Human experimentation is being widely conducted today both in the narrow, scientific sense, such as in the CRISPR gene editing program, and in the broader, cultural sense, such as in raising children “gender-neutral.” More than ever before, we need to be sure about what it means to be human and to be a person. We need to articulate what we might easily take for granted. We need to be philosophical and to learn the history of ideas because, as political philosopher, Richard Weaver, asserted so correctly, “Ideas have consequences.”
The Classic Vision
“Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18). So many people are perishing (even as they feel good about themselves) because they do not have the vision, what I will call the “Classic Vision.” It was formulated before modern times, and sharing this vision is one of the best forms of ecumenism.
The Classic Vision tries to get to the objective truth about everything, including religion and morality, by connecting the two primary ways by which humans know reality: Faith and Reason. Faith is the supernatural knowledge that has come from God’s Revelation, which began with Abraham and culminated in Jesus Christ. Reason is natural knowledge that comes from systematic human investigation, which began with the pagan philosophy of Socrates, Plato, and especially Aristotle, and which continues to develop. An example of Reason is science.
The fullness of the Classic Vision is found in Catholicism. The most complete synthesis of Faith and Reason is one of the great gifts Catholicism has given the world. The giants of the Catholic intellectual tradition—St. John the Evangelist, St. Paul, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Bl. John Henry Newman, G. K. Chesterton, St. John Paul II, and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI—have shown that Reason and Faith do not contradict each other. Furthermore, attempts to harmonize Faith and Reason, both inside and outside the Church, resulted in a widely shared consensus of values in American society before the 1960s.
We in the Church need to get better at distinguishing our knowledge by Reason from our knowledge by Faith so that we can use both the language of Reason and the language of Faith to invite people to the truth. One language will be more effective than the other in different circumstances.
The History of Modern Ideas
Modernism and Postmodernism both reject the Classical Vision. Modernism is the welter of philosophies that began springing up with the “Enlightenment” around 1600 AD. Its champion, Scottish atheist philosopher, David Hume, saw morality as subjective, but he saw religion as either objectively true or objectively false. Another atheist, Karl Marx, saw moral systems as either objectively true or objectively false, but he saw all religion as objectively false. Postmodernism, on the other hand, is a 20th Century philosophy that sees everything as subjective, including math, science, and history.
Why is there polarization in our society, political or otherwise? This choice, or rivalry, between the Classic Vision on the one hand and Modernism and Postmodernism on the other, is the root of our society’s polarization. Any discussion of polarization is superficial if it does not take into account this rivalry. The Sixties slogan, “Don’t trust anyone over thirty” has become “Don’t trust any idea over 300-400 years old.” What started out as the “generation gap” in the Sixties has widened from a gap to a chasm or rift between values and convictions that is cross-generational. A college student can have the Classic Vision; a Medicare recipient can be Postmodernist; and both are probably ignorant of the history of ideas that affects their thinking.
The Classic Vision of Human Nature
The human being has attributes that make it different from the three other categories of the natural world: mineral, plant, and animal. What makes humans different from the mineral world are the attributes of nutrition, growth, reproduction, the five senses, instinct, emotions, memory, will, and intellect. And while humans and animals have nutrition, growth, and reproduction in common with plants, humans are distinct from both in the realms of will and intellect.
Will is the attribute of wants or desires that are freely chosen (as opposed to instinct, which is the attribute of wants or desires that are not freely chosen). Intellect is the attribute of actively thinking about things by forming concepts or definitions, combining concepts to make statements, and combining statements to be logical. As a result of intellect, only humans can ask questions, tell jokes, conduct scientific experiments, design cathedrals, play video games, and pretend that gender is assigned.
The Personal Dimension
Why is only a human being a person? Why are rocks, plants, and animals not persons? The answer is that only human beings have free will and intellect. Only humans, therefore, can freely choose to use their intellects to control their emotions and instincts and not be controlled by their emotions and instincts.
In more personal terms, we may ask: Who am I? I am an individual human being, an individual person. I am not exactly the same as every other human being, but at the same time, I share a common human nature with other individual persons.
We can use Reason alone to know and talk about this. The pagan Aristotle agreed. Even an atheist can agree.
The Bad News about Our Attributes
Each attribute is weak. The weak body gets tired, sick, and injured; it gets old and dies. The weak emotions both under-react and over-react. The weak will makes destructive and self-destructive choices. The weak mind has difficulty knowing the truth.
Furthermore, there is disharmony among these attributes. The will, mind, emotions, and body are often in conflict with each other. St. Paul plaintively summarizes this reality in Romans 7:19, 24: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” There are other disharmonies: between people and nations, between humans and Nature.
This bad news is empirically verified. Again, anyone who uses right Reason will agree. Modernists and Postmodernists have their solutions: counseling, diet and exercise, technology, social justice. They are often utopians who have a religious kind of fanaticism for their particular panacea.
What We Know from Faith
Faith always agrees with Reason and never contradicts it. The human nature we have identified using Reason was created by God.
Faith gives knowledge that is beyond Reason’s ability to know. Each of us has been created by God in His image and likeness, which is especially found in our soul, namely, our emotions, memory, will, and intellect. God gives each person a soul at the moment of conception, which means that every person has these faculties at conception, although in potential. These spiritual attributes become actualized over time just as physical attributes start in potential and grow and mature over time. Animals are not created in the image and likeness of God.
Along with all the disharmonies we have identified, we know from Faith that there is disharmony between humans and God. Our weak human nature is a fallen human nature due to Original Sin. There is no better explanation than Original Sin for what is wrong with the world and with each person.
Again we ask: Who am I? The answer is that what most identifies me is my relationship with God, good or bad.
The only utopia is the Kingdom of God, most fully revealed by the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is only in the Kingdom that our human attributes will be perfected. There will be no disharmonies in the Kingdom. Counseling, diet and exercise, technology, social justice, and all other human efforts at perfection will not completely save us (although all of them can be very helpful). The only panacea is the Second Coming of Christ for those who have cooperated with His Atonement on the Cross. Until the Second Coming, the goal is not to transcend our human nature but only to transcend the fallen part of our human nature.
Back to Virtue
We transcend our fallen human nature by growing in virtue; that is, by developing good habits. We desperately need to re-discover virtue, which began to be ignored in the Sixties when American society and even many in the Church began to replace religion and philosophy with psychology and sociology. Instead of trying to learn the truth and do the right thing, our culture has emphasized “being true to yourself,” “following your heart,” and other forms of emotional and spiritual narcissism.
There are four basic moral virtues, called the Cardinal Virtues. Prudence is the virtue of the intellect; makes good applications of moral doctrines to particular cases. Justice is the virtue of action; it gives to others their rights. Temperance is the virtue of the will; it moderates desires and physical and emotional pleasures. Fortitude is the virtue moderating emotions; it is constancy in the pursuit of the good.
There are intellectual virtues. Understanding is grasping the first principles of thinking. Science (in the classical sense of the word) is knowledge of a particular field. Art is skill in creating. Wisdom is seeing reality as God sees it.
There are also theological virtues. Faith, again, is the acceptance of Divine Revelation. Hope is trust that the Kingdom of God will come, that Good will ultimately conquer Evil, that God will have the last word. Love is the greatest of all virtues, and it is so greatly misunderstood.
The Great Project
Acquiring virtue is the work of a lifetime. It takes sowing good thoughts to reap a good act, sowing good acts to reap a good habit, sowing good habits to reap a good character, and sowing a good character to reap a good destiny.
One virtue needs the other. Without the other virtues, what starts as a virtue ends as a vice. For example, justice without prudence becomes injustice. G. K. Chesterton was right in Orthodoxy:
The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. . . . Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful.
The best laws, regulations, social structures, systems, and policies will not work without personal virtue. Even if we re-distributed all the wealth in the country so that everyone had an equal amount, how long would it take for there to be inequality again due to imprudence, lies, and theft? An hour? A minute? A second?
The virtues coalesce in the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s Four Pillars of the Catholic Faith. Creed is knowing God as He really is and not making Him in our own image and likeness, and it is best expressed in Catholic Doctrine. Worship is gathering for sacred rites, especially the Seven Sacraments. Morality is acting as God wants us to act. Prayer is personal communication with God. Truly Catholic worship, morality, and prayer never contradict Catholic Doctrine.
It is never too late to grow in virtue, which is growing in humanity and personhood.