What It Means to Be Human

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One day, as Plato tells us in the Meno, a man named Socrates took an uneducated slave boy and demonstrated that his soul knew more than his body.

This boy, Socrates showed, was able to grasp a geometric principle, and then apply it universally without worrying about any particular physical conditions that might obtain in a given case.

To give a simpler illustration of Socrates’ point: what’s one billion things plus two billion things? I bet you know the answer, but you don’t know it from your body. After all, you’ve never seen a pile of a billion physical objects counted up and added to another pile of exactly two billion things – and then physically checked to make sure the new pile was comprised of three billion things.

You don’t need to conduct this experiment physically, and you don’t need to inquire about the physical makeup of the things or the physical forces operating in the region. You don’t need any physical information at all, which means that when you know one billion plus two billion equals three billion, you know something immaterial.

And if you are able to know something immaterial – if you’re able to engage the immaterial in any way – it means you must be partly immaterial yourself.

But that’s just the start. Because once you can perceive something immaterial, you can go on to engage it in other ways.

For instance, you can pursue the immaterial. Take the pursuit of financial gain, of money. Where is money? What is money? Is it bills, or coins, or bits of code in your bank’s computer? Of course, it can be any or none of these. Money is something like a symbol of the legal and quantifiable potential for receiving material goods and services from others upon request – and a potentiality isn’t something you can hear or touch or taste.

G.K. Chesterton tells a comical story about buying a cigar and forgetting to pay for it while on holiday in Germany. Not speaking German, he returned to the shop to try to pay for the cigar, but the shop-owner, who also had not realized that the previous cigar was unpaid for, thought Chesterton was giving him money for another cigar. No gestures or facial expressions could express the idea of debt, because what money symbolizes isn’t, in itself, something you can point or look at. And so Chesterton could not communicate the situation and the cigar seller wouldn’t take the money.

Beauty . . .*

The point is that all human life, especially contemporary life, is inextricably interwoven with the notions of debt, finance, and the economy, and all of these are immaterial. Some economists may claim to be materialists, but what they’re actually dealing with all the time is the spiritual realm.

One more example: the fear of public speaking. This phenomenon is actually a case of emotionally reacting to the immaterial. It’s probably happened to you, and it usually involves a physical symptom: shaking knees, sweaty palms, accelerated heartbeat, trembling hands. But what is the prospective speaker afraid of? Is he afraid that if he performs poorly the audience will hurl things, or take away his food, or bite him? Is he afraid of any physical threat?

Obviously not. He’s afraid of non-physical threats, like shame, failure, being made ridiculous. And his fear is so real, that his body is reacting to what isn’t bodily. His flesh responds to the spiritual.

This is what it means to be human: to have dual citizenship, to be constantly navigating two worlds, the material and the immaterial, simultaneously. This is what it means to be made up of body and soul.

Unfortunately, the satisfactions of body and soul are often exclusive – physical pleasure and spiritual delight frequently compete with each other.

But there is an experience in which the body feels delight at what the soul perceives as true or good. That experience is the appreciation of beauty.

Beauty is clearly the reaction to something immaterial. Consider your favorite novel: what you like about it isn’t so much the color of the ink or the smell of the pages. It’s something not accessible to the senses.

And yet something about the novel, something about the story it relates, made you take in your breath. You might have cried. Your spine might have tingled. But you felt something.

You can know the truth, and not feel anything. You can do what’s right, and not feel anything. But you aren’t having an aesthetic experience – you’re not appreciating beauty – unless you’re feeling something.

This is the power of beauty – to unite the parts of the human person, which so often live in tension. Beauty, which offers a spiritualized image in paint or sound or words, brings body and soul together in joy.

The fact of beauty shows that we are not just machines made of atoms and cells and organs. It testifies to the existence of the human soul.

But beauty does more than that. Beauty tells us what we are, but it also integrates what we are. If we’re ever going to be human in the fullest sense, beauty must have a role to play. Because beauty is what makes it delightful to be human.


*Image of beauty: The Virgin in Prayer by Sassoferrato (Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato), c. 1645 [National Gallery, London]

John-Mark L. Miravalle is professor of Systematic and Moral theology at Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Maryland. He received his doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Regina Apostolorum in Rome. He is the author of four books, most recently Beauty: What It Is & Why It Matters.