What is man? What a simple question. Yet, no fully satisfactory answer has ever definitively been reached. At least by man.
Over my previous three posts at The Imaginative Conservative, I have tried (whether successfully or not, is a different question) to take the idea of “conservative” back to its most fundamental principles: essentially looking at the various aspects of the human person. That is, I think the only thing truly worth conserving—as a self-professed conservative—is the dignity of the human person, a religious humanism.
One longtime reader and ally of The Imaginative Conservaitve commented via Twitter that this all seemed rather abstract. I suppose it does.
Regardless, as the current and previous pontiff have argued, the horrors of the twentieth century have forced us to go back to first principles and to define man properly. Each has drawn upon the documents of Vatican II: “For though the same God is Savior and Creator, Lord of human history as well as of salvation history, in the divine arrangement itself, the rightful autonomy of the creature, and particularly of man is not withdrawn, but is rather re-established in its own dignity and strengthened in it.”
John Paul II and Benedict XVI were certainly not alone in this. Other twentieth-century humanists—such Paul Elmer More, Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, Henri de Lubac, Romano Guardini, Gabriel Marcel, Christopher Dawson, Frank Sheed, and too many others to denote here—helped create this tradition, leading up to Vatican II. Each saw the definition of the human person as central to a reclamation of his dignity and his true liberty.
In essence, the religious humanist believes that
- Man can only be understood in the context of Justice, knowing his own place in the order of existence. While he is lower than the angels, he is higher than the animals. He remains the only creature in the Divine Economy to possess both the spirit of the supernatural and the body of the natural.
- Man must be understood as a mingling of good and evil. He is neither totally depraved as Calvin claimed, nor is he a blank slate as Locke thought, tending mostly toward good. While fallen, man also bears the Imago Dei and serves as a temple of the Holy Spirit.
- Each man is unique, endowed with a particular set of gifts, thus given by God for that creature’s specific place in time and existence.
- With a paraphrasing of Aristotle that God “makes nothing in vain.” But, to take from Aquinas, “only grace perfects nature.”
- God creates nothing that is not wholly good. Through his distorted will, though, man often chooses evil.
- Power tends to corrupt–no matter the institution. All human power seeks more power and must be restrained in some orderly, humane, and constitutional manner.
- Virtue and imagination serve as the greatest gifts to men.
- The best form of education comes through liberal and humane education. Indeed, for most in history, “liberal education” was a redundancy. All education, properly understood, is liberal, liberating us from the things of this world, pointing us toward the wisdom of God rather than the utilitarian wishes of man.
- Nothing in the universe is higher than love.
- That virtues can never be forced but must be cultivated.
Of course, the religious humanist espouses far more than this, but this, I think is a good starting list to move beyond merely an abstract “dignity of man.” Each of these ten things, I think, is well worth conserving.
Many other traditions are worth discarding. But, that is for another post.
For an excellent overview of JPII’s understanding of a proper anthropology, see this essay from Ignatius Insight.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.