What Shelley, Star Trek and Buffy The Vampire Slayer Have in Common: Humanism!!

I offer a very short post today on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of one of the few GREAT humanist television programmes.  Now, I will admit off the top, that I am a huge fan and always have been.  But until today, I am not sure I made the connection between Shelley and Star Trek.  But now I know what it is - both Shelley and Star Trek's creator, Gene Roddenberry were humanists to the core. 

There is nice article on the subject of Star Trek's humanistic vision by the CEO of the British Humanist Association, Andrew Copson which can be found here. The BHA is a terrific organization that among other things sponsors a programme of annual lectures that explores humanism and humanist thought as expressed through literature and culture. The 2016 Darwin Day lecture, for example, was given by the redoubtable Jerry Coyne. Coyne, an indefatigable advocate for evolution and atheism, is also a fan of Shelley, and made these comments about him in a recent article:

Shelley could be seen as the first “New Atheist,” since he argued that the idea of God should be seen one that requires supporting evidence. The frontispiece of my book Faith Versus Fact starts with a quote from the 1813 edition of the pamphlet:

“God is an hypothesis, and, as such, stands in need of proof: the onus probandi  [burden of proof] rests on the theist.”

One of the characteristics of “New Atheists”, as I see it, is their framing of religious “truths” as questions subject to empirical and rational examination (i.e., science construed broadly). Although Shelley wasn’t a scientist, I adopted him as an Honorary Scientist (and honorary New Atheist) for making the statement above.

Coyne has also spoken admiringly of and drawn attention to this blog, for which I am grateful. 

However, of more interest to readers here is the fact that the BHA annually includes the "Shelley Lecture" as part of the aforementioned series.  One of the speakers in this series was Rebecca Goldstein, recently awarded the 2014 National Humanities Medal by President Obama for her work to popularise philosophy.  Goldstein spoke in Oxford in 2015 on "The Ancient Quarrel: Philosophy and Literature"I must confess that Shelley booster that I am, I was completely unaware of this series.  I think this is a symptom of the fragmentation of the Shelley community - a problem this site is designed to play a small part in remedying. 

If you like Shelley, I strongly recommend following the Association on Twitter: @BHAhumanists and @andrewcopson

But back to Star Trek.  There is a surprisingly strong connection to Shelley here. Shelley was one of the world's great humanists. His values find a surprising resonance in the themes and plots of the early years of Star Trek. Copson:

Roddenberry has a hopeful vision of the future: one in which mankind has united around shared human values, joined in a common endeavour to reach the stars, and happily left religion behind on the way. It’s a counsellor, not a chaplain that the Enterprise crew turn to when in need of guidance. Starship crews explore a cosmos that is full of beauty and wonder and they respond with awe and appreciation. This wonder does not overawe them, because ultimately the universe, and its billions of stars and planets, is a natural thing which the curious can know and understand. All the phenomena encountered within it are investigated rationally and, though they may at first seem inexplicable, are understood in the end as susceptible to naturalistic explanations.

I think that Shelley would love to imagine the world of the future conceived by Gene Roddenberry and in particular the quote in the image below:

Shelley was after all, the man who, translating Lucretius, wrote, “I tell of great matters, and I shall go on to free men's minds from the crippling bonds of superstition.”  However, were Shelley "beamed" to the present by Scotty, I think he would be very surprised to learn that "belief in the supernatural" was not already a thing of the past.  He would be shocked to see the humanist agenda in retreat -- not in the face of benign, religious belief systems, but rather radical, intolerant, orthodox fundamentalism of all varieties.  I think he would be profoundly unsettled by the realization that 200 years after the publication of Frankenstein and Prometheus Unbound, a secular, humanistic society was still an imagined future that was the subject of science fiction. The "crippling bonds of superstition" bind us yet.

Which brings me to the great English social reformer, Henry Stephens Salt (1851-1939).  Salt was a great admirer of the real Percy Bysshe Shelley - the same Shelley that I am actively promoting through this website; the Shelley who, as I have written before, was first and foremost a skeptic, atheist, republican, revolutionary, philosophical anarchist, leveler, feminist and vegetarian.

As for Salt, here is what the the website devoted to him has to say,

Henry Stephens Salt was an English writer and social reformer whose work brought praise from the likes of Mahatma Gandhi. Whatever humanitarian cause Salt chose to write about he demonstrated great logic and wit to show the folly of those who opposed progress. His studies of Thoreau, Shelley and Jefferies remain highly respected even today, especially his Life of Henry David Thoreau. Salt's classic "Animals' Rights Considered in Relation to Social Progress" is still in print, whilst "A Plea for Vegetarianism" is highly sought-after. His circle of friends included Ernest Bell, George Bernard Shaw and Edward Carpenter.

I have written extensively about the bifurcation of Shelley's reputation in "My Father's Shelley: A Tale of Two Shelley's" and I consider Salt to be a vital, inspirational forerunner of my work. In the opening chapter (titled, "Rival Views of Shelley") of his wonderful, and sadly ignored, book "Percy Bysshe Shelley" (London: Watts & Co, 1913) , Salt writes that

"...there can be no mistake whatever about the attitude Shelley took up...in the whole body of his writing toward the established system of society, which, as he avowed in one of his later letters, he wished to see, "overthrown from the foundations with all of its superstructure, maxims and forms." His principles are utterly subversive of all that orthodoxy holds most sacred, whether in ethics or in religion..." (Salt, 4)

And later:

"...Shelley was the poet-pioneer of the great democratic movement; he anticipated in his own character and aspirations, many of the revolutionary ideas now in process of development....his outlook...was in the main, an exceptionally shrewd one, inasmuch as all the chief principles which were essential to his creed are found to have increased enormously in importance during the years that have passed since his death. (Salt, 5)

Salt was reacting to the orthodox, sentimental Victorian view of Shelley which imagined him as "mere singer and sentimentalist."  This is a view of Shelley which sounds distressingly familiar in the 21st Century. I have written about it here.  Salt sought to restore Shelley's reputation as a "revolutionist". Sadly Salt, and others like him (George Bernard Shaw, for example), were swimming against the current and were drowned out by anti-Shelley, character assassination conducted by TS Eliot and his co-conspirators. It was only in the 1960s that Salt's vision of Shelley began slowly to return to the mainstream; it has yet to dominate our modern appreciation of Shelley - hence the need for a website such as this.

However, today is about Star Trek, and I found a surprisingly apt quote in Salt's opening chapter.  He wrote:

"Shelley was the poet-prophet of the great humanitarian revival; and...he sang of the future rather than of the present, and of a distant future rather than a near one..." (Salt, 7)

Well, I guess that puts Shelley in the same boat as the late, great Gene Roddenberry -- and wouldn't I love to be in that boat with the two of them!

Oh, and as for Buffy?  I did not forget!! Is there a connection? Yes there is: humanism. And if you think I am crazy, well I am not alone!! See Liam Whitton's wonderful celebration of Shelley's fellow humanist Joss Whedon here.