Ideas Have Consequences: Human Nature – “Humanity’s Identity Crisis”
I’m getting old … and soft … and grumpy!
I just got back from two weeks of “tenting it” and I’m hurtin’.
Thirty years ago, all I needed was a backpack, sleeping bag, fishing rod and off I’d go. A lean-to would keep me dry, ferns for a mattress would comfort my sleep and the sounds of birds in the early morning would bring me awake ready to test my skills against the local trout.
Now I need a large, screened tent/tarp combination that takes hours to put up, a heavy duty sleeping bag, queen size air mattress and a van to transport it all into the well-tended (and electricity equipped) camp site.
Five in the morning comes way too early, the crow that perched itself overhead and cawed enthusiastically is fortunate I didn’t bring a shotgun and there’s no way I can even think about fishing until I’ve had my mug of espresso … not the little cup … I’m talking the 16oz serving!
Yet in spite of all those creature comforts my body still aches. To add insult to injury the fish seemed to take great pleasure in avoiding my lures.
I feel like I’m 142!
Looking up at the gazillion stars in the clear night sky moves me more now than it did back then. Being bathed in the light of a full moon now lifts my spirit when before I only saw it as a means to save on flashlight batteries. Rowing gently across the mist covered, mirror smooth surface of a lake, listening to the call of the loons, my soul sings along with David:
“O Lord, our Lord, how glorious is your name over all the earth! You have exalted your majesty above the heavens. … When I behold your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you set in place- What is man that you should be mindful of him, or the son of man that you should care for him?
“You have made him little less than the angels, and crowned him with glory and honour. You have given him rule over the works of your hands, putting all things under his feet: All sheep and oxen, yes, and the beasts of the field, The birds of the air, the fishes of the sea, and whatever swims the paths of the seas.
“O Lord, our Lord, how glorious is your name over all the earth!” (Psalm 8.)
I feel like I’m age-less!
Humanity’s modern day “identity crisis”
We have looked at the self-evident reality that human beings are RATIONAL and VOLITIONAL. I would now like to take a look at another aspect of our human nature, namely, that we are SPIRITUAL and CORPOREAL. Since these two characteristics are so entwined in our nature I will treat them together rather than separately.
As philosophers gradually moved away from the classical understanding of reality as espoused by Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, a kind of identity crisis began to set in regarding our understanding of what human nature really consists of. The small errors in metaphysical principles gradually led to serious consequences in terms of our self understanding, consequences that we are struggling with today.
Two contradictory views of humanity arose in the 16th and 17th Centuries. The mathematician/philosopher, Rene Descartes (1596-1650), started the ball rolling when he conceived of human beings as being dualistic, that is, of having two created substances: mind and body. This idea created a problem: how does an immaterial mind affect a physical body? Descartes believed that the two came together in the pineal gland, a tiny gland near the brain. Other philosophers ridiculed this idea leading Leibniz (1646-1716) to suggest that mind and body don’t interact at all; they just seem to, while Nicolas Malebranche (1683-1715) suggested that God steps in to synchronize the body and the mind. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) put the final nail in this coffin by arguing that we cannot really know anything, even ourselves.
As you can see, one bad idea simply leads to more bad ideas. And it gets worse.
The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) went in the opposite direction. For him all reality is corporeal and it is controlled by rigid causal laws. The notion of soul or spirit, for him, was a contradiction in terms requiring an immaterial material. In short, for Hobbes everything was reducible to matter and motion.
David Hume (1711-1776) continued on this materialist path arguing that there is really no self in the human being, but rather we are a compilation of experiences, impressions, ideas and emotions which are all tied together by memory. It is this memory which leads us to believe in our identity through time.
Charles Darwin (1809-1882) contributed the notion of random evolution and natural selection while Karl Marx (1818-1883) and his partner Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) contributed the idea of the material dialectic, namely, that everything is in a state of becoming and so, history is the key to understanding reality, hence humanity has no nature but is in the state of change fueled by economic necessities and class struggle.
To this we can add the works of positivist philosophers who attempted to apply the scientific method to everything including ethics, religion and politics. These philosophers include Claude-Henri Saint-Simon (1760-1825), Auguste Comte (1789-1857), Hippolyte Taine (1828-1893), Emile Littre (1801-1881), the influential Vienna Circle of Logical Positivists, which was most active at the University of Vienna during the 1920’s and 30’s, while in England, A.J. Ayer (1910- ) and Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) were prominent is academic circles.
I mention this long list of philosophers, and especially the Positivists, because of the great influence they have had on how we not only understand TRUTH but, flowing from that, how we understand God and Man.
In his wonderful little book, “She Is Our Response: The Virgin Mary and the Church’s Encounter with Modernity in the Writings of Joseph Ratzinger”, Fr. Denis Lemieux writes the following:
“The theme of positivism and the influence of Comte on modernity is a pervasive one in Ratzinger’s writings. Positivism is the very locus of the self-limitation of reason, and positivistic theory is the very heart of modernity’s dehumanizing effects. Positive science understood as the absolute and exclusive mode of knowledge makes not only God but man himself and reality itself inaccessible to the mind. Since for Comte the human person in his moral conduct and essential nature become matters for the experimental sciences, man then become one more phenomenon to be measured and ultimately manipulated. With the triumph of the positivistic method, God simply disappears from the picture. Questions about him can neither be raised nor answered in positive scientific reasoning, and so Comte dispassionately presents his program for society in entirely reductionist, materialist terms.” [i]
For a society that claims to pride itself on encouraging “thinking outside the box”, it is truly mind-boggling how narrow minded so many ‘intellectuals’ have deliberately made themselves because of their fixation with scientism.
What’s the “matter” with my “form”?
The solution to our identity crisis is to regain our common sense and quit playing mind games with reality. As with much of what I have written, wisdom seems to rest with the ancients who pretty much called things as they saw them.
The fact that we are corporeal, that we have a material body, is a no-brainer. The real issue is whether we have a soul, and if so, what is it.
“Soul” is an English word. The equivalent is “psyche” or “pneuma” in Greek and “Anima” in Latin. If we ask a very simple question we can see where the idea of the soul comes from.
What is the difference between a man who, at one moment, is alive… and dead the next?
At its most basic the concept, the soul derives from the awareness that the difference between a corpse and a living body is “life” so the foundational definition of soul is “the principle of life.” In Western thought this means that everything that lives, lives because it has something that gives it life, that ‘animates’ it. When this material being ceases to be animate, ceases to live, we say that it is dead or “soul-less”. By this definition, all living things have a soul. The Greeks divided the type of soul into Vegetative, Animal and Rational, with Rational being the greatest in nature and degree. Plato wrote a great deal on the soul and argued about its immortal nature due to its rational capacity.
Aristotle, who based his philosophy on more inductive reasoning than Plato’s deductive reasoning, rooted his understanding of the soul on Metaphysics. All Being, all things that exist, do so because of certain metaphysical principles or realities. One of these principles is the Principle of Causality. For Aristotle, there are four causes intrinsic to every material Being: efficient cause, material cause, formal cause and final cause.
Efficient cause is the cause by which something comes to be: for humans, that would be our parents, and if you trace our lineage back, you have our First Parents, and from there the Ultimate Efficient Cause – God Himself.
Final Cause is the purpose for which each thing exists. For some things, the final cause is singular, for others it is many, but everything that exists, exists for a purpose.
This brings us to Material Cause and Formal Cause. Every physical being that lives has two elements to it: matter and life. For Aristotle (and later Aquinas), human beings are material beings whose principle of life (formal cause) is the soul. It is the formal cause that keeps the material cause together and animated. Remove the formal cause and the material cause falls apart into its simpler elements.
In their deliberations on the nature of the human soul, Plato and Aristotle concluded that since humans are capable of reason, unlike animals and plants, this capacity indicated an immortal capacity of the human soul. Sts. Augustine and Aquinas continued this line of thought in the context of humanity’s Final Cause, namely to Know and Love God. [ii]
Ideas Have Consequences
So… are we a body with a soul, or a soul with a body?
If we answer either way then we fall into Descartes’ dualism that sees our self as being the ghost in a machine or into the materialist trap that places more emphasis on the material than the spiritual.
St. Thomas (along with St. Augustine) argues that the question itself is erroneous. It isn’t “either/or” but BOTH. St. Thomas writes: “It is clear that man is not a soul only, but something composed of soul and body.” [iii]
For this reason, the Catholic Dogma of the resurrection of the body is so important. Who we are, our very humanity, is fundamentally and essentially a union of body and soul: we are an incarnate soul. We are both spiritual and corporeal in one integrated union. Blessed John Paul II wrote a great deal on this subject both in his development of the philosophy of personalism and in his Theology of the Body. Dr. Donald DeMarco writes:
“The ‘Theology of the Body’ is, indeed, faithful to the ‘total vision of Man’ that inspired it. It integrates and harmonizes the Yahwist and Priestly accounts in Genesis, the Old and New Testaments, subjective experience with objective reality, theology with philosophy, faith with reason, the masculine with the feminine, and anthropology with ethics. It makes plausible the paradox that dust and diamond, dirt and divinity, characterize the essence of the same being.” [iv]
Hence we can conclude the following:
We are persons, who in our individual instances, uniquely incorporate both the spiritual and corporeal elements of Reality. We combine the infinite with finite, the immortal with the mortal, in such a way that we exist in a particular place and at a particular time in history. We are beings that are both RATIONAL and VOLITIONAL existing in a union that is both SPIRITUAL and CORPOREAL.
It is how I can drag my sore body off the ground at 5 a.m. and willingly stuff myself into a cramped rowboat, all the while cursing the existence of mosquitoes, and at the same time transcend all that by marveling at the beauty of creation so that my soul sings O Lord, our Lord, how glorious is your name over all the earth!
But why are we this way?
That is our topic for next time.
[i] Fr. Denis Raymond Lemieux; “She Is Our Response: The Virgin Mary and the Church’s Encounter with Modernity in the Writings of Joseph Ratzinger”; Academy of the Immaculate, 2011, pgs 32-33. This is a wonderful little book (161 pages) and is Fr. Lemieux’s Licentiate Thesis. He and I are fellow alumnus from both St. Peter’s and St. Augustine’s seminaries. I had the pleasure of his company during the week my family was at Cana Colony in Combermere, ON where Fr. Lemieux, a priest with the Madonna House Lay Apostolate that runs Cana, was our chaplain. Unknown to us before this week we were both writing on the roughly the same topic and for the same reason, though his treatment of the subject is much more advanced and profound than mine.
[ii] If you’re inclined to read St. Thomas his Treatise on Man which starts in Part 1, Question 75 of his Summa Theologica.
[iii] St. Thomas Aquinas; “Summa Theologica”; Part 1, Q. 75. Art. 5.
[iv] Dr. Donald DeMarco; “The Integral Person in a Fractured World”; Catholics United for the Faith, Dallas, Texas; 2001; pgs 8-9
This article is a part of the ongoing series, Ideas Have Consequences – by Dennis Buonafede. Please help us in our mission to assist readers to integrate their Catholic faith, family and work. Share this article with your family and friends via email and social media. We value your comments and encourage you to leave your thoughts below. Thank you! – The Editors