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Blessing of vulnerabilityOftentimes we need to be reminded that we are more than animals. The attachment modern society has to stoking the fires of primitive passions we share with the beasts (feast, fight, fornicate) is literally dehumanizing—it makes us less than we by nature are. This, of course, is the very essence of corruption and causes great damage to our souls even as it strips away the humanizing aspects of our society.

Yet, sometimes we need to be reminded of our smallness, that we are not, in fact, spiritual beings trapped in bodies, but rather a combination of the spiritual and the material. As Tocqueville noted, man is “the beast with the angel in him,” but that angel is not dying to be freed from the beast; the two must be reconciled in a manner that fosters our full humanity. The notion that we are spiritual beings who must seek to “leave behind” the material, animal part of our nature is a widespread, Gnostic heresy that allows too many of us too often to ignore the sufferings of our brothers (or, as damaging, put them off onto some bureaucratic apparatus to “solve”), to treat our physical excesses as if they somehow are not about “the real” us, and to treat vulnerability as a problem to be cured rather than an essential and necessary aspect of the human condition.

From Plato to Star Trek, the laudable desire to call upon us to cultivate what is best, highest, and most spiritual within us has led to the conviction that we can and should, over time, transcend our physical being with all its vulnerabilities in favor of a more pure life of mind and spirit. Whether such is truly possible for Plato seems an open question, given his pedagogical use of “noble lies” and myths. Whether we should take seriously the popular science fiction fantasy of beings leaving behind their bodies to become pure mind and/or spirit seems a matter of taste and (sadly misplaced) faith. The Christian answer is both more complete and more difficult to sustain without thought, prayer, and proper habituation. That answer is Christ Himself—God “incarnate.” God, in the person of Jesus, became man—taking on mortal flesh, suffering and dying as a man for our sins. He was fully human, including as flesh, save that he did not share in our sinfulness, for which he suffered.

Gnostics (and others) have resisted for millennia the fact and import of God’s becoming man. But, seen properly, this act of sacrifice is what can make our existence, and the order of existence, truly make sense. For, it is the reality of our physical nature, and the willingness of our Creator to take on that physical nature and, with it, our vulnerability, that shows what it is to be truly human. Only by embracing our vulnerability—and the vulnerabilities of our brothers and sisters—can we begin the process of developing our own souls and achieve the character of loving beings that is integral to our salvation.

In his book, Dependent Rational Animals, Alasdair MacIntyre neatly sums up the importance of recognizing our animal nature. The subtitle, “why we need the virtues” points out that we must recognize our own vulnerabilities, and the inevitable nature of vulnerability for us all, in order to cultivate within ourselves, our families, and our communities the virtues that make us fully human. MacIntyre establishes important commonalities between humans and various animal species (dolphins provide especially strong examples) to show how our own social nature and even our rationality are rooted in and must develop from the physical vulnerability and consequent interdependence we share with animals. Our ability to form families and small communities is not unique to us as humans, but is rooted in biological necessity. Moreover, our ability to form larger communities, and to come to an understanding of the common good, must grow from the relationships of mutual dependence we form from the earliest, (largely pre-rational) age

The necessity of this understanding for a decent life led in common with our fellows should be obvious, but is not. Too often, and increasingly, we forget that each and every one of us has been and will be utterly dependent upon others for our well-being and even our existence. Infancy, illness, and old age are obvious facts of life that we increasingly seek to forget in our culture of abortion, daycare, bureaucratized medicine, and old age homes. All too many of us spend our lives pretending dependence will not happen to us, then are surprised when it does and no one is there to help us. The contemporary “fix” for this problem is, of course, the state.  In The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman repeats what has become the standard liberal line on the caring virtues in contemporary society. In a book trumpeting the benefits of outsourcing and other developments corporations have used to drive down wages and treat employees as disposable commodities, Friedman presents what he deems the obvious solution to the resulting, inevitable and severe human suffering:  government-funded retraining. Thus, having been canned, through no fault of their own, the victims of a virtue free pursuit of maximum profits are to be “tended to” by a bureaucratic structure that will “retrain” them from engineers into, well, something or other, perhaps involving a hair net and a paper hat. This is how souls and civilizations crumble, through the rejection of personal responsibility for our fellows’ vulnerabilities and our own duty to pursue a corporate common good and the acceptance of an “ethic” of the vicious pursuit of profits, combined with government programs funded by those who do not have good enough accountants to get out of paying taxes.

But our “higher” pursuits do not stop with shucking personal responsibilities in favor of state action. Those who think of religious folk as out of touch with their animal nature (curious in itself—just where do they believe those big families come from?) foster the belief that they fully “own” their passions and appetites. And it is true that those passions and appetites are on full display in the trash can that has become much of our public square. Yet one thing that encourages, greatly, the excesses of contemporary life is the mistaken belief that our animal appetites are somehow separate from who we “really” are. For, if we are spirits trapped in bodies, with each a separate part of our nature, then what one nature enjoys has little to do with the character of the other—right? So, too many of us believe, we can engage in whatever behaviors our appetites dictate (within only very broad and ever-expanding limits) and this will not affect our intellectual and spiritual lives. Sexual morality is the most obvious area of contention, here. The separation of sexual conduct from moral judgment is nearing completion in our society, as the family “transitions” from the natural union of man, woman, and their children, to the temporary combination of adults (for now) of any sex and, if they are chosen to be born, children of various origins. And, of course, this transition has its roots in the increasingly common conviction that sexual conduct itself is relatively amoral—that it is a form of intimacy aimed at mutual pleasure and, in and of itself, nothing more. Lust, it seems, is no longer a sin. Nor is avarice (greed) of course. Indeed, the physical sins are little recognized as such, with the exception of gluttony, which is recognized as a sin against aesthetics and keeping down health care costs. But all the sins remain what they are—sins—because they affect, not just our bodies, but our characters. Treating another person as a piece of meat to be used for one’s pleasure is degrading to oneself as well as one’s partner. Pursuing wealth or the pleasures it can bring to the detriment of our duties to family, church, and others (including employees) also is degrading to everyone concerned. And this is so, not because our bodies suffer, but because we come to develop characters that treat other, vulnerable, human beings as less than fully human, as having both bodies and souls, in close union with one another.

Of course, the goal is to be invulnerable. Individuals (as opposed to persons, who are by nature social) seek to achieve “autonomy” in the sense of being dependent on no one. This can take many forms, of course, from the various health crazes promising invulnerability to disease, to the cult of “independence” in social and economic life. The point is that, like all things, independence is a good in moderation, as an overall moderate way of life. Independence corrupts when it becomes itself the goal. And it is a false goal–one that we cannot achieve when it pursues invulnerability, when it separates us from other people, and from an acknowledgment that we inevitably are, and will be, vulnerable to and dependent on other people for significant portions of our lives (and, in a good life, throughout our lives in a variety of ways).

Man is by nature a social animal. It is a somewhat ironic fact of the structure of our existence—that is, of the natural law—that, in order to achieve our full humanity, we must accept the animal part of our nature. Indeed, the great conceit of modern culture is that we can “leave behind” the biological and spiritual facts in which our existence is rooted. But it is only by recognizing both the physical and the spiritual sides of our nature—the higher and the lower orders of the requirements for good lives—that we can recognize the nature of our duties, the virtues toward which we must strive, and the relationships that make our lives worth living.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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4 replies to this post
  1. Thank you for your thoughtful and insightful essay, Bruce. As I read your tripartite description of human activity as”feast, fight, and fornicate,” it brought to mind the mantra of “eat, pray, love,” depicted in print and film not long ago. It also reminded me of the northern German culture I lived in for a number of years. It is chronically so grey, rainy, and cold that there are three things Germans know to do: work, drink, or go to war.

    • Many thanks, Barbara. “Eat, Pray, Love” does sound like an appropriately post-modern rendering of self-indulgence, and a truly depressing book/movie that was, full of self-indulgence. As to your remarks on the Germans, I do hope you meant the Prussians, and not we lovers of wine, poetry, and music from the land of Goethe?

  2. Dr. Frohnen: Thank you for this excellent essay, and for the reminder that “Only by embracing our vulnerability—and the vulnerabilities of our brothers and sisters—can we begin the process of developing our own souls and achieve the character of loving beings that is integral to our salvation.” While I might argue that the gnostic tendency has always run deeper in Christianity than is acknowledged, and that Christianity bears its share of the blame for modern individualism, I nonetheless commend you for directing us towards what truly matters: the pursuit of the common good, care and concern for others, cultivation of virtue, and acceptance of our full and frail humanity.

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