On the Whole Human Race

Dear Friends: Thanks to the many of you from all over America and from a dozen foreign countries who responded last week to our initial funding appeal. Even though I was at the Consistory in Rome, I followed as the contributions came in. That generosity and openness of spirit are always encouraging to us and keep us at our tasks. I’ve left Rome now and expect it will take a few days to unwind and catch up with a different time zone, but even through the jet lag I wanted to remind the rest of you who have not donated yet that we desperately need your support. We’re not even one-quarter of the way to where we need to be by the end of this drive. Some of our bigger donors put their efforts into political campaigns this year and that means we need more donations from more of our regular readers than ever before. I’ll tell you a bit more about this when I’m feeling more human again. But please, if you appreciate what you see here and have the means to help keep our Thing going, send your donation today. When I see flurries of $50, $100, $250, and larger gifts, it’s what convinces me to keep on fighting. The need is greater and the laborers in the vineyard few. Do your part in the continuing work of The Catholic Thing. – Robert Royal

The word “man” (homo, in Latin, with equivalent words in most languages) is a name we give in English to an abstract concept intelligibly designed to include every existing human being who ever lived, could live, or will live. It states what they have in common and what distinguishes them from other beings. It does not deny that each particular person who ever lived is embodied in a way that distinguishes and separates him from everyone else who ever lived.

Individual persons cannot be predicated of each other. I cannot say Tom is John, but I can say John is a man; Tom is a man. Here, by “man” we do not mean “male” (vir), which is also a valid abstract concept that, like female, designates and distinguishes many individuals of the same kind.

The mind is luminous, flexible. It can understand different meanings of the same words or many words in different languages for the same concept. Learning properly to distinguish and remember is what intelligence and education are all about. Intelligence is what makes us more than ourselves, makes us able to know what is not ourselves.

What would this race include? If there were a race of rational beings on some planet in a distant galaxy, would it include them? Probably. What about every human being conceived (note the word) on this planet from the first appearance of man? Yes, it would include them all. What if this human race set up a camp on Mars or some other non-earthly spot and it succeeded to continue there, would it include them? No problem.

Vitruvian Man by Leonardo Da Vinci, c. 1490 [Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice]
Vitruvian Man by Leonardo Da Vinci, c. 1490 [Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice]

The human race, as such, does not include the gods or the animals, even though these may exist in abundance and be necessary for continued human existence. If some asteroid crashed into our Earth to destroy it, would that be the end of the human race if none of this species had managed to exist elsewhere? Yes, probably. But the concept of what-it-is-to-be-a-human being would remain the same if any mind to think it existed. We hear talk of a race of clones or hybrids of animal and man. These are things that we may possibly bring forth but, in fact, we ought to have sense enough not to.

Does “the whole human race” have a purpose other than as intelligible? No, only individual human beings have “purposes.” The concept “man,” however, does enable us to think of our lot, to think about what we all are. The “whole human race” does not exist in one time or in one place. It exists sequentially and scattered across the planet and in different eras.

This race speaks some seven thousand different languages, which themselves come and go, change. If men come across a language they do not know, they figure out what it is saying. Generally speaking, all languages can be made intelligible to all other languages. This capacity implies that human beings have some capacity to live together, to understand each other, however difficult it may be for an Englishman (or American) to speak Mandarin or Zulu. Translating one language into another is a major industry. And yes, we miss a lot in translation.

We see estimates that, thus far, something over 100 billion people were born on this Earth. Some seven billion are still alive. The population of the dead thus is huge. How many remain yet to be born? Many modern ecological theories claim roughly to know this figure by extrapolating on existing resource availability. Much doomsday speculation lies in such theories along with bad economics and science restricted to what we now know.

It is highly doubtful that the human race exists for no purpose. If we begin with the theological premise that each conceived person is created for eternal life, we conclude that the human race exists in order that each person will reach this transcendent end. It can only be reached through death. Aquinas held that the number of human beings intended to exist was finite. This limit means that the actual race is not intended just to go on and on in this world.

So the purpose of the human race is not simply to keep itself going in time and space for as long as possible, as if this were its primary purpose. The purpose of the human race does not exist apart from the purpose of each of its individual members. That is, the end includes a personal eternal life within a “city” that includes God and other beings likewise made for this end.

This end, however, has to be individually chosen. Unless it can be rejected, it would not be worth having for it would not be freely accepted. How does one go about rejecting it? By choosing not to observe the commandments. You’re kidding? Nope, dead serious.

Such is the drama of the whole human race.

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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