The Art of Being Human

Historian Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) made the celebrated statement that history does not reveal its alternatives. His observation was compatible with several prevalent philosophies of that era—Positivism, Marxism, Naturalism—all of which shared the common feature of explaining human behavior in terms of scientific forces: natural phenomena, economic theory, evolutionary biology, etc.

The problem was, and remains, that no matter how trivial human life may appear to be, it is a unique category irreducible to secondary or abstract features. Economic, biological, sociological and similar influences are important, but the primacy of life cannot be explained by its secondary features. On the contrary, the overreaching feature of human life is our inherent personal freedom, which has frustrated so many theoreticians of the abstract and defeated a multitude of totalitarian despots. Someone has said that the first exception to the Marxist theory of economic determinism was Karl Marx himself. As existential philosopher J.P. Sartre put it, man is necessarily free, whether he wishes to be or not. This means that life is not given to us as a finished commodity designed by abstract principles, but comes into being only as we live, only as we choose, reject, justify, love, detest, confront—and even create—our alternatives. Nor can we overlook the rectification of life we call repentance, not possible in any other reality we know of. Generally we think of it in a religious context, but it applies as readily to the whole of life. We always have the freedom to change course. This is why in order to understand anything human we cannot cite a theory but must offer a narrative. The ancient Greeks wisely refrained from honoring or vilifying those still living, for they knew not how their lives might turn at last to good or evil. For this reason, human life, personal or historical, is inherently dramatic, a quality that pertains only slightly, if at all, to other realities. It is the difference between living and existing. We know from the start the existence of a stone but cannot foretell how a living person or a people will develop or regress. This why every life is a novel, and why also human history not only reveals its alternatives but in time may become them.

The modern habit of seeing people through economic, political, or other lenses seems to be associated with a general lowering of international esteem. Today hardly any nation admires any other. If in earlier times nations were extolled for their human merits, today we tend to scorn them for their economic deficiencies. Ancient Greece and biblical Israel were small, resource-poor nations to which modern people would not give a second look. As far as we know, Moses and the prophets worked without salary, and Socrates and the philosophers dealt in the intangible currency of ideas. But what they taught the world became the enduring legacy of Western civilization: the art of being human.

Harold Raley