A Casual Argument for a Virtue
There are broadly speaking two ways to understand humanitas or “humanity.” The newer way is as the designation of a species or, if one is somewhat more scientifically educated, a genus of terrestrial creatures that evolved from common ancestors with contemporary apes, of which our species, Homo sapiens, are the survivors (by virtue of conquest and intermarriage, it seems). The older way of talking about humanitas is something else entirely: as a virtue of “refinement,” of cultural sophistication, however that sophistication is understood—be it intellectual, moral, honorary, etc.. These days, such qualities are generally the pursuit of “the humanities,” broadly conceived (and inclusive of the arts). In what follows I will clarify the meaning of humanity in the first sense in order to outline the appropriate cultivation of humanitas in the second. As with my previous casual arguments, on religion and pluralism, relatively little of what I will have to say is original to me or unaffected by some wide array of arguments made better by others elsewhere. These are casual arguments, meant not to make conclusive cases but to make a series of points that gesture at a reasonable conclusion even while acknowledging a variety of aporiai.
In contemporary scientific parlance, humans are any of the variety of organisms belonging to the genus Homo, of which we are simply the most recent (and, apparently, well-adapted).1 This is perhaps the first thing to get straight about “humanity” as a concept of biology or speciation: it evolves with us, as we develop ever greater awareness of where we stand on a spectrum of beings like and unlike us. The concept that there is some psychocorporeally essentialist account of “humanity,” which can be isolated and abstracted from the cosmic order of quantum, astral, planetary, mineral, plant, and animal folds in which we exist, runs aground on what we know about the emergence of humans from and as the natural world, and the ties that continue to bind us to what we typically think of as the “non-human” world. This does not have to amount to a radical skepticism of being able to identify anything as human, as Stephen RL Clark has argued, but it is a fantastic safeguard against anthropofascism:
Those who accept there are no rigid boundaries in nature, and that nearly the same gene set which maintains our own bodily being might, in different circumstances, have had a very different outcome, don’t have to believe that we, as individuals, are indefinitely malleable, nor that it would be right to engineer particular outcomes to suit the interests of the rich and the powerful. On the contrary, we may both relish the actual outcomes, and remember that there is one and the same nature at work in all of us—from super-humans to sea squirts. Nor do we have to imagine what people who think like this would do: Platonists and Pythagoreans were the ones who more often insisted on respect for other creatures, however little “like us” they might at first appear, while also supposing that the same soul, the same life, was at work in all of them. That is another and still longer story. It is enough for now to understand the dangers, and embrace the opportunities, of a biologically educated biocentrism.…Differences are desirable, in the living earth as much as in human society, since it is only such differences that allow us to survive at all. They are desirable also in that—as we recognize—it is the more varied, colorful world that is the more beautiful, the more worth our respect. Differences are not diseases. And variations are always on a theme.—Stephen RL Clark, Can We Believe in People?: Human Significance in an Interconnected Cosmos (Kindle edition; New York: Angelico Press, 2020), 1794-1810.
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In this sense, the genus Homo and the species Homo sapiens express something unique in the “unfolding” (this is what evolvo, evolvere literally means in Latin) of life here and (probably) elsewhere. Whether that uniqueness has something to do with some abstract list of qualities we take to be “human”—hairlessness by comparison to other apes, obligate bipedalism, certain sensory powers of vision, audition, taction, gustation, and olfaction, tool use, abstract and symbolic thinking, agriculture, or more elusive and ubiquitous qualities like intentionality and love—is less interesting than the simple experience of the idiosyncrasy of being or being around humans itself. After all, most of our judgments about those things that make us uniquely human are either accidents of birth—chronography, biology, geography, culture, etc.—or they are qualities that we assume to be absent on purpose, because it affords a leg up on the competition. It is easier to justify, for example, the violence of predation and carnivory if one thinks of the animals, however sacred, as somehow inferior—indeed, thinks of them as “animals” in an othering sense at all. It is easier to justify the anti-sophianic act of deforestation if one simply ignores the obvious souls of trees. And it is of course much easier to engage in exploitative activities, not just towards the natural world, but also towards other humans if one postures as possessing a true or paradigmatic humanity while others possess a humanity that is at best partial and at worst aberrant and marred. Such has been the argument countless times in the history of Homo sapiens, one is afraid: it may well have been one of our original arguments, and indeed one of our original sins, when applied against our human cousins like the Neanderthals. But one need not reach back so far: evidence of human brutality against the other is perhaps the most salient quality of human civilizations from prehistory to the present, at least if one is looking beyond the glamor of wealth and power to the realities of poverty, food scarcity, war, slavery, sexual exploitation, socially, politically, and religious licit violence, and the like which have characterized Homo sapiens at least since the agricultural revolution.2 Whatever qualities we identify as truly or greatly “human”—superior strength or intellect, appropriate morals, civilizational achievements, feats of daring or creativity, etc.—can be and often are used against the vulnerable, human or nonhuman.
This is not to posit an unqualified, unconditioned humanity, per se, but rather to say that we must be wary of essentialist accounts of humans, since they nearly always serve a more nefarious purpose. This is true even and sometimes especially when the quality is a philosophical or theological one. Take, for example, the classic Jewish and Christian contention that humanity is made “in” or “according to God’s image and likeness” (the preposition changes from Hebrew to Greek; Gen 1:26-28). The imago Dei is a theological idea with a long interpretive history, one with potential that is at once liberative, repressive, and oppressive. Originally, the concept probably reflects a pantheon in which El, the chief of the divine council and original husband to Asherah, addresses the assembled gods, and his divine wife, with the intention that they should collectively create human beings in their image; hence, maleness and femaleness to resemble the gods and goddesses, and especially El and Asherah themselves, the divine power couple. In an ancient Southwest Asian context, where rival myths of creation like the Enuma Elish asserted human origins from dirt mingled with the blood of a treacherous, humiliated god, and in which kings generally claimed divine parentage or descent as sons of their gods and therefore also human images of their gods, the anthropology of Genesis 1 is potentially revolutionary: now, all humans, male and female, are the image and likeness of God (the composite Elohim of the Gen 1:1-2:3). Or, in Early Christian circles, perhaps the imago Dei is revolutionary because the divine image resides in everyone, as a summons to cultivate the divine likeness through acquisition of virtue and assimilation to the divine, deification, as Christ had enabled (2 Pet 1:4) and Plato commended (Theaetetus 176b). Being human on this reading makes one like the divine and capable, even, of becoming divine. But in ancient Israel and Judah, royal and priestly claimants to the divine image were happy to claim an exclusive monopoly on divine representation and assimilation; the possibility of deification for all, or at least all the righteous, emerged only gradually in Early Jewish texts,3 just as a more democratic and positive afterlife only gradually appeared in Greek and Egyptian circles. Despite the fact that “male and female” are both equated with the imago Dei in Genesis 1:26-28, early readers of these texts questioned just how divine women were. Philo of Alexandria, for example, despite asserting that the human being created after God’s image and likeness was neither male nor female, but a noetic being, takes the misogynistic view that, in the second creation story, “since nothing is stable in the world of becoming and mortal beings necessarily undergo reverses and changes, the first human being too had to enjoy some ill fortune. The starting-point of a blameworthy life becomes for him woman” (Philo, De Opificio Mundi, XXI.151).4 Paul of Tarsus, writing not long after Philo, clarifying that says that a man “is the image and glory of God,” but “the woman [in this case, probably the hypothetical man’s wife, since the word is gyne] is the glory of a man” (1 Cor 11:7). Paul is, he clarifies, worried about the possibility of some angelic adulteration at the eucharistic assembly (11:10), hearkening back to the Enochic mythos of the Watchers who took human wives. But what should catch our eye, here, is that while there is a way to read Paul that would include women within the image of God, Paul does not explicitly say that, and generations of Early Christian writers were happy to take his meaning to exclude women from the imago Dei, and even to question or qualify their full possession of human nature. Never mind that the undisputed Paul also clearly taught the transcendence of sex and gender through baptism and therefore at the eucharistic mensa, never mind that the earliest Christ-following communities of which we are aware seem to have had egalitarian practices across sexual, social, economic, and ethnic divides, never mind that the doctrine of the Incarnation as the restoration of the imago Dei stood behind these developments: when it became more convenient to Christians to adhere to Greco-Roman gender norms, the imago Dei was a weapon of some against others for possession of true humanity. So too has it frequently been weaponized against ethnic, philosophical, and religious groups found undesirable by hegemonic cultures, many of them claiming the Christian mantle. When the New World was first contacted by European explorers, for example, the question which plagued many of the conquerors and colonizers was precisely whether indigenous, First Nations peoples were in fact fully human, descended from Adam’s common stock, and therefore worthy of at least the notional dignity of God’s image. The convenient answer, not infrequently pursued by the conquistadores, was No; the response of some of the missionaries that tagged along with them was Yes, though, of course, a Yes that predicated their humanity’s full dignity on whether they would eventually become Christian.
My purpose is not to abandon or disparage the idea of the imago Dei. As a Christian, I believe it, and as an aspiring philanthropos and cosmopolites, especially through scholarship on comparative religion and mysticism, I think it is one of the most fundamentally important ideas humans have ever had. But if it is to be used in any sense to define what it is to be human, then its excesses and abuses must first be acknowledged and dispensed. Uses of the imago Dei which deny the rest of the kosmos, especially animals and plants, our kinship and proper respect, ought to be anathema; uses of the imago Dei which discriminate full humanity on the basis of sex, gender, ethnicity, nationality, religion, or so forth certainly are. This implies, by the way, that our concept of “humanity” itself must be more fluid: if we are to predicate being human on the imago Dei, it certainly seems silly or at least unwise to arbitrarily self-select our own species as its sole participant, given that we have displaced other cousins of the genus Homo and we may well be displaced someday ourselves. What’s more, we now have a bit more reason to think than the ancients did that we live in a vast kosmos, probably full of life, into which our expansion, if it is to happen at all, will be very gradual and is likely to already have been outpaced by at least some of the galactic or intergalactic siblings we share the universe with. The universe’s size and antiquity, mingled with the probability of life’s ubiquity, is a recipe for the idea that at least some life more or less like ourselves, not to mention life utterly unlike ourselves, has surpassed our place on the Kardashev Scale; if we are to use a concept as heady as the imago Dei to explain what it is to be human, we have to do so with a healthy degree of self-awareness that we very possibly exist on the cosmic margins of a reality in which many generations of gods, demigods, superior lifeforms, civilizations, empires, and the like have come and gone before ever we crawled down from the trees. Surely, any understanding of our own uniqueness as something exclusive of the divine image and likeness to beings capable of, say, governing numerous worlds, warping spacetime for travel, harvesting the available energy of local stars, clusters, or galaxies, traveling between dimensions or worlds or what have you—all of which, by the way, are concepts more or less mappable onto what Jews, Christians, and Muslims have traditionally believed about the higher orders of angels, implying minimally that we should not dismiss such speculation out of hand—would be at best comical and at worst profoundly hubristic.
How, then, can we appeal to the imago Dei responsibly? I would suggest there are at least three workable principles here. Humbly recognizing that we may not be the first or the only to share it, we ought to acknowledge first that the imago Dei represents something significant in the unfolding kosmos, whenever and wherever it occurs, as a kind of universal reciprocity with respect to (literally, “looking back upon”) the God from whom all things emerge and to whom they return. That is to say, the imago Dei is part of nature—it is not separate from the world God creates—but it also represents a unique inflection of nature’s general participation in God’s infinite being, consciousness, and bliss, such that in the creature created “in” or “according to” the divine image and likeness, the world looks back upon both itself and God together. Second, then, the imago Dei can only ever be held corporately, in communion with kosmos, God, and other image-bearers: “in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen 1:28). The imago Dei, the privileges that are assigned to it in biblical and related literature, and the moral reasoning that emerges from it cannot be separated from the rest of the universe as though to possess the divine image isolated one from everything else, for it is precisely as mikrokosmos, the “little universe,” that the human being possesses the divine image at all, as Philo, Clement, Origen, and the Cappadocians—especially Gregory Nyssen—all argued. Nor then can the divine image become the basis on which the privileges of some trample on the rights of others: the imago Dei is either held collectively, universally, or not at all. This is not to deny the moral complexity and imperfection of the fallen kosmos; it is rather to say that what decisions we make respecting the humanity of some must be applicable to all or they cannot hold. Such renders every complementarianism, every Doctrine of Discovery null: where humanity, conceived as the imago Dei, exists, there can be no finally justified inequality of dignity at any level or sphere. Difference is not grounds for devaluation or diminution; this is frankly the whole point of the personalist philosophy Christianity derived from the concept to begin with.5 Third, any account of humanity appealing to the imago Dei for its definition, humbly acknowledging that is by its very nature a concept shared with and in the context of the wider world of God’s creation and equally, fully, and only with other human persons (again, probably best thought of far beyond the pale of Homo sapiens), must reckon with the epistemological aporia this presents about being able to know “what” a human being is. For if at the heart of humanity is an analogy to divinity—that what it is to be human images in the world and as the world what it is to be God—then this is tantamount to saying that humanity is nothing less than the nexus of created infinity, or rather the node through which the divine infinity itself pours into the world and through the world in a special, internal way as a heightened instance of the world’s own coming-to-be from God. And this means that there is no essentialist account of the human being—no abstract “human nature,” no arbitrary theory of the limits of “human potential”—which can be used to capture the distinctively human. When we are getting to know the human, it will not do to begin from heady, abstract definitions and proceed to concrete examples: we will have to instead begin from the human person, which is to say, from human people, themselves.
This brings me back around, in a circuitous way, to the older and simpler definition of humanitas, the “refinement” of classical education in what we now call the “humanities,” that is, the catalogue of human experience in the arts and sciences. As I wrote some time ago, the most basic foundation in this kind of education is the skillset of critical thinking, the procession from Platonic wonder through the investigative and dialectical methods to an aporia opening back upon mystery in contemplation and love. How might a suitably aporetic, apophatic doctrine of humanity itself change humanitas itself? Certainly, by heeding the calls for inclusivity and breadth in the study of antiquities and philosophy, the interdisciplinary desire to describe the human experience from numerous angles, and a union of conservative energies towards the preservation of the memory of past human experience with the progressive impulse towards the betterment of human life for all people, everywhere. Humanity in this sense is not something we study in order to arrive at a definition, still less a program: it is rather something we investigate with every available power as an inexhaustible mystery by which we begin to probe also those of the world and of God. Certainly, humans can obscure or even offend against those mysteries; but they also, in their innermost truth, bring them together under a common visage.
For an introduction, see Silvana Condemi and Francois Savatier, A Pocket History of Human Evolution: How We Became Sapiens (Paris: Flammarion, 2018, trans. 2019); Bernard Wood, Human Evolution: A Very Short Introduction, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019); in broader perspective, John Hands, Cosmosapiens: Human Evolution from the Origin of the Universe (New York: Abrams Press, 2017). It is still the case that if one looks for a comprehensive introduction to the human story, one is bound to run across Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (SanFrancisco: HarperOne, 2015), but there are two caveats one should keep in mind about that book: first, Harari is not trained in any of the disciplines requisite to have written it, and second, his materialistic determinism and transhumanism clearly shape his understanding of what is important about the human past and what will come to be in the human future. A more recent counter to his work and the theorists he depends on is David Graeber and David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (New York: Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux, 2021).
I here say “at least,” since there is some debate about how egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies really were. There is a dual temptation, in both cases with present rhetorical power, to read our earliest human ancestors as either natural patriarchalists or radical progressive egalitarians. While it does seem that hunter-gatherer societies did not experience many of the sufferings of post-agricultural societies, in part because they were more equal, it is probably unwise to understand their existence as too Edenic.
Among others, see Martha Himmelfarb, A Kingdom of Priests: Ancestry and Merit in Ancient Judaism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), and my own thesis, “A Kingdom of Priests and Gods.”
I have opted here to use David Runia’s translation. See Philo of Alexandria, On the Creation of the Cosmos According to Moses, trans. David T. Runia (Leiden: Brill, 2001).