I’ve never read A Room with a View, and think that perhaps I should. I enjoy the film rather a lot, and saw it for the first time when I was quite young: an adolescent excited by the prospect of seeing Helena Bonham-Carter having a sexual awakening. But an actor whose face I associate with that film at least as much as hers is Denholm Elliott, who plays the father of the boy she falls for.
The father and the boy are described as freethinkers, and E. M. Forster, who wrote the novel, was a humanist. There’s a line in the film that I like very much, and which I always hear in the voice of Denholm Elliott. When I googled it to check the wording, I at first got this:
At the side of the everlasting why, is a yes, and a yes, and a yes.
Which, I think, is the form it takes in the film. A Google book search, however, led me to a fuller, more qualified, version in the original novel, and I like the tone of this a little better:
Then make my boy think like us. Make him realise that by the side of the everlasting Why there is a Yes—a transitory Yes, if you like, but a Yes.
I think that this statement is a very relevant to humanism.
Now, a sense of wonder is as important to most religious people as it is to the non-religious. So the everlasting Why is something all thinking human beings grapple with, at least a little. But its everlastingness is perhaps especially important to humanists, who—it seems fair to say—value doubt rather more highly than most religious people appear to. There is no promise to the humanist of an eternal truth at the end of the rainbow, and we are suspicious of certainties. Almost all humanists, I think, believe that there is something true about the universe that it is possible to know; but no humanist, I suspect, thinks we can ever know all there is to know, or that there is some great being somewhere who does. So perhaps the Why is more clearly everlasting to most humanists than it is to most religious people. The biggest Why—‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’—is one that many religious people think they have the answer to; and their answer is ‘God’. Humanists do not agree. But, to be fair, not all religious people do either, even the monotheists. God, obviously, has to be part of the something, and is thus part of the explanandum, not the explanation. In fact, since anything that could be invoked to explain the existence of something rather than nothing has to be part of the something, the question remains in principle unanswerable, and the Why is doomed to remain everlasting. And many religious people are aware of this, while some humanists, it’s fair to say, are not.
But then there’s the affirmation: the Yes. On the surface this sounds a bit glib; my fiancée was unimpressed by the quote when I first mentioned it to here: ‘What does that actually mean?’ she asked. Good question. In fact, this is exactly the question we should all ask when we feel inspired by a quotation: why are we inspired by it? Is there something true in it, or does it just sound good? As I understand it, the meaning of this quotation is that in the face of everlasting uncertainty there are still things to be affirmed. Humanists are not nihilists; despite our armour of doubt, there are things we believe in. Some people (in fact, rather a lot of people) misunderstand the term humanism to imply a kind of human supremacism, a notion that we are the greatest of all species. This is not at all what humanism is. The point rather is that humanism is a philosophy for humans, based on human values. Humanists tend to have a faith in humanity; not in the sense that monotheists have a faith in God, but in the sense that you might have faith in your daughter to pass her exams, or a faith in your own ability to survive life’s misfortunes. While acknowleding that we shall never live up quite to our ideals, humanists have faith that human beings are able to live good and moral lives and do good—and that the power to do this comes from within; we don’t need any supernatural beings to help us achieve it. The Yes, it seems to me, affirms furthermore that human beings are capable of knowing things; that the universe may be mysterious, and that some things will always remain mysteries, but that through reason and evidence we can chip away at our ignorance and understand things.
And I’m sure there are many many religious people who would also claim there to be a Yes by the side of the Why; and many of them would call that God. This is why I like the version of the quote to be found in the original novel. The Yes is transitory. And that is more a humanist notion than a religious one: the recognition that death is death. While the universe just sits there, resisting explanation, the small answers we give to the big questions only last as long as we do. And one day we’ll all be gone.
But (and the quote ends by reaffirming the Yes) that doesn’t really matter.