Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

What will happen if we stop taking ourselves for granted?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 08, 2023

In a materialistic culture, the question of how anything ever came to exist seems irretrievably lost in the mists of time, and therefore of little practical interest. But this fundamental materialism also obscures a question that really ought to arise far more often that it does. Granted that we cannot go back in time to observe the origin of material life, another question ought still to prey on our minds: Why do we so often ignore or shy away from the nature of our own existence, not just as material beings, but as persons?

Look, it is one thing to throw up our hands and say we just don’t know why there should be something instead of nothing. This is, after all, a relatively impersonal question. While the argument that there must be an uncaused cause is unanswerable without begging the question, it also seems irrelevant to the immediacy of our daily affairs. But that uninterested dismissal simply won’t do in the face of the question of why we, alone among all material beings, are persons. For while we seldom have occasion to worry about how things came to exist in the first place, the intricacies and peculiarities of our personhood occupy us, with or without active reflection, at every moment of our lives.

Moreover, it is hard not to call the bluff that we just don’t care about that peculiar riddle. The truth is that some of our human characteristics cannot be explained materially. Their only only explanation is an immaterial or spiritual one. And that is precisely why we never stop caring about the riddle of who we are.

Taking it from the top

Let me begin the answer with another question: What do I mean by “person”? I think it is reasonable simply to quote the succinct summary by Charles Taylor which may be found among Cambridge University’s philosophical papers on this topic:

A person is a being who has a sense of self, has a notion of the future and the past, can hold values, make choices; in short, can adopt life-plans. At least, a person must be the kind of being who is in principle capable of all this, however damaged these capacities may be in practice.

Few would argue that this summary of what it means to be a person is fundamentally unsound; fewer still would argue that this recognition is not essential to what we define as “happiness”. If nothing else, we might well ask why, apart from specific physical pains, we should care whether we are “happy” or not, and why we instinctively understand that some sort of “personal fulfillment”—in some ways common to all and in some ways unique to each individual—must be essential to that happiness. I do not intend to belabor these points here; they ought to be obvious even to Macaulay’s proverbial schoolboy.

Now it is certainly true that we persons, despite our capacities, take ourselves for granted much of the time. It would, after all, be debilitating to operate in a perpetual state of existential angst! Nonetheless, in some cases we slip from even a healthy self-consciousness into both the impoverishment and the potential dangers of taking ourselves for granted too much of the time. In other words, we ignore the mystery of our being.

I remember the remark made in one of his books by the late Catholic philosopher Ralph McInerny that he went on feeling immortal even after his wife died. He was referring both to our innate sense of immortality and our habitual insouciance with regard to our own mortality. It is a paradox of human nature—a paradox characteristic of no other living being—that we consistently “feel” immortal despite our knowledge of our mortality. McInerny recognized this, reflected on it, and discerned what it must mean. Unfortunately, a great many of us avoid reflecting seriously on the paradox of human personhood at all.

The things we do by our very nature

Instead, we most often delight in our differences from other natural beings without thinking much about what these differences mean. We delight in our capacity for abstract thought (at least until our abstractive intellects propose responses which would require us to discipline our wayward wills). We even spend quite a bit of time in self-reflection (an ability for which we can find no evidence in any other embodied being). Yet once again we frequently shy away when these reflections suggest that it might be better to control our desires and direct our freedom of choice along more disciplined paths. In other words, we discover through our capacity for self-reflection not only our “selves” but also our willfulness—that is, the challenging freedom of our ability choose, to will one thing over another, to direct ourselves along this path or that.

Now, one would logically expect that the interior discoveries of our intellectual reflection and our willed freedom would impel us to consider their source. After all, they do rather slam us up against the existence of a spiritual source for such essentially non-material capacities, and so they slam us, once again, into the vexing reality of God. But they also enable us to understand—should we ever have the joy of encountering it—the story of Adam and Eve who, just like the rest of us, preferred at times to hide themselves from the presence of the Lord their God (Gen 3:8).

Now this brings us to recognize the perils of self-awareness, and the dangers it poses through yet another uniquely human feature, namely our pride. However we interpret these dark hints from the book of Genesis, it was only some thousands of years after the original human flight from God that St. John the Evangelist, in speaking of the Christ, explained the fundamental problem at work in our lives: When we choose evil we choose intellectual and spiritual darkness. In so doing, we not only begin to fear the very idea of God, as Adam and Eve feared the God they knew, but we even grow to hate His light (Jn 3:20).

It is no wonder we take every excuse to ignore the deepest questions raised by our very existence as persons.

A way back?

Now this brings us to another uniquely spiritual capacity which decisively separates us from all other material beings. I mean our mysterious faculty of conscience—that is, our sense of guilt in response to moral failure—which we must parry or ignore lest it drive us to a recognition of the life we owe to God Himself. Even our unique and innate sense of fairness betrays us from our earliest years! Indeed, every person with unimpeded capacity both clings to and twists a sense of what we might call the law of right and wrong, even as we repeatedly and selectively refuse to look deeply into what this must mean.

For we are speaking of our spiritual powers here, the full range of powers we exercise that extend far beyond simple materiality, the powers of which no other embodied being displays even the slightest glimmer: Our ability to communicate, exchange ideas, and extend understanding through language; our desire for dominion and our operational capacity to bring it about; our powers of understanding and creativity, by which we both grasp and harness the essence of natural things (perhaps beginning with fire for light and warmth); our forays into realms of abstraction through the delights of mathematics and music. Nor must we ever forget that supremely human characteristic, tied at once to both our own moral sensibility and our own self-awareness. I mean embarrassment, as evidenced by our unique ability to blush.

And now, perhaps, we begin to make sense even to ourselves. For another interesting aspect of what it means to be human is that, in comparison with the animal realm, we humans have an unusually long formational period of immaturity as well as a long period of maturity following the years during which mothers can conceive and bear children. Even our peculiar awareness of the passing of time seems to be unique. The “time dimensions” of what it means to be human, with reflection on the past and speculation about the future, are already very different from the animal mode. This too is food for thought about what it means to be a person.

Law and Judgment

All of this bumps us up against a curious problem that does not seem to apply elsewhere in material creation. We understand that we are animals who have a life somehow “beyond the animal mode”, and so we call ourselves persons. We have lifespans which include enormous periods of inability to breed. Our built-in capacities and purposes seem to extend beyond the obvious “animal things”. We all know instinctively that the obvious “human things” include a moral dimension. Moreover, every normal human person has a sense of living under a judgment. We instinctively adopt a moral code, however well-constructed and however misunderstood. And of course we are restless beings, at once desirous of knowing and endlessly confused about what we call meaning.

In combination with our equally obvious mortality, it is precisely these implications to which we are instinctively attracted and from which, in our equally instinctive pride, confusion and desire to conform, we also often flee—and, in fact, we often glimpse the reality that we are fleeing. By some instinct we grasp that there is a law. By our own common sense we understand that if there is a law there must be a law-giver. And by every element of our moral logic, we either hope or fear that if there is a law-giver, then there must be a judge. As I have mentioned in the past, St. John Henry Newman mastered this argument sufficiently to point out that if there is a judge who cares enough about us to pass judgment on how we behave, we ought to assume He cares enough about us to communicate His will to us—to communicate His Divine Law, and His Divine Love.

We have here, clearly, the best possible argument to look for such a communication, and to frame this whole problem in terms not only of a Judge who rules but of a Creator who cares. We have in the simple natural argument distinguishing human persons from animals the implicit expectation of a conscious, person-driven dispensation within which we must live and move and have our being. But the degree to which we can become confused about this likelihood is by now legendary, along with the degree to which we can seek distractions from attempting to inquire into it. Thus do we find excuses for ignoring the question of what we ought to believe, and how we ought to live.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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