To Beast and Man

It’s a good day to remember Mary Midgely, the English philosopher whose timely impulses moved counter to reductionism, and toward life.

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It’s a good day to remember Mary Midgely, the English philosopher who was born on this day in 1919 (died October 2018).  Considering her legacy this morning, I am struck by an uncanny sense of the timeliness of her impulses against reductionism and toward a unifying understanding of human life as that which is intricately and intimately woven within and among all life on the planet.

I am refreshed by her unwillingness to separate humans or their institutions into types: “good” or “evil.” Rather, she saw evil as something that could easily take hold of individuals and their institutions when more virtuous impulses lapsed.  All that needs to happen for evil to flourish, as Midgeley saw it, was an absence of good. Where generosity falters, selfishness will fester. Where courage wavers, cowardice takes over. Where kindness stumbles, brutishness will reign. 

A supporter of the Gaia principle, Midgley recognized that inherent fallacy of attempting to separate the parts of our whole: land from creature, earth from its waters and air, human from nonhuman, nature from us. 

Disturbed by the trend of those who saw science as a solution to all problems, she warned against such foolhardy blanket optimism, and urged scientists not to neglect humanities.  Although she wasn’t religious, she saw no special evil in it, and noticed how the evils associated with religious institutions were akin to those that tend to emerge in any successful human institution.  She warned that doing away with it altogether seemed like a flip and rash response, and not necessarily beneficial. 

Regarding philosophy, she likened it to plumbing in that: Nobody notices it until it goes wrong. 

The greats, she said, noticed how badly things were going wrong, and offered suggestions about how to deal. 

Regarding the oppressive regime of optimism, she observed:

 “. . . Neither ecological nor social engineering will lead us to a conflict-free, simple path . . . utilitarians and others who simply advise us to be happy are unhelpful, because we almost always have to make a choice either between different kinds of happiness–different things to be happy about –or between these and other things we want, which nothing to do with happiness.” (from Midgley’s Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature2002).

Such a thoughtful, loving, and measured approach is most welcome now, in the age where the urge to grieve tends to run head-on into the urge to “Be Positive.” Hope can emerge from grief in ways that superficial “positivity” cannot do. The latter is too brittle to be of any use to the living, but the former is strengthened by recognition of the darkness of the moment, such that it may become the bright light in the dark room, a beacon to others, recognizing the darkness to be what writer Rebecca Solnit has called “a darkness as much of the womb as of the grave” (from Solnit’s Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities).

Here’s to you, Mary Midgley. Here’s to You.

Author: Stacey C. Johnson

I am here to wonder out loud. The point is not to get a clear answer, a complete picture, but to remember how incomplete the picture is, to embrace the process once again, of discovery, of questions, to notice the stirrings of wonder. To leave crumbs behind, for the next traveler.

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