The Radically Subversive Philosophy of Dr. Seuss

Jeff McLeod - Dr. Seuss


The following actually happened during one of my lectures. I said, “Neuroscience does not deal with the person; it is concerned strictly with the human organism, with things that happen inside the skull. Mind you, some neuroscientists mistakenly believe their field eliminates the concept of the person altogether. They are wrong. The person is separate from the human organism. The concept of the person draws a circle around science like a fence that contains it and establishes its limits.”

Someone liked the distinction. “What is the difference between a person and a human being?”

“A person,” I replied “can be a who.”

Then I asked rhetorically, “What is a who?”

From the students: You sound like Dr. Seuss.

Actually that wasn’t a bad point. Here is a brief account of how I answered.

What is a Who?

A who is a human being, viewed under the aspect of his or her meaning and significance in life. What do we mean “viewed under the aspect?” For example, you might have known Harry Truman as the guy playing piano at the party, or on another occasion as the President of the United States. We see other people intentionally with respect to their significance to us.

From the person’s point of view, to be a who is to be a someone, to have such significance. To be a who is to gradually, over time, extend and articulate your presence in the world freely through the way you live your life. The person is not an extra something inside the human body, or a ghostly aura around the body; it is an aspect of being alive in a human body. Most importantly, it is an objectively real aspect, one that physical science has no competence to talk about because the meaning and significance we establish by our actions are significant from the standpoint of eternity, without respect to time or place.

Here is what I mean. Say you are in a restaurant where you and your dinner party have just enjoyed a lovely evening together. The waiter approaches and whispers, “There is no check, someone has already paid your bill.”

Who paid our dinner bill!?

Suppose the waiter said, a human being, a member of the species homo sapiens, about 5 foot 11 inches tall, brown hair, moustache.

No, no. I mean who paid my bill?

To call someone “a who” is to recognize they stand in a significant relationship with you as someone who affects the meaning of your life, your life story, your destiny. You are not asking for physiological analysis, you want to know what kind of person paid your bill. Why in the world would some person who doesn’t know me pay my bill? The question has moral significance.

Is it someone who is in debt to me? Is it my boss? Is it my cousin? A secret admirer? A police officer? An F.B.I. sting operation? I want to know what possible significance I could have to this mysterious “who” who paid the bill. It is an objective concern, not a subjective experience. Be cognizant of how often you use that word. Who is at the door? Who wrote this software? Who found the lost dog?

Every human being, in any stage of life, in whatever form, is a person. This is so because they stand in determinate relationship with a community of persons, and because from the moment they acquire physical dimensions they elicit responsibilities, hopes and expectations that radiate outward from themselves. If you have been pregnant, or have experienced a miscarriage, you have been in relationship with a person. Being in a relationship is not about how you “feel.” Every relational bond is an objective state of being.

These objective relations between persons can be the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit, a relationship of love. But this relational space between us can also be annihilated, and occupied by what Christians call evil. We don’t just ask “who paid for my dinner,” we sometimes have to ask, “who could do such a thing?” To be a who is to possess intrinsic dignity, but also to have great things expected of us, things that we ought to live up to.

Horton Hears a Who

American author Theodor Seuss Geisel, also known as Dr. Seuss, wrote about this lovely and whimsical creature called a “who.” But I warn you, his work is radical because he was in his day a great foe of the culture of death that was starting to take shape.

Educated at Dartmouth and at Oxford, this scholar and writer of children’s books, born in 1904, was deeply concerned about the rise of totalitarian regimes in his lifetime. One could say he was an activist in that his drawings and cartoons criticized the darkest forces of the day, from fascism to communism to the McCarthy hearings.

Geisel was—in the broadest possible sense of the term—pro-life, and yet he was known at the time as a political liberal. This makes sense if you understand that the term liberal as used today doesn’t mean the same thing as it used to mean. Liberalism used to imply a wholehearted embrace of the sanctity, if I might use that word, of the human person, no exceptions whatsoever. Dr. Seuss, as I say, was a liberal in the broadest possible sense of condemning all willfully inflicted human suffering.

Geisel is said to have written his famous children’s story Horton Hears a Who as a commentary against the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. If you have read the story or have seen the play Seussical, which was adapted from the book, you know that a Who is a very small person, so small she can barely be seen without a magnifying glass. Perhaps Geisel envisioned the Who as how the little clumps of humanity might have appeared in Hiroshima from the vantage point of the White House far away, or from the window of an airplane high above. Dr. Seuss depicts a good-versus-evil struggle between the authority of the state and the kindness of the gentle believers who recognized the little specks as “persons.” A famous line in a song defended the Whos saying, “A person’s a person no matter how small.”

Now, I understand the moral complexity of the World Wars of the 20th century. But there is no denying that during that century many leaders of the civilized world became disturbingly comfortable arguing the plausibility that it is permissible to sacrifice persons on a mass scale.

But science!

Science has no place for the concept of “person.” Don’t fret, this is actually as it should be because it is none of science’s business to dictate what a meaningful life is or is not. And neither can science abolish the objective reality of the person. The concept of person implies numerous objective consequences for human conduct, more than are entailed by the concept of human being alone.

That we are persons, i.e., that we are intrinsically in relation to others and that our lives have moral significance, is self-evident. Science has no right to veto these aspects of human life just because it does not have the tools to dissect them. These aspects are irreducible. The reality of the human person has received assent in all major religious traditions around the world.

It might or might not be significant that the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs were dropped in an age when overly zealous scientists were measuring human intelligence all around the world to determine which “races” were fully human. The eugenicist fetish was starting to take root. It wasn’t just Hiroshima, something was in the wind back then and Mr. Geisel recognized it.

Those winds are blowing today.

The authoritarian tendencies that Dr. Seuss’s Horton courageously faced down are forcing a real life showdown with us, my friends, and there has never been a better time to be Christians, to be truly radical, as radical as Dr. Seuss.

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15 thoughts on “The Radically Subversive Philosophy of Dr. Seuss”

  1. Wow! Another beautifully written article I so admire your ability to take seemingly complex topics and break them down in a way that makes them much more accessible. That is a real gift. Thank you for sharing that gift with the world!

  2. Birgit Atherton Jones

    Thank you for this insightful commentary. It’s good to know that the prolife usage of ‘a person’s a person no matter how small’ isn’t taken out of context, since Dr. Seuss truly was prolife.

  3. Great post. I was so glad to read your affirmation that a person is a “Who.” From God (three Whos and one What), to an angel, to each and every human being as an individual. A who is a person who can reflect upon himself. Only an intelligent being can self-reflect. Boetius, the seventh century philosopher, defined a person as “a subsisting individual and incommunicable substance of a rational nature.” Or something like that. Only a person is a responsible being, hence he reflects upon himself, and his acts, and therefore is a moral being. Our relationships demonstrate our knowing that every other human is a person, unique in themselves, only our nature is shared, not our person. Only a person can have spiritual faculties, of intellect and will. Memory is not a spiritual faculty. Animals have memory. But only a human can engage his memory power at will. Forgive me for going on and on. I did not read Dr. Seuss as a child, but I do remember looking at the books which we had in our house. It is the dignity of the who, the person, made in the image of God, whose Three Persons have One Intellect and One Will. Christ was unique, however, in that there was no human person in Him, only the eternal Word. Two natures, one Person.

    1. Yes indeed. You are getting what I hoped to convey. Western philosophy before Boethius was skittish about talking below the level of species.
      I really appreciate your pointing out that Jesus was not a human person. He had two natures, divine and human, so he was a human being, but his person was that of the second person of the Holy Trinity. The very concept of the person was developed by St. Thomas and others to articulate this subtle distinction in personhood. You know your stuff. You can go on and on any time around here. Please feel welcome.

    2. I really appreciate your pointing out that Jesus was not a human person.
      He had two natures, divine and human, so he was a human being, but his
      person was that of the second person of the Holy Trinity.

      Makes us think differently about the priesthood and what it means for a priest to act In Persona Christi, doesn’t it? As soon as we start viewing a priest primarily from the starting point of the priest qua human person, then we start getting it backwards. Put Christ at the center, however, and then everything changes.

  4. Thank you for this, Dr. McLeod.

    Given some of our earlier conversations (about modern love and it being used to sell stuff), have you ever noticed or suspected that Science has become a bit of an advertising gimmick, too? …blah blah blah is “scientifically proven” to blah blah blah. The way we talk about Science is interesting, too: what tends to cross most people’s minds about the wonders of Science is that it “works” and “makes my life easier!” It also gives one a feeling of “control.”

    It’s probably one of the reasons why we don’t have these kinds of conversations in our culture– certainly about types of knowledge and their limits. Often times, we don’t even know what the Hell we’re talking about (…and I didn’t use the word “Hell” lightly here), and don’t know that we don’t know.

    It might or might not be significant that the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs were dropped in an age when overly zealous scientists were measuring human intelligence all around the world to determine which “races” were fully human.

    I remember giving an in-class presentation on Soviet Science once, and one of my colleagues asked, “wait a minute, so what you’re saying is that there’s no Science?” I don’t remember my exact response, but what I was definitely trying to get at was that we were dealing with an abuse of Science/Science being used for ideological and political ends.

    1. YES. Science can’t proceed without the human person to make judgments. It presupposes a subject. And you are so right, we can’t know what we don’t know. Lots of characters use science as means of power without this requisite humility!

  5. Jeff thanks for this wonderfully insightful article. I love the concept of who is a who and the value of us humans! I love Dr. Seuss. Your right he was radical in a good way. God bless.

  6. “A who is a human being, viewed under the aspect of his or her meaning and significance in life.” One quibble: Not every person (or who) is a human being. There is the Archangel Michael, for example.

    1. Very good point, angels are persons but not human beings. Thank you. I should have said a human being is a person (or who), not a person is a human being. They are not interchangeable.

  7. Pingback: St. John Paul II Corrected Interpretation of Vatican 2 -

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