"Always More Than Is Seen": Benedict XVI on the Meaning of Man | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | March 1, 2008 | Ignatius Insight
"May each one ... always feel impelled to love and serve life from its beginning to its natural end. In fact, welcoming human life as a gift to be respected, protected and promoted is a commitment of everyone, all the more so when it is weak and needs care and attention, both before birth and in its terminal phase." — Benedict XVI, Angelus, February 3, 2008.
"Failing to ask questions about man's being would lead inevitably to refusing to seek the objective truth about being as a whole, and hence, to no longer be able to recognize the basis on which human dignity, the dignity of every person, rests from the embryonic stage to natural death." — Benedict XVI, "The Changing Identity of the Individual", To Members of the Inter-academic Conference (Institut de France), January 29, 2008.
Clear minds can state briefly and accurately the essence of an issue. Aquinas, of course, is a model here, as was Aristotle. Chesterton could always do it even with humor. A faithful reader of L'Osservatore Romano never knows just where, in the weekly selection of papal remarks and documents, he will be most struck by something Benedict says or writes. But it is almost always the case that he will unexpectedly find something quite profound in some unlikely sounding audience or talk.
In the beginning, I have cited two remarks of the pope. They were given within a couple of days of each other, one at a regular Sunday Angelus, the second a short talk in the Hall of Popes to an academic group that has something to do with the Institut de France, just what it does not say. The total length of the latter talk, about which I want to speak here, is probably about a half page of the papal newspaper. (My present essay on this talk is longer!) Its title, "The Changing Identity of the Individual," at first sight, strikes us as improbable. No individual changes into some other individual, though he may, hopefully, change into more of himself, more what he ought to be. So we are curious about just what Benedict had in mind here.
In content, both citations are quite familiar to us, which is why I cited them together. They infuriate the pro-abortion advocates but reconfirm those who understand the sanctity of human life in all its stages. The constant teaching of the papacy in modern times, something based also on standard biological evidence, is simply that human life is unique and sacred from its conception until its natural death. Human life is not at the service of something else, particularly science; it is itself the "something else" that needs first to be served both by science and ordinary human living. This service constitutes the dignity of both science and our daily lives.
The first citation is more in the form of a plea or even a prayer, "may we recognize...." The second citation is more philosophical. When we know what the human being is, we still must put our actions toward its protection into effect. This is not always easy. Not everyone does it. But the principle is clear. Human life in all its forms is sacred, even when it is not so considered by law or by theories that seek to deny this basic truth about what is human.
This colloquium to which this latter talk was given was under the patronage of Prince Gabriel de Broglie. De Broglie is a famous French family, known in many philosophical and scientific circles in the last centuries. The conference was under the auspices of several pontifical organizations. This conference was evidently a first effort at such "inter-academic" discussions.
Benedict begins his talk by noting that the exact sciences "have progressed prodigiously in the knowledge of man and the universe." The danger is that the scientific method used in these sciences will be the only method used to understand man. Man's "wholeness" will be "isolated" by a method that by definition can only study a part of him, that part subject to matter. This part is the least important part of him. Scientific method cannot examine things that do not fall under its presuppositions, as the whole of man does not, particularly his freedom and intelligence.
Man has his own "mystery." "No science can say who man is, where he comes from or where he is going." Of course, scientists do propose every day "answers" to these very questions, answers that themselves can be philosophically examined for their plausibility. But because "science" cannot speak to such basic questions by its methods, it does not follow that no way exists whereby we might address them. Other ways, equally "scientific," exist but they are not based on the same premises.
Philosophical and theological methods also address the fullness of what man is. Benedict cites John Paul II in Fides et Ratio in this regard. What is the basis of the phenomenon which we observe? If a thing acts in a certain way, it can only be because it has the capacity so to act. "The spiritual core and the ground from which it comes" are themselves issues that arise from our knowing human things. We are reflectively aware that our knowledge is not simply material.
The title of this present essay ("Always More Than Is Seen") comes from the following remark of Benedict: "Man is always more than what is seen or perceived of him through experience." We do perceive something of him through experience, of course. We really exist in a real world in which matter as such is good. Without this grounding in an objective reality, we could not begin at all. Still, "man is always more than what is seen or perceived of him through experience." The very structure of man is that he cannot be fully known to others unless he allows himself so to be known. This is what love and friendship are about. Yet, what is seen and perceived also comes from this "more" that the individual man is.
Is it a human perfection not to know ourselves? The very Socratic principle that founds our civilization is simply that we are to "know ourselves." If we do everything else but strive also to know ourselves, we will never even know adequately what is not ourselves.
We will never know what we are. We are not simply the products of our experiences. As Socrates said, we are to examine our lives daily, not as a chore, but as a task of our very being. We not only are, but want to know both that we are and how we are in a world that includes what is not ourselves. In this sense, the knowledge of who we are and that we are, as such, is intended to be a delight. Our existence is not designed ultimately to be a burden, unless we make it so, which we are free to do.
"Failing to ask questions about man's being would lead inevitably to refusing to seek the objective truth about being as a whole, and hence, to no longer be able to recognize the basis on which human dignity, the dignity of every person, rests from the embryonic state to natural death." Not seeking actively to know what we are is itself an intellectual fault of the first order. The failure daily to examine ourselves, as Socrates said, constitutes a failure to accept our own being. In this passage, the pope identifies himself with this classic tradition. The first sign of not knowing what we are is our "failure to ask questions about our being."
I often think that people "fail" to ask such questions primarily because they are suspicious of the answers, afraid that the truth about them both exists and makes demands on them. Thus, not wanting to know about ourselves leads us to theories that do not really explain reality but justify us in doing what we want to do. No one is completely devoid of theory about himself. Everyone "explains" his actions, his life. He either has a correct or incorrect theory. What is suggested here is that the incorrect theory is usually a direct result of a suspicion that the truth is the truth but that to live the truth requires changing one's beliefs and life. If we refuse to do this, we must develop a theory—a rationale contrary to the truth—to justify how we live.
The pope proceeds to refer to what theology and philosophy can contribute to understanding "human identity," our understanding of which is "constantly developing." Human identity does not change, but we gain more and more understanding of what we are. Directly referring to the discussions of this inter-academic group, the pope adds: "Starting with questions on the new being derived from cellular fusion and who bears a new and specific genetic patrimony, you have brought to the fore some essential elements of the mystery of man, marked by otherness: a being created by God, a being in the image of God, a being who is loved and is made to love." The specific "otherness" of each person, what it means to understand his wholeness, includes understanding his creation by God. He is a being who is both loved and made in love. These realities constitute our understanding of what we deal with when we deal with each person who is what he is from his conception to his natural death.
Benedict continues by reflecting on the significance of our specific otherness. "As a human person, man is never closed in on himself; he is always a bearer of otherness and from the very first moment of his existence interacts with other human beings, as the human sciences increasingly bring to light." The very meaning of the word person is related to the notion of Trinity, wherein each Person is, as such, related in His very being to the others. We are created in the image of the Trinity, in our case after the Person of the Word.
The "otherness" that is within each person refers not only to his actual genetic heritage, that is, to the relation he has to his parents and family, but to his very origin in God. The human soul is not "evolved" out of some non-soul, but is directly created from within the inner possibilities of the Godhead. This is why, when we know someone else, we eventually discover that the existence of someone else, particularly of those we love, leads to a source beyond ourselves. The other leads to the Other.
"Man is neither the result of chance nor of a bundle of convergences nor of forms of determinism nor physico-chemical interactions; he is a being who enjoys freedom, which, while taking his nature into account, transcends it and symbolizes this mystery of otherness that dwells within him." We notice that this sentence, implicitly, contains all the proposals for human origins that seek to explain man by some purely scientific hypothesis. The very fact that man can "enjoy freedom" indicates that he is not simply a product of deterministic or chance sources. It implies a kind of being who is created as an independent whole.
Benedict next takes up this freedom that lies at the core of our being. He cites the great Pascal: "Man is infinitely more than man." Man was elevated to an end higher than his nature would command. This freedom that is unique to man "enables him to orient his life towards an end which he can direct with his actions toward the happiness to which he is called for eternity." This sentence is mindful of Aristotle's discussion of man's end as well as the Christian identification of happiness with the presence in the eternity of God as the purpose of our being called to happiness. Aquinas talks of this in the first questions of the Prima Secundae of the Summa. Indeed, this seeing God is what happiness finally means, for in seeing Him we see all things.
The meaning of human life follows from this freedom that flows from the human being's free will. This freedom is the foundation of human responsibility for itself and for others. "The special dignity of the human being is both a gift of God and the promise of a future." The gift includes a project to be achieved through human actions in response to divine and human actions. The world is really a place where things, ultimate things, happen.
"Man bears within himself a special capacity for discerning what is good and right." Here Benedict refers to what Aquinas called "synderesis" (I, 79, 12). Synderesis is man's innate habit. It is available from the first use of the practical principle to "do good and avoid evil." Here, each act is judged in terms of right and wrong. As the pope wrote in his two essays on conscience (On Conscience, Ignatius Press, 2007), we must "develop" our conscience, take steps to allow it to function properly. "The human being is required to develop his conscience by forming and using it in order to direct his life freely based on the essential laws which are natural law and moral law." Man is what he is not of his own essential making, but of his receiving what he is. His "natural law" is a reflection of the eternal law, of God's purpose in creation, which is to associate other free beings within His inner life, but only if they choose so to associate themselves. God cannot make a free being not to be free. Otherwise there would be no sense in creating him in the first place.
Benedict next uses a curious phrase. The development of science, he remarks, "attracts and seduces us with the possibilities they offer." We can be "attracted" or "seduced" because we must choose to accept even the truth about ourselves. Our intellectual education thus should be aimed at "the center of creation and not made the object of ideological manipulation, arbitrary decisions or the abuse of the weaker by the stronger." We have "experienced" these dangers, Benedict reminds us, in the 20th century. And they are still dangers in the first decades of the 21st century.
Referring to his first encyclical, the pope points out that "Every scientific approach must also be a loving approach." Science is not simply knowledge, but knowledge with a relation to the object it deals with. If that "object" is a human person, even the aim of science is or should be the good, the love of the person who is dealt with. Science is to make a contribution to forming "the identity of the individuals." The concern of the whole lecture is precisely this: to understand more fully and identify in being what a human individual person actually is.
"Love brings one out of oneself in order to discover and recognize the other; in opening himself to otherness, it also affirms the identity of the subject, for the other reveals me to myself." Benedict remarks that this revealing of ourselves to ourselves through our relation to others is likewise the biblical experience beginning with Abraham. But the immediate model is Christ. Christ's identity is found in His giving Himself to others, to all of us. This is the key to the mystery of His being and mission.
To conclude, this lecture was delivered on the Feast of Thomas Aquinas (28 January). Benedict thus closes with a reference to Aquinas. He is the model of "all those who seek the truth," as it says of him in Fides et Ratio. The constant theme of this pope is summed up in this incisive and brief lecture. We are beings who seek the truth. There is truth. We are free to understand it or reject it. But if we want to be what we are, we will find that our happiness, our destiny is given to us as something higher than anything we could conceive by ourselves. This is our glory and the danger of our being. We can reject what we are in the name of our own freedom and ideology. We can give glittering reasons why we need not be what we are created to be. If we could not do this self-justification of our choice to create our own world, however, we could not freely respond to the gift of what we are. The drama of the world revolves about this understanding of "the identity of the individual."
"Man is always more than what is seen or perceived of him by experience." We always discover this "more" when we seek to "know ourselves" or to know others. The knowing of others, of what is not ourselves, is really our path to know ourselves. The "otherness" that is not ourselves leads us finally to that "Otherness" that simply is. We do have an end and a destiny. The more we know of ourselves, the more we can identify what we ultimately are. This is why to fail to "ask questions about ourselves" prevents us from "knowing ourselves," the very project that founded our civilization. This project was carried through to its fuller understanding by the revelation of the God who is best defined simply as caritas. That is finally the definition of the Trinity, that there is otherness within the Godhead, that God, in Himself, is not alone, but full life and being.
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Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning, The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006) and The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007). His most recent book is The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007).
Read more of his essays on his website.
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