In my most recent article, I quoted a feminist professor who spoke with pride about how she was raising her children according to her strict feminist ideology; content that both her son and daughter were challenging the gender stereotypes of our society. The day after I submitted the article to Integrated Catholic Life™ for its first run in May, 2011, a news story broke in nearby Toronto, Canada with the headline “Parents keep child’s gender secret.” The parents, as the story tells us, “are raising their four-month-old child, Storm, to be genderless.” [i] As with their other two children, they are insistent that their children are given the freedom to define their own gender.
I bring up this story because it perfectly illustrates the point that I wish to make regarding the link between Metaphysics and Human Nature. The Principle of Sufficient Cause asks, “why is this ‘something’ as it is, rather than not?” The answer, of course, is that something is the way it is for a reason—for a purpose—which leads us to the Principle of Finality, i.e., the end for which something exists. For example, an arrow has a purpose to fulfill: to fly straight and true—that is what it is. However, since our society has abandoned the science of metaphysics we are left divorced from reality and adrift in a fantasy world of our own making. This “pride” over reality is what leads the child’s father to honestly state that, “If you really want to get to know someone, you don’t ask what’s between their legs.”
This story, interestingly enough, went viral. The story spread all over the globe via the internet and as a result people commented at length about it, which doesn’t surprise me one bit. Nor does the fact that a number of people actually commend these parents for their progressiveness! Msgr. Charles Pope, of the Archdiocese of Washington, dissected the article and in response to the above comment about “what’s between their legs” he wrote, “Thus my body is a revelation of who I am at the deepest level. The child’s father … has an anthropology that no Christian can accept…” [ii]
I’ll go a step further: the father’s anthropology is one that no right-thinking human being can accept for to do so is to deny reality, which is the definition of insanity.
Learning the Hard Way
Before we examine the confusion we’ve gotten ourselves into, I would like to make a pair of observations and a prognostication.
- The first observation deals with God. Whatever we’re experiencing in our day and age, and as difficult and deadly as it is both in terms of lives terminated and souls lost, it is no surprise to God. Before the first molecule came into existence God foresaw the times we are living in and He is not indifferent to, nor inactive in, our plight. “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20).
- The second observation deals with us. We are fallen human beings; our intellects are clouded and our wills malicious. Like disobedient children, we pursue our desires in opposition to what we have been taught. If the last five hundred years could have an analogy, it is that Western civilization has gone through its teenage years. First is the rebellion against parents (God the Father and Mother Church), then the pride that comes from knowing a little but thinking we know enough to make our own decisions.
My prognostication is that as teenagers mature into adults, so Western Civilization will mature, realize how foolish it has been and return to the truth, not because our parents tell us to, but because we have learned from our own foolishness. St. John Paul II saw the Third Millennium as a “springtime” for Christianity. Like the monks who preserved the books and accumulated wisdom when the Roman Empire fell in the West, so our Christian task is to preserve the wisdom given to us in expectation for the day when our civilization will need it again. But we’re not there yet. Western Civilization has not experienced the full consequence of the past five hundred years of folly and the Catholic Church is only now beginning to cleanse itself of what Pope Benedict called “the filth” that has stained her beauty. We still have much work to do in the vineyard of the Lord, but if the pro-life movement is any indication there are new shoots sprouting to give us hope.
Enough of my commentary; let us examine how we got to where we are.
How did we get here?
The new man, the “modern man,” came into its own when Nicollo Machiavelli published The Prince in 1513. It is a book that revolutionized political and social philosophy and it started with an assumption that had already been developing for over two hundred years. In 1987, Fr. Coony wrote:
“…the philosophic concept of humanism, initiated by St. Thomas began to emerge and to occupy center stage. In the theoretical interest of giving greater prominence to man in the universe, the effect, in practice, was to drive a wedge between man and the God-centered monolith of the past centuries… The humanistic movement began in Italy in the first half of the fourteenth century and combined the rediscovered ancient secular classics with the sense-oriented philosophy of Aristotle to propound its ideas.” [iii]
The role of reason (Aristotle) and faith (Aquinas) were soon discarded. Man became the measure of all things. Machiavelli did away with ideals and virtues, placing success as the final arbiter of what is true and good. He was the first to publicly proclaim that “the ends justify the means.”
Francis Bacon (1561-1626) held that “knowledge for power” would enable “man’s conquest of nature.”
Rene Descartes (1561-1626) begins by asserting that nothing is certain except that, “I think, therefore I am.” This reduces the knowable to only my ideas; only those can I be certain of.
David Hume (1711-1776), an empiricist, held that personal identity is merely a succession of impressions, ideas and emotions united into a “self” through the process of memory. As a result, “reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) centered his philosophy on “the Will to Power” making “choice” the arbiter of truth and morals.
Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980) took Hume and Nietzsche a step further. Man creates his essence through his choices. Both he and nature are raw materials to which Man then invents a nature for himself and the world. Since there is no God, he is free and must freely invent his own values, goals, and purposes: “Invent the kind of person you want to be, and be it with all your heart.”
Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre’s companion, wrote in her book, The Second Sex, that, “The body is not a thing, it is a situation: it is our grasp on the world and our sketch of our project.” She also wrote, “One is not born a woman, but becomes one.”
Ideas Have Consequences
There is a great deal more to the description above, but I think the point has been made. The desire of Storm’s parents to raise him/her (?) gender-free makes perfect sense if one subscribes to these novel philosophies. They are trying to give their children the widest possible latitude in choosing how he/she might want to invent “itself” and “its” world. The more options you have, the fewer impositions or interference you experience; the more authentic you will be. The logic appears flawless, but it is the logic of hell. It leads to insanity.
True authenticity, true freedom comes not from divorcing ourselves from reality and inventing a fantasy world and identity, but in conforming to reality. What then is that reality? [iv]
First of all we need to distinguish the essential from the accidental. In metaphysics the essential is that unchanging “what-ness” of a thing. A dog, a cat or a human being each share in the essence of that thing: and there is no cross-over. I can act like a dog but I will never be a dog, just as I can dress a dog in human clothes or train a dog, but it will never be a human.
Grasping this truth, we can then ask the question, “What is accidental to this thing?” Height, weight, size, shape, color, location… all these things can change without taking away or changing the essence of that thing. So the things human beings do, such as accounting, cleaning, farming, manufacturing, or the attributes they have such as hair colour, skin colour, nationality, etc… these are accidentals. They do not change the essence of what it means to be human.
Another factor we have to distinguish is the difference between potential and actuality. Every human being has certain potential that is essential, while some potential is accidental. For example, save for injury or disease, all human beings have the potential to reason. As a child develops, so does this capacity. However, not all human beings have the potential to excel at higher level mathematics and physics. The former is essential, the latter is accidental.
Therefore, if we exclude the accidental and focus strictly on the essential, what can we say constitutes the essence of humanity, properly speaking, and without debilitating circumstances. [v]
Well, first of all we already spoke of rationality. Human beings are RATIONAL. Secondly, we recognize that all human beings make choices, therefore human beings are VOLITIONAL. Since these two characteristics are not biological, but immaterial, we can conclude that human beings are SPIRITUAL. Yet it is also true that human beings are composed of matter, so humans are CORPOREAL. Because human beings are corporeal and they are gendered, we can say that human beings are SEXUAL. Since human beings can relate to each other on a rational, volitional, spiritual, corporeal and sexual basis, it stands to reason that human beings are SOCIAL. To top it all off, since human beings are rational, volitional, spiritual, corporeal, sexual and social beings, they are also MORAL.
I think that just about covers it. Everything else we can say about human beings will fall under one or more of those characteristics and will be accidental in nature. Over the course of the next few installments, we will examine each characteristic in its own light.
[iii] Fr. John P. Coony, “How Brief a Candle: Modern Man in the Insistent Dialectic”; Pro Fratribus Press, 1987, page 60-61.
[iv] We see again the need for a solid understanding in the concept of ‘universals’. See the second article in this series, The Need for Universals. If the human intellect cannot grasp “universals,” and if universals are not objective realities, then we could never ask the question of “what is common to all human beings.” We could only say, “what is common to some, or most, or none.”
[v] Note that the capacity to reason, while an essential characteristic, is not a determinative one. In other words, if a person is incapable of reason due to injury or disease this does not render them ‘not human’. They are a human being who, due to circumstance, cannot actualize a capacity that is intrinsic to their nature. The same can be said for the pre-born. Just because they cannot reason YET does not mean they are not HUMAN yet.
Editor’s Note: This is the eighth article in an ongoing series, Ideas Have Consequences by Dennis Buonafede. Check back next Wednesday for another article.