return to religion-online

Graceful Courage: A Venture in Christian Humanism by Roger Hazelton

Walter Wink is the author of The Powers That Be (Doubleday). This essay appeared in Loving God With One’s Mind, by F. Thomas Trotter, copyright 1987 by the Board of Higher Education and Ministry of the United Methodist Church. Used by permission. This document was prepared for Religion Online by William E. Chapman.

Chapter 1: Taking the Human Measure

The measure you give will be the measure you get. óMatthew 7:2

Measuring Humanly

Whatever we may decide to call it ultimately, courage is a way of taking the human measure of oneís world. Ordinary speech makes this quite clear. Courageous people, we say, are those who take things in their stride, or lay their bodies on the line, as yesterdayís idiom had it. They match their own strength against distress or disaster; they calculate chances of success in the face of possible failure; or they wager present certainties for the sake of gaining an uncertain future happiness. We might say that such persons take the measure of what is measuring them.

While this can hardly be termed a full and proper definition of the word courage, it does provide a useful frame of reference within which any talk of courage can make genuine sense. For unless we are able to locate and acknowledge some distinctively human frame for viewing and taking the world, the kind of behavior usually called courageous will seem either superfluous or absurd. This is true of all the ways in which courage is required and revealed, such as scientific inquiry or artistic creation, not to mention choosing a vocation or raising a family.

But is it not just a bit strange to begin this study in such a roundabout manner? Surely someone will protest: "Being human" is no great mystery. Isnít it merely a synonym for what l call Ďmy lifeí? " No, not exactly, since even to call my life mine is to assert some degree of leverage or advantage over it -- a measured and measuring distance not to be accounted for by subhuman reflexes, mutations, or conditioning. Indeed I am more than my life, not merely because I am the one who is living it, but also in the more important sense of William Jamesís familiar pun, "It all depends upon the liver."

So it is scarcely to be wondered at that human beings, like animated question marks, should ask what being human really means. Past efforts to define that meaning -- Homo Sapiens, homo faber, homo ludens, and the rest -- are confusingly many, but none has entirely lost its force and each has its advocates in contemporary thought. Human being is rational, political, spiritual; the same animal who makes tools, solves problems, and builds cities also plays, laughs, loves, and worships. Each attempt to reduce these signs of humanness to a single formula falls of its own weight into special pleading and irrelevance sooner or later. It is easy to share the impatience of Ludwig Feuerbach, who wanted to put a stop to all this by declaring Man ist wass er isst-- man is what he eats. But the questioning and answering will never end, as any definition offered must include the fact that to be human is to try to define oneself.

Taking the human measure, therefore, is part and parcel of our very humanity. Efforts in this direction are fraught with considerable ambiguity and not a little anxiety. It is foolish to suppose that such a measure can be found by adding head counts or subtracting body counts, any more than by test scores and opinion polls, typologies and ideologies, or any other kind of simulated accuracy. No fair sample or statistical average can ever yield a human measure, as these methods and devices only complicate the matter without being able to address it.

No act of measuring is as simple as it seems. "Measure" is both a noun and a verb, referring either to a unitary interval of time or space taken as a basis for determining distance or duration, or to the process by which such determinations are made. One dictionary gives no less than fourteen meanings for the single word. That should discourage the idea that measuring is only laying one object alongside another, then reading and recording what the facts are. As methods and instruments of measurement become more delicate and sophisticated, this illusion of simple objectivity grows stronger, oddly enough. Yet margins of error still have to be allowed for; better means of measuring must be devised; a full and final reading of "the facts" continues to elude thermometers and speedometers, X-rays and polygraphs.

A human measure is unavoidably at work in even the most elementary calculations at the physical level. I cannot determine the length of a room or the height of a tree without employing the human language of inches and feet. I read into the situation quite as much as I read off from it. And this is still more strikingly true of the "nicely calculated less and more" of moral judgments, as it is of the notoriously variable estimates of artistic worth. The rule here seems to be, no measurement without a measurer. Once an astronomer was asked whether dealing with such vast magnitudes as light-years produced a sense of human littleness and insignificance. "No," he replied, "for man is the astronomer."

Every measurement reacts upon, as it reflects, the one who makes it. Astronomers find that what is seen through telescopes requires finer tools and operations for better seeing. The Copernican revolution was revolutionary because it brought about necessary changes in human self-understanding quite as much as in the physical sciences. As men and women take the measure of the medium into which they venture, they become both measuring and measured. Have you ever watched an inchworm make its way across a sidewalk? It covers the distance to be traveled by a curious rhythm of arching and stretching movements, laying its body on the line over and over until the crossing is made. So, too, human beings measure what they are measured by, as they insist upon being heard and felt within the total drift of things, making their own way from here to there, through time and space that do not belong to them. The way from birth to death is marked by obstacles turned into opportunities, capabilities called forth by limiting circumstances. Thus courage may be described in its most elementary form.

A Question From Protagoras

In ancient Athens there was a Sophist named Protagoras who made a handsome reputation teaching arete or human excellence to young men preparing for political leadership. He claimed to be able to impart civic virtue to those who paid for his instruction. His specialty was rhetoric, as the art of speaking well had much to do with molding public opinion and decision-making in the new Athenian democracy. Like other Sophists he was confident that virtue could be taught and learned -- "shaping the soul," he called it -- and was among the first to hold up the ideal of an ethical culture open in principle to all members of a given society. As Platoís dialogue about him indicates, he related in mythical form his belief that Zeus gave a sense of justice and the idea of law to all humankind, thereby distinguishing men and women from the animals that eat one another, and enabling them to learn to live together in peaceable polities of their own choosing.

Protagoras is best-known, however, for his statement "Man is the measure of all things, of those which are, that they are, and of those which are not, that they are not." The oratorical, not to say oracular, tone of this saying, wrenched out of context, has offended high-minded moralists in every age, who have pounced upon it in order to ridicule or refute it. Standing by itself, is it not merely an excuse for doing whatever comes naturally without having to acknowledge any more-than-human standard of behavior or belief? Apparently the Platonic Socrates thought so. If Protagoras meant only that nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so, then he is properly charged with solipsism as to knowledge, relativism as to morals, and perhaps atheism as to religion.

But notice that none of this is what the controversial sentence actually says. Call Protagorasís statement only partly true, if you will; but most truth usually reaches us in the form of part-truths such as this. The maxim has been described as a masterpiece of overstatement; but at times the truth cannot even be heard unless it is couched in an exaggerated style.

Suppose we take Protagorasís saying as an observation rather than as an opinion; is it not utterly obvious? I cannot reject its portion of truth unless I grant its validity as well, unless I claim for my rejection an absolute position of advantage to which I am not entitled. If I deny its truth with the front of my mind it will very soon demand entrance at the back. In other words, the world is measured humanly or not at all. Ages before the metric system was invented, lengths and distances were measured in terms of relation to hands, arms, or feet. Is this so different, actually, from modern relativity theory, at least in principle? According to the general form of the theory, the observer in the act of observing physical phenomena ought -- theoretically, of course -- to be included in the observation itself. If taken seriously this has a devastating effect upon the notion that the world is somehow divided into subjects and objects, human minds and natural facts, existing independently of one another. Swiftís Gulliverís Travels puts into story form the truth that if somebody becomes suddenly large his or her world shrinks to diminutive size, while if one grows small the world seems monstrously huge. Whatever theories may be derived from it, the point that all things are measured humanly or not at all holds true.

Protagoras could speak of "man" as many still do, which suggests the human measure without specifying it. The word has a long and honorable usage, though present-day feminists may object that it is patronizing if not downright insulting to women. But can a better word be found? "Humanity" is probably too abstract to be useful, with its collective overtones coming from the Age of Reason. A much older word, "Everyman," once carried allegorical, dramatic value, bringing upon the stage as a single figure that which is both individually and universally human, but many people today regard it as hopelessly medieval. We seem to be left then with such limp expressions as "humankind" or "humanness" for saying what the homo mensura signifies. Perhaps "humanhood" is better, but only future usage can tell. The Latin term humanitas may appeal to some academic types. Or we may find occasional help in borrowing words from other languages (Mensch, uomo, etc.) that convey nonsexist meaning. Hybrid or hyphenated words are awkward for most purposes, and we need to be alert to the subtle ways in which gender gets embedded in grammar itself. So we are left with an intractable problem.

One would like to be as positive and definite about the human measure as Protagoras believed he was, but it is much easier to say what it is not than what it actually is. No such measure can be detected and read off as merely another piece of the world, more of the same, for the good reason that the measure is doing the measuring. No piling up of scientific data can either produce it or eliminate it. If an act of courage, for example, could be traced to a convolution in the frontal lobe of the brainís left hemisphere, would that "explain" the act? Well, yes and no, but mostly no. Embarrassed by such difficulties, one may almost apply to the homo mensura the answer Louis Armstrong gave when asked what jazz is: "Man, if you gotta ask what it is, you ainít never gonna get to know." Almost, but not quite, as the question of a human measure will persist after all the unsatisfactory answers have been discarded.

And surely that was the very point Protagoras wished to make. His own way of posing the question as a pronouncement may seem overconfident, but that could be our problem and not his. Are we on safer ground when we presume to quantify "all things" as if a human measure did not exist? Can truth be limited to fact?

For instance, is time merely a unit interval indefinitely repeated with nonhuman regularity and machinelike precision ? No, for clocks and calendars fall far short of measuring those rushes and pauses that make Up the lived reality of human time. The very tempo of the times in which and through which we live, forever changing yet strangely recurrent, is as elusive as it is decisive. Short or long, trivial or momentous, our time is "the unperceived prism through which the worldís duration manifests itself to me.íí1

Or consider space: I apprehend it only by moving within it, since only with and through my body am I aware of anything at all. I orient myself front and back, left and right, up and down, from wherever I am in space. I distinguish near from far and high from low, as my standpoint defines my viewpoint. H. Richard Niebuhr used to tell his students that whereas we have always known that the human mind is in space and time, the past two centuries have shown us that time and space are also in the human mind. Just so; and here comes Protagoras again, to haunt us in our age of supersonic speeds and microwaves.

Most of the criticisms directed against Protagorasís famous maxim fall very wide of the mark. His sentence as it stands, and from what we know of his thought elsewhere, does not indicate a purely individualistic or subjective view of humanly recognized truth. This is ruled out because the word man in his sentence clearly refers to humankind as a whole. Goetheís comment is perceptive: "We may watch Nature, measure her, reckon her, weigh her, etc., as we will. It is yet but our measure and weight, since man (Mensch) is the measure of all things."2

Nor can Protagorasís principle be fairly taken to mean ethical relativism or skepticism as is often charged. He does not refuse to distinguish between what merely seems good or bad and what is really so. If, as he claimed, virtue can be taught, then it should be possible to correct errors in moral judgment. Although he had obviously given up the attempt to locate norms for moral conduct in either natural law or divine commandment, Protagoras nevertheless believed that dike or justice is written into the very stuff of human character and civilization. It is innate, not imposed or conventional. Therefore it cannot be neglected, or evaded, by any member of the polis or city-state, but remains the touchstone of all human acts and motives. Justice, or fairness toward a fellow human being, is the measure of our humanity itself.

As for his presumed irreligion, what Protagoras actually said, or is credited with saying, was that he was unable to affirm either the existence or the nonexistence of God. He was therefore an agnostic who suspended judgment on the matter, rather than an atheist who regarded belief in God as unreasonable and indefensible. In his view, atheists claim to know too much about not knowing God. Still, Protagoras left us with a question, ours as much as his, that Werner Jaeger poses in the following way: "Are religious skepticism and indifference, which Plato opposed so bitterly and which made him a fierce and lifelong opponent of the Sophists, essential elements of humanism ?"3 This, writes Jaeger, is clearly a question of history, but any answer we may give to it will be a profession of faith or unfaith. The Sophists were the first in ancient Greece to open the rift between rational culture and religion. Thus they raised what Jaeger calls "the fundamental problem of all education": that of having to look backward to the rich religious and moral roots of tradition, but also forward to the religious and philosophical problem of reaching "a concept of life which surrounds and protects humanity like a tender root, but also gives it back the fertile soil in which to grow." In Jaegerís own judgment Plato did not destroy but perfected the humanism of the Sophists: "By going behind the ideal of the Sophists, he went beyond it."4

A Clue from Pascal

Three centuries ago, feeling the first full shock of the Copernican revolution which abandoned once and for all the picture of a flat earth at the center of the universe, a young scientist named Blaise Pascal confessed that he was terrified by "the eternal silence of those infinite spaces." He continued:

So let us take our measure. We are something, not everything ... extremes etude us.... Nothing stays for us.... Man, for instance, is related to all he knows. His existence requires space, time, movement elements to compose him, warmth and food to nourish him, air to breathe.... He is in a dependent relationship to everything.... Man is to himself the most amazing thing in nature.... This is the height of his problem and yet it is his very being.5

Human being is struck by its own "disproportion" in relation to other states and levels of being. We try to be at home in a world at once too great and too small for us. We even invent telescopes and microscopes -- "two instruments of nearly equal hope," Robert Frost wrote ironically -- in order to perfect our measuring powers. We are adrift, it seems, between two infinities that bracket our existence: "How many realms there are which know us not!" To be human in the world disclosed by modern science means to be woefully out of scale and yet determined to find oneís own place within the baffling, silent whole of things. But how may a part of the picture see the picture? And how may one ask the right questions when the questioner remains a question to oneself?

As a celebrated mathematician and physicist who invented the first mechanical computer, Pascal was thoroughly familiar with many kinds of measuring. But his words, "Let us take our measure," suggest a different sort of method and standard than the sciences can provide. This difference he expressed in his distinction between the "geometrical" and the "intuitive" mind. In human matters, he asserted, the poets and prophets have a real advantage over those expert mathematicians who "would take me for a proposition." Pascal argued that the method used in study should vary with the subject being studied; when "man" is in question, qualities such as empathy, imaginative finesse, and conversational wit have their own right and force.

"We are something, not everything," the pensée of Pascal continues, thus modifying classical self-confidence by a more ironic, tragic wisdom with both scientific and Christian sources. It is by measuring what we are measured by that we learn not to think more highly, or indeed less highly, of ourselves than we ought to think. So we make our presence felt within "the ample bosom of Nature"; but so also we pick up strange signals which cannot honestly be thought to be the amplified echoes of our own. Hence our most ingenious calculations and calibrations still leave us with a very loose fit between mind and world, and this is the veritable human situation as Pascal sees it.

In writing that "man is related to all he knows" this scientist turned humanist meant to propose that knowing is more a matter of participation than of simple observation. John Dewey in our century voiced his agreement with this view with the statement "Knowledge is not a glassy eye beholding a ready-made reality." In other words, I am not a camera even though I try to think or act like one. That is because self-knowledge enters into every form of knowing, all the way from its initial fixing of attention to its reflective interpretation. Being in what Pascal terms "a dependent relationship to everything," the knower cannot dominate or be controlled by what he knows without disturbing the fine balances and linkages that make knowledge possible in the first place. And this, as Pascal notes, is both the height of my problem and my very being as a knower.

"There is much that is strange," intones the chorus in Sophoclesís Antigone, "but nothing that surpasses man in strangeness." This is repeated by Pascal with admirable terseness: ĎíMan is to himself the most amazing thing in nature." How significant it is that the onset of modern scientific thought has not been able to dislodge the Christian and also classical tradition that there is sheer mystery in the fact of being human! Today that same mystery is more aggravated and accentuated than ever before.

By restating Protagorasís proposition in the form of a question, Pascal puts the accent upon seeking rather than stating the truth about what it takes to make and keep human life human in the world. Important as it may be to distinguish what is human from the extrahuman, infrahuman, or superhuman features of the experienced world, there can be little cause for self-congratulation in making any such distinction. "All men are mortal ... therefore Socrates is mortal": finiteness remains the signature of everything human. And yet one knows oneself to be finite only because one knows, or at least believes, something else and more. In Pascalís words, "we are made for infinity"; that is, we have our being-in-the-world as bounded by what is unbounded, not as something that is self-evident and self-explaining.

It is only fair to acknowledge that Pascal has his own motives for emphasizing human disproportion, insecurity, and anxiety, which he sums up under the word wretchedness. In his Pensées he hopes to lead his reader by the route of self-despair into readiness for the remedy of Christian faith. Thus he evokes the "misery of man without God" so powerfully only in order to prepare room in manís heart for the "greatness of man with God." In this vein he writes: "Man infinitely transcends man, and without the aid of faith he is incomprehensible to himself."6 What are we to make of so paradoxical a statement? Does Pascal want to have it both ways, Christian and classical-pagan, at once?

Plainly, Pascal shares the Renaissance view of human being as self-transcending without discarding the Christian view that human greatness is a gift of God known only in faith. According to Pascal, faith in God does not remove the human mystery by giving certainty instead. It offers no "answer" to the human "problem" in any back-of-the-book sense. Nor does faith in his view mean the denial or displacement of human reason as a guide of life, for it is reason that must decide when it has gotten out of its depth and whether it should embrace the claims of faith. Believing or not believing in God is a choice that involves risk, for as William James was to write later, "in either case we act, taking our life in our hands."7

It is thought, Pascal declares, that is the dignifying mark of human nature: "All our dignity consists in thought.... Let us labor then to think well.... It is thought which constitutes the greatness of man."8 This reminds us of Descartesís more famous formula, "I think, therefore I am." But Pascal prefers to say it in reverse. The fact that we are visibly made to think is not so much a proof of our existing humanly as it is the measure of our capacity to make existence more human. The worth of thinking depends entirely upon what use is made of it, what its objects and intentions are. Thus, while the classic Western view that "man is a rational animal" is certainly safe with Pascal, he knows as well as Marx or Freud that reasoning may easily become mere rationalizing. This inveterate habit of making the worse appear the better reason he calls by its religious name: sin.

For Pascal, then, taking the human measure means adopting a standard of measurement that is more than human without being other than human. Knowing who I really am, he thinks, is not an innate faculty that is self-intuited and self-possessed, but an ability or potency that needs always to be repaired and renewed from beyond itself. Pascal would have welcomed the conviction tersely expressed by the English poet Samuel Daniel:

Unless he can above himself erect himself
How poor a thing is man!

Vision and the Human Measure

In our own epoch the effort to find and use a truly human measure goes on. It is made more pressing by those dehumanizing forces and conditions that threaten people everywhere today. Especially in contemporary art around the world this urgency is being felt and given significant shape. Here, for example, is Jacques Maritain commenting on the paintings of Picassoís middle period: "His distorted human faces are perhaps our true likeness, when we are seen by the angels."9 One need not believe literally in angels to get the point of this remark. The human face is a likeness, not a mere datum alongside other data. It is a more-than-meets-the-eye recognition that to exist humanly is to be seen as well as to see, yet normally not to see ourselves as others see us.

Pascal had wished to guard the human measure by adopting a common Renaissance formula ni ange ni bête, neither animal nor angel. His great contemporary Rembrandt, sitting for hours with his sketch pad before his mirror, returned again and again to taking his own measure. How keenly Rembrandt in his candid self-portraits understood the mystery of the human face!

A set of colored slides prepared by UNESCO gives striking documentation to this mysterious measure in human portraiture. The first slide shows a kneeling prisoner bound and blinded, from Chinese sculpture of perhaps the fifth century B.C. There follows a series of portrayals from Hellenistic, Roman, Coptic, Mayan, East Asian, African, Byzantine, and late medieval sources, concluding with a quizzical self-portrait by the German expressionist Max Beckmann. In viewing these figures, the variables of condition, class, or culture seem far less significant than the constants of a shared humanness. A viewer is confronted with an existence very like oneís own; a bond is drawn close across boundaries of every kind. Indeed, a rendezvous or meeting place is made possible by such works of art, as the following quotation from Paul Cézanne shows:

Our canvasses are the milestones of Man -- from the reindeer on the walls of the caves to the cliffs of Monet -- from the hunters, the fishermen who inhabit the tombs of Egypt, the comical scenes of Pompeii, the frescoes of Pisa and Siena, the mythological compositions of Veronese and Rubens, from all these the same spirit comes down to us.... We are all the same man. I shall add another link to the chain of color My own blue link.10

Even when human beings are not the explicit subject matter of a work of art, the work itself elucidates and celebrates the human measure. Neither a birdís-eye nor a Godís-eye view is available to artists, although they may be able to reveal within their work itself how limited is the all-too-human vision that informs it. Imaginative or artistic vision, just because it assumes the rather awesome task of seeing things as they are, pursues that task through what Maritain calls "the region of obscurity" where a spade is not simply a spade and where a face out of the distant past may question me about my own future.

The importance of this matter of vision may be glimpsed, first, by noting how often we use this particular metaphor in everyday conversation. A metaphor it surely is -- that is, stating one thing in order to signify another -- and it permeates our speech and thought, especially our speech regarding thought. So when I say "I see" my meaning is "I understand." Just what is there in thinking that resembles seeing? Throughout the centuries scientists and philosophers have warned against confusing image with idea, precept with concept; yet it is safe to predict that metaphors of sight for insight will persist in general use. Is there perhaps something unavoidable about this habit?

It is true that our traditions in the West have emphasized the positive connections between seeing and knowing; but exactly how this relation should be understood has been a matter of endless debate. Is it the case that neurosensory responses to visual stimuli are model situations for all instances of knowing or thinking correctly? Or is it rather the case that even visual perception is interpreted, or preinterpreted, by means of some prior human measure as to what is knowable or thinkable? After all, there are optical illusions like mirages to be reckoned with. What we see is not necessarily what we know. Are there, then, any ground rules for this metaphor of vision by which confusion can be lessened and clarity assured?

Language usage gives at least two clues in this direction. One is that while the adjective "visual" is ordinarily tied to sense perception taken literally, the noun "vision" has in most cases a more spacious metaphorical suggestiveness. That is, the noun refers to moments of extraordinary insight, almost a kind of superception. This is actually the first, preferred definition in the Oxford English Dictionary, where one might expect to find a more restricted optical meaning given: "1. Something which is apparently seen otherwise than by ordinary sight; especially an appearance of a prophetic or mystical character, or having the nature of a revelation. "11

A further clue comes from the fact that in common talk the visual arts often stand proxy for the arts in general. If someone says "art" the initial association is likely to be with museum-housed works of painting or sculpture. Now there is certainly a visual element in all the arts insofar as they show or present meanings that are verbal, mimetic, formal, or musical. But in what sense is a combination of sounds, for instance, a mode of seeing and being seen? Composers like Leonard Bernstein write freely of "images" and "colors" in music. Is this way of speaking merely a metaphor that has gotten out of control? Or is it an added bit of evidence that whatever else an artwork may be, it is an occasion for visioning -- attending, apprehending, realizing -- rather than of simple visualizing?

The word vision does indeed carry a more-than-sensory meaning even when it refers chiefly to sensory perceiving. Its proper tenor is that of seeing more than meets the eye although its vehicle may only be the registering of optical impressions. Hence imaging and imagining may not be such radically different functions as a literal-minded age assumes. If vision as a metaphor "works" it must do so because the making of metaphors is itself a genuine kind of vision. Here is a circuit of meaning, kept open by the fact that vehicle and tenor in the metaphor of vision are interchangeable. Seeing is not merely something eyes do, as "the eyes are a part of the mind" (Leo Steinberg).

Vision, then, is a metaphorical and not a literal activity. We "see" one thing in terms of another through a transfer of meaning, a transfer all the more remarkable since it is usually not conscious of itself when being made. Maritainís point about the angels is not so farfetched, after all. The seeing and making-seen which is the quality of artistic visioning helps us to understand ;understand what goes on in visualizing at every level of human experience.

It is by metaphor and image, by stating or showing one thing so as to signify another, that we human beings have our being in the world. Why then should we profess to be astonished by the kind of vision that the arts exemplify so clearly? Every woman, child, or man is by nature a certain kind of artist -- measuring by myth and metaphor, by symbol and sign, the world in which our true likeness is disclosed to us.

Merely or Truly Human?

There are urgent reasons why a human measure ought to be protected and defended at the present time, for it is threatened on all sides. A computerized and consumerized mentality knows little and cares less about taking such a measure of oneself or oneís world. Happiness comes in a package, preferably gift-wrapped, purchased at the store. Health is a commodity marketed by expert entrepreneurs. Identity is conferred by labeling the many roles one is required to play. There is the oddly stubborn habit --why not admit that it is a prejudice? -- of accounting for lived experiences in the foreign language of mechanical operations. "Getting involved" is what gears do when they mesh. "Adjustment" takes place at the back of a garage. "Interaction" is borrowed from physics to apply to close encounters of a personal kind. And what shall be said of the dismal notion that we can somehow get "beyond freedom and dignity" by supposedly scientific means?

A truly human measure is grotesquely lacking in todayís lifeworld. That world has been flawed horribly enough already by "manís inhumanity to man." A century that began in great hope is drawing to its close in a mood of equally great despair. It must be obvious to every thinking, feeling person that the processes of dehumanization have reached insidious proportions. Tender-minded humanists lay the responsibility for the debacle at the door of tough-minded scientists, forgetting that science is among the noblest ways of measuring all things humanly. Blaming our predicament on technology is hardly pertinent, either. What, really, is a "mechanical failure"? It is easy enough to agree with Emersonís earlier warning, "Things are in the saddle and ride mankind," but that is scarcely a situation for which "things" are to blame. It is only human beings who can dehumanize themselves.

Do we not seem to be caught in the grip of a mode of control that has less and less control over itself? We have been at this self-destructing business for a very long while. From Roger Baconís ominous announcement of the modern principle that knowledge is power to the recent statement by an American astronaut that we can now "put space to work for us," the direction taken has been all too clear. It is time to take again the human measure of what humankind is doing and where all this violation and exploitation are leading us. The question to be asked now, "groaningly" as Pascal would say, is whether the deceptive simplifications by which a human measure is avoided may not simply be deceptions.

For our encouragement let us recall that the same question has been raised in ages long before our own. It was addressed by statesmen like Cicero, by slaves like Epictetus, scientists like Galileo. Indeed the homo mensura has been alive and well in many centuries and cultures; actually, it is irresistible and irrepressible despite all appearances to the contrary. For instance, it came slyly to the fore in an elderly patient who complained to Erik Erikson: "Doctor, my bowels are sluggish, my feet hurt, my heart jumps, and, you know, Doctor, I donít feel so good myself."

In no way can the feeling self be factored out from what is felt. True, the bodyís aches and pains can and should be treated in practical isolation from the human being who suffers them; so to treat them is a necessary part of the medical procedures that safeguard and promote health. I submit to anesthesia on an operating table because I really want the surgeon to treat me objectively, as an organism and not a person. Yet that does not argue for the view that regards self or soul or spirit as merely ephemeral to bodily existence, any more than that personal concerns are to be dismissed or bypassed in the total situation. Present-day debates in biomedical ethics all revolve about this point, in fact. They have to do with when a definitely human life begins in utero and when it ends in extremis, with what its signs and warrants are.

Exactly what, then, is to be gained by adding the adjective "human" to qualify such large amorphous nouns as "experience," "nature," or "history"? Much every way, as the apostle Paul wrote on another matter. The adjective is not superfluous; it can serve as a warning signal, a kind of semantic watchdog buffering oversimplified and understated distortions of the human measure. The qualifying word has metrical, perspectival force, suggesting without presuming to spell out or pin down what it nevertheless insists upon saying. If one agrees with the philosopher Wittgenstein (the "later" Wittgenstein, that is) in his view that the function of language is not so much to state as to show the truth, then the word human has its rightful place. Even when not inserted it should be understood, as Pascal or Protagoras argued. Omitting it is actually to bracket it, thus calling attention to its absence.

However, a further question now begins to form. Is the word human only a limiting, depreciating adjective or does it have a broadening, amplifying resonance in speech? Spoken or written, does it conjure up phantoms like Desmond Morrisís "naked ape" or Shakespeareís "forked radish"? Or is it to be aligned with Shakespeareís other view, "What a piece of work is man!"? In short, does it mean merely human or fully human?

Whichever meaning is intended, both a nothing-but and a more-than measure of the human are essential. One is complementary to the other. So, when we ask what it takes to keep human life human in the world, we bring together both senses in a single sentence. For the word, instead of pointing to some fixed and stable quantity, is flexibly qualitative without ceasing to be factual. It affirms, let us say, an anthropomorphic meaning while disclaiming an anthropocentric meaning. Or, if this seems too didactic, being human implies and requires being humane as well. Taking the human measure means not only finding but also holding oneís place in the world. These goals are not pursued by persons isolated from each other, nor in competition with each other. Whole communities concerned with the quality of their common life must be engaged in furthering these pursuits, realizing that the good of each is the good of all. These things being so, it is the order of the day to stand up and be counted in support of a truly human measure.



1. Edmond Barbotin, Humanity of Man (New York: Orbis Books,1975), 107.

2. Goethe, Conversations with Eckermann.

3. Werner Jaeger, Paideia (New York: Oxford University Press, 1939-1944), I:301.

4. Ibid., 302-303.

5. Pascal, Pensées Everymanís Library (London: Dent, 1960), no. 390.

6. Pascal, Pensées, no. 242.

7. William James, The Will to Believe and Other Essays (New York and London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1897), 30.

8. Pascal, Pensées, no. 232.

9. Jacques Maritain, Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry (New York: Pantheon Books, 1962), 79.

10. Quoted by Theodore Rousseau, Jr., "Cézanne as an Old Master,"Art News (April 1962).

11. Rudolf Arnheim, Visual Thinking (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969), 273.


Viewed 62523 times.