In contrast to continental Europe, human dignity has never been a powerful idea in American public discourse. We tend instead to be devoted to the language of rights and the pursuit of equality. For the egalitarians among us, the very idea of “dignity” smacks too much of aristocracy, and for secularists and libertarians too much of religion. Moreover, it seems to be too vague and private a matter to be the basis for public policy.
Yet we Americans actually care a great deal about human dignity, even if the term does not come easily to our lips. In times past, our successful battles against slavery, sweatshops, and segregation, although fought in the name of civil rights, were at bottom campaigns for treating human beings as they deserve to be treated solely because of their humanity. Likewise, our taboos against incest, bestiality, and cannibalism, as well as our condemnations of prostitution, drug addiction, and self-mutilation—all these, having little to do with defending liberty or equality, seek to uphold human dignity against (voluntary) acts of self-degradation.
Today, human dignity is of paramount importance in nearly every arena of bioethical concern: clinical medicine; research using human subjects; uses of novel biotechnologies “beyond therapy,” particularly for so-called enhancement purposes; and activities aimed at altering and transcending human nature. Indeed, as we become more and more immersed in a world of biotechnology, we increasingly sense that we neglect human dignity at our peril, not least in light of our gathering powers to alter human bodies and minds in ways that affect our very humanity.
Because ethical concerns differ in the various domains of bioethics, each domain tends to emphasize a particular aspect of human dignity. Thus, in clinical medicine, a primary focus is on the need to respect the equal worth of each patient at every stage of life—regardless of race, class, or gender, condition of body and mind, severity of illness, nearness to death, or ability to pay. Every patient deserves equal respect in speech and deed and equal consideration in selecting an appropriate treatment. No life is to be deemed worthier than another, and under no circumstances should we look upon a fellow human being as if he had a “life unworthy of life” and deserved to be made dead. The ground of these opinions, and of the respect for human dignity they betoken, lies not in the patient’s autonomy or any other personal qualities but rather in his very being and vitality.
Regarding research with human subjects, the major ethical issues concern not only safeguarding the subject’s life and health but also respecting his humanity, even as this will generally be overlooked in the research protocol. Through the soliciting of their voluntary informed consent, the human subjects are treated also as knowing and willing co-partners in the research enterprise.
In clinical medicine and research on human subjects, then, appeals to human dignity function explicitly as bulwarks against abuse: patients should not be reduced to “thing-hood” or treated as mere bodies; research subjects should not be utilized as mere means or treated only as experimental animals. This “negative” function of the concept of human dignity helps to restrain the strong in their dealings with the weak.
But a more robust notion of human dignity is needed when we turn to the moral challenges raised by new biotechnological powers and the novel purposes to which they are being put, and to concerns prompted not by what others may do to us but by what we may choose to do to ourselves. After all, the powers of biotechnology to alter body and mind are attractive not only to the sick and suffering but to everyone who desires to look younger, perform better, feel happier, or become more “perfect.”
We have already entered the age of biotechnical enhancement: growth hormone to make children taller; pre-implantation genetic screening to facilitate eugenic choice; Ritalin to control behavior or boost performance on exams; Prozac and other drugs to brighten moods and alter temperaments—not to mention Botox, Viagra, and anabolic steroids. Looking ahead, we can see other invitations already on the horizon: drugs to erase painful or shameful memories or to simulate falling in love. Genes to increase the size and strength of muscles. Nano-mechanical implants to enhance sensation or motor skills. Techniques to slow biological aging and increase the maximum human lifespan.
Thanks to these and other innovations, venerable human desires—for better children, superior performance, ageless bodies, and happy souls—may increasingly be satisfied with the aid of biotechnology. A new field of “trans-humanist” science is rallying thought and research for the wholesale redesign of human nature, employing genetic and neurological engineering and man-machine hybrids, en route to what has been blithely called a “post-human future.”
Neither the familiar principles of contemporary bioethics—respect for persons, beneficence, and justice—nor our habitual concerns for safety, efficacy, autonomy, and equal access will enable us to gauge the true promise and peril of the biotechnology revolution. Our hopes for self-improvement and our disquiet about a “post-human” future are much more profound. At stake are the kind of human being and the sort of society we will be creating in the coming age.
Broadly speaking, and despite the differing emphases among the diverse fields of medical practice, discussions of human dignity in bioethical matters have two main foci: concern for the dignity of life around the edges (the “life and death” issues) and concern for the dignity of life in its fullness and flourishing (the “good life” or the “dehumanization” issues). If one believes that the greatest threat comes in the form of death and destruction—say, in the practices of euthanasia and assisted suicide, embryo research, or even just denial of treatment to the less than fully fit—then one will be primarily concerned to uphold the equal dignity of every still-living human being, regardless of condition. If, by contrast, one thinks that the greatest danger comes not from killing the creature made in God’s image but from self-deifying efforts to redesign him after our own fantasies, or even only from self-abasing practices reflecting shrunken views of human well-being, then one will be primarily concerned to uphold the full dignity of human excellence and rich human flourishing.
These two aspects of human dignity—the basic dignity of human being, and the full dignity of being flourishingly human—do not always have the same defenders, especially when the two seem to be at odds. Indeed, defenders of one sometimes ignore the claims made on behalf of the other. Thus, certain pro-lifers appear to care little whether babies are cloned or “born” in bottles, so long as no embryo dies in the process; others insist that life must be sustained come what may, even if it means being complicit in prolonging the degradation or misery of loved ones. Conversely, certain advocates of “death with dignity” appear to care little whether the weak and unwanted are deemed unworthy of life and swept off the stage, so long as they get to control how their own life ends; and patrons of excellence through biotechnological enhancement often have little patience with the need to care for those whose days of excellence are long gone. Meanwhile, the trans-humanist researchers who dream of post-human supermen care not a fig either for the dignity of human being or for the dignity of being human; they esteem not at all the dignity of us ordinary mortals, let alone those of us who are even less than merely ordinary.
Yet there is no reason why friends of human dignity cannot be defenders of all aspects at once, both the dignity of “the low” and the dignity of “the high.” In fact, when properly understood, the two notions are much more intertwined than they are opposed. In order to see why, we need to examine each more closely, beginning with the dignity of human flourishing and living well—of being human.
Among the many moving songs from the American Civil War, one in particular always gives me gooseflesh: the “First Arkansas Marching Song,” written for and sung (to the tune of “John Brown’s Body”) by a regiment made up entirely of ex-slaves fighting on the side of the Union:
Oh we’re the bully soldiers of the
First of Arkansas,
We are fighting for the Union, we are
fighting for the law;
We can hit a Rebel further than a white
man ever saw,
As we go marching on.
(Chorus: Glory, glory, hallelujah, etc.)
We are done with hoeing cotton, we are
done with hoeing corn,
We are colored Yankee soldiers, now, as
sure as you are born;
When the masters hear us yelling, they
will think its Gabriel’s horn,
As we go marching on.
. . . .
Then fall in, colored brethren, you’d
better do it soon,
Can’t you hear the drums a-beating the
Yankee Doodle tune;
We are with you now this morning, we’ll
be far away at noon,
As we go marching on.
Debased ex-slaves, only recently hoeing cotton and corn for their masters, have transformed themselves into brave soldiers “fighting for the Union . . . fighting for the law.” Although formally emancipated by Lincoln’s proclamation months earlier, they have been truly lifted up not by another’s largesse but by their own power and choice. They celebrate here their new estate, singing out their dignity and beckoning others to join the cause.
The heart is stirred by this simple display of noble humanity, not least because it fully refutes the dehumanizing conclusions some may have drawn from the marchers’ prior servitude and submissiveness, namely, that anyone who accepts a life in slavery must have a slavish soul. I am particularly moved by their dedication to a cause higher than their own advantage. And my imagination thrills to the picture of their marching through Southern towns and past slave-holding plantations, summoning their brethren to affirm their own dignity by putting their lives similarly in the service of freedom and union.
Opposite to this example of dignity triumphing over degradation is the self-inflicted dehumanization of Herr Professor Immanuel Rath in the classic German movie, The Blue Angel (1930). A strict, upright gymnasium teacher, Professor Rath goes to the local night club to reprimand his wayward students who have been attracted there by the siren singer, Lola Lola, and to scold her for corrupting the young. But on entering into her presence, Rath is smitten by Lola’s charms, and he returns the next night filled with desires of his own. When he gallantly “defends her honor” against a brutish sea captain seeking sexual favors, Lola, touched by his chivalry, invites him to spend the night.
Exposed in school the next morning by his students, the honorable professor declares his intention to marry Lola Lola, for which decision he is promptly dismissed from his position. Lola, after laughing uproariously at his proposal, unaccountably accepts him; yet at the wedding feast, in front of all the guests, Rath is made to cock-a-doodle-do like a rooster in love. The married professor now joins the traveling show, first as Lola’s servant, later as a performing clown.
Eventually, when the traveling entertainers return to his hometown, Professor Rath is made co-star of the vaudeville show. Lola, with a recently acquired new lover at her side, again forces Rath to play a (now-cuckolded) crowing rooster while eggs are cracked upon his skull before a full house of roaring spectators, including his former students and neighbors. It is a scene of human abasement that is unbearable to watch.
What human goods and evils are at issue in these two vignettes? Not liberty or equality or health or safety or justice, but primarily the gain or loss of worthy humanity—in short, the display or the liquidation of human dignity. In the first case, degraded human beings knowingly assert their humanity and their manhood; anyone not humanly stunted will admire and applaud their nobility, courage, and devotion to a righteous purpose higher than themselves. In the second case, an upright and proper man of learning loses, first, his wits and his profession to his infatuation and, finally, every shred of dignified humanity as he shrinks to impersonate an inarticulate barnyard animal; notwithstanding that he has brought this on himself, anyone not humanly stunted will shudder at his utter degradation.
With these examples before us, let me try to specify what I mean by the dignity of human flourishing—of being actively human. Both historically and linguistically, “dignity” has always implied something elevated, something deserving of respect. The central notion, etymologically, in English as in the Latin root dignitas, is worthiness, elevation, honor, nobility—in brief, excellence or virtue. In all its meanings it has been a term of distinction; dignity is not something that, like a nose or a navel, is to be expected or found in every human being. Even in democratic times, as the soldiers of the First of Arkansas make clear, “dignity” still conveys the active display of what is humanly best.
But which intrinsic excellences or “elevations” are at the heart of human dignity and give their bearers special standing? In the view of the ancient Greek poets, the true or full human being is the hero, who draws honor and prizes by displaying his worthiness in noble and glorious deeds. Supreme is the virtue of courage: the willingness to face death in battle, armed only with your own prowess, going forth against an equally worthy opponent—think Achilles against Hector—who, like you, seeks victory not only over his adversary but, as it were, over death itself. Following the Socratic turn in the history of Greek thought, such heroic excellence was supplanted by the virtue of wisdom; the new hero is not the glorious warrior but the man singularly devoted to wisdom, living close to death not on the field of battle but in a single-minded quest for knowledge eternal.
Attractive though these candidates are, however—we can still read about Achilles and Socrates with admiration—the Greek exemplars are of little practical use in democratic times, and especially when it comes to bioethical matters. The dehumanization evident in Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel Brave New World (1932) is not primarily the lack of glorious warriors or outstanding philosophers (or artists or scientists or statesmen). The basic problem is the absence of kinds of human dignity more abundantly found and universally shared.
In Western philosophy, the most high-minded attempt to supply a teaching of universal human dignity belongs to Kant, with his doctrine of respect for persons. For Kant, all persons or rational beings deserve respect, not because of some realized excellence of achievement but by dint of their participation in morality and their ability to live under the moral law. Through this concept of “personhood,” Kant sought to find a place for human freedom and dignity in the face of a Newtonian world view that reduced even the human being to a matter of physics.
But Kant’s respect for persons is largely formal, abstracted from how they actually exercise their freedom of will. If universal human dignity is grounded in having a moral life, greater dignity would seem to attach to having a good moral life— that is, on choosing well and on choosing rightly. Is there not more dignity in the courageous than in the cowardly, in the moderate than in the self-indulgent, in the righteous than in the wicked, in the honest man than in the liar?
And there is a deeper difficulty with the Kantian dignity of “personhood.” It is finally inadequate not because it is undemocratic or too demanding but because it is, in an important respect, inhuman. In setting up a concept of “personhood” in opposition to nature and to the body, it fails to do justice to the concrete reality and particularity of our embodied lives: lives of begetting and belonging no less than of willing and thinking, lives lived always locally, corporeally, and in a unique trajectory from zygote in the womb to body in the coffin. Not all of human dignity consists in reason or freedom.
The Kantian dignity of rational choice pays no respect at all to the dignity we have through our natural desires and passions, natural origins and attachments, sentiments and repugnances, loves and longings. It pays no respect, in short, to what Tolstoy called “real life,” life as ordinarily and concretely lived.
The dignity of being human is perfectly at home in ordinary life, as it is at home in democratic times. Courage, moderation, generosity, righteousness, and the other human virtues are not solely confined to the few. Many of us strive for them, with partial success, and still more of us do ourselves honor in admiring persons nobler and finer than ourselves. We frequently give even wayward neighbors the benefit of the doubt, and we strongly believe in the possibility of a second chance. No one ever knows for sure when a person hitherto seemingly weak of character will rise to the occasion, actualizing an ever-present potential for worthy conduct. No one knows when, as with the ex-slaves of the First of Arkansas, human dignity will summon itself and shine forth brightly. With suitable models, proper rearing, and adequate encouragement—or even just the fitting opportunity—many of us can be and can act in accord with our higher natures.
In truth, if we know how to look, we can find evidence of human dignity all around us, in the valiant efforts ordinary people make to meet necessity, to combat adversity and disappointment, to provide for their children, to care for their parents, to help their neighbors, to serve their country. Life provides numerous hard occasions that call for endurance and equanimity, generosity and kindness, courage and self-command. Adversity sometimes brings out the best in us, and often shows best what we are made of. Even confronting our own death provides a chance for the exercise of admirable humanity, for the small and the great alike.
Beyond the dignity of virtue and endurance, there is also the simple but deep dignity of human activity—sewing a dress, throwing a pot, building a fire, cooking a meal, dressing a wound, singing a song, or offering a blessing in gratitude. There is the simple but deep dignity of intimate human relations—bathing a child, receiving a guest, embracing a friend, kissing one’s bride, consoling the bereaved, dancing a dance, or raising a glass in gladness. And there is the simple but deep dignity of certain ennobling human passions—hope, wonder, trust, love, sympathy, thankfulness, awe, reverence. No account of the dignity of being human is worth its salt without them.
The excellence or worthiness that shines forth in human beings is always something that arouses our admiration and respect. Still, there are partisans of human dignity who reject such judgments of excellence or worth, insisting that no one person lives a life more worthy than another’s. Human dignity, they assert, is something every human being—base or noble, wicked or righteous—enjoys equally, simply by virtue of his human being.
What is the basis of this claim, and what is its purpose? To begin with, those who advance it seek to prevent the display of contempt, and especially contempt with lethal consequences, toward those who do not “measure up.” They wish to insure a solid level of human worth that no one can deny to any fellow human being, to lean against the widespread tendency to treat the foreigner and the enemy, the misfit and the deviant, or the demented and the disabled as less human or less worthy than oneself—and especially as unworthy of basic respect and continued existence. And, following the unspeakable horrors perpetrated in the 20th century, they wish at the very least to provide a moral barrier against the liquidation of human beings often practiced by people acting in the name of their own sense of superior worth.
But even granting the soundness of this purpose—which I embrace wholeheartedly—asserting that we all have “equal dignity” does not, by itself, make it so. Mere assertion will not convince the skeptic or refute the deniers of human dignity. We need to establish the grounds for thinking that all human beings—whether dignified or not in their conduct—actually have full and equal human dignity, or should be treated as if they did.
The first and perhaps best ground remains practical and political. If you or your government (or my doctor or HMO) wants to claim that, for reasons of race or ethnicity or disability or dementia, I am not your equal in humanity, and, further, if you mean to justify harming or neglecting me on the basis of that claim, the assertion of universal human dignity exists to get in your way. The burden of proof shifts to you, to show why I am not humanly speaking your equal: you must prove why you are entitled to put a saddle and bridle on me and ride me like a horse, or to deny me the bread that I have earned with the sweat of my brow, or to dispatch me from this world because I have a “low quality of life.”
You will, in fact, face an impossible task: you will be unable to prove that you possess God-like knowledge of the worth of individual souls or that you carry the proper scale of human worth for finding me insufficiently “weighty” to deserve to breathe the air. In this approach, I offer not a metaphysically grounded proof but a rhetorically effective demonstration that I, like you, am a somebody, like you born of woman and destined to die, like you a member of the human species each of whose members knows from the inside the goodness of his own life and liberty.
Mention of life and liberty reminds us that, for Americans, the doctrine of human equality and equal humanity has its most famous and resounding expression in the Declaration of Independence. It is, in fact, to the principles of the Declaration that some people repair in seeking to ground the dignity of human being, and it makes a certain sense to do so. Americans, in declaring themselves a separate people, began by asserting their belief in the truth that “all men are created equal.” However human beings may differ in talent, accomplishment, social station, race, or religion, they are, according to the Declaration, self-evidently equal, at least in this: “That they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
These passages have always seemed to me to be, exactly as claimed, self-evidently true. But they do not go far enough in providing a ground for the equal dignity of human being as such. True, some interpreters of these passages suggest that all human beings have dignity because God gave it to them. But the text does not say that the Creator gave all men dignity; it speaks not of equal dignity but of equal rights, and the relation between the two is not as clear as we might wish.
In its 18th-century meaning, the natural “right to life” is not a right to be or to stay alive, or even a right not to be killed or harmed. It is, rather, a right to practice active self-preservation, a right to defend, protect, and preserve my life not only against those who threaten it but also in the face of those who would deny the rightfulness of my liberty to do so (for example, by insisting that I must “turn the other cheek”). The right to life is a (negative) right against interference with acts of self-preservation, and it rests not on anything lofty, such as dignity, but on the precariousness of human life and especially on the self-conscious passion that each of us legitimately has for our own continued existence.
It follows that human dignity is not the foundation of these inalienable rights; nor is dignity ours by virtue of the mere fact that we possess them. Instead, the true manifestation of dignity in the American founding appears at the end of the Declaration, where the signers proclaim: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” Having equal natural rights is neutral with respect to dignity; exercising them in the face of their denial carries the dignity of self-assertion; defending with one’s life and honor the rights of a whole people is high dignity indeed.
Others, granting that our equal dignity resides not in our rights, locate it in the more fundamental truth that makes those rights necessary: our common mortal fate and our equal capacity to suffer. But there is nothing dignified in vulnerability as such or in the fact of suffering per se. A sufferer merely undergoes, merely receives, as passive patient, what is inflicted by the active “agent,” whether natural, human, or divine. For Christians, Christ on the cross may be regarded as the supreme exemplar of human dignity; but even here it is not suffering as such but suffering understood and accepted as sacrificial and redemptive that alone makes the crucified Jesus, for Christians, the epitome of dignity. If there is dignity to be found in the vicinity of suffering, it consists either in the purpose for which suffering is borne or in the manner in which it is endured. Not everyone has the requisite virtue or strength of soul, and it therefore cannot be the basis of the equal dignity of human being.
A deeper ground for our equal human dignity—natural and ontological, not practical or political—may perhaps be found in our equal membership in the human species. All of us are members of the class Homo sapiens, sharing thereby in whatever dignity adheres to the class as a whole, and especially in contrast with the dignity of other animals.
There is surely something to this suggestion. Even when we condemn or show contempt for another person—and even when such condemnation is richly deserved, as, for example, in the case of a Stalin or a Hitler—we cannot help noticing that he is, alas, “one of us.” Indeed, the condemnation comes precisely from the great gap between despicable deeds and what we have good reason to expect from another member of our species; we do not find fault with lions and tigers for their predatory and lethal conduct.
As it happens, the human “species-form” or gestalt—upright posture, eyes to the horizon, hands fit for grasping, fingers for pointing, arms for embracing or cradling, and mouths for speaking and kissing no less than for eating—functions silently to elicit a primordial recognition from our fellow species members. Such mutual identification is the basis of hospitality to strangers, the acts of good Samaritans, or even just a nod of human kinship when we pass one another on the street. This salutary reminder of our common humanity, even in the face of severe deformity or degradation, puts a limit on possible tendencies to banish another person, in thought or in deed, from the realm of human concern and connectedness or even from the world of the living. Preventing many an outrage and many a violation, it also encourages many a sympathetic word and many a charitable deed.
So far, so good. Yet, once again, problems arise if we are compelled to answer just what it is about membership in Homo sapiens that justifies allowing our “species pride” to guarantee the inviolability of our life and being. After all, the (higher) animals, too, are not without their special dignity and special standing. Our being alive, and our being members of a closed interbreeding population, are properties that belong also to chimpanzees and cheetahs and kangaroos.
Thus the elevated moral status of the human species must again turn on something else: the special capacities and powers that are ours and ours alone among the creatures. Such distinctively human features include the capacities for thought, image-making, freedom, and moral choice, a sense of beauty, love and friendship, song and dance, family and civic life, the moral life, and the impulse to worship.
Yet once we introduce these material properties, we will be hard-pressed not to assess the dignity of particular human beings in terms of the degree to which they actually manifest them. For the universal attribution of dignity to human beings on the basis of specific human attributes pays tribute only to our potentiality, to the possibilities for human excellence. Full dignity will depend on realizing these possibilities.
For partisans of the equal dignity of human being, the search for its content has therefore reached a troubling point. The ground of our dignity lies in the humanly specific potentialities of the human species. But this basic dignity is not yet dignity in full, not the realized dignity of fine human activity. What, then, of the dignity of those members of our species who have lost or who have never attained these capacities, as well as those who use them badly or wickedly?
Having now come at human dignity from two directions—first from the dignity of flourishing humanity, beginning at its heroic peak, and then from the dignity of human life at its primordial level of mere existence—we may note a curious coincidence. Once we learn how to find virtue and worthiness in the doings of everyday life, the more “aristocratic” account cannot help being universalized and democratized; and once we are forced to specify what it is about human beings as a class that gives them special dignity, the more “egalitarian” account cannot help introducing standards of particular excellences. This convergence invites the suggestion that the two aspects of dignity actually have something to do with one another—indeed, that they may be mutually implicated and interdependent.
Let me suggest three ways in which this is so.
First, the flourishing of human possibility, in all its admirable forms, depends absolutely on active human vitality, that is, on the mere existence and well-working of the enlivened human body. And just as the higher human powers and activities depend upon the lower for their existence, so the lower depend on the higher for their standing. What I have been calling the basic dignity of human being—sometimes expressed as the “sanctity of human life,” or the “respect owed to human life” as such—depends on the higher dignity of being human.
This mutual dependence can be clearly illuminated if we ask why murder is wrong, and why all civilized people hold innocent life to be inviolable. Particularly helpful here is the biblical story of the Noahide law and covenant in Genesis 9, where, unlike in the more famous enunciation of a similar prohibition in the Ten Commandments (“Thou shalt not murder,” Exodus 20), a specific reason is given for why murder is wrong.
Before the flood, human beings lived in the absence of law or civil society. The result appears to be something like what Hobbes called the state of nature, characterized as a condition of the war of each against all. Immediately after the flood, primordial law and justice are instituted, and nascent civil society is founded. At the forefront of this new order is a newly articulated respect for human life, expressed in the announcement of the punishment for homicide: “Whoever sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God was man made.”
In this cardinal law, the threat of capital punishment stands as a deterrent to murder and provides a motive for obedience. But the measure of the punishment is instructive. By equating a life for a life—no more than a life for a life, and the life only of the murderer and not, for example, also of his wife and children—the threatened punishment implicitly teaches the equal worth of each human life. Such equality can be grounded only in the equal humanity of each human being.
But murder is to be avoided not only to avoid the punishment. There is also a deep reason that makes murder wrong: namely, man’s divine-like (image-of-God) status. Any man’s very being requires that we respect his life, and human life is to be respected more than animal life because man is more than an animal; man is godlike. Note that the truth of the Bible’s assertion here does not rest on biblical authority. Man’s more-than-animal status is proved whenever human beings, possessing the godlike powers of reason, freedom, judgment, and moral concern, quit the state of nature and set up life under a law like this one, as only the godlike animal can do. The demand for law-abidingness and for punishing transgression both insists on and demonstrates the superiority of man.
We reach a crucial conclusion: the inviolability of human life rests absolutely on the higher dignity—the godlike-ness—of human beings. Yet man is, at most, only godly; he is not God or a god. To be an image is also to be different from that of which one is an image. Man is, at most, a mere likeness of God. With us, seemingly godly powers and concerns are conjoined with animality. God’s image is tied to blood, which is the life.
This point, too, stands apart from the text that teaches it. Everything high about human life—thinking, judging, loving, willing, acting—depends absolutely on everything low—metabolism, digestion, respiration, circulation, excretion. In the case of human beings, “divinity” needs blood, or “mere” life, to sustain itself. And because of what it holds up, human blood (that is, human life) deserves special respect, beyond what is owed to life as such. The biblical text elegantly mirrors this truth about its subject, merging both high and low: though the reason given for punishing murder concerns man’s godliness, the injunction concerns man’s blood. Respect the godlike; do not shed its blood. Respect for anything human requires respecting everything human, requires respecting human being as such.
Second, even as the dignity of being human depends for its very existence on the presence and worth of human vitality, everything humanly high also gets its energizing impetus from what is humanly low. Necessity is not only the mother of invention; it is also the mother of excellence, love, and the ties that bind and enrich human life. Like the downward pull of gravity without which the dancer cannot dance, the downward pull of bodily necessity and fate makes possible the dignified journey of a truly human life. Human aspiration depends absolutely on our being creatures of need and finitude, and hence of longings and attachments. Pure reason and pure mind have no aspiration; the rational animal aspires in large part because he is an animal and not an angel or a god.
Once again it is our in-between status—at once godlike and animal—that is the deep truth about our nature, the ground of our special standing, and the wherewithal of our flourishing.
Perhaps the most profound account of human aspiration is contained in Socrates’ speech about eros in Plato’s Symposium. Eros, according to Socrates’ account, is the heart of the human soul, an animating power born of lack but pointed upward. Eros emerges as both self-seeking and overflowingly generative—at bottom, the fruit of the peculiar conjunction of, and competition between, two conflicting aspirations joined in a single living body, both tied to our finitude: the impulse to self-preservation and the urge to reproduce. The former is a self-regarding concern for our own personal permanence and satisfaction; the latter is a self-forgetting aspiration for something that transcends our own finite existence, and for the sake of which we spend and even give our lives.
Other animals, of course, live with these twin and opposing drives. But eros in the other animals, who are unaware of the tension between the two drives, manifests itself exclusively in the activity of procreation and the care of offspring—an essential aspect of the dignity of all animal life. Socrates speaks of the self-sacrifice often displayed by animals on behalf of their young, and I would add that all animal life, by one path or another, imitates the “noble” model of the salmon, swimming upstream to spawn and die.
But eros comes fully into its own as the arrow pointing upward only in the human animal, who is conscious of the doubleness in his soul and is driven to devise a life based in part on the tension between the opposing forces. In the human case, the fruits of “erotic giving-birth” are not only human children but also the arts and crafts, song and story, noble deeds and customs, fine character, the search for wisdom, and a reaching for the eternal and divine—all conceived by resourcefulness to overcome our experienced lack and limitation and all guided by a divination of that which would be wholly good and lacking in nothing.
This transcendent possibility is the third aspect of the relationship between what is humanly low and what is humanly high; indeed, it points us to what is both high and highest. And here, too, an ancient story shows us the point.
In the Garden of Eden, the serpent tempts the woman into disobedience by promising that if she and the man eat from the forbidden tree of the knowledge of good and bad, their eyes will be open and they “will be as gods, knowing good and bad.” But, as the text comments with irony, when the human pair disobey, “their eyes were opened and they saw that they were naked.” Far from being as gods, they discover their own sexuality, with its shameful implications: their incompleteness, their abject neediness of each other, their subjection to a power within that moves them toward a goal they do not understand, and the ungodly bodily ways in which this power insists on being satisfied—not standing upright contemplating heaven, but lying down embracing necessity.
As in Socrates’ account, the discovery of human lowliness is the spur to rise. But here it comes in two stages, one purely human, the other something more. Refusing to accept their shame lying down, the human beings take matters into their own hands: “and they sewed fig leaves and made themselves girdles.” In this act of covering their nakedness out of a concern for each other’s approbation, human lust is turned into a longing for something more than sexual satisfaction. Shame and love are born twins, delivered with the help of the arts of modesty and beautification.
But there is more. Immediately after covering their nakedness, “they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the Garden”—the first reported instance of human recognition of and attention to the divine. For it is only in acknowledging our lowliness that we human beings can also discover what is truly high. The turn toward the divine is founded on our discovery of our own lack of divinity, of our own insufficiency.
It is a delicate moment: having followed their eyes to alluring temptations that promise wisdom, human beings come to see, again through their eyes, their own insufficiency. Still trusting appearances but seeking to beautify them, they set about adorning themselves in order to find favor in the sight of the beloved. Lustful eyes give way to admiring ones, by means of intervening modesty and art. Yet sight and love alone do not fully disclose the truth of our human situation. Human beings must open their ears as well as their eyes; they must hearken to a calling. Eyes opened by shamefaced love, the prototypical human pair are able to hear the transcendent voice.
Thus, awe, too, is born twin to shame, and is soon elaborated into a desire to close with and have a relationship with the divine. The dignity of being human, rooted in the dignity of life itself and flourishing in a manner seemingly issuing only in human pride, completes itself and stands tallest when we bow our heads and lift our hearts in recognition of powers greater than our own.