April 11, 2010

Becoming Humanly


The Promise of Humanity

In his lecture “Existentialism is a Humanism”, French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980) asserted, “existence precedes essence”, meaning that, first we “exist” and only afterwards we “define” ourselves. In other words, there are no innate values, meanings, or essences that predetermine who we are. Likewise, the contention under consideration here is that no one is readily born a human proper. However, we seem to be born with a unique capacity to become humansin the same sense that an apple seed is not an apple tree, yet the seed has the potential to become an apple treeif and only if the seed is situated under the proper environmental conditions. In the same manner, a woman or man is a seed that can grow to become a human beingif placed under certain conditions. In cultural terms, humanity is a promise that can be fulfilled under proper social, economic, and political conditions. However, readily referring to ourselves as “human beings” creates a mirage that we are already humansthat the task is already accomplished. Often the noun “human being” not only reifies and turns the concept into a mere physical thing, but also it does not render the concept as a project to be actively and concretely undertaken. My contention is that there are no human beingsbut peculiar beings who may choose to become humanly. In this context, a human being is not a biological organism, but a possible set of qualities and functions of this organism. To “become humanly” is to attain a particular state of being that is qualitatively different than the states of being of other animals and objects.

But what does it mean to become humanly? Throughout the course of our biological development throughout time, our animal existence has acquired another dimension which sharply distinguishes, but not separates, us from the rest of the animal kingdom. Aristotle argued that our capacity to “reason” rationally sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. In the same vein, René Descartes affirmed that what does not “think” and “rationalize” is nothing but mere “matter in motion”. Human reason, besides other factors, appears to be a main foundation for human ethics, morality, and values. Without reason, we are reduced to animalism, or perhaps less. Therefore, would it be cogent to conclude that if one does not cultivate and implement one’s uniquely human ability to reason and to be rational, then one is not becoming humanly? Furthermore, why should one become humanly? What does justify this becoming? An assumption is that one’s physical and psychological well-being (or some may call it “happiness”) is a justification for becoming humanly. In addition, one’s well-being is contributive to the well-being of the society in which she or he partakes. Our well-being, within the context of our social existence, seems to be contingent on the proper use of our fundamental capacity (not the only capacity) to reason. However, this well-being is far from fostering a mere life of pleasure, and it does not preclude pain and suffering.

According to thinkers such as Immanuel Kant, G.W.F. Hegel, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche, humanity is not an empty promise; it is not an ideal that can never be realized. However uncanny this promise seems to us under the present social, economic, and political circumstances around the globe, all these thinkers, who had foreseen our present social maladies, saw a light at the end of the tunnel. In a strict sense, the promise of humanity has already been fulfilled, not on a mass scale, but on individual basis. The promise was presumably incarnate in great individuals such as Socrates, Michelangelo, Goethe, Beethoven, Gandhi, Einstein, and et cetera. What did all these great souls have in common? To characterize them in a Nietzschesque fashion, they were able to overcomenot depreciatetheir impulses. They were able to harmonize their passions and reason; they were able to organize the disarray of their impulses, giving style to their own characters; they were masters of their impulses; they were able to overcomenot oppresstheir animal drives; they were able to sacrifice (make sacred), spiritualize, or sublimate their own impulses. They knew that mastering their passions was pertinent to a suffering that breeds strength and depth of soul. They were able to be tolerant not out of weakness, but out of self-cultivated strength. They gave to others not out of pity or impoverished need, but out of the richness of their characters. Where they found their well-being, others find their own ruination. They suffered from the overfullness, not impoverishment, of their lives so much that they had to redeem themselves by creating and recreating themselves. They were creators. In contrast, what are the prevalent “creative deeds” in our age: perpetually staring at television screens, materialism, consumerism, drinking and/or drugs, money making, boring jobs, endless bills, debts, and the like. Our uneventful lives are a negation of the motto of the Age of Enlightenment: “Dare to use your own reason.” Perhaps, the promise of humanity is not for everyone according to Nietzsche’s moral pluralism.

In his famous funeral oration, Pericles (the statesman-ruler of the democratic ancient Athens) declared to the citizens, “We do not say that a man who takes no interest in the politics [i.e., the affairs of the city-state] is a man who minds his own business; we say he has no business here at all.” In the same spirit, the Swiss-French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau stated, “Create citizens, and you have everything you need; without them, you will have nothing but debased slaves, from the rulers of the State downwards.” The promise of the U.S. Declaration of Independence to endow “all men”not just in theory, but in practicewith “certain unalienable rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” is of no avail if the citizens are impoverished by their government and are not enabled to exercise these rights.

Sir Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997), a prominent Russian-British philosopher, in his Two Concepts of Liberty developed two concepts of liberty, namely, “negative liberty” and “positive liberty”, that are usually in a state of resistance against one another within the context of the state. Further, he made a distinction between two concepts of “freedom from” and “freedom to”. The former is the negative aspect of freedom (i.e., the negative liberty) while the latter is the positive aspect of freedom (i.e., the positive liberty). Both aspects are value-neutral and equally necessary in pursuit of freedom.

Very generally construed, the concept of “freedom from” is indicative of a condition wherein one disabuses or educates oneself in order to free oneself from one’s own internal constraints, prejudices and ignorance. In other words, one cultivates a strong character that is conducive to mental growth. In short, this negative liberty is absence of personal obstacles or is a removal of personal preventive conditions. So, in this sense, negative liberty is an enabler—enabling one to cultivate character. However, how can this negative liberty be possible if certain external conditions, such as poverty, prevent one from realizing it?

This introduces the concept of “freedom to” which generally signifies removal of external constraintssuch as poverty, unjust labor conditions, lack of healthcare, lack of leisure, unjust social and political conditions, and ideologies designed to impoverish the masses—in order to actualize oneself in the society. In short, the positive liberty is, socially speaking, an enabler—enabling one to act and to achieve excellence in personal and in civic terms. There seems to be a symbiotic relation between the negative and positive liberty; otherwise, freedom proper would be impossible.

What is the point if one demands “freedom of speech” when one is not enabled or educated enough to know how to exercise the right? If we do not criticize and reform ourselves and our social systems, how can we have the opportunity and the ability to truly cultivate ourselves and our society? Both components of freedom—“freedom from” abuse and “freedom to” use—are essential in order to give meanings to our lives and to fulfill our common social aspirations. We need to be “free from” in order to be “free to” act.


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