So far during this series of articles we have been laying out a simple framework that incorporates all the unchanging elements of this universe we live in; elements that are not physical or measurable, but rather principles upon which all of reality rests on.
Metaphysics shows us that we intuitively realize certain truths. Stick with me on this and you’ll see!
If a wall exists in front of me, it cannot “not exist” at the same time. If a wall exists in front of me, then there has to be a sufficient reason for that wall to have appeared there. Someone had to have built it, and if someone built that wall, there’s a purpose for that wall to exist—perhaps to keep something in or to keep something out. The nature of the wall—canvas, wood, brick, steel, etc.—can tell me a great deal about who built it and why. Knowing these things helps me determine how I should relate to this wall.
That’s why when President Reagan told Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” the comment made perfect sense. The Berlin Wall may have appeared over night, but no one believed it just happened; everyone knew it was built by the Soviets and that it was intended to keep the East Germans in and the West out. The Berlin Wall was both a real and symbolic assault on human freedom.
With that in mind, we have been examining what constitutes Human Nature so we can figure out the answers to the basic questions of life: where did I come from, why am I here, where am I going? We discussed that Human Nature consists of REASON, WILL, SPIRIT and BODY. All these elements exist in particular (individual) human beings—each of us has these elements, to greater or lesser degrees. We will now look at another element—all human beings are SOCIAL.
Are we social beings?
It may seem a strange question to ask since the answer is obvious, but unfortunately, today the obvious isn’t so obvious; which is why I sound as if I’m constantly stating the obvious—obviously!
If anyone had any doubt about whether or not human beings are social beings, the prevalence of sports should quickly put that doubt to rest. In Canada, for example, hockey is big … and I mean BIG! From Timbits [i] to the NHL, hockey is a fundamental part of the Canadian culture. During the Gold Medal game of the 2010 Olympics, held in Vancouver, B.C., over 80% of the Canadian population was watching the match between Canada and the U.S. Imagine how at one second, twenty-seven million people held their collective breath and the next second, there were twenty-seven million shouts of joy when ole Sidney “snuck” one in during overtime.
It’s not just a Canadian thing though. The international sport for humanity is football, not the American version, but real football (what North Americans call soccer). During the 2010 World Cup final between Spain and the Netherlands, it was estimated that seven hundred MILLION people worldwide were watching, with over 90% of Spaniards and Dutch glued to their televisions!
While different cultures express themselves in different ways (I don’t think you’ll find too many tail-gate parties in Tamale, Ghana, [ii] or vuvuzelas [iii] in Dallas, Texas) there is no denying the fact that human beings are—each and every one of us—social beings. Even introverts, loners and sociopaths need and desire some social interaction. To quote Aristotle: “He who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god.” [iv]
Modern day confusion: Radical Individualism
If the fact that human beings are social is such a self-evident truth, then why is this an issue in philosophy? The Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor, examines this question in his book, A Secular Age. I want to focus on two key ideas he mentions: “the buffered self” and “disembedding.”
The sense of “self” that someone had five hundred years ago is much different than today; at least in the Western world. The pre-Renaissance person lived in what Taylor called “an enchanted world” and describes this person as “a porous self”. This was a world where everything had “meaning in itself” and there were no clear boundaries between the natural, preternatural (spirits) and supernatural (divine). All these elements penetrated and had an effect on this “porous self”. While certainly naïve in some sense, there was a prevailing truth to this world view. Individual people understood themselves to be intimately caught up in a universal drama, one from which they could not “distance” themselves. [v]
The “buffered self,” on the other hand, is one that has the possibility of disengaging or taking a distance; in other words, of becoming an observer and not a player. It is, says Taylor,
“A very different existential (lived) condition. … For the modern, buffered self, the possibility exists of taking a distance from, disengaging from everything outside the mind. My ultimate purposes are those which arise from within me, the crucial meanings of things are those defined in my responses to them.” [vi]
Therefore, in earlier times, the sense of identity is intimately linked with the entire society. All the “important actions were the doings of whole groups, articulated in a certain way” and as a result “they couldn’t conceive themselves as potentially disconnected from this social matrix. It would probably never even occur to them to try.” [vii]
This intimate connection with the social matrix is called “embeddedness” by Taylor: “From the standpoint of the individual’s sense of self, it means the inability to imagine oneself outside a certain matrix. But it also can be understood as a social reality; and here it refers to the way we together imagine our social existence.” [viii] Catholics understand this, in a way, as their being embedded within the History of Salvation, caught up in the drama of Angels and Saints, Demons and Sinners, and where, as Shakespeare wrote:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. [ix]
Along with the sense of “buffering,” there was also a growing sense of “disembedding;” of taking ourselves out of the drama and not allowing it to shape our identity. This meant that, as a free individual, I could not be bound by any prior arrangement that could demand my participation or lay on me any responsibility. This “disembedding” was actually fostered and aided by the Protestant Revolution. [x]
Catholic “religion,” insofar as it is a structured belief system, closely parallels normal human societies, especially the family: God the Father, Mother Church, brothers and sisters in Christ, the Communion of Saints, the souls in Purgatory, etc. In Catholicism a personal faith coexists with a corporate faith; it is highly social (Mass on Sunday) and corporeal (e.g. The Sacraments, especially the Eucharist). One is not saved individually but as a member of “the Church,” one must be “united in Christ’s Body, the Church” to be saved. Sin is a self imposed exile from the community. In other words, the believer is a “porous self,” giving to and receiving from others and finding his or her identity embedded in this social matrix.
Protestantism destroyed this social matrix. Faith and salvation was made a personal, private and wholly individual phenomenon. No more invoking of the Saints, no more “Sacraments,” no more “raised in the Faith.” Going to church became something I want to do rather than something I’m required to do. Faith became something that completely denied basic human nature, namely that we are fundamentally social beings. As time progressed and the sense of radical individualism grew, the need for God became another “option” that one could accept or reject, that one could “buffer” themselves from, hence the growth of secularism.
I use religion as an example here, but we see it in other areas of life.
- Fewer people are motivated by a sense of social responsibility. Few of my students believe they owe society anything, including military service. This sense of inherent responsibility was evident in President John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address when he said “And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
- The decline in volunteerism is so serious in Canada that a decade ago the Ontario Provincial Government mandated that every high school student in the province had to complete forty hours of volunteer work in order to graduate from High School.
- Voter turnout in Canada and the U.S. is declining with more and more people disengaging from the political process. Granted, many have good reasons to do so, but the belief that we have that option is the point trying to be made.
And the list goes on.
Ideas Have Consequences
It is fairly self-evident that human beings are social by nature. It is also very clear that our social nature is not something that can be turned on and off at our whim. In countless ways we affect and are affected by those around us. Even our non-participation or deliberate disengagement from those around us has an impact on us as persons. The comic book character Spiderman/Peter Parker recognized this when he did not stop a thief when he had the chance only to have that thief murder his uncle, which subsequently has an enormous impact on his character.
Our social nature doesn’t mean we have to be involved in EVERYTHING. We can’t because we are finite beings. Yet even my social limitations contribute to my identity. Since my time and interest are limited, I might be able to pick and choose which sports I follow and which teams I support but to think that somehow my identity is not affected by the reality of sports in general would be to blindly shut myself off from objective reality. The fact that I don’t like watching baseball affects my identity, if only to define me as someone who doesn’t like watching baseball—it still has an impact on me.
Our social nature also exposes for a lie the belief that whatever I do in the privacy of my own home has no impact on society around me, for eventually I have to exit my home and interact with society. Many of my students have a difficult time grasping the notion that there is no such thing as a private sin. Whatever we do affects us and, by extension, those around us, and in terms of the Catholic faith, every personal action (or idea for that matter) impacts on the Church as a whole, for good or for ill.
This reality, that my identity is shaped by society and, in turn, shapes others in society, is the cornerstone of both ethics and politics. If I am a solitary being, “buffered” and “disembedded” from others around me—locked in my own mind, then there is no real right or wrong, there is no “ought” or “duty,” no responsibility to others. We could truly ask as Cain did, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Yet this is not the case. We entered into a drama already in progress and there is no way we can pretend to be merely disinterested bystanders. There is a limit to the saying, “to each his own.”
More can be said about this (obviously?), but I will leave that for the section on Ethics. So far we have seen that human beings are rational creatures that can know the truth of things as they are. We also have the capacity to freely conform to or act contrary to those fundamental truths. We are a unique fusion of the “spiritual” and “corporeal” embedded into a “social” matrix that draws out of each of us our identity as a person.
The next element of our human nature we discover is that we engage in this social matrix as either a man or a woman, so we are, by nature, “sexual” beings. We will examine this element in the next installment.
[iv] Had Aristotle known Jesus he would have realized that even God is not a solitary being for Christians understand God to be a community of Persons—Three Persons, One Divine Nature.
[v] Charles Taylor, The Secular Age; The Bleknap Press of Harvard University Press; 2007; pgs. 32-34.
[vi] Taylor; p.38
[vii] Taylor, p.149
[viii] Taylor, p150. We think we can imagine what it would be like “if only” but the reality is that our identity is so penetrated by our social matrix that the person we imagine would have a completely different identity. The fact that I’m Canadian, born in the 60s, Catholic and of immigrant parents is as much a part of my identity as my eye color and gender.
[ix] As You Like It, Act 2, Scene 7
[x] I have a hard time calling something that so contradicted Catholicism as a Reform when in actuality it had all the characteristics of a revolution.
Editor’s Note: This is the twelfth article in an ongoing series, Ideas Have Consequences by Dennis Buonafede. It originally appeared on ICL in 2011. Check back next Wednesday for another article.