Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters – Introduction

The ideas set out in McLuhan’s March 1954 lecture, Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters, are like an archipelago composed of the peaks of a mountain range which is otherwise submerged. In order to understand the relationships of these island ideas to each other, indeed even to understand them individually, the submerged parts of the landmass must be investigated. This is what will be attempted in a series of commentaries on the lecture beginning here.

The potential importance of McLuhan’s lecture for us today, 60 years after the event, can hardly be overstated. By “modern letters” McLuhan designated what would become, decades later, mostly after McLuhan had died, post-humanism, postmodernism, post-structuralism (etc etc).1

His peculiar claim was that “modern letters”, when thought deeply, that is, “though the vanishing point”, lead back to the tradition and to “Catholic humanism”.  Critical to this claim was an investigation of the sort of time, or times, implied by the modern (cf, Latin ‘modo’, ‘just now’, hence à la mode).

Today, everything — politics, commerce, culture — exists in a state of soft nihilism.2 What we do and think has no ground; but this is not pursued because — it has no ground.  The controlling idea is that we must remain on the surface3 even if this implies endless war, the annihilation of all cultures, including (especially) our own, and the destruction of the planetary environment. So fearful are we of taking thought that might lead below. As Edgar observes for blind Gloucester in King Lear (and as McLuhan cites in introducing The Gutenberg Galaxy as discussed here):

I’ll look no more;
Lest my brain turn, and the deficient sight
Topple down headlong.4

The potential for manipulation in this situation is unlimited.  That things cannot be thought through to their ground entails that we live in what McLuhan styled (in a 1953 article of this name) “the age of advertising”. Everything takes place though prompting. But how prompting works, and who works it, and why, cannot be investigated because this would lead beyond appearances — and beyond appearances, nothing is there.

Soft nihilism exists, like cancer, on a residue of life that it has not yet consumed. When it has fully supped, it, too, will die. The simple goal of soft nihilism (but behind its back, since it is essential to it not to know itself) is to be the last one out the door. 

The remarkable significance of McLuhan’s enterprise is that he attempted to think against this logic of death. But the “age of advertising” is such that his work is even now being consumed in the maw of modernity in the guise of “extending McLuhan”.

A commentary on Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters can have no other goal than the attempt to re-institute its radicality. For this it is necessary to probe beneath the surface of the waters surrounding its multiple island ideas to their inter-communicating5 substructure below.



  1. The linearity of much of the thinking at stake here is evident in the ubiquity of ‘post’…
  2. “Soft nihilism” is a condition in which there is no truth, only bullshit. But since this would be alarming or otherwise inconvenient, this is not admitted nor, of course, investigated. Instead, like everything else, it is put to use. Customized ‘truth’ is produced for every occasion like a Hallmark card. ‘Truth’ becomes what is “trending”. The deep tie between soft nihilism and “the age of advertising” lies in the role of advertising (aka “news”) in supplying (via “prompting”) the truths which are needed for political and economic manipulation aka “progress”.
  3. As Nietzsche showed, and as discussed here, the notion that surface can be thought aside from ground is senseless. “With the true world we also have abolished the apparent one!!
  4. King Lear 4,6 — Edgar will “look no more” and Gloucester cannot look.
  5. “Intercommunication” was the central topic in the work of Henry Wilkes Wright, one of McLuhan’s most influential teachers at the University of Manitoba.

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