"Why should I occupy my time with other matters, while I still don’t understand whether I am a monster more complicated and more furious than Typhon, or a gentler and simpler creature to whom a divine and quiet lot is given by nature?”
This statement of Socrates contains the essence of humanism. What it asks is merely this: Can I afford to spend all my time – or even much of it – studying the rocks and the trees while I still don’t know what my nature is and therefore cannot be sure what use I would make of these studies? This is the locus classicus of the principle that we do not find the secret of man’s life in the study of things.
Modern man has obviously taken the alternative that Socrates rejected. He has made the most prodigious researches into nature and has come up with terrifying discoveries. To use an illustration which comes very close to home, he has unlocked the secret of atomic energy without wanting to make certain whether he is a creature crueler and more furious than the monster Typhon. The first use made of this great discovery was to drop it on the heads of other men. (The parallel is so close that I cannot refrain from mentioning the Typhon of the legend was chiefly notorious for having slain his brother).
What this illustrates is that after all the labors of the social scientists, we now know less about human nature than did the men of Socrates’ day or the men of the Middle Ages. They recognized that man needs to be protected against himself; and they were interested in setting up internal safeguards. We seem to think that only external safeguards, in the form of bastions and air fleets directed against other men, are needful. The Greeks and the men of the Middle Ages made their failures; but they seem not so egregious as the failures we have made and the failures we may be facing, because our theory of the human being has simply ceased to be honest.
Richard Weaver – Humanism in an age of Science