This is the third part of an on-going series on the value of Thomism in the 21st century. Part 1 and Part 2 are still available. This work is in progress and comments are greatly appreciated. –jln
If I characterize the problems of modernity as a loss of autonomy, a loss of meaning, and a loss of reason, what can Thomism offer to the 21st century to combat these losses? What is the anthropology that Thomism offers that provides a truer and richer picture of the human being than the current ones available? More importantly, perhaps, how can a more honest anthropology help to combat the threats of environmental collapse, despotic government, and inhuman and inhumane education of the contemporary world?
I have described the modern conception of the human being as a machine in a machine. As a machine, the human being is atomistic – whole apart from society. The human being, further, treats the world purely instrumental as an object ready to hand to satisfy his desires. Finally, as machine, he enters society with others contractually, always ready to exit society when it no longer serves his ends and always willing to give only as much as necessary to maintain his legitimacy in society. (Charles Taylor articulates these three aspects of the modern human machine in “Overcoming Epistemology” as disengaged, punctual, and atomistic.)
In contrast, the Thomistic-Aristotelian sees homo sapiens as a living social being. A living social being is, first, living by which I mean a composite of two tensions – a formal tension and a material tension. Neither the formal nor the material can exist outside of this or that particular living being. In the human being, the formal principle determines the material principle to be rational and social. The ancient philosophers would talk about this as the soul – or the form of a living body. What they mean by soul is simply that principle that organizes the matter to be this kind of matter and to act in these characteristic ways. Squirrels are organized to have four legs and a bushy tail and to act in squirrel ways – gather acorns for the winter, climbing trees to avoid predators, etc.
I am not saying anything voodoo here. We can all look out into the world and recognize that things exist as particular kinds of things. Modern science denied final cause as irrelevant to a properly scientific understanding of the world. In so doing, modern scientists separated the ability to name things from what they really are. Even today, evolutionary psychologists, like Richard Dawkins, cannot speak of living organisms without speaking in a way that intuits purpose to their actions. They deny, as they must being strict reductionist materialist, any actual purpose to living organisms, including human beings. Such denials ring with a falseness. A hydrogen atom acts differently when alone than when joined with another hydrogen atom and an oxygen atom. One can say that such different actions can be explained by mathematics, but that is not the point. The point is simply that they are organized differently and act differently. The world around speaks of form – of kinds of things, including kinds of living things.
As living beings, homo sapiens characteristically act in social ways. What do I mean by that?
Human beings clearly are individuals – I can name Sarah and Sue and James and John. Yet, Sarah and Sue grow into their identities because of the social relationships they are in. In contrast to modern social and political philosophies, Thomistic-Aristotelianism insists that human beings arrive, not as fully formed adults in the world, but as individuals who discover who they are and develop who they are in the context of their social networks. We share this insight with radical feminists and care ethicists who deny the atomistic construal of human beings. Claiming that human beings are social does not deny the individuality of human beings; rather, it is to claim that homo sapiens become individuals through social relationships – relationships of giving and receiving in the words of Alasdair MacIntyre. When those relationships are defective – when they don’t exist or when the agents in the relationship abuse the power they have in the relationship – then individuals must struggle to achieve any kind of flourishing. When those relationship are healthy – when the agents truly care for each other, even when they struggle to be with each, and when they avoid abuse of power – then individuals flourish by developing their individuality, their specific talents and skills, their specific knowledges and practices.
Being a social animal, homo sapiens does not fit the model of a machine. First, if one disassembles a machine, the parts are still useful and can be transferred between machines. The parts do not take on a new identity being placed into a new machine. Human beings cannot be so disassembled. Certainly, human beings can lose hands and arms and eyes and function well enough and even flourish. That’s just the point, however: a machine that loses its parts can no longer function, much less flourish. A human being, however, can because the human being is more than a machine – she is a whole being who purposes and ends that unify her actions.
Second, human beings are not like machines because they seek meaning in this world. Machines do not care about the purposes to which they are put to use. Homo sapiens does. In fact, characteristically, homo sapiens seek as much control over the course of their lives as possible. They seek to determine who they marry and who they don’t, who they serve and who they don’t, and what they do and what they don’t. It matters to a homo sapiens whether she marries and raises a family, whether she becomes a doctor, or both. As a social being, homo sapiens has reason, reason by which she discovers in her actions, her community, and the world meaning. These meanings can be found in the purposes she ascribes to the plants and animals of the world, or to the role she plays in society, or to the value she finds in her society and in her relationships. If those relationships or her society are ones characterized by harm, she seeks to leave them and to discover a world in which she can seek meaning. The very being in the world of homo sapiens is a being that seeks meaning and that suffers when the world is bereft of meaning.
Again, I do not have to imply that such meaning is some form of voodoo. Rather, the meaning must be something that answers to her reason.
Finally, as a living social being that seeks meaning in her world, homo sapiens wants control of her life. She recognizes in herself and in others the ability to direct her life. She also recognizes that, since others are like her and want to direct their lives, she must collaborate with others in determining society so that all can flourish. Homo sapiens is both a social being whose flourishing – including her autonomy – occurs only in society. That society must be constructed in such a way that she and others can join together to find meaning in their world and flourish.