Last night was the Honors Spring Recognition Event and Awards Ceremony. One thing that surprised me was not only that I won the “Outstanding Teaching in the Honors Program” award, but that Jeff Lees and Nancy Varin, two of the most creatively thoughtful and hard working students I know, gave me such a kind introduction. I know that sounds like blog bragging (“I won an award, nanana…”), but I mention it because it means a lot to me to have the respect of students whom I greatly respect (and expect to do great things).
The point of this post is not that. Rather, Professor Matthew Freytag gave an interesting talk about the “western canon of philosophy.” In his introduction he noted how, for the first time in history, the living outnumber the dead. More humans are alive on planet earth now than have lived and died throughout the millennia.
Think about what that means in a very broad context. Assuming that we do not decline in population due to some catastrophe in the coming centuries, we are literally “early humans.” The number of people before us are few, the number who will come after us is massive. Looked at in that light, and seeing the starvation, illness, war, and difficulties on this planet, we can at least take solace in the fact that we’re just starting to cope with these problems. We live in the dark, dirty, and violent pre-history of humankind.
Not only that, but what it means to be human is becoming a universal rather than a local issue. In the past being human was literally defined by the culture and traditions of a society. The western notion of “individualism” — that an individual can somehow decide as one person what values to hold and live by — was literally non-sense throughout much of recorded history. Your values were passed on to by your culture, you had meaning only as part of a community or clan.
Thus being human meant something different to people across the globe. Sure, we can say there have always been biological entities called humans, but that in and of itself says little. Humans without contact with others do not survive. Humans only learn from what they experience, and most of that is in a clear cultural context. Think about political blogosheres on the left and the right. They quite literally exist in different worlds. They share the same physical world, but the meaning of life, politics and even being human is defined in starkly different terms.
So the question now becomes: is there a universal ideal of what it means to be human which transcends culture and tradition? If so, how will we know we have it when we have it?
I suspect the answer to question one is no, but with a caveat. Rather than there being a universal ideal of what it means to be human, I would argue there are universal ideals. We can’t get to these through abstract philosophy or theory, however, since philosophy inherently places vast limits on human thought and reason. The world is a lot more culturallymcomplex than any philosophical system can take into account. So I’d answer the second question by saying we approach one of the possible ideal understandings of being human when the consequences of the actions taken by people within that framework yield a society where people are free, at peace, and do not live off the exploitation of others.
And, to be sure, many political theories are meant to achieve that. Two extreme theories, each resting fundamentally flawed premises, are those of communism and radical libertarianism. The former sees the individual as unimportant with a focus on the community, the latter sees the community as meaningless, focusing on the individual. Perhaps one of the greatest errors made by political thinkers is to see this dichotomy as an “either-or,” or, more fundamentally, to see “individual” and “community” as distinct and different concepts.
I would argue you can’t have a meaningful individual identity outside a community, and a community cannot exist without meaningful individual choices. To the first proposition, one might point to someone who leaves a community and goes to live in the wild, becoming a hermit. Surely the hermit has a meaningful identity, even if he lives alone. But the hermit has already had an identity before leaving. His or her ability to stay alive, make sense of the world, use a language, and hold core values come from the community left behind.
Sticking with our hermit, one could imagine individual contemplation in the wilderness leading to new ideas and a new sense of meaning. This would be different than the community he or she left behind, but those community ideals would still have been the starting point, without which the new contemplation could not have been made. Now, imagine this hermit entering a new society, with very different ideas and cultural beliefs. She or he could join this new community. That would require adopting the new society’s core norms and values, but the hermit would always be somewhat different than the rest because of his or her other life experiences.
Being human may entail, beyond the basic biological functions, participating in that social enterprise of constructing meaning. We are perhaps by nature builders of societies, inherently part of that which we are constructing. That includes music, art, business, sport, and all aspects of life shared between humans. We even construct the boundaries defining the line between individual and society. The problem with communism and radical libertarianism is that those boundaries overly privilege one part of human existence at the expense of another.
If this is the case, we are entering a new phase of human existence, when local cultures now interact and often conflict, and when there are enormous possibilities of what we might construct. There is something comforting in that. Yes, the problems and ugliness of this world is immense, but humanity is still in its early days. What is now seen as high tech modern dynamism will someday be viewed as the primitive, barbaric human pre-history. By living each day, we’re contributing to whatever product emerges, even as we construct meaning for our own lives now. And if that’s what being human is all about, that’s good enough for me.