On 16 April 1993, Mario Rodríguez Cobos, better known by his literary pseudonym SILO, gave a lecture at the Autonomous University of Madrid entitled “Current Vision of Humanism”.

Thirty-one years after this event, it is worth asking whether it would be useful to revisit this analysis, especially given the “topicality” of his presentation on humanism.

Let us then comment on some passages from that lecture and let the audience judge for themselves their usefulness.

On that occasion, Silo clarified the two meanings usually attributed to the word “humanism”, referring on the one hand to any trend of thought that affirms the value and dignity of the human being, and on the other hand to its more restricted meaning, situating it historically in that movement that began between the end of the 14th and the beginning of the 15th century and that, in the following century, under the name of “Renaissance”, dominated the intellectual life of Europe, challenging the dominant obscurantist vision.

This historical humanism, in correlation with the changing economic and social forces of the time, represented a revolution that became increasingly conscious and oriented towards challenging the established order.

The Reformation in the German and Anglo-Saxon world and the Counter-Reformation in the Latin world sought to contain the new ideas by authoritatively restating the traditional Christian vision – Silo pointed out – until empire and monarchy by divine right were overthrown by the revolutions of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

After the French Revolution and the American Independence, despite the continuity in the social background of ideals and aspirations that encouraged the subsequent economic, political, and scientific transformations, humanism regressed in the face of concepts and practices that were installed until the end of colonialism, the Second World War and the bifrontal orientation of the planet.

In this situation – the thinker pointed out – the debate on the meaning of man and nature, on the justification of economic and political structures, on the orientation of science and technology, and, in general, on the direction of historical events is reopened.

Humanism today defines man as a historical being with a mode of social action capable of transforming the world and his nature. This point is of crucial importance because, if it is accepted, it will not be possible to affirm coherently a natural right, a natural property, or natural institutions, or, finally, a type of future human being as it is today as if it were finished forever.

Silo goes on to say that “in this social world, the common intention to overcome pain is denied by the intention of other human beings”, naturalizing others by denying their intention and turning them into objects of use.

Thus,” says the founder of Universalist Humanism, “the tragedy of being subjected to natural physical conditions drives social work and science towards new insights that overcome these conditions; but the tragedy of being subjected to social conditions of inequality and injustice drives human beings to rebel against this situation.

In the founding document of the humanist movement, which Silo quotes, it says that only when the violent animal appropriation of some human beings by others is eliminated will we move from prehistory to true human history. In the meantime, no other central value can be taken as a starting point than that of the human being in its full realization and freedom. The proclamation: “Nothing above man and no man below another” sums it all up. If you place God, the State, money or any other entity as the central value, you subordinate man by creating conditions for his further control or sacrifice,” he says.

This is the dividing line between humanism and anti-humanism, he adds, quoting again from the Humanist Document. “Humanism puts before us the question of labor versus big capital; the question of real democracy versus formal democracy; the question of decentralization versus centralization; the question of anti-discrimination versus discrimination; the question of freedom versus oppression; the question of the meaning of life versus resignation, complicity, and absurdity”.

Humanists, says Silo, emphasize the convergent direction, and the convergent intention, and while acknowledging the antecedents of historical humanism, they are inspired by the contributions of different cultures, not only those that at this moment occupy center stage.

From their internationalism, humanists aspire to a universal human nation. They do not want a uniform world, but a multiple one: multiple in ethnicities, languages, and customs; multiple in localities, regions, and autonomies; multiple in ideas and aspirations; multiple in beliefs, atheism, and religiosity; multiple in work; multiple in creativity.

On the other hand, Silo pointed out in the same speech that “it does not take much argument to show that the world today has sufficient technological conditions to solve in a short time the problems of full employment, food, health, housing and education of vast regions. If this possibility is not realized, it is simply because the monstrous speculation of big capital is preventing it”.

“But in the face of this irrationality, it is not the voices of reason that rise dialectically, as might be expected, but the darkest racisms, fundamentalisms, and fanaticisms,” he stresses, anticipating events that are unfortunately taking place today in many parts of the world.

A little later in his talk, Silo would point out: “In the present situation of confusion, it is necessary to discuss the subject of spontaneous or naive humanism and to relate it to what we understand by conscious humanism. Humanist ideals and aspirations are alive in our societies with a vigor unknown a few years ago. The world is changing rapidly, and this change not only sweeps away old structures and references but also liquidates the old forms of struggle. In such a situation, spontaneity of all kinds emerges, which seems closer to catharsis and social outbursts than to directed processes. For this reason, when we consider progressive groups, associations and individuals to be humanist, even if they do not participate in this humanist movement, we are looking at the union of forces in the same direction and not at a new hegemonism that continues with uniform approaches and procedures”.

But just as there is a broad and diffuse social sector that we could well call the “humanist camp”, the sector that we could call the “anti-humanist camp” is no less extensive.

Describing the phenomena in advance with great precision, Silo adds: “As the forces mobilized by big business gradually suffocate the people, incoherent positions emerge which begin to strengthen themselves by exploiting this malaise and channeling it towards false culprits. At the root of these neo-fascisms is a profound denial of human values. In certain deviant environmentalist movements, too, the focus is on nature rather than man. They no longer preach that the ecological disaster is a disaster precisely because it endangers humanity, but because humanity has attacked nature. According to some of these currents, man is polluted and therefore pollutes nature. And again: “It is only a small step from there to discrimination against polluting cultures, against foreigners who pollute and contaminate. These currents also belong to anti-humanism because they fundamentally despise man. Their mentors despise them, reflecting their fashionable nihilistic and suicidal tendencies.

On the other hand, as Silo points out, “a significant number of perceptive people also adhere to environmentalism because they understand the seriousness of the problem it denounces. But if this environmentalism takes on the humanist character that it should, it will direct the struggle against the promoters of the disaster, namely big capital and the chain of destructive industries and companies, close relatives of the military-industrial complex. Before looking at seals, it will look at hunger, overpopulation, stillbirths, disease, health, and housing shortages in many parts of the world. And it will highlight unemployment, exploitation, racism, discrimination, and intolerance in the technologically advanced world. A world which, on the other hand, is creating ecological imbalances for the sake of its irrational growth”.

There is no need to dwell too much on the consideration of the right-wing as a political instrument of anti-humanism, as Silo illustrates. “Their bad faith reaches such high levels that they regularly advertise themselves as representatives of “humanism”. The bad faith and the appropriation of words are so enormous that the representatives of anti-humanism have tried to cover themselves with the name of “humanists”. It would be impossible to list the resources, instruments, forms, and expressions at the disposal of anti-humanism. In any case, the clarification of its more insidious tendencies will help many spontaneous or naive humanists to revise their conceptions and the meaning of their social practice”.

At the end of this presentation in Madrid, Silo said: “I would like to share with you my concern. I do not believe that we are heading towards a dehumanized world, as some science fiction writers, some salvationist movements or some pessimistic tendencies would have us believe. I do believe, however, that we are at a point in human history where we have to choose between two paths that lead to opposite worlds. We have to choose the conditions in which we want to live, and I believe that at this dangerous moment, humanity is preparing to make its choice. Humanism has an important role to play in favor of the better of the two options,” he concluded.