preemptive wars and increased military budgets, and still call themselves
humanists should at last be seriously concerned about the environment and should
now endorse only those political candidates and political parties that will
support biocentric values. Environmental
destruction caused by corporate greed and irresponsible overbreeding sanctioned
by insane religious dogma („be fruitful and multiply and to fill the earth and
subdue it") have reached such a critical stage that no longer can secular
humanists afford to remain in bondage to corporate interests. We must embrace both humanist and environmental values.
We must offer a united front in our political involvement.
The time to act is now.
hope it's not too late.
is a rewritten and updated version of the article "Protagoras' Silly
Dictum," which originally appeared in the Jan./Feb. 1998 issue of The American
« Ecohumanism (Published: 24-12-2003 )
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