Who is Man?

Who is Man? The answer was given unwittingly by Pontius Pilate as he showed the scourged Christ to the people.

“Ecce Homo,” 15th century, Convent of Beja
“Ecce Homo,” 15th century, Convent of Beja (photo: Public Domain)

In an age of relativism which seems to deny the definitive nature of anything, it is truly a noble endeavor to defend the definite. This being so, it might be helpful to define one of the central questions confronting our myopic and miasmic times and one of the most fundamental questions any of us can ask: Who is Man?

For the materialist, man is simply homo sapiens, a label for humanity that was only invented in the early nineteenth century and has since become synonymous with what might be termed Darwinian man. As a label, it exposes the materialist’s lack of knowledge of Latin, as well as his lack of knowledge of man. Literally, homo sapiens means “wise man,” an absurd label for humanity as a whole. All human and historical experience shows that mankind, as a collective, is not wise, nor can any individual man be considered wise in his nature, i.e., from birth. Wisdom is something that we are meant to acquire as we live our lives. We can do so through our own experience or through the experience of others. The most effective way of becoming wise is to graft ourselves onto the collective experience of humanity exhibited in the history of civilization and its published works. It is, therefore, ironic that those who believe most firmly in the concept of homo sapiens are those most likely to treat with dismissive contempt the experience of humanity to be discovered in the study of the humanities. The ironic paradox is that those who consider themselves “wise men” are those who refuse to listen to the Wise Men that history has produced!

In truth, and to be fair to the materialist, he does not really mean what he is saying, in the sense that homo sapiens is a misleading label for his understanding of man. He doesn’t really believe that the human species is wise, which implies a philosophically virtuous imperative in human nature, but merely that he is “clever”. He believes that man is simply smarter than the apes and the other animals, which is why he has been so successful. The world of difference that exists between wisdom and cleverness was summarized brilliantly in The Hobbit in which the narrator tells us that goblins “make no beautiful things, but … many clever ones”:

It is not unlikely that they invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world, especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once, for wheels and engines and explosions always delighted them, and also not working with their own hands more than they could help; but in those days and those wild parts they had not advanced (as it is called) so far. 

The fact that goblins make “clever” things indicates that intelligence is not a guarantor of goodness, nor is it necessarily a means of finding the truth. Intelligence can be used in the service of cruelty or wickedness, or in the weaving of lies, or in the service of a host of other sins. In the absence of virtue and wisdom, intelligence becomes a servant of evil. It is poisoned. Considering that Tolkien was a veteran of the First World War who had experienced what he described as the “animal horror” of trench warfare and “the carnage of the Somme,” it is not difficult to imagine that “the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once,” invented by modern-day orcs, included tanks, machine guns, airplanes and poison gas. Within ten years of the publication of The Hobbit the modern-day goblins would also invent gas chambers and atom bombs. Man is indeed clever but is he wise?   

For the Christian, in contradistinction to the materialist, man is not simply homo sapiens. He is not simply a “naked ape” or the most intelligent of the primates. He is a creature made in the image of God in a manner that distinguishes him radically from the rest of the animals. As Tolkien reminds us, “there is a part of man which is not ‘Nature’,” and is, therefore, “wholly unsatisfied by it.” A better name for man is that given to him by the Greeks, who called man anthropos, meaning those who turn upwards. Unlike the other animals which, governed by instinct, are unable to do so, man looks up at the heavens, seeking a purpose and meaning to life beyond the mere creature comforts of everyday life. Reminding ourselves of Oscar Wilde’s epigram that we’re all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars, we might see the gutter as the symbol of natural instinct and the stars as the symbol of supernatural desire. Man looks up; the lesser creatures do not. Man gazes; the animal grazes!  

What we see reflected back to us in the magic mirror of the heavens is not homo sapiens who is ultimately as enslaved by instinct as are the rest of the animals, but anthropos who seeks solace in the sun and the stars, seeing in the heavenly bodies and the music of the spheres the signifiers of the light of grace. It is in this way that Samwise Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings speaks for all of humanity when he affirms in the darkest hour that “above all shadows rides the sun”.

Another understanding of man, related to the Greek anthropos, is that of homo viator, the travelling man or the man on the journey of life, the man whose purpose is to get Home by taking the adventure that life throws at him. The archetypal homo viator in western culture is perhaps Odysseus but, in Christian terms, the archetype is the mediaeval Everyman, who gets to heaven through his good works and the help of the Christian sacraments. For the Christian, every man is homo viator, whose sole purpose (and soul’s purpose) is to travel through the adventure of life with the goal of getting to heaven, his ultimate and only true home, facing many perils and temptations along the way.

The enemy of homo viator is homo superbus (proud man), who refuses the self-sacrifice that the adventure of life demands and seeks to build a home for himself within his “self.” Such a man becomes addicted to the sins that bind him, shriveling and shrinking to the pathetic size of his gollumized self. The drama of life revolves around this battle within each of us between the homo viator we are called to be and the homo superbus we are tempted to become. This drama is mirrored in the perennial personal struggle in the heart of every man between selflessness (love) and selfishness (pride).

Who is Man? Ultimately He is Jesus Christ, the Perfect Man who shows us who we are meant to be. In becoming more like Christ we are ipso facto becoming more fully human.

Who is Man? The answer was given unwittingly by Pontius Pilate as he showed the scourged Christ to the people. Ecce Homo. Behold, Man!