Visions of man: Huxley vs. Dante

Visions of man: Huxley vs. DanteApril 13th, 2011


This is an excerpt from a talk by French philosopher Fabrice Hadjadj March 24 in Paris at an event that was part of a Vatican-sponsored initiative to create dialogue among Catholics and atheists and agnostics in Europe, called the Courtyard of the Gentiles after a section of the ancient Jewish Temple that was accessible to non-Jews. He contrasts the “trasumanar,” or openness of heaven, of Dante’s Paradiso and the “transhumanism” of the first director general of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Julian Huxley. Rome journalist Sandro Magister published an English translation of highlights of the talk on his website,

“Transhumanism” was coined in 1957 by the biologist Julian Huxley, the first director general of UNESCO. What is interesting is that this first director general of UNESCO did not at all mean what Dante did by “transhumanism.” His thought, in fact, goes radically against that of the “Divina Commedia.” But it has the advantage of making manifest the only alternative that is posed today in the modern world.

Brother of Aldous Huxley, the author of “Brave New World,” Julian Huxley might have been expected to be inoculated against any temptation to eugenics. Instead the opposite is true. Not that Julian Huxley was inconsistent; no, he was consistent in the extreme. In 1941, at the very time when the Nazis were gassing the mentally ill, Julian Huxley wrote with a certain audacity: “Once the full implications of evolutionary biology are grasped, eugenics will inevitably become part of the religion of the future, or of whatever complex of sentiments may in the future take the place of organized religion.” These statements were written in 1941. But it was in 1947 that they were published in French, when he was already director general of UNESCO. Not one line was changed on that occasion. Of course, Huxley was anti-Nazi, social democratic, and above all anti-racist. But he presumed to replace the traditional religions with biotechnology.

Of course, Julian Huxley is not on trial here. I would only like to highlight an ideology so widespread that it did not spare this place, and that it even had its first director general as an illustrious representative. If, in 1957, this first director general of UNESCO invented the substantive “transhumanism,” he did it in order to avoid talking further about “eugenics,” a word that had become difficult to use after Nazi eugenics. Nonetheless, the same thing is intended: the redemption of man through technology. I cite the 1957 text that invented the term; it presents this “new principle”: “(The) quality of people, not mere quantity, is what we must aim at, and therefore that a concerted policy is required to prevent the present flood of population-increase from wrecking all our hopes for a better world.” Julian’s “better world” is not so far from the “New world” of Aldous. It is precisely a matter of improving the “quality” of individuals, as one improves the “quality” of products, and therefore, probably, of eliminating or preventing the birth of everything that would appear as abnormal or deficient.

You understand that it is the very definition of man that is at stake in our encounter. And therefore the very future of man. Man is seeking something beyond. He is transhuman by nature. But how is the “trans” of the transhuman realized? With culture and openness to the transcendent? Or with technology and genetic manipulation? Of course, UNESCO is a global organization devoted to the protection and development of cultures. But like every contemporary organization, it is also overrun by technocratic logic, the desire to solve problems instead of recognizing the mystery. Proof of this is the ambiguity to which its first director general gives witness.

So then, here is my simple question: should we take Julian Huxley as our guide, or should we take Dante? Is the greatness of man in the technical facility to live? Or is it in this laceration, in this openness that is like a cry to heaven, in this appeal to what really transcends us?

This is the opportunity of the Courtyard of the Gentiles: to take note of this new situation. This is not a matter only of “dialogue between believers and nonbelievers.” It is a matter of asking the question of man, of recognizing that what gives him his specificity is not being a super animal more powerful than the others, but being this receptacle that receives every creature with love, in order to send it, with words, with prayer, with poetry, toward its mysterious source.

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