“WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE A HUMAN BEING?”
In reading an article on Thoreau, I discovered the question that is the title of this article. It intrigued me. Just what does it mean to be a human being? The answer could be the description of one who is more chimpanzee than man or one who is more sinner than saint—or the reverse. But I suspect that the question was posed to elicit an answer that describes a human being with the character and occupation that other beings could look upon, say, a millennium from now, and exclaim proudly and consensually, “There is what it means to be a human being.”
It would not be a medieval knight. It would be, perhaps, one who is an incarnation of Thoreau, who preached the virtue of simplifying life to the extent of throwing away baubles to save the time of dusting them—a preachment that in this day of Wal-Mart madness would be a whisper in a whirlwind— and who when asked why he was in prison (He was there for refusing to pay a tax to support the Mexican War.) asked his interrogator why he was not in there with him. Or it could be that Donald Trump would be the victor in a contest among moderns who have never heard of Thoreau or Emerson or Whitman or any other personality whose obsession and occupation were other than women and tall buildings and profits exceeding the sensuality of the women and the height of the buildings.
If nature were to chose an individual who reflects the optimum meaning of being human on the basis that the perpetuation of its choice would be conducive to the present happiness and future of human beings, what would that person exhibit as character and what would be his chosen occupation and principled stand are questions to which I do not know the answers. But I am tempted to attempt to formulate some.
First, he would express and live a refusal of the world as it stands. He would because it is obvious that the world cannot continue as it is without a dire consequence, a consequence that will probably be a slow miserable extinction rather than an apocalypse. Therefore, he would foremost protest the abuses of the environment, particularly capitalism’s cancerous abuse, its conversion, pillage and plunder of life’s natural endowment: that is, its forests, lands, waters, and every other resource susceptible to being cut, dug and fashioned into stuff that sells and returns a profit—mostly stuff and things that the Id yammers and yearns to have.
He would deplore mass and the assembly-line production, which confines marvels of evolution, namely man and woman, to do over and over and over what an idiot could be taught to do, and makes of persons of great potential automatons, who, if they work at it long enough, sacrifice their promise and spirit and life often for unfair returns. Man’s joy is the use of his hands and mind to imagine and produce from raw materials that which he needs. The shoemaker of centuries ago was happier at his craft than is the mass-producing Asian gluing sole, after sole, after sole— stressed to meet a goal— to Nike shoes for hours for a pittance.
He would never cease to accuse capitalists of expropriating unto themselves as profit the value create by labor and thereby making themselves rich and richer and keeping workers in a payday-to-payday fix and poor and poorer. The Constitution, the Common Law and the statutory law have been created, decided and perpetuated by men who approved capital’s advantage and labor’s exploitation on the ground that there is equal opportunity for everyone to exploit others and to thereby become rich.
But there is no equal opportunity among un-equals. Is the American Dream equally available to the black son of a broken home in Hoboken, who, desperate to relieve the daily boredom of nothing, turns to drugs—as it is to the scion of a wealthy family, who enters Princeton and leaves with a law degree to become a member of a Wall Street law firm?
Second, he would commit his life to the fundamentals that can be inferred from a reading of the evolutionary history of life. He would never leave the land and enter the city, never leave the natural, agrarian environment for the artificial or man-made, urban environment, where he would either become the object of exploitation or a subject that exploits, either a slave or a slave-holder. He would abide by Tolstoy’s first condition of earthly happiness: “Man’s union with nature should not be infringed—that is to say, that he should live under the open sky, in the light of the sun and in fresh air, in contact with earth, with vegetation, and with animals.” He would do work. In Tolstoy’s words: “In the first place voluntary work which one is fond of, and secondly physical work which gives one an appetite and sound, restful sleep.” And he would have a family and die naturally at home surrounded with the members of his family.
He would consider himself to be an animal, to be related to all life, to have had his origin billions of years ago at the same place and time that all life had it origin. Thus, he would revere all life and do his best to protect it and conserve it. He would do so because of his understanding that the well-being of all other life conduces to his well-being and all others like him.
He would belong to no religion whose creed included the supernatural or miracles or exclusiveness. He would avoid institutionalized religions, particularly those that promised a hereafter with a heaven for believers and a hell for non-believers, as he would a plague. The origin of his morality would be his conscience, the voice of nature, and the words of the ancients. He would worship, if it all, nature and whatever god or gods conceived it and created it, if any.
Finally, he would rise above tribalism. He would see himself as related to all the people everywhere in the world and would not pledge himself to the narrow, nationalistic notion that his people, right or wrong, are worthy of his sacrifice on their behalf. But he would refuse to support them if he deemed them to be in the wrong. And he would support all others who followed conscience and reason instead of allegiance and emotion.
This Christian nation seems unaware of its religious heritage. Its Teacher said blessed are the meek, merciful, the peacemakers and those who hunger for righteousness. But its leaders are prideful, powerful, merciless, bellicose and those who thirst for power and profit. Is the meaning of being human the former or the latter?