Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Human Animal

The novels I've been reading lately - William Golding's Lord of the Flies, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and now Ayn Rand's massive Atlas Shrugged - and even the television I have been watching lately, such as the new season of Dexter, all force a confrontation, messy and painful as it usually is, with a the ugly and true nature of humanity; and they all ask this questions, What does it mean to be human? How are we authentically human? Does morality, either innate within us or imposed from without us by society or tradition or religion, make us more or less human?

Several hundred years ago, the answers to these questions would be nearly laughably obvious. Man is an animal, depraved from all goodness; he can, however, aspire to greater thing and, through moral and religious training, become more human and more heavenly; as the prophetic Milton wrote, humanity could be be "by gradual scale sublimed, / To vital spirits aspire... improved by tract of time, and winged ascend / Ethereal" (Paradise Lost, V.483-4... 498-9). Man was the missing link - not some hypothetical stage in an overblown cosmological conceit, but the very real connection of earth and heaven, a combination of matter and spirit that could either ascend the Great Chain into the presence of God or wallow in the dirt, mired forever in animal impulses. Man lived in two worlds and it was up to him to decide which one he preferred.

Today, of course, we are disillusioned with such notions; we reject the possibility of an objective standard of morality, that is to say, of righteousness, and we insist, through our myths, our science and our theories, that man is only an animal, the purposeless product of chance and aimless design. But this insistence brings us no comfort. Since Darwin, humanity has struggled to come to terms with our own unflattering ideas about ourselves and this struggle, this conflict of myth and ideology, is reflected in our literature and our entertainment. We do not know who we are. We do not know how to live with each other. Society collapses in the face of nature. We kill the pig and exterminate all the brutes and become savages - not the politically incorrect savages of Western imperialism, but the savage human beings feared by Milton and other Renaissance thinkers - the base, material animals of wasted and fallen humanity. We've broken the link, severed Man from his higher nature and forfeited heaven, the proper inheritance of Man.

I know that a return to a Christian mythos is an impossible proposition and one that is ugly to many people, at least in today's political and ideological milieu. But we as a society have replaced the elevating Christian ideals with an ideological of self-deprecation, an ideology that makes us loathe ourselves and which promotes savagery instead of inspiring greater humanity. An ideology that does not give us an identity but forces us to constantly ask, Who am I and what does it mean to be human? Until we stop telling ourselves that we are merely advanced animals, until we regain a greater sense of what it means to be moral and free-choosing creatures, until we see that we are more than an collection of material instincts, and until we turn our eyes away from the dirt and up once again to the heavens, we will not build a better world, we will not see the end of war, we will not even live in happy families, we will not even be satisfied with who or what we are. We are greater than we think we are. We just need to learn how to be so again.

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