Meaning is the Key
I’ve said a good deal in this series about how the deck is stacked against us in considering human dignity not only by our own propensity to hide from what we really know, but by the very way in which our secularized culture structures knowledge. But this negative assessment would be useless if it could not serve as the context for a proper understanding of human dignity, a context for extracting what we cannot not know about it.
Unless a person’s faculties are truncated or injured by some tragedy, each and every one of us recognizes in himself an intelligent and free agent. Many people argue, in their personal flight from truth, that this recognition is an illusion, but nobody—I repeat, nobody—lives as if it is an illusion. We go right on analyzing our world, formulating goals and purposes, and directing ourselves to pursue them. What’s more, we perceive that we do this, and we reflect abstractly on our ability to do it, on what is required to do it well, and on how the process is working out. We human persons are supremely self-aware, and sometimes embarrassedly so.
This is simply another way of saying that intellect and will are at the core of what we are. It is one of the fundamental things that we cannot not know.
Conversely, no matter how devoted we may be to animal rights, or how taken we may be with philosopher Peter Singer’s dictum that chickens are people too, not a single one of us believes that other visible living things share this propensity to analyze, decide and commit, or possess any significant self-awareness or personal reflection in their responses to the demands of life. In other words, as far as we can tell, intellect and will do not lie at the core of any other visible being.
A moment’s reflection on this circumstance tells us what is truly unique and radically different about the human person. Please recall that in the very first installment, I agreed with the common modern insight that human dignity must consist in what is uniquely human, and I sympathized with those who conclude that human dignity consists primarily in the unique human ability to reshape nature. But I also hinted that there were problems with the definition of nature here, and for good reason. The chief problem is that our very ability to reshape material nature—that is, our apparent ability to transcend nature—is really part of our own unique and special nature, and another proof of our striking possession of intellect and will.
I will take up later the spiritual implications of this discussion. But now, at last, we are getting somewhere on the question of human dignity. For surely we have no warrant for assuming that, because we can manipulate physical nature for ends that we alone can conceive, we necessarily ought to do so. In fact, it is extremely unlikely that our dignity should consist in attacking all or any part of our nature, for this would surely render our dignity a self-defeating and destructive concept. That cannot be what we are looking for at all. On the contrary, the real point of our self-understanding as intelligent and purposeful beings is that we can both grasp and respond to meaning.
This is another thing that we cannot not know. The human person, unique among all visible creatures, deals in meaning—in reading reality to discern truths, ends, purposes, and destinies. Paradoxically, we also have an enormous love-hate relationship with this burden of meaning. Our passions rebel when we discover in the ultimate meaning of our lives some reason to curtail these same passions, and our pride rebels against the very existence of a meaning we do not author for ourselves. Yet at the same time, we find that when our lives are unmoored from meaning, we become anxious and afraid. We try to lose ourselves in pleasure and, when pleasure fails to please, in suicide. Meaning—our perception of its existence and our stormy relationship with it—is the necessary companion of intellect and will. Meaning too lies at the very core of our existence.
The ancient Greeks, who possessed an acutely philosophical bent, explored the twists and turns of meaning in their epic poems, their plays, and their philosophies. The best minds of the classical world in general worked out theories of what constitutes the good life, a properly ordered life, and they understood that the role of reason was paramount in identifying human goals and achieving the highest forms of happiness. They understood that this came from the mind’s conformity with reality, that is, truth. So strong was this cultural perception of the meaning intrinsic to reality that the heroes of ancient Greek plays routinely fell by running afoul of deep realities that they could not even reasonably be expected to know. Indeed, the quest for meaning is arduous for the human person and, left to his own devices, its results are fragmentary.
Our very self-perception as intelligent and free agents cries out for a deeper grasp of our own meaning, a grasp which seems beyond our reach. This also has spiritual implications (to which, again, I will return later in the series), but to take a single example, it is clear that our perception of moral meaning, when coupled with the reproach of conscience, leads us to the inkling that we stand under a judgment, which implies the existence of a Judge. Thus in our inescapable thirst for meaning, the idea of God leads us to seek a revelation.
But I do not wish to explore the supernatural yet. Here it is enough to observe one thing more about our love-hate relationship with meaning, one thing more that arises from our stormy character as intelligent and free agents: We are weak and disordered, at war with our very selves. Every one of us learns this through personal experience; it is a fundamental reality which we cannot escape. Not infrequently, we reject what we cannot not know naturally; we are even prone to reject revelation when we find it; and we go so far as to pretend that such knowledge does not or even cannot exist. But at the same time, this sense of weakness and disorder and ongoing internal war over meaning is one more thing that we perceive as unique about ourselves, something that distinguishes us from all other visible creatures—and, in fact, though it is a leap ahead, from every creature on earth, under the earth, or above the earth, whether visible or invisible.
Again, it is perfectly legitimate to assume that the special dignity of the human person must consist in what is unique about the human person. And what is unique about the human person is both his grasp of meaning and his internal struggle to accept his own meaning and commit himself to it as the guide to life. Another word for meaning here is truth, as applied to our own nature, purposes and ends. Human dignity consists in this unceasing struggle to live according to the truth. And the demands of human dignity are fully satisfied only insofar as this struggle is successful.
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