From Heraclitus’ fragments we learn a little of the deep roots of our modern subjectivism when he informs us that “the sun is the width of a human foot.” By the myopic proverb, “man is the measure of all things,” we have abandoned common sense, the right use of reason, and that highest way of knowing, revelation. Revelation, followed by infused understanding, gifted to a soul prepared by the cultivated habits of moral and intellectual virtue is considered mythic superstition by the modern teacher. We have elected instead to believe that the sun is the width of the human foot by the stupidity of self-reference and arrogance of false self-esteem. In the cognitive shift to attribute to ourselves the status of the gods, the faculties of the intellect and will–the only two safeguards against self-deification–are marginalized to the point of exile. By the artificial lights of technological progress we enslave our hearts and minds to that insatiable tyrant: the appetites, operating by the laws of empirical science in an increasing darkness we ironically call the “Enlightenment.”
Lost in the devolution of human learning and knowing are the questions, “Who am I?” “What does it mean to be a human person?” The mind molders are likely to tell you that we are at liberty to create ourselves and you will get a different answer from everyone you ask. But if we can recover the universal truths about being, we will see that there are really only three possible perspectives on the human person in terms of his place in the cosmos: from the materialist standpoint, from the outlook of the human mind, and finally from the vantage point of the human heart. We inevitably incorporate all three at least to some degree because these three perspectives connote the three universal aspects of the human person: the belly, head, and heart. We try in vain to eliminate the head and the heart, but our only real choices concerning them is what weight we give to each one.
The Scientific View of Man
It is a most evident fact that we are physical/material beings. With our five senses we confirm by every second of our existence that we operate materially in this world, hemmed in by the limits of time and space. The scientific view of man considers the human condition in all its purely material phenomena. It reductively assumes that the inductive method of reasoning, aided by the scientific method and interpreted by the five senses, constitutes the “best” way of knowing “real” things. Aristotle pointed out that “all learning begins in the senses,” and there is nothing wrong with beginning with the scientific perspective; it is problematic, however, if we end with it.
There is a madness in this age of progressive thought that would have us believe that, as a result of the rapid technological advancement, we will eventually be able explain all reality by empirical means. The scientific view of man is a usurper in this scientistic age. Notions of God and creation are increasingly considered superstitious. Philosophy has been reduced to material terms, and now even morality is becoming secularized.
Many elements in the scientific view of man are factually correct, but this view comprises a most base understanding of man. Taken by itself, it becomes a deadly reduction of the reality of human existence. It must necessarily see humans as means to be used, not as ends to be loved. It can allow for humans to be manipulated, used, and eliminated if deemed necessary. We are rational creatures, so the scientific view subordinates reason to serve science, not the other way around. We must go beyond the merely material to examine how the gift of our intellect provides insight into the human condition not afforded by the material sciences.
The Philosophical View of Man
To understand man in a philosophical way necessitates a discussion of the proper meanings of the words “person” and “nature.” When talking about human beings, we cannot mention a “nature” without mentioning a “person” connected to it. The first important thing to notice is that it is the person who possesses the nature and not the other way around. Though the pop psychologists would beg to differ, a nature does not possess a person. Nature answers the question of what we are, and person answers the question of who we are. All beings have natures, and when we ask what a being is, we are asking about its nature. However, not every being is a person, but only rational beings are persons. Let us define the person as a being possessed of consciousness, self-awareness, an intellect, and a will. These facts allude to a wide range of intellectual and moral implications nonexistent in beings which are not persons.
Frank Sheed explains in Theology and Sanity that by our natures we discover what we are. “It follows that by our nature we do what we do for every being acts according to what it is.” By these facts we discover another distinction between nature and person. By our natures we do many things: speak, love, sing, and breathe. A dog, by his nature, can do only one of those, and a stone by its nature can do none. So nature is not only what we are, but the source of what we can do. Even though it is by our natures that we see what kinds of things we are capable of doing, it is not our natures that decide to do them; it is the person that decides to do them. As Frank Sheed summarizes “the person is that which does the actions, the nature is that by virtue of which the actions are done, or better, that from which the actions are drawn.”
The philosophical view of man implies that we are moral as well as intellectual beings. It provides the framework to discover the nature of human excellence embodied by the perennial virtues towards which all men of good will tend. The philosophical view of man ought to subsume and guide the scientific view of man for it can anchor the material notions of man in the universal truths about the nature of being. This in turn allows for the discovery of the objective standard concerning virtue and vice available to all human souls who earnestly seek. There is much truth goodness and beauty in this view of man, but it is not the complete view. One may come up short if he stops with a philosophical view of man and ignores the role of the Author of Life.
The Theological View of Man
The fullest and most comprehensive view of man is the theological view. The theological view considers the substance, origin, and end of the human person. It is revealed truth that man is made in the image and likeness of God and at the same time of material. In Genesis 2:7 we learn that “the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” We are made of material but infused with immaterial life and the gifted image of God Himself by way of the intellect and will.
The theological view of man explains his origin in a way opposite that of the scientific view of man–which considers that man evolved by accident, as a kind of sophisticated ape. The theological view asserts that God created man on purpose with divine intentionality as an ineffable act of love. Man is a creature created by God in His created universe. Every single thing in existence is created by God except God Himself; He is the uncreated Creator.
In learning what we are and about our divine origins, we are compelled to discover the ends of man intended by our Creator. Man, like every other created thing, tends towards its natural end. Since all that God created is good, and man is created good, all created things properly end in giving glory to God. Man’s specific end is intended to be in eternal beatitude. As St. Thomas Aquinas succinctly put it, “to possess God in full in the beatific vision is to have our powers fully realized, fully perfected, and to find them at rest, in perfect happiness for all eternity face to face with God.”
The Three Perspectives Combined
Being made in the image and likeness of God takes into account the fullness of the human person by considering the relationship between the immaterial faculties of the soul and the material realities of physical being. In learning of our substance, origin, and final end, we encounter the empirical realities at the lowest level and the philosophical realities on the ascent to the highest view of man, the Theological. We can discover the truth about these three aspects of the human person and gain invaluable assistance from the philosophical view of man in a support role for understanding the theological view of man. In a similar way, the scientific view of man has the potential to be of service to both the philosophical and the theological view of man if it is properly understood as the servant, not the master.
We desperately need to recover a proper understanding of the human person. As John Henry Cardinal Newman would recommend to us, we ought to “rebuild the Jewish Temple and to plant anew the groves of Academus.” This is to say that we ought to see man in his supernatural glory by the fountainhead of theological truth in Jerusalem and to embrace the heights of natural man emanating from the fountainhead of philosophical truth in Athens. Newman goes on to explain that sacred and profane learning are “dependent on each other, correlative and mutually complementary, how faith operates by means of reason, and reason is directed and corrected by faith.” All this can be confirmed by certain elements of empirical science, but never led by it. If we can get the three views of man in their proper orders and give them their proper weights, we can see that the three views are meant to be complementary and of service to one another. A recovery of an authentic understanding of the true nature of the human person is vital. In fact, the survival of Western Civilization depends upon it.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.