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What is man? What a simple question. Yet, no fully satisfactory answer has ever definitively been reached. At least by man.

Over my previous three posts at The Imaginative Conservative, I have tried (whether successfully or not, is a different question) to take the idea of “conservative” back to its most fundamental principles: essentially looking at the various aspects of the human person. That is, I think the only thing truly worth conserving—as a self-professed conservative—is the dignity of the human person, a religious humanism.

One longtime reader and ally of The Imaginative Conservaitve commented via Twitter that this all seemed rather abstract. I suppose it does.

Regardless, as the current and previous pontiff have argued, the horrors of the twentieth century have forced us to go back to first principles and to define man properly. Each has drawn upon the documents of Vatican II: “For though the same God is Savior and Creator, Lord of human history as well as of salvation history, in the divine arrangement itself, the rightful autonomy of the creature, and particularly of man is not withdrawn, but is rather re-established in its own dignity and strengthened in it.”

John Paul II and Benedict XVI were certainly not alone in this. Other twentieth-century humanists—such Paul Elmer More, Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, Henri de Lubac, Romano Guardini, Gabriel Marcel, Christopher Dawson, Frank Sheed, and too many others to denote here—helped create this tradition, leading up to Vatican II. Each saw the definition of the human person as central to a reclamation of his dignity and his true liberty.

In essence, the religious humanist believes that

  1. Man can only be understood in the context of Justice, knowing his own place in the order of existence. While he is lower than the angels, he is higher than the animals. He remains the only creature in the Divine Economy to possess both the spirit of the supernatural and the body of the natural.
  2. Man must be understood as a mingling of good and evil. He is neither totally depraved as Calvin claimed, nor is he a blank slate as Locke thought, tending mostly toward good. While fallen, man also bears the Imago Dei and serves as a temple of the Holy Spirit.
  3. Each man is unique, endowed with a particular set of gifts, thus given by God for that creature’s specific place in time and existence.
  4. With a paraphrasing of Aristotle that God “makes nothing in vain.” But, to take from Aquinas, “only grace perfects nature.”
  5. God creates nothing that is not wholly good. Through his distorted will, though, man often chooses evil.
  6. Power tends to corrupt–no matter the institution. All human power seeks more power and must be restrained in some orderly, humane, and constitutional manner.
  7. Virtue and imagination serve as the greatest gifts to men.
  8. The best form of education comes through liberal and humane education. Indeed, for most in history, “liberal education” was a redundancy. All education, properly understood, is liberal, liberating us from the things of this world, pointing us toward the wisdom of God rather than the utilitarian wishes of man.
  9. Nothing in the universe is higher than love.
  10. That virtues can never be forced but must be cultivated.

Of course, the religious humanist espouses far more than this, but this, I think is a good starting list to move beyond merely an abstract “dignity of man.” Each of these ten things, I think, is well worth conserving.

Many other traditions are worth discarding. But, that is for another post.

For an excellent overview of JPII’s understanding of a proper anthropology, see this essay from Ignatius Insight.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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22 replies to this post
  1. Good post–as a Calvinist and a humanist I have a quibble with the definition of "Total Depravity" implied here. Total depravity does not mean, "as bad as can possibly be" — it means no part of us is untouched by the Fall of Man. There is no island of purity within us that we can stand on to reach down and save ourselves. This is something all Catholics in the spirit of Augustine should be able to affirm. Apart from that–excellent thoughts here.

  2. I particularly like the attached photograph, since man ultimately evolved from water based protozoa. It is truly amazing to consider that material evolution on Earth had as its ultimate end the spiritualization of matter. As matter often voluntarily "de-spiritualizes" in our culture (hence "decadence"), it becomes amazingly clear that the superficial "return" to ancient faith is in fact a turning forward or pushing forward of the evolution of spiritualized matter. It makes me reconsider my Dolphin browser gesture for TIC (a straight line, going backwards from right to left)…

  3. Question: Why in every one of these lists of Twentieth-Century humanists is Josef Pieper always left out? I read bits of "Leisure: The Basis of Culture" and about half of "The Four Cardinal Virtues" and found nothing there I disagreed with. His prose and words are wonderful. A little dense and erudite, perhaps, than one is used to, but wonderful nonetheless.

  4. Peter, call me very dense, but I can't tell if your comment is satire, serious, or sarcastic. I took that photo this summer while hiking in the Wind River Mountains in Wyoming. I thought it was beautiful, and the three white water parts seem Trinitarian to me.

  5. Thanks, CR. Well, Calvin was as much a Stoic as he was a Christian, especially in his love of Seneca. And, you're probably right–I probably don't get Total Depravity. I just hear my students say it all of the time, and they seem to be very absolutist about it.

  6. Dr. Birzer, the comment was meant to be quite serious praise of your photgraph. I have looked at it again, and do indeed see the Trinitarian element. The fact that my first thought upon seeing it was "protozoa" was likely the effect your posts' opening question (what is man?) juxtaposed with the photo had on me. I admit it is not a very poetic disposition, to look at a river and think "protozoa", but I am the victim of my fiance, who is a biologist, and through whom I have quite literaly learned to appreciate the little things in life.

  7. I agree with C. R. Great post.

    I would, however, like to add a Primitive Baptist's perspective to Total Depravity.

    To the Primitive Baptist, Total Depravity is man's state of being prior to Regeneration. In this state, man has no desire for God and is spiritually dead — separated from God. After Regeneration [which is totally passive on the sinner's part (John 3:8)] the child of God becomes a "new creature" (II Cor. 5:17) and is able to commune with God. From this point forward, the Child of God is no longer in a state of Total Depravity, but rather has a quickened spirit that is fit for Heaven.

    All theological divergences aside, Mr. Birzer, I do always love to read your posts. Thank you, again, for a thought provoking article.

  8. Oh dear. I thought that the three white bits symbolised Lord Shiva's trident, but then I am writing from Nepal.

    Brad's 10 Points are positively Kirkian in their accuracy and succinctness.

  9. Over all this is a very good exposition. I do, however, wish to make comment as a Catholic. Point 1: In the spiritual hierarchy Man is above the angels. The angels are pure good and can not help but love G-d. Man has free will, we choose to love G-d. Point 4: It seems to me that Mr. Birzer is not a Catholic (thereby not familiar with our theology) as he refers to Saint Thomas as "Aquinas" and some other conflicting ideas in this piece. Point 5: All of Creation is good. In order to have Good there must be its opposite, Evil (Aristotle, St. Thomas. Evil is the absence of Creation.

  10. I believe (from reading and correspondence, I never met him) that Brad is indeed a Catholic, well-informed and devout. As a less well-informed Catholic, I thought that referring to St Thomas Aquinas as Aquinas was in no way anti-traditional, and merely clarified that one was not referring to a lot of other saints with the same first name.

    If I may ask a question, why do you persist in not spelling God's name with all three letters (you hyphenate): nobody did that in my Catholic grade-school where we had some pretty tough nuns and I still have some ruler-marks to show for it! Indeed the only one whom I know personally who hyphenates like that is a very devout, very conservative (and very dear) Jewish friend. Can you, or anyone, kindly explain whether the practice is common among Catholics nowadays, or even traditional? Many thanks!

  11. Steve, I'm a "re-vert" Catholic. Born and raised, left, and came back. But, frankly, I'm a really poor Catholic. Great in intellectual belief, terrible in spiritual practice.

  12. Dear Brother Reuben: I'm sorry, but your criticism of Brad's comment on angels and men contradicts the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 37-330; your hyphenization of God is completely contrary to Catholic usage, both traditional and catechetical; the use of "Aquinas" is quite common, even in the writings of such giants of the Church as Fulton Sheen; Dr. Birzer is indeed a Catholic in good standing; and God Himself describes creation as good, of which the first chapter of Genesis should be sufficient indication.

  13. Brad, me too with less scholarship! Was it not Saint Peter, after a bad day with his nets, who said "The spirit is willing but the fish is weak?" (Maybe I have that wrong…)

  14. Regarding Brothers sentence "in order to have Good, there must be its opppsite, Evil". I would take issue with the categorical "must". God is defined as the highest good, are you therefore implying that in order to have God, there "must" be evil? This would deny God's omnipotence, because it would predicate His existence on something else (evil). I take the view, informed by my reading of Augustine and Levinas, that evil is a measure of distance. All of us are evil to the extent that we are far from God, or (worse still) turned away from Him (literal Hebrew of Satan). This is also why God is regarded by Catholics as a passing through us (Pasha for the Jews, passover for Catholics). We never pass through Him, even in Heavan, Augustine writes we eternally uncover His mystery.

    As to the Catehism – a wise Jesuit once told me that the problem with many Catholics is that they fail to recognize that the catehism they learned as children was a catehism for children. Adults thus go to confession and often demonstrate a moral conscience at the level of a seven year old. This predisposition for adults to conflate "kiddie Catholicism" with Catholicism is evident during Advent, when some adults think that just as they gave up eating candy for advent as children, so now they will go easy on the KFC.

    With all due respect, Brother, but I detect a tad bit of this sort of extreme legalism in your understanding of the Catehism: a legalism which is well and proper for the immature conscience of a child, but does not suffice for adulthood, which demands far more of us than thinking morality consists in prefixing "Aquinus" with St.

    Lastly, as to the angels – they "cannot help but to love God"? What about the angel who fell? I ask in all ssincerity. I tried reading Aquainus on the angels, but I have a hard time wrapping my mind aroud it.

  15. To PSR: Since Brother Reuben does not mention the Catechism of the Catholic Church, I assume that your comments in paragraphs #2 refer to my rejoinder to Brother Reuben @John Willson above. I don't know to what Catechism you refer, but the one I am referencing is most certainly not a children's book. It was commissioned by the Blessed John Paul and first appeared in Latin and then various languages in the early 1990s. While all attempts to explain the mystery of Christianity are subject to discussion, this one is not subject to contradiction based on individual preferences.

  16. Brother Reuben, thanks for the response. A couple of replies: Satan is an angel, too. Angels are not only pure good. In fact, only God is pure. Even the angels have an element in them that is not complete. Man's free will, in Catholic theology, is generally a deadly thing. God chooses us, not the other way around. What's wrong with Aquinas? Too Latin? Should I have gone with Aquino? Finally, in no way shape or form are RCs dualists. Good does NOT have its opposite. Evil is the neglect and corruption of the good, not its opposite. Finally, I am a Roman Catholic, but barely. I'm a very poor one, and I think the current crop of American bishops are, generally, a cowardly lot of bureaucratic time wasters who care far more for their job security than they do the flocks over whom they have been given charge.

  17. Excellent, Brad.

    In working through 'A Canticle for Leibowitz' with a group of high schoolers, I have been particularly taken by Miller's consistent Christian humanism–his appreciation for the tension between sin and the image of God. The novel is most powerful in depicting how human perfectibility and progress ultimately fail due to limitations not of information but of character. Human knowledge is inherently–rather than circumstantially–limited. Those who wish to overcome those limitations through human achievement are doomed by the original sin of pride, of wishing to replace God. And so a society with the scientific and technical knowledge to build a nuclear weapon does not thereby possess the prudence required to use such power wisely.

  18. Dr. Willson, I guess I was laboring under a misplaced assumption. In schools here in Poland, the Catechism is one of many official church documents that get refurbished to fit a young age group. Religion is a school subject here (in public schools). Atheists can opt out, and in high school you can (I think) choose Ethics instead of religion.

    Sadly, most people choose religion because it's an "easy A" that raises their GPA. Another sad result of this situation is that many Polish Catholics think they know the Catehism because they read the nursery school version (for the record, I have yet to read either).

  19. The sin of pride does not exist. It is a construct of the church to force obedience. People putting down their fellow man for being happy for achieving is the REAL sin.
    For some person to criticize another’s work and claim it for an imaginary friend is irrational. We built this civilization. We wept. We bled. We toiled.

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