What is a human being?

What is a human being? The question may seem simple on its surface. Although most of us will never consciously articulate an answer to the question, each of us has a working definition which enables us to make decisions about our own lives and shape our interactions with others. Yet when one attempts to offer a more precise definition of humanity this vague working definition is immediately revealed as unsatisfactory. While we might agree with Plato’s famous assessment in the Statesman that a human is a featherless biped, it is quite clear that such a definition is insufficient. A human may indeed lack feathers and walk on two legs, but surely there is much more to being human than this.

The question is perennial, but perhaps more pressing now than ever, in the light of the continuation and amplification of the progressive project of redefining humanity, both as individuals and as societies. This project began with the Enlightenment’s insistent questioning of received wisdom and found its earliest great advocate in Jean-Jacque Rousseau, whose innovative, even if not especially insightful, theories of human nature and society have left an indelible stamp on the progressive project. This is especially true in the effect this project has had on the modern approach to the education of children, which has been deeply influenced by John Dewey and others among Rousseau’s admirers. The project has evolved to such an extent that today the question “is there a human nature?,” as the title of one 1997 collection of philosophical essays asks, seems to many to be a necessary prerequisite to engaging in any sort of reflection on what human nature is.

On the one hand, it is possible to view this questioning of the existence of any universal and immutable human nature as a liberation from apparently antiquated theories on humans and societies. On the other, however, this view seems to be leaning in a rather dangerous direction in its removal of any grounds for the belief in a global fraternity of human beings. If human beings are indeed so variable that they must altogether be denied the bond of a common essence of any sort, nearly all of the arguments from innate human dignity and equality which have been used by advocates of social justice from the 17th and 18th century abolitionists to the 21st century human rights activists must be rethought and perhaps eliminated from our common idiom. If there is no discernable and definable human nature, the basis of society is removed and all that is left is a loose amalgam of radically individuated entities sharing to greater or lesser degrees in a common genetic structure.

The replacement of the humanities by the social sciences, which began in the late 19th century, seems to be both a symptom of and a catalyst for this reorientation of thought on human nature. Anthropology and sociology attempt to usurp the prerogative of literature, psychology attempts to replace religion and philosophy, and so on. Each reduces the common in man to the merely biological and claims for some environmental or material factor the position of ultimate determinant in the constitution of the human being. The logical next step in the process is to utilize the knowledge of the effect of these factors upon humans in an attempt to improve mankind through the manipulation of his material circumstances.

This progressive approach to man flies in the face of the classical approach, exhibited in the humanities. Cicero exemplifies this approach in his rhetorical question in The Orator, “what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?” Rather than seeking to redefine human nature, Cicero advocates turning back to the “records of history,” the documentation of the human experience up to the point at which one lives, in order to discover, rather than invent, what it means to be a human being. In De Officiis, Cicero goes further, making the point that it is precisely the process by which we weave our lives into those of our ancestors which makes us human. In order to weave our lives into those of our ancestors, we must accept that they were of the same nature as ourselves and that it is of the utmost importance that this nature be discovered. “The distinctive faculty of man is his eager desire to investigate the truth,” says Cicero. St. Thomas Aquinas goes a step further than Cicero and insists “the proper operation of man as man is to understand, for by reason of this he differs from all other things.”

It is, then, the very process of seeking truth and understanding it that makes us human. No doubt, seeking after and understanding the truth about human beings is among the greatest truths that can be sought and understood. While there is much else about human nature that might be debated and doubted for centuries to come, the one indubitable feature of human existence is that each human, in his own way, must seek, as the ancient Greek motto put, to “know thyself.”