Neglected Questions, Part I: What Is a Human Being?

“Fires Will Be Kindled” A Series of Essays on Neglected Questions

Fires will be kindled to testify that two and two make four. Swords will be drawn to prove that leaves are green in summer. We shall be left defending, not only the incredible virtues and sanities of human life, but something more incredible still, this huge impossible universe which stares us in the face. We shall fight for visible prodigies as if they were invisible. We shall look upon the impossible grass and the skies with a strange courage. We shall be of those who have seen and yet have believed.

G.K. Chesterton, Heretics

Essay I

What is a human being? 

What does it mean, if anything, to be human? To be humane? To dignify and foster humanity? 

These are neglected questions in our day, though they may not seem to be so. We are discouraged from raising them anymore because they bring us too close to the concept of ontology—defined by Merriam-Webster as “the branch of metaphysics that deals with the nature and relations of being.” In modernity there is a “general reluctance to admit anything as definitely true” (D. C. Schindler, Love and the Postmodern Predicament) and we feel squeamish about the idea of upsetting others by debating ultimate ideas (the kinds of ideas that require us to land somewhere definite). If we begin asking “What is a human being?” who knows where we might end up and what collateral damage we might cause along the way? 

But it is the job of the poet (and artist, generally) to attend to the conspicuous silences of her time — to push past censors (internal and external) and probe what is missing, what needs to be asked. In my own writing, I am challenging myself to do this more intentionally as I get older. (I’m also reading “old books” by authors who were not afraid to delve into these questions and who may hold helpful insights.) Because let’s be honest: are we actually “free” if we aren’t allowed to ask questions that push beyond the immanent frame?

So, to attempt a beginning: what is a human being? Here is one launching point: humans are classified as animals, and are like other animals to some degree. But examining the degree to which we are different from other animals might lead us to the wonder and hilarity G. K. Chesterton felt when he wrote:

“If you leave off looking at books about beasts and men, if you begin to look at beasts and men and then (if you have any humour or imagination, any sense of the frantic or the farcical) you will observe that the startling thing is not how like man is to the brutes, but how unlike he is. It is the monstrous scale of his divergence that requires an explanation. That man and brute are like is, in a sense, a truism; but that being so like they should then be so insanely unlike, that is the shock and the enigma. That an ape has hands is far less interesting to the philosopher than the fact that having hands he does next to nothing with them; does not play knuckle-bones or the violin; does not carve marble or carve mutton. People talk of barbaric architecture and debased art. But elephants do not build colossal temples of ivory even in a rococo style; camels do not paint even bad pictures, though equipped with the material of many camel’s-hair brushes.”  (from The Everlasting Man

Wendell Berry, in his book of essays, Standing by Words, agrees with Chesterton that we are not “beasts.” But he also argues that neither are we “gods.” And there’s the rub. Most of what we’ve been taught in the West for the last few hundred years is that we are either beasts (scientific materialism) or gods (transcendentalism / Romanticism / transhumanism; also consider Nietzsche’s “superman”): Those in the latter groups assert that our autonomous wills are ultimate—we will be whatever we desire, science or religion be damned.

Elephants do not build colossal temples of ivory even in a rococo style; camels do not paint even bad pictures.

G. K. Chesterton

At the risk of vastly oversimplifying (and playing “armchair philosopher”), the former general philosophy was birthed in the Enlightenment, and the latter evolved as a response to what some saw as the former’s reductionist view of humankind. It seems that in the West, we are moving from scientific materialism to a worldview in which the autonomous will is the primary shaper of the self, and, therefore, of society. This creates an awkward tension—a dichotomy—between nature and individual freedom, a focus on either of which tends to obscure or ignore other aspects that make up our complete experience of humanness.

We are regularly told that the fact that our bodies look the way they do and have the qualities and limitations that they do actually does not mean anything metaphysical or ultimate about who we are as humans. Our bodies hold no clues, we’re told, because we have no telos (purpose, goal, final end, raison d’etre) as human beings.

Our conception of the self—the core of who we “really are”—is “ultimately caught up in a (usually) secret war with everything in the world outside the self (the body, the earth, the social and political order, friends, family, spouse, God, and indeed even with itself)” (Schindler again). We are told in a thousand ways every day that our bodies have nothing to do with who we really are—that our real selves are somehow trapped inside our bodies and have nothing ontologically to do with them.

In one sense, this is an old idea—going back to early Gnosticism. But the extent to which we are now attempting to “disembody” ourselves—to remove the body from our definition of personhood—seems to be quite new in human history (e.g., notice how quickly transhumanist ideas are moving inward from the fringes).

For millennia past, we looked at our bodies and we reflected on our interactions in and with the world around us and noticed our own thoughts and feelings, and we made fairly rational observations about what a human being is

What were those observations? Well, an inexhaustive list would include some of these: 

There seem to be two kinds of us: males and females. Put together, we reproduce more of our kinds.

Generally, life goes better for us when we gather in communities.

But being in communities can also be hard.

We yearn to be loved.

We can’t seem to stop imagining, inventing, creating, storytelling.

The sight of something beautiful and grand arrests our attention and ignites an unspecified longing inside of us.

We can’t seem to stop ourselves from hurting others, at least occasionally, by what we do or don’t do, or say or don’t say. 

We feel guilt and shame. We try to hide or suppress those feelings.

Sometimes our impulses are damaging to ourselves and/or to others.

Sometimes our impulses are so deeply beautiful we don’t know where they came from.

We deem a sacrificial act to be the highest expression of love.

It’s hard to exist without a sense of purpose.

We always find something to worship.

We seem to have an insatiable instinct to know things (not just to know information, but to know the entirety of something, to know deeply, to be intimately knowledgeable about and connected to the world in its reality).

These are all things that we humans intuit about ourselves from the time we are small children—Marilynne Robinson calls this the givenness of things. And we experience this givenness as core truths that saturate and undergird our daily lives and thoughts, mostly in an unexamined way.

But in modernity/postmodernity we’re taught to disavow and not to trust the conclusions we instinctively come to as a result of our observations of being human. We’re taught that they are not real, that they don’t mean anything, that they don’t point to anything real that we can know about ourselves as humans—either because they can’t be empirically studied, or because we’d rather be free of anything that might limit our desires. Most people live as if they believe their lives have meaning and purpose, but if pressed, they either deny or can’t articulate a real basis for that belief. As Richard Wilbur put it in his poem “Epistemology,” “We milk the cow of the world and as we do / We whisper in her ear ‘You are not true.’”

I’ve written before about Robinson’s statement that “humans live wildly in excess of any sort of survival model that could be posited for them.” The things that we instinctively know are fundamental to our humanity—our humanness—are generally intangibles (see above list). But where do these attributes fit in modernity’s awkward tension between nature (the purely physical, material world dealing with mechanistic processes and cause and effect) and freedom (which we truncate as complete individual autonomy to define one’s own reality)? (Another neglected question which I’ll be writing about soon is “What is freedom?”)

Jim Paul, on the English L’Abri podcast, discusses how early on following the Enlightenment, the nature side of modernity’s worldview led the day (causing the Romantics and humanists to push back against a purely material, mechanistic reduction of humanity). Nowadays, modernity’s pendulum has swung quite far in the direction of freedom of the will, in some cases going so far as to obliterate nature altogether. Paul says that the supreme relevance today is the freedom of the individual to self-define based on feelings. 

He then asks, “Does this matter? Can we abolish nature…without consequence, without losing something of what it means to be human?” We might also ask: What does this elevation of individual autonomy mean for our shared life together? For our understanding of science as a basis for reality? 

These are ultimate questions, our answers to which have real, lived consequences. They determine how we live and function as individuals and societies.

In our current environment, we’ve learned to self-censor and steer clear of such questions, at least in the public sphere. We pretend that our policy decisions are not based on core beliefs founded upon our answers to these kinds of questions. (See here for implications on American public bioethics.) But there is no such thing as a metaphysically or morally neutral law or social ethic. Most of us operate from “unexamined dogmas.” 

In truth there are only two kinds of people, those who accept dogmas and know it, and those who accept dogmas and don’t know it.

G. K. Chesterton

Questions like what is a human being? rest upon dogma—fundamental assumptions we hold—whether we are aware of that dogma or not. I argue that these types of questions—and their answers—matter tremendously to our lives, and particularly to our shared life. And I believe that these are the questions that ought to animate artists, writers, and poets—we who operate in a kind of prophetic relationship to society. 

We can start with acknowledging the givenness of things, those things we hold deep inside as ultimate, that immense gap between us and “beasts,” and that possibly irksome gap between us and “gods.” And if our answers lead us to the conclusion that we are placed in the “chain of being” (as Berry calls it) between beasts and gods, is that such a bad thing? Might we learn to be at home in ourselves again, find satisfaction and even joy within our human limitations, learn to live at a scale that is harmonious with this fragile earth, with each other, and, finally, with ourselves? 

Poet and writer Robert Cording says that he always asks his writing students, “What is your vision of the world? Does that come through in your writing?” We need the courage to ask ourselves, What is my vision of the world? Our vision of the world necessarily includes the fundamental question we’ve been discussing here—just what is a human being?

Can we talk about these things, or must we remain silent on all ultimate matters?

What do you think?

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