Friday, July 23, 2010


The individual loses all significance within a purely mechanical universe; similarly, within a conception of society that is mechanical and that views the social order as primary, the individual is only of significance insofar as he or she contributes to the efficiency of the machine and as such is a dispensable, replaceable component. To consider the individual as having an intrinsic and absolute worth is one of the cultural accomplishments of Christianity that we abandon at our peril.

The essence of anything we talk about is conceived of as its innermost nature, its most important intrinsic characteristic, the necessary and sufficient conditions that define what it is. But this gives us merely a linguistic definition and a few spoken or written sentences do not seem to accomplish what we really intend. We talk of the essence of a flower’s perfume, of beef essence, of ‘essential oil’ of some plant or other, coffee essence, tea essence and the like; but to imagine that some intrinsic humanity can be distilled by an analogous procedure is to trivialise the question. The word ‘essential’ implies a feature without which an entity cannot be, something vital, something indispensable, something that can’t be left out, the most crucial feature of the entity in question and so on. For most of the recorded history of the human race, human beings have been regarded as having an essence in this way, something that encapsulated what it meant to be human, something that captured the human and made it what it was, something like a blueprint for life, imparted to each individual man and woman as a birth-right as he or she came into the world. Humanity has for millennia believed in some sort of ‘soul’ for this purpose. The drama of philosophy at the end of the nineteenth and at the beginning of the twentieth centuries derived from the dawning suspicion that not only did the universe not have an essence – something like a moral world order – but neither did the human being.

The contemporary belief at the beginning of the twenty-first century is that the deoxyribonucleic acid molecules at the heart of our cells do the trick. Dawkins’ notion of the selfish gene, as the ‘thing’ that determines absolutely and completely what we as humans are, is just the latest and most inflexible version of the ancient notion of the intrinsic essence of the human and is completely in accord with the primacy of reductive thing-obsessed modes of reasoning in our culture. There is, however, a problem with this kind of pars pro toto definition of what it means to be human, beyond the counter-intuitive thought that our essential being is summed up in a few grains of matter. And it is a problem that has occupied a large section of modern philosophy for most of the last century or so, particularly on the European mainland. Needless to say, it has not been solved.

The Ancient Greek philosophers were the first to put this notion of an ‘essence’ on a firm philosophical footing. Plato with his doctrine of the 'Forms’ argued that each thing in nature corresponds more or less to a non-temporal, non-spatial archetype, or template of which it is a more or less dim reflection or approximation. The form of the daisy or sheep or lion or man is a perfect, abstract ‘idea’ of everything that is implied in the generic word, the form of man is the perfect abstract conception of everything that is implied in the notion ‘man’ and is also a definition of the best possible attributes of the human. Plato’s forms define everything in nature according to their best possible state and therefore carry moral worth as a sort of ideal to which everything can be understood as approximating or striving, or from which everything can be thought of as a falling short. So for example, we, as individual humans may be striving to be perfect, but we are actually degenerate failures.

Thus Plato’s universe is structured according to a fund of ideal templates that define the best possible conception of whatever it is we happen to be talking about. And all real things within our experience fail to make the grade. There is nevertheless in his system a role for everything and everything has its role. This role is intrinsic to the structure of the universe, for all the individual forms are, as it were, gathered together within one dominant form called the ‘Form of the Good’ which is understood as organising and co-ordinating the entire universe as a sort of ideal to which the whole order of nature incessantly strives. So the universe and everything in it has a goal.

Man, in Plato’s system, therefore has a definite role allotted him within all this striving. His role is to conform himself as closely as possible to his form, his essence, by means of a disciplined exercise of reason that leads, ultimately, to an understanding of the form of the good. This means that the nature of human life and the nature of the universe are in close harmony. As in Stuart Kauffman’s vision of nature, Plato’s man is ‘at home’ in the universe, though the similarity does not go much further than that. In Plato’s philosophy, a human being’s job is clear-cut – a little too clear-cut for some: he has to develop those portions of himself that are the ‘best’ aspects of his nature, i.e. his intellect, his reason, his understanding. He has to do this because he is conforming himself ever more closely thereby to his form, that is to say to the set of characteristics that would constitute his most noble realisation. Any departure from the ideal is a moral failing.

Aristotle, profoundly influenced by his teacher Plato, whose best and most eminent student he was, reacted strongly to the notion of an abstract human essence. He developed his biological vision of the world, as we have already seen to postulate a ‘form’ of the human that was not ideal, tucked away in some mysterious ‘supercelestial place’, but rather located firmly within the organism itself, rather like the genome. For Aristotle, the essence of the human, its form, was that inner principle, that inner set of instructions, if you like, which ensured that, given the right circumstances and the right input, the individual being would grow to successful maturity and constitute a well turned-out example of whatever we happen to be considering. Thus a well turned-out tree, for example, would require that the seed – which already contains the organising ‘form’ – should fall into suitable ground, be nurtured by propitious forces, rain, sun, atmosphere, drainage and the like, and be allowed to flourish, that is to say to develop, without hindrance, its set of potentials in the best possible way. Similarly, a human being, according to Aristotle, requires an analogous, though much more complex set of optimum circumstances in order to develop his or her set of functional characteristics in the best possible way. The human being requires – along, of course, with correct nutrition and other sorts of physical nurture – benign and wise habituation or training in youth and the right social structure in adulthood to allow the full development of intellectual capacities. If these things are got right, according to Aristotle, and if the individual human being cultivates ‘virtue’ – or to translate the notion otherwise, ‘excellence’ – then the result will be happiness, that is to say a first-rate human life.

This notion of ‘virtue’ will be the theme of a later section. It is enough to say here that for Aristotle this was not understood as some sort of joyless, dutiful do-gooding, some kind of bloodless, bland, unadventurous preparedness to ‘obey the rules’, as many understand the word in our culture. On the contrary, Aristotle’s theory of human virtue (arĂȘte) implied no adherence to rules, but rather meant simply excelling at being whatever you were, and was related in meaning to the notion of ‘aristocrat’. Just as you can have an excellent race-horse, so you can have an excellent human being. The virtuous person, in Aristotle’s philosophy does not robotically obey rules; he or she rather develops every aspect of his or her (though given Aristotle’s prejudices, it was probably ‘his’ rather than ‘her’) abilities and characteristics in the best possible way, as skills, such as to achieve an outstanding performance in all respects. These abilities and characteristics are, of course, set by the form of the human, the human essence, and will, if allowed to develop properly, guarantee the success of the enterprise, as long as the individual does his bit. The fundamental point, however, is this: there is an essence of the human – a blueprint, if you like for an optimum human life – and happiness and success consist in bringing this essence out into the world in the most successful way possible. The successful human being is like an athlete, though his principal prowess is not simply in physical activity, but rather in mental excellence. Aristotle’s aristoi or aretai, his virtuous, that is to say ‘excellent’ human beings, perform habitually a kind of intellectual tightrope act of consummate skill, negotiating with intellectual brilliance the predetermined path of human life, assessing with the virtuosity of masters in their field the opportunities and threats of life, steering a well-judged middle course between excess and deficiency, weighing ends to means with consummate skill enjoying the benefits of respect, eminence, friendship, self-respect and personal wealth that come with all these successes. Of course, Aristotle was an Athenian aristocrat and in many ways his view of humanity is the view of his class. But this aside, the understanding of man according to his essence proved to be a remarkably fertile and appealing idea, one that was adopted by the Christian Church with alacrity and used to bolster its particular view of the good life.

The culture of Europe was built on the understanding of man as a being endowed with a God-given ‘soul’ at birth. This soul, for the Christians, was more than the Aristotelian form, however. It constituted the unique individuality of the person in question, it was God’s property, it came from him and would return to him, in some way or another, when physical life was over. The essence of life on earth was the cultivation of this soul in accordance with divine wishes and intentions. There was a certain optimum kind of life set before us all as a goal to be aimed at, and the Christian Gospel was the recipe for success in the achievement of this goal. This goal was ‘salvation’, by which was meant the final conformity of the soul to God’s will in complete abandonment of those aspects of human nature that were regarded as against divine will and therefore ‘sinful’. Thus any behaviour that, though possible, was not in accordance with divine intentions for the physical attributes that made such behaviour possible was regarded as sinful. Extramarital or homosexual sex, for example, was denounced as sinful precisely because it was not in accordance with ‘nature’, i.e. with what God had set as the ‘natural’ order of human life in which sexual activity was for procreation within stable, monogamous marriage and not for any other purposes. However the principal occupation of the Christian was not so much the cultivation of the Aristotelian virtues of as the development of the specifically Christian virtues of faith, hope and charity which represented the specifically Christian advance on the classical virtues of temperance, prudence, fortitude and justice.

Thus the soul of man, in Christianity, came with a complete set of directives, a kind of ‘Instructions for Use’ that could not be interpreted according to individual wishes and inclinations, but only according to what God had pre-ordained. This model of the human life dominated the entire medieval period and determined the entire nature of the culture and of the social order, which it orchestrated. The progress of the soul through the temptations and pitfalls of earthly life – pitfalls that illustrated its departures from its own perfection – was the prime preoccupation of all authority – at least officially. This notion of the soul determined the hierarchical nature of society and set the shape of human life from cradle to grave. The soul was worthy for salvation or ripe for damnation – both of these outcomes being forms of divine disposition – according to the extent to which it had either lived out its earthly existence in obedience to the divinely created essence and developed the Christian virtues, or gone its own way and cultivated a degenerate caricature of its intrinsic being.

Now whatever one thinks of these sorts of prescriptive attitudes to human life that lay down a ground plan for its optimisation – and there are still plenty of them around in the world – it is undeniable that they give a firm sense of identity, a firm sense of purpose and direction, a firm sense of the meaning of individual existence. The individual is conscious of his or her place in the universal order of things. Where the culture of modern western humanity differs from almost any other culture that preceded it is precisely in this lack of prescription, this lack of clear direction and pre-established meaning. Modern western man does not have a soul to begin with. His body can be defined with reasonable precision, but the soul has been pronounced by his science to be non-existent, because it cannot be weighed, measured or otherwise quantified by means of current naturalistic methods. He does not have an essence either, despite his well-understood genome, because it is impossible to define him with regard to any set of values; and values are what make us human. The genetic definition only prescribes the body-plan, not what is to be done with the life it lives. According to the scientific assessment of man, only the body counts and what the body is capable of is simply a matter of fact rather than of value.

Now this is not what worries us when we talk in terms of seeking meaning and purpose to life. Of course, there is the culture of the body beautiful that seems to suggest that there is a certain optimum physical appearance that can be achieved by everyone; but no-one is convinced by such commercial deceit and media chatter. And anyway, it is impossible to define scientifically. The mind, moreover, desires more than the striking of pretty poses. The meaning of life, if there is such a thing, must be entirely separate from any assessment of bodily dimensions, proportions, coloration, efficiency, fecundity or whatever. It must concern an identifiable link between the individual and the universe in which his or her life is set. One can clearly not talk in terms of this link if the prevailing ideology dictates that the only link between a human being and the world is the fact that the body is a 3D thing located in a universe of 3D things. This ideology declares that the laws of things (physics) govern the body as a thing, but that beyond that, the so-called ‘individual mind’ is a delusion that has no role at all in the universe. Thus so far from setting an essential link between human mind and world, the prevailing ideology suggests that it is almost of the essence of the human – at least of that bit of the human that is called the ‘mind’ – to be alienated, unrelated, lacking identity, a stranger in the universe. Unless some arbitrary social role is adopted. The prevailing ideology has set the way we feel about ourselves at variance with the way we think about ourselves: we feel ourselves to be souls; we think we are things. The result is alienation.

This state of affairs will be examined in a little greater detail in the next section. It is sufficient to emphasise here that the thing-ideology permits definition of the human, and therefore identification of any essence, only in terms of physical and functional characteristics. Since that is the case, the self is entirely shut out from any identifiable role, function or indeed significance. The thing-ideology cannot deal with the self, never mind the soul. The self, as the ‘ghost in the machine’ is condemned to a strange half- or non-existence without status or recognition, condemned to haunt the material world like a disconsolate spook, without home, without goal, without meaning, without value. And what is the reason for this uncomfortable, chilly state of affairs? It is not that the self has been found not to exist; it is simply that the thing-ideology lacks the conceptual equipment even to talk about it.

The staggering fact is that the majority of people in the west, at least of educated people, profess to be convinced by what is for them – in their unprejudiced and honest moments – most clearly false. The denial of the soul is a classic case of something that we humans persistently do with great readiness: denying the presence of the elephant in the room, of arguing ourselves into believing that black is white. The essence of the human cannot, simply cannot be tied exclusively to the body as thing, definable as all things are in terms of its space-occupancy and movement. This is impossible because each human person is entirely convinced of his or her status as a unique mind with a unique identity; and the ideology that declares the human existent to be just a lump of matter is not a good reason to abandon this conviction. It is the discovery of that unique identity that ultimately constitutes the principal aim of most people; and it is the discovery of the related destiny that modern philosophy, in the form of Existentialism, pronounced to be the entire, private responsibility of the individual.

Existence, in this philosophy, is a formless, shapeless business and the craving for meaning on the part of the individual can only be satisfied by rejecting all pre-conceptions, all essences and following the logic of this position to the bitter end. It is this notion of the essential freedom of the self that preoccupied Existentialists from Kierkegaard onwards and it is this notion that links Existentialism to many other great philosophical insights. The human being may legitimately be considered as a body, a thing, and as subject to the deterministic forces of physics. But the human being also has to be considered as a ‘thing in itself’ to use Kant’s phrase and as an essentially free self outside of the spatio-temporal structure of matter. Existentialism ultimately had no conceptual machinery with which to discuss the freedom and non-thinginess of the human; but at least it was aware that if essentialism was to be jettisoned, then the material essentialism that tried to understand human existence in terms of physics and chemistry alone could never produce an intellectually satisfying or indeed cogent account of our lot.

For Jean-Paul Sartre, the contents of the world fell into two principal categories, the ‘in-itself’ (en-soi) and the ‘for-itself’ (pour-soi). The in-itself is the world of everything that is not human: objects, plants, animals; and the for-itself is the human. The en-soi for Sartre pursued an unproblematic existence that is dictated by the essence of whatever it is. A stone cannot help being a stone. A tree will simply be a tree, a pig will spend its entire life being a pig. The essence of these entities dictates entirely the type of existence that they enjoy. Their essence precedes their existence and completely determines it. For the en-soi, however, that is to say for the human being, there is no essence. Existence is a matter of complete and total freedom to be and do absolutely anything at all. Human beings, in Sartre’s philosophy have no dictating, determining essence. There is a divorce between what they are and what they do. What they are is complete freedom. What they do then determines what they become. Thus existence, in Sartre’s famous slogan “precedes essence”. This freedom of the human to act without guidelines, without directions, without prescriptions became the heart of the philosophy of Existentialism. Sartre thus embraced a kind of incomprehensible dualism that derived from Kant’s separation of the world into the phenomenal and the noumenal; but in Sartre’s version, unlike in Kant’s philosophy, there is absolutely no way of bridging the gap between the two. Sartre was completely under the sway of twentieth century naturalism and accepted the mechanical conception of the universe as an ontology and not just as a construction. Within the universal mechanism, the pour-soi, as anomalous freedom is absurd and has to carve out its own meaning with its own resources. Existence became problematic because there was no obvious way in which men and women could decide on one course of action rather than another. Everything was of equal worth or unworth.

It is all very well for evolutionary biologists to pronounce that our body-plan is dictated for us by chance and selection and that a contingent collocation of material particles is what we are. Biology more than any other modern science has a vested interest in seeing human beings as determined objects. We all know that that is not what we are. We all know that the question of our existence remains to be solved and it is not solved by our considering ourselves counterintuitively as things. It is just as intelligent to consider ourselves not as things but as selves, and only selves insofar as we experience in contemplative ecstasy the totality of the cosmos as indeterminate, timeless present. This is only a fuzzy notion if one is obsessed by definitions of 3D things. We, in a materialistic age, think it is intelligent to see our being as that of a thing among things; but it is just as intelligent to see our self as the intelligent link with the whole intelligent movement of the cosmos and of that (universal and individual) intelligence as providing our essence. True, such an essence can not be a 3D thing, as our body is a thing; but what of that? If we do not bow to the thing-ideology, if we do not accept the sterile dualism of the incomprehensibly free mind floating around in the inhospitable machine, then we are free to imagine other possibilities. For example this:

The essence of intelligence is coherent relation. If one considers creative intelligence to be the essential characteristic of the human and if one considers the universe as a whole to be creatively intelligent (by no means a silly hypothesis!), then the relation of the one to the other is clearly essential to our intelligent existence. This is certainly not a relation of objects in space; but why should that be the only relation?