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Desert Solitaire

Edward Abbey the Humanist

Meaning of Life
Man Meets Nature
Arches National Park


        The foundation of modern humanism dates back to around 450 B.C. when it originated in Ancient Greece. Many philosophers of the era expounded upon the ideas of humanism, but the first to develop the concept was the Greek philosopher Protagorus. The basic ideas laid out by these philosophers were that there are no absolute truths or moral codes, and that man should look toward himself to solve problems as opposed to looking toward a divine power. However, these ideas were quickly stifled by the church. Free thought was certainly discouraged, and anyone teaching ideas in defiance of the Bible was persecuted. It remained this way until the Renaissance came about in the 14th century. Throughout the Renaissance humanism gained much attention as a so called “alternative” lifestyle. However, during the 18th century the church received much criticism, and many people began to reject its “blind faith” teachings.        

        Today, this philosophical outlook from the Renaissance has been termed secular humanism. Modern humanists for the most part consider themselves atheists. They deny any form of divine power and are skeptical of anything involving the supernatural (ghosts, mysticism ect).  Morals and ethics are defined by each individual and are contingent upon the situation.  

        The writings of secular humanist groups are very upbeat. They emphasize self confidence and determination-- anything is possible if one tries hard enough. They urge people to solve their own problems and take charge of their life. This type of teaching gives a person a sense of empowerment. They don’t have to beg and plead with a god to grant their requests. Instead, they simply take life by the horns and make it happen. (I guess that’s why the moral codes are so flexible.)  

        Edward Abbey is a secular humanist. Many groups of secular humanists consider all species equal, as does Abbey. “All men are brothers, we like to say, half-wishing sometimes in secret it were not true…. We are obliged, therefore, to spread the news, painful and bitter though it may be for some to hear, that all living things on earth are kindred [Abbey 25].” However, while this is in line with standard teachings of secular humanism, Abbey also states, “I prefer not to kill animals. I’m a humanist; I’d rather kill a man than a snake [Abbey 20].” It’s clear that he is a very devout humanist. The more radical groups feel as though the human race has become too large and that it is destroying nature.  Their solution to this problem is to keep humans from multiplying further.  Even though few humanists would actually kill a man in the name of humanism, they feel strongly that humans are the root of all evils concerning nature.

        Humanists also put great value on critical reasoning, factual evidence, and scientific methods of inquiry. This explains Abbey’s way of rationalizing killing the rabbit-- a story that I was shocked to read only a few pages after he said he would rather kill a man than a snake. He walks away without “feel(ing) any sense of guilt.” He was only able to do this because he had set it up as an experiment “for which the rabbit has been volunteered.” By killing the rabbit Abbey no longer feels like “a stranger from a different world.” He now considers himself kindred with all the other creatures because he himself is prey to predators of the desert just as the rabbit was prey to him. However, after this experiment is complete he notes that there will never be need to repeat it. [Abbey 41-42]

           Readers are better able to understand the book by understanding the beliefs of the humanist that wrote it.  After reading about humanism it is no wonder that Abbey enjoyed spending time in the desert.  He was completely independent of the world.  He was his own moral code and was the master of his own destiny.  He answered to know one.  He was seperated from anyone or anything that could force beliefs on him.  He was truly his own person, and I believe his writing reflects that.   

by Kim Hood

“We need the possibility of escape as surely as we need hope.”