What Does It Mean To Be Human Today?

It is all too common, when a person makes a mistake, to excuse him by saying, “Well, he is only human”. “Only human” implies a nature that is fundamentally irredeemable. It disregards man’s true nature that is reflected in the “humanities” which celebrates the high-points in human actions and achievements. Philosopher Gabriel Marcel, after hearing a Johann Sebastian Bach concert, tells us that he experienced a revival of a certainty that seems to be lost in the modern world: “the honor of being a human”. To be truly human is to exemplify the best of man’s nature. We need these experiences so that we do not despair and begin to think that a human being is a degenerate animal who is at home in sin.

A journalist for the Toronto Star offers us a clear example of the view that the human being is essentially degenerate. In an article entitled, “It’s the sinning that makes us human,” he maintains that “Sin is us”. “Indeed,” as he contends, “it helps to define us and make us human”. It is true, we may concede, that, from an historical point of view, man has a spotty track record. But that is because he keeps falling short of his real self. Gerard Manley Hopkins fully acknowledges the weaknesses of the human being, but also acknowledges his glory of his essence. He concludes his poem, “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire,” by completing the paradox: “This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, |patch, matchwood, immortal diamond. Is immortal diamond.”

We are, all of us, “immortal diamonds” made in the image and likeness of God. If we could only realize that and live accordingly. The Seven Deadly Sins do not define us; they warn us about the ways in which we can descend into our lower selves.

Our Canadian journalist goes through the Seven Deadly Sins in a rather desperate attempt to convince his readers that they characterize our humanity. “Virtue, on the other hand,” he warns, “is what keeps us from being human”. Vice is nice; but virtue can hurt you. What is pride, our journalist informs us, but “self-respect”? We can be proud of our achievements, our possessions, and anything that enhances our self-image.  Friedrich Nietzsche is the great apostle of pride. The “Will to Power” is his personal motto. Envy is “motivation”. Certainly Karl Marx agreed with this, since it galvanized the proletariat to start a revolution. Anger is “righteous indignation”.  Even Christ showed anger at the money merchants. Who would not be moved to anger when he is a victim of injustice? Lust is simply biology. Here, our writer would find support in the thinking of Sigmund Freud and many others who find lust to be a moral imperative. It is, as Malcolm Muggeridge has stated, the “mysticism of materialism” for the modern world. Sloth is “nature’s way of telling us to slow down”. Medical science warns us about the Type A personality that is hyperactive and self-destructive. We are well advised to take it easy. Gluttony and greed are omitted from our journalist’s analysis, but it is easy, given his slant on the Deadly Sins, how they could be misdiagnosed as virtues. Gluttony, presumably, is simply natural.  Bar owners throughout the world could attest to this. As for greed, we can hand the baton over to Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglas in the notion picture Wall Street: “Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed in all of its forms—greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge—has marked the upward surge of mankind . . .”        

Language can be slippery. If we want to distinguish virtue from vice, we must be sensitive to the various shades of meaning that a particular word can assume. We can take justifiable pride in something related to us that is good. We can be proud of our family, our friends, and country, and our Church. Pride is a vice when the self seeks inordinate praise. Vainglory, boasting, inordinate ambition, and hypocrisy are obviously not virtues. They epitomize pride as a deadly sin.

Envy is sorrow over another’s good fortune. It is essentially anti-social and self-deprecating. We should take joy in another’s good fortune, especially when that fortune is justified. Anger is a vice when it is excessive. As such, it can lead to various forms of vengeance, including murder. Lust looks at the person, not as a person, but as a sex object. Lust is certainly not love, which seeks the good of the person.

Sloth is not laziness, as it is commonly thought.  It is the reluctance or the refusal to take delight in spiritual things. The slothful person disdains prayer, religious practices, good music, reading, and study. Gluttony represents an inordinate desire for the pleasures the table. It is a vice that can lead to addiction and, therefore, can be self-destructive.

Finally, greed, often referred to as “avarice” is an inordinate desire for material things. It contains the element of selfishness and can be an impediment with regard to social justice.

Virtue is perfective of the person. Vice is ruinous. In order to recognize virtue as a true reality that is perfective of the person, we need to use our capacity for reason. Thus, Joseph Pieper in his book, Four Cardinal Virtues, can state, citing St. Thomas Aquinas, that “The intrinsic goodness of man—and that is the same as saying his true humanness—consists in this, that ‘reason perfected in the cognition of truth’ shall inwardly shape and imprint his volition and actions”. A life of virtue reveals the glory of man.

By

Dr. Donald DeMarco is Professor Emeritus, St. Jerome’s University and Adjunct Professor at Holy Apostles College. He is a regular columnist for St. Austin Review and is the author of thirty-nine books. His latest book, The 12 Supporting Pillars of the Culture of Life and Why They Are Crumbling is posted on amazon.com.  His fortieth book, Glimmers of Hope in a Darkening World, is in production. 

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