What is a human being?

One of the most basic and important questions that must be answered by any philosophy is “what is a human being?” It is only once this question has been answered that one can proceed to venture answers to the other central questions of philosophy, such as what are the value and meaning of human life. One of the earliest attempts to offer a full answer to this question is found in the work of Aristotle, and the answer he gives is one that most moderns would find both shocking and distasteful.

According to Aristotle, the defining characteristic of a human being is his reasoning faculty. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that “reason more than anything else is man” (Book X, Chapter 7). This assertion leads him to explicitly exclude slaves, women, children, and barbarians from fully humanity. In his Politics, Aristotle says that “the slave has no deliberative faculty at all; the woman has, but it is without authority, and the child has, but it is immature” (Book I, Chapter 13).

Throughout his writings, Aristotle enlarges upon the lack of humanity of those in each of these categories. On slaves, Aristotle alleges in his Politics that they along with “brute animals … have no share in happiness or in a life of free choice” (Book III, Chapter 9). In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle comes close to a recognition of the humanity of the slave, but equivocates in the end. In Book VIII, Chapter 11 he says that it is possible for one to be friends with a slave “in so far as he is a man.” Later, in Book X, Chapter 6 of the same text, he says that “no one assigns to a slave a share in happiness — unless he assigns to him also a share in human life.” Aristotle’s ambiguity on the humanity of a slave, though, serves only to strengthen his more frequent assertion that full humanity requires freedom. On women, Aristotle is exceedingly clear; in his On the Generation of Animals, for example, he asserts that “the female is, as it were, a mutilated male” (Book II, Chapter 3). Similarly, Aristotle’s opinion on the humanity of barbarians is also clear; in his Politics Book I, Chapter 2 he identifies all non-Greeks as “a community of slaves” fit only to be ruled over by the Greeks.

Even the lower classes of Greek society are excluded by Aristotle from a full share in humanity. In his Politics Book VII, Chapter 9, Aristotle says that the “life of mechanics or tradesmen … is ignoble and inimical to virtue.” In his Nicomachean Ethics Book I, Chapter 7, Aristotle identifies “human good” with the “activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.” If the mechanic and the tradesmen cannot attain virtue, they cannot attain to the full realization of their own humanity. Similarly, Aristotle excludes the poor from full humanity in his assertion later in the same book (Chapter 8) that “external goods” are necessary to the same fully human life.

The biblical tradition presents a starkly different description of the humanity of all of these various classes. The full humanity of women, for example, is clearly stated at the outset in the story of the creation of humankind; Genesis 5:1-2 (ESV) states that “when God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created.” Slavery, in the biblical narrative, arises as an accident of history and as a result of human sinfulness. The humanity of the various ethnicities and of the poorest is never questioned, but instead assumed and celebrated.

It is, of course, this biblical understanding of man that has become the predominant understanding today, having overturned and replaced the Greco-Roman vision seen in the ideas of Aristotle. From such a perch, it is difficult to sympathize with the misogynistic and ethnocentric views of Aristotle which would exclude the greater portion of the human species from participation in full humanity. In spite of Aristotle’s bias for the status quo, however, a bias that is shared nearly universally by all but a small and great minority of remarkable thinkers, Aristotle’s efforts in setting out a definition of humanity are a worthy, even if tentative, first step in the direction that would finally culminate in a complete and universal vision of humanity. This vision is perhaps better expressed nowhere than in the founding document of the United States, the Declaration of Independence, which states, in a manner borrowed from the Greek philosophy of which Aristotle is one of the most outstanding examples, that it is “self-evident, that all men are created equal, [and] that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” This is the vision of man, a synthesis of the Greco-Roman and the biblical, that has become the basic modern assumption about the definition of humanity in the modern day.

Review: Aeschylus II: The Suppliant Maidens, The Persians, Seven against Thebes, and Prometheus Bound

Aeschylus II: The Suppliant Maidens, The Persians, Seven against Thebes, and Prometheus Bound
Aeschylus II: The Suppliant Maidens, The Persians, Seven against Thebes, and Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The plays of Aeschylus, perhaps more than any other Greek playwright, are both wonderful demonstrations of the ancient Greek worldview and of the desires within the souls of the ancient Greeks that something greater than this worldview must someday triumph. Again and again, Aeschylus exhibits the desire for a time when love will triumph over justice and when the cruel tyranny of the gods will be replaced by a reign of benevolence. In this volume, “Prometheus Bound,” the final of the four plays featured, is the standout both as a work of literature in itself and in the reflection on man and cosmos which it inevitably engenders in the attentive reader. I recommend this volume to all, especially those interested in fine works of literature.

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Why not to homeschool

In a recent post at the Homeschoolers Anonymous website, R.L. Stollar offers a response to Israel Wayne’s recent post on “A Shift in the Homeschooling Movement.” In response to Wayne’s claim that homeschooling should be focused above all else, including above even education, on the “lordship of Jesus,” Stollar argues, to the contrary, that “you can’t lace geography lessons with Jesus.” Whereas Wayne believes that evangelization of one’s own children should be the ultimate end of schooling, Stollar argues instead that schooling of any sort should be “an embraced process whereby all children freely, enthusiastically, and wisely discover life on their own terms and at their own pace.” Both of these approaches, however, are ultimately wrongheaded due to their false underlying assumptions as both Stollar and Wayne assume a dichotomy between faith and virtue on the one hand and knowledge and freedom on the other.

Before we can answer the question of what sort of education a child should receive, we must first answer the questions of what the purpose of an education is and from whom the child should receive it. What, then, is the purpose of an education? The answer that has been given nearly universally in public schools and even universities in the United States for the past several decades is that the purpose of an education is to prepare the student for employment. To that end, most states have adopted the new Common Core State Standards, which assure in their motto that they will prepare students for “college and career readiness.” In Savannah, Georgia, where I live, students are forced at the ripe old age of 13 to choose one of several “career pathways” the Savannah-Chatham County Public School System has mapped out for them. According to the school system’s website, the offered career fields which students will be prepared for throughout their high school years are:

  • Agriculture 
  • Architecture, Construction, Communication & Transportation 
  • Business & Computer Science 
  • Culinary Arts 
  • Education 
  • Engineering & Technology 
  • Family & Consumer Science 
  • Government & Public Service 
  • Healthcare Science 
  • Marketing, Sales & Service
Now, while I am sure that there are a plethora of tweens and teens champing at the bit to start their long, prosperous, and undoubtedly fulfilling careers in “family & consumer science,” what is perhaps most notable about this list is what is missing. There are no offerings for those who want to grow up to be artists, authors, intellectuals, pastors, thinkers, or just well-rounded individuals with creative, critical minds; in other words, there is no offering of the liberal arts. Of course, this makes perfect sense as this is an approach to education designed specifically to accomplish the opposite of a liberal arts education.

The purpose of a liberal arts education is, as the nomenclature implies, to liberate. It is to create a human being who possesses liberty, the ability to make independent and informed choices about his life. Many of the great figures in the history of Western Civilization frequently compared this liberal/liberating education with its opposite: a technical or vocational education, an education to which they applied the fitting label “servile.” I know of no finer exhibition of the marked differences between these two forms of education than a passage from the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, one of the greatest paragraphs of American literature. In this passage, Douglass discusses his desire as a child to learn how to read and the reaction of his master to this:

Very soon after I went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld, she very kindly commenced to teach me the A, B, C. After I had learned this, she assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four letters. Just at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read. To use his own words, further, he said, “If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master—to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now,” said he, “if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.” These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. It was just what I wanted, and I got it at a time when I the least expected it. Whilst I was saddened by the thought of losing the aid of my kind mistress, I was gladdened by the invaluable instruction which, by the merest accident, I had gained from my master. Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read. The very decided manner with which he spoke, and strove to impress his wife with the evil consequences of giving me instruction, served to convince me that he was deeply sensible of the truths he was uttering. It gave me the best assurance that I might rely with the utmost confidence on the results which, he said, would flow from teaching me to read. What he most dreaded, that I most desired. What he most loved, that I most hated. That which to him was a great evil, to be carefully shunned, was to me a great good, to be diligently sought; and the argument which he so warmly urged, against my learning to read, only served to inspire me with a desire and determination to learn. In learning to read, I owe almost as much to the bitter opposition of my master, as to the kindly aid of my mistress. I acknowledge the benefit of both.

What Mr. Auld desired for Douglass was a servile education. He desired to provide for him an education which allowed his mind only to absorb those things necessary to making him an effective and obedient laborer. What Douglass desired was a liberal education. He desired an education that would bring him to ask the most important questions that a human being can ask: what is man and what is his highest end? He desired an education that would allow him to answer these questions to the best of his ability and so to live a truly and fully human life, a life of choices.

Throughout the bureaucratic structures which dominate education in the United States today, there are thousands of Mr. Aulds. What they desire for America’s youth is “college and career readiness.” What they do not want is a young upstart like Douglass wondering what is the point of “college and career,” wondering if there might, in the end, be more to human life than vocational education and money making. That is dangerous thinking, and we can have none of it. So, much as the propagators of Newspeak in George Orwell’s 1984 they gradually slim down the ideas and language to which the mass of Americans have access, thereby placing the necessary limitations on thought. While the daughters of President Obama and the children of other political elites in Washington, D.C., will be reading Sartre and the Bhagavad Gita in their high school classes at Sidwell Friend’s School, your high school student, with his Common Core textbook, will be reading a fascinating “informational text” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency/U.S. Department of Energy tantalizingly entitled “Recommended Levels of Insulation.” Mr. Douglass, meet Mr. Auld.

In short and more to point, the purpose of an education is, or should be, to create a human being in the fullest sense of that word. In English, the word used to refer to the production of new members of a given species by already-existing members of that species is procreation. This, of course, leads us to the answer for our second question: who is responsible for educating a child? If education is, as indeed it is, a continuation of the process of procreation, the answer is clear enough: it is the parents who bear the primary responsibility for educating a child. The combined factors which have led to the destruction of the family in American society, not the least of which is the welfare system as it exists, have led to the epidemic of “deadbeat dads,” chromosome donors who refuse to provide the financial support necessary for the upkeep of their offspring and rather rely upon the government to do the job for them. Similarly, the system of free and compulsory public education in the United States over the last century and a half has led to the phenomenon of hands-off parenting as parents have come to rely upon the government to do their job of educating their child. Parents across America have abdicated their greatest responsibility and instead handed it off to well-bribed bureaucrats and miseducated pseudo-pedagogues. Though it is often presented in a humorous manner, the vision of the American parent celebrating the end of summer and the return of their child to school is quite real, and a sad commentary on parenting in America. Being a parent is more than merely the sexual act. It is also more than “raising kids” by ensuring their material needs are met. It is nothing less than the lifelong process of creating a new human being, a unique creature in the image of God. The Renaissance author Pico della Mirandola described the unique feature of man among all animals as his lack of a nature; rather, he argued, it is man’s nature to choose his own nature:

Oh unsurpassed generosity of God the Father, Oh wondrous and unsurpassable felicity of man, to whom it is granted to have what he chooses, to be what he wills to be! The brutes, from the moment of their birth, bring with them, as Lucilius says, “from their mother’s womb” all that they will ever possess. The highest spiritual beings were, from the very moment of creation, or soon thereafter, fixed in the mode of being which would be theirs through measureless eternities. But upon man, at the moment of his creation, God bestowed seeds pregnant with all possibilities, the germs of every form of life. Whichever of these a man shall cultivate, the same will mature and bear fruit in him. If vegetative, he will become a plant; if sensual, he will become brutish; if rational, he will reveal himself a heavenly being; if intellectual, he will be an angel and the son of God. And if, dissatisfied with the lot of all creatures, he should recollect himself into the center of his own unity, he will there become one spirit with God, in the solitary darkness of the Father, Who is set above all things, himself transcend all creatures.

Education is the process which sets a child on the path to becoming plant, brute, heavenly, intellectual, or that something which is beyond each of these. It begins the child on the path of his life. These first steps more often than not set the pace and the route that will be taken throughout the journey. Education is the most important facet of the process of procreation.

It is here that we return to the overarching theme of the posts of Stollar and Wayne. Given that education is the completion of the process of procreation and therefore the duty of the parent above all else, we must confront the question: what of schools? As Stollar points out, homeschooling has become, especially among certain members of certain religious groups in America, a means by which to shelter a child from the supposed sinfulness of “the world.” The stereotype of the socially awkward and bizarrely miseducated homeschooled child has become so ubiquitous that almost always the first question I am asked by anyone who finds out I am a homeschooler is about “socialization” (in other words, do they get out of the house or are you just feeding them your indoctrination all day and night?). Homeschooling has become, for these people, a means by which to ensure that their child is not exposed to any alternative viewpoints, aside perhaps from a negative presentation of these viewpoints provided by the parents. (Of course, the big point here is almost always evolution; a very large mass of Christian homeschoolers, so-called, homeschool for specifically this reason and teach a firmly Creationist version of origins which one would not encounter in a public school, nor in many Christian private schools.)

It seems we are stuck between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, there are the public schools, with all of their many flaws, and, on the other, the socially awkward and nearly solipsistic homeschooled child. What is needed, however, is balance. After the inevitable question about socialization, the second question I am often asked about my choice to homeschool my children is how I could make such a choice when I am myself a teacher at a public charter school. There is, I assure you, a better explanation than mere hypocrisy. While it is the primary responsibility of the parent to educate the child, this does not exclude the possibility of sending one’s children to schools, whether public or private, so long as the school is used as a tool by the parent to meet his responsibility, not an excuse to ignore it. If a parent makes the informed decision that a particular public or private school can be utilized in his goal to provide the very best education to his children, there is no conflict. In the case of my family, my wife and I, after much research and deliberation, concluded that we can provide our children with this education without the need to utilize a school outside of the home. I expect that others will make an equally informed and opposite choice. So long as they make that choice for the same reason (namely, again, that utilizing a certain school is the best means by which the parent can meet his responsibility to educate his children), I have no criticism to offer.

That being said, it should be clear where I stand on the issue of homeschooling in order to deny one’s children a complete education. An incomplete education is not a liberal education; it is a servile education. No matter the personal beliefs of the parents, to disallow a child from learning about some important aspect of the collective commentary on the human condition found in the world’s science, religion, literature, etc. is to do a grave disservice to that child. One can remain true to one’s beliefs while giving due acknowledgement to the beliefs of others. Whether Darwin was right or wrong, whether the ancient Greek myths are theologically correct or not, all of these are part of our heritage as Westerners and, more importantly, as human beings. To miss out on them is to miss out on an important and different way of viewing our common humanity.

Parenting/educating a child is a bit like a combination of the classic and postmodern approaches to art. In the classic approach, the artist had in mind precisely what it was he wished to paint or sculpt before he ever took brush to canvas or chisel to stone. Like the architect with blueprints in hand, he knew exactly how his construction would appear in the end. Michelangelo said that he could see the sculpture in the stone before he began and he was merely freeing that preexistent form. Many of the great artists of the 20th century took a different approach and added varying degrees of randomness, such as the splash and dash techniques of Jackson Pollock. In education, to go too far in either of these directions is dangerous. To adhere too closely to the classic approach, unless we possess the insight of Michelangelo and can peer into the soul of our student to see precisely what he should become, is to impose an alien form upon another. It is to attempt to mold him into what we would like him to be, rather than what he really is. It is to deny him freedom. To follow too closely to the postmodern approach is equally dangerous. (It is worth noting here that the only really serious proponent of this approach in its purest form was Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his Emile; Rousseau himself never raised any of his several children but instead handed them over to a foundling home to raise on his behalf.) It is to raise a child without discipline, without focus, without virtue. Strange as it may seem, this too-free approach is also, in fact, to deny freedom to the child as it makes him a slave of his emotions and his passions, unable to reasonably confront the temptations within and without him. Sound education must find the Goldilocks spot: not too much of either the classic or the postmodern, but just the right amounts of each.

We should, like the good classic artist, have some idea in mind of what our final product will be like, but we should allow for some deviations from the plan and even the plan itself must be just vague enough to allow each product to assume its own unique features. Since our product is a human being, we must offer some rough outline of an ideal human being. The many great thinkers of the world have used many words to describe this ideal human being, and often differed from each other in the details. Martin Luther King, however, once offered a succinct statement which serves very well to summarize these visions of the ideal man. In a 1947 article on “The Purpose of Education,” King wrote that “Intelligence plus character … is the goal of true education.” Intelligence is not the mere memorization of facts, but can, I believe, be broken down into two constituent elements (here I am indebted especially to Jacob Bronowski), namely curiosity and creativity. We might briefly summarize our vision of the ideal human being and the sort of characteristics which education should cultivate, then, as creativity, curiosity, and character — three C’s to match the traditional three R’s (reading, writing, and arithmetic) of early childhood education. The ideal human being is one who is curious; that is, he has an earnest and insatiable desire to learn ever more about himself and the world around him. He is creative; that is, he makes use of the knowledge acquired through the fulfillment of his curiosity in new and profound ways. Creativity is, in essence, the ability to bring together two or more disparate pieces of information to form a new whole; it is the same genius found in both the scientist and the poet. Finally, the ideal man is a man of character; in other words, he is man with the virtue necessary to guide his curiosity and his creativity through the proper means and to the proper ends.

If we place before us these three C’s as the goal of education, the argument between Stollar and Wayne is unnecessary. Rather, it is the case that an education centered on Christ — which is one which refuses to use censorship, obfuscation, and other forms of dishonesty as its tools and which sees the human being as something greater than a mere laborer — is the ideal education, the education which will serve to cultivate the three C’s within a child. What both Stollar and Wayne seem to fail to realize is that “all the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1). That includes all knowledge, even the science of Darwin and the philosophy of Nietzsche.

Shortly before his martyrdom in a Soviet gulag, the Russian Orthodox Priest Gregory Petrov wrote a prayer service, called an Akathist, which he entitled “Glory to God for All Things.” In that Akathist, Fr. Gregory exclaims:

The breath of Thine Holy Spirit inspires artists, poets and scientists. The power of Thy supreme knowledge makes them prophets and interpreters of Thy laws, who reveal the depths of Thy creative wisdom. Their works speak unwittingly of Thee. How great art Thou in Thy creation! How great art Thou in man!

Indeed; this is the mindset from which we should approach the education of our children and which we should seek to propagate within them. One does not need to lace geography with Jesus in order to encourage a child to stand in awe before the tremendousness of the created order and the magnificence of its Creator, rather one need only teach according to this motto: “Glory to God for all things.”

Review: Dandelion Wine

Dandelion Wine
Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dandelion Wine is a wonderful mixture of memoir and science fiction. Bradbury brings these two elements together and creates a wonderful novel from them, one fit to be read slowly and ingested entirely. Through the story of two young boys, brothers, and their Summer of 1928, Bradbury creates a series of reflections on the nature of time and change. The attentive reader will enjoy the food for philosophical reflection scattered throughout and will end with a deeper conviction to enjoy life, however brief and fleeting it may be, to the fullest. I recommend this book for all readers.

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When God became an atheist

Early in Ray Bradbury’s novel Dandelion Wine, Douglas, the 12-year-old central protagonist of the novel, has an experience in which for the first time in his short life he realized the beauty and significance of his own existence in a profoundly and deeply felt way. So feeling, he thinks to himself, “I’m really alive! … I never knew it before, or if I did I don’t remember!” The novel that follows a series of events which occur around and to Douglas during the Summer of 1928. These events lead to Douglas’s realization near the end of the novel that someday his life, which he only so recently learned to fully appreciate, will eventually end. Young Douglas struggles to accept this newfound knowledge of his own mortality, finally even becoming so ill as to be dangerously close to death. Upon emerging from this sickness, he wanders into his grandmother’s kitchen pantry where he discovers a jar labelled only “RELISH.” When he discovers this jar, he feels suddenly “glad he had decided to live” through his illness. He decides at this to relish the many joys of life while accepting the inevitability of its end.

The story that is told here is another version of the only story ever told. It is the story in which the protagonist “dies” (or undergoes extreme hardship nearing death) and is revivified to a more complete life or otherwise grows in an important way in the end. This story is, of course, best told in the biblical account of the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ. This biblical telling is also unique in an important way, namely, that the protagonist who undergoes the process is not a human being in the usual sense but is, rather, God-become-man. As G.K. Chesterton pointed out:

Christianity is the only religion on earth that has felt that omnipotence made God incomplete. Christianity alone felt that God, to be wholly God, must have been a rebel as well as a king. Alone of all creeds, Christianity has added courage to the virtues of the Creator. For the only courage worth calling courage must necessarily mean that the soul passes a breaking point — and does not break.

In the recapitulative work of Christ, the redemption-narrative of death and rebirth is itself redeemed and sanctified. It is then set forth as the archetype to which others must adhere. Without the crucifixion and burial on Good Friday, there is and can be no Easter resurrection and Paschal joy. The narrative repeats itself throughout the Christian life, such as in the rite of baptism in which “we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4, KJV). It, in fact, defines, the Christian life as a whole, which is a process of dying to one’s self and sin in order to live a life in Christ, who is the fullness of life.

I cannot remember the first time I experienced a recognition of my own mortality. I believe it was probably a gradual process, as it must be with most people. I can, however, remember the first time that the full meaning and inevitability of my own death came to me. It was the first time that I celebrated Easter as a Christian. Growing up in a non-religious household, throughout my childhood Easter had meant nothing more than a few extra days off from school and a basketful of candy on Sunday morning. As a result, I entered into my first Holy Week expecting very little. What I found, however, was an experience through which I came to understand myself better than I had at any point previously in my life. In contemplating the suffering and death of Christ on Good Friday, I found a God who is, as Chesterton once described him, the “only … divinity who ever uttered … isolation,” the only “God [who] seemed for an instant to be an atheist.” In other words, I found a God who became as I had been. As the journey continued, however, and I shared for the first time in the joyful proclamation of the risen Lord on Easter Sunday morning, I found a man who had become as I desired to become.

Through contemplating and, in a sense, experiencing the suffering, death, and resurrection of the Lord, I came to understand more truly than ever before the inevitability of my own death and to place my hope more fervently than ever before in the resurrection to come. It is only through coming to terms with my death and placing my hopes in this resurrection that I began to approach the state which Douglas had found after his sickness, an experience of the joy of being and the desire to relish each moment of life.

The little things

‘That’s the trouble with your generation,’ said Grandpa. ‘Bill, I’m ashamed of you, you a newspaperman. All the things in life that were put here to savor, you eliminate. Save time, save work, you say. … Bill, when you’re my age, you’ll find out it’s the little savors and little things that count more than the big ones. A walk on a spring morning is better than an eighty-mile ride in a hopped-up car, you know why? Because it’s full of flavors, full of a lot of things growing. You’ve time to seek and find. I know — you’re after the broad effect now, and I suppose that’s fit and proper. But for a young man working on a newspaper, you got to look for grapes as well as watermelons. You greatly admire skeletons and I like fingerprints; well and good. Right now such things are bothersome to you, and I wonder if it isn’t because you’ve never learned to use them. If you had your way you’d pass a law to abolish all the little jobs, the little things. But then you’d leave yourselves nothing to do between the big jobs and you’d have a devil of a time thinking up things to do so you wouldn’t go crazy. Instead of that, why not let nature show you a few things? Cutting grass and pulling weeds can be a way of life, son.’ 

Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine, p. 64

My struggle with PTSD and the existence of evil

On November 5, 2009, I was assigned as the Non-Commissioned Officer in charge of the 24-hour staff duty at my unit’s barracks on Fort Hood, Texas. Typically, this duty is one of the most mundane activities of military service. Your job is, in essence, to sit, along with two junior enlisted soldiers, for 24 hours straight, occasionally making rounds in the barracks area to pick up cigarette butts and, on the weekend, corral drunk young soldiers. Your biggest challenge is simply staying awake for the duration of it. That night, however, was different. That was the day Major Nidal Hasan opened fire on a group of soldiers in a building across the street from my unit’s barracks.

We could hear the gunshots from where we stood in my unit’s barracks area. The sound of a firing weapon is no novelty on the United States’ largest military base. Eventually, the sounds of weapons, humvees, helicopters and other loud military equipment becomes mere background noise to most soldiers. There is a sense of security that envelops you when you are on a stateside post. You are surrounded by the finest men and women you have ever met, men and women you trust with your life and well being. There is no sense of community quite like the sacred bond between uniformed service members. That is precisely why these particular gunshots were so disturbing. They were different. They were closer than they should have been, nowhere near a firing range. And the sense of uneasiness they at first sent through us was quickly validated by a call from our superiors, ordering us to place the soldiers in the barracks on lock down and informing us that there had been a shooting on post. The sacred bond had been violated; a soldier had attacked his fellow soldiers at their most vulnerable moment, sitting in a waiting room waiting to be medically cleared to deploy and fight for their country, side-by-side with their comrades.
We spent the afternoon in a haze of rumor and worry. Each of us struggled, in spite of clogged phone lines, to get through to our friends and family in and around Fort Hood, verifying one at a time that each was safe. While we waited for more information from those in the know, we did our jobs to secure our own area and speculated on what might be happening. There was talk of a team of shooters. There were rumors that the shooting had continued in a housing area, a particularly nasty rumor given that soldiers’ wives and children were home alone in those housing areas.
Finally, in the evening, we sat outside of the barracks and watched the miles-long traffic as soldiers, who had spent their entire day locked down on post, headed home to their worried families in the on-post housing areas and the neighborhoods in the surrounding community. It was perhaps the only night we spent on staff duty in which none of us nodded off to sleep. We stayed up the whole night pondering the motives and the consequences of the atrocity we had been so near. Even when I drove home the following morning, after nearly 30 hours without sleep, I found it difficult to lay in my bed and rest.
The shooting yesterday at Fort Hood brought back the vivid memories of that afternoon and evening nearly five years ago. I stayed awake much later than I should have, watching the online live feed of the Killeen, Texas, television news station, reading over and over again the meager details of what had occurred on the post at which I had spent the majority of my military career. What affected me most as I watched and read was the frequent reference to the possibility that the shooter may have had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The agenda of the media was obvious from very early. At the initial press briefing by Fort Hood’s commanding general, Lieutenant General Mark Milley, reporters asked ridiculous questions about soldiers carrying concealed weapons on post and, again and again, about the mental health history of the shooter.
Last night, I believe I felt much as people with Asperger syndrome must have when the media collectively felt the need to mention again and again that Adam Lanza, who opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, had been diagnosed with Asperger’s. There was talk about how people with Asperger’s are incapable of feeling empathy, how this might have been the reason he did what he did. This was the preconceived narrative reporters were already concocting only minutes after the shooting at Fort Hood. He had PTSD and PTSD makes you a stone-cold killer.
I was diagnosed with PTSD a little over two years ago. My tours in Iraq had taken a toll on me. I found myself unable to deal with or control my anger, at times, or my sadness, at others. I had trouble sleeping and when I did finally sleep it was fitful and filled with nightmare images of things I had seen, people I had known and lost. I still struggle with this. The nightmares are less frequent, but they have not gone away. I still cannot watch movies with much violence. If I find myself in a crowded place, I enter a state of hyper-awareness in which I can hardly manage to think or breathe. While driving to work through downtown Savannah, Georgia, I scan the roadside for improved explosive devices (IEDs/roadside bombs); my fists tighten into a white-knuckle grip on the steering wheel when I get caught in rush hour traffic. I struggle with all of this. But I am not a murderer. I am not an “active shooter incident” waiting to happen. I am a soldier who, like most other soldiers I know, deals the best he can with what he has seen, knowing that I was there for the right reasons, even if few Americans appreciate it and even fewer understand it.
At the heart of the media’s agenda in the aftermath of shootings like that which occurred yesterday at Fort Hood is a distorted approach to ethics in the modern world. In an America now almost 50 years after the upheavals of the 1960’s and the imposition of radically different ways of viewing human being and activity, we have lost our moral compass. The rapist is “sick” and the murderer is “psychotic.” For a short time after I left the military, I worked in a prison where I saw this approach up close and personal. Men who had murdered in cold blood, men who had sexually molested young children and others of a similar moral caliber were “treated” as if what they had done were the unavoidable symptoms of a disease. The result was that the men themselves came to believe this. Rather than seeking forgiveness and redemption, they instead sought a “cure” for their “sickness.” Of course, this cure was entirely personal. It did not involve begging those they had harmed to forgive them, nor did it involve repentance before a just yet merciful God. Instead, more often than not, it involved medication that numbed their senses and meetings in which they prattled on about their feelings for hours, shortly before they went back to their cell blocks to watch hours of television, much of which celebrated the very crimes they had committed.
The man who committed that horrible atrocity at Fort Hood yesterday was not sick. He was not insane. He did not do what he did because he had PTSD. American news media: the word you are looking for is “evil.” What he did was evil and, just as virtuous men do virtuous things, it is evil men who do evil things. The victims here are the three soldiers he murdered, the 16 he injured, their families and every soldier everywhere who has now had that sacred bond of trust between warriors shattered. The shooter is not a victim, whether of his own disease or of the military which gave him the orders to go to the place he acquired it. We must return to the proper language used to describe and define human activity, the language of ethics. He chose evil and so became evil.