Sunday, September 15, 2013

Individualism and the Fabulous Animal

In one of the great statements against human naturalism, G.K. Chesterton argued that, “We can accept [man] as an animal, if we can live with a fabulous animal.”

This is quite an arresting image. It turns our traditional version of the fable upside down. And yet this tergiversation is obviously valid. Instead of the animal that talks, tells stories, laughs about the past or dreams about the future, we see human beings doing the same thing. And of course, this is fabulous, because animals (which supposedly include us) don’t do such things.

It is also a ringing challenge to those who deny human exceptionalism. And most captivating of all is that wonderful word “fabulous”. I say wonderful because in addition to the traditional sense of that word (of talking and thinking in ways that fabulous animals do - and in ways that non-fabulous animals do not) we are also fabulous because we can willfully transcend our mortal nature. We are also wonderful. Indeed, we are fabulous.

One of my favorite fables is Aesop’s fable of The Dog and the Wolf. In the story, a hungry and skinny wolf meets a fat and happy dog. The wolf asks the dog how he seems to be so well off. The dog replies that his master feeds him for watching the house at night and for keeping thieves away. And then the wolf notices the scar around the dog’s neck. He learns that the scar is from the rope that keeps the dog tied up during the day, and the wolf decides to leave. “Well,” says the wolf as he departs, “you can just keep your nice, fat happiness, I’ll take my skinny old freedom any day or night. I’d rather be free than fat.”

Chesterton asks us to consider why a talking and reasoning human being is no more remarkable than a talking or reasoning wolf. This is so obvious – or at least it should be – that we marvel at the institutional sophistry that ignores it.

Suppose for the sake of argument, however, that humans are no more remarkable than any other living species. This means, of course, that we inherited our likes and dislikes, our hopes and fears, and our many biological constraints from other forms of life.

This also means that even our most inspiring moral achievements: The Decalogue, Magna Carta, The Sermon on the Mount, etc., were only ways to enhance the reproductive success of their respective authors. It means that we are really only interested, one by one, in taking care of our own carnal self. We are forced by our biological history to be individualists.

Perhaps you don’t like the portrayal of this word “individualism” in such a negative way. Especially if you are a warm-blooded American, you believe that individualism is one of the great virtues of your heritage. I know that I most certainly do.

But the word “individualism” didn’t start out this way. Yehoshua Arieli has pointed out that the concept is of non-American origin and that it represented an ideology in direct opposition to our current system of values. To be an individualist meant to have an excessive regard to personal interests. In a word, to be selfish, even to the nth degree. It was individualism, for example, that was responsible for the abuses of the French Revolution. And it is individualism that is the enemy of our higher religious sensibilities.

Of course it is also individualism that lies at the heart of Darwinian naturalism. Each individual is inherently programmed to look after itself. Survival of the fittest is the epigram inscribed over the lintels of our modern institutions.

But in America we changed that meaning. After all, our ancestors came to this land with a personal optimism and dreamed of success. Some of them failed. But many of them didn’t. And through the years we have adopted a can-do attitude that not only recognizes magnanimous behavior, but has come to expect it.

It is the individual, after all, that takes out the neighbor’s trash when she is on vacation. It is the individual that helps a handicapped stranger cross the street. It is the individual that decides, even in the middle of a hard day, to follow the admonitions of Christ.

Our greatest examples of human excellence are generally religious individuals. And we recognize their excellence in direct proportion to their examples of serving others. As Robert Bellah has pointed out, a prophet is never a private individual. Any truthful assessment of human nature must deal with these remarkable individuals just as they must deal with the egotist. It should be clear that individualism can be a lot of different things.

Individualism, like the wolf in Aesop’s fable, insists on personal autonomy. Unlike the dog that is tethered to its master’s decisions, the individualist decides to either follow a carnal nature or to follow a higher law. In a very real way, our individual response to the world determines what kind of fabulous animal we will be. We can remain guttered in the mortal nature “red in tooth and claw” or we can overcome our carnal instincts and live a remarkable life. Only as individuals can we decide to live a life that transcends our individual selfishness. Only as individuals can we decide to be charitable – or, to use the proper academic word, can we decide to be altruistic.

The altruist is the humanitarian that helps others when the offered help provides no benefit to himself. The altruist might be a young man who helps others to escape from a fire. It might be a women volunteering at a homeless shelter. Any non-reciprocal aid to a non-relative falls into this category of altruism. Needless to say, many human naturalists deny that any such thing exists. To them, any apparent altruistic act is merely a hidden attempt at winning favors. One wonders what sort of human beings these theorists think we are.

(In fairness, though, there has not been enough thought given to these two forms of altruism. I mean the spontaneous help given to a stranger (the type focused on by evolutionary theorists – perhaps because it is amenable to their theories) and the thoughtful transcendence of self that a determined religious commitment develops.)

There has been a great deal of academic posturing around this concept of altruism. This is because a great deal is at stake. On the surface, and for all practical reasons, charitable acts to others (especially to non-relatives) do not make Darwinian sense. And if this is true, then a great deal of the humanist argument fails.

It is a measure of our myopia that we even fall for these naturalistic arguments. The very reality of our individuality confronts us on every side, every day, and with everyone we meet. The denial of this individuality is no longer tenable. The biological laws of meiotic recombination make it so.

And yet this same ineluctable individuality forces us to acknowledge that we are very different from the rest of the created order. Our individualism greatly transcends a mere genetic reshuffling. It involves the will and our mental and spiritual awareness. And herein lies the great irony: that our institutional naturalism denies our fabulous nature even as our natural individualism insists upon it.

So next time you stop to talk to your dog, or to rub the sore around its neck, remember our friend G. K. Chesterton, and consider just what it all means. I think you will agree with us. We truly are fabulous.     


Chesterton’s statement comes from The Everlasting Man (the last paragraph of Chapter I, The Man in the Cave). My copy of The Dog and the Wolf is on page 17 of Aesop’s Fables, published by Easton Press, 1979. My summary of Arieli’s work on individualism comes from Gary Wills’s book Head and Heart, American Christianities, published by The Penguin Press in 2007. Robert Bellah’s point about prophets is on page 317 of Religion in Human Evolution (published by The Belknap Press in 2011).

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