In our day, most attempts to understand what it means to be human do not begin with Scripture but rather proceed from a worldly perspective. The most common definition for a human being—or for what it means to be human—is the scientific name Homo sapiens, meaning “wise man.” This term, in distinguishing man from all other creatures in the animal kingdom, does so in terms of intelligence or wisdom. In almost every era of Western civilization, philosophers and theologians have zeroed in on man’s thinking capacity as the unique element of his identity.
In the early centuries of Greek philosophical inquiry, the overarching concern was in the dimension called metaphysics, meaning that which is above or beyond the physical world. Thales, Parmenides, Anaximander, Anaxagoras, and others before Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, were asking big questions, such as, what is the ultimate substance from which everything comes in the universe? What is the essence of things? What stands above and beyond the physical? These philosophers couldn’t agree on what the ultimate reality is. Plato said it is the transcendent world of forms or ideas; Aristotle said it is the essence embedded within the physical form. Ultimately, thinkers questioned the fact that different philosophers, each acute in their thinking, came to radically different conclusions about issues of metaphysics.
Thus, the next great emphasis in philosophy was in the discipline called epistemology, which is the theory of knowing. It undergirds all science. It is the study of the question, “How do we know what we know?” The focus is on how we learn, how we can know anything, whether we know principally through the activity of the mind or through observation, and related questions.
The twentieth century marked a dramatic shift in the whole history of theoretical thought. The dominant concern in philosophy in the twentieth century was in the area of anthropology, or the study of man. Now, the key question is, what does it mean to be a human being? People are concerned about self-esteem, identity, and understanding who we are as creatures. The focal points in Western civilization include issues such as abortion, euthanasia, human relationships, peace, gender, sexuality, and labor/management difficulties. How we address issues in these areas will depend ultimately upon how we define man.
Philosophers have wrestled with this question before. Plato was perplexed by the task of giving a precise definition to man. In the science of taxonomy, to distinguish a bird from a fish or a fish from an antelope, for example, one looks at what is different among them and also at what is similar. For instance, birds and planes both fly through the air. Birds have wings, and planes have wings. But there are differences too. Planes don’t have feathers, and birds have to flap their wings to fly. So when we classify, we recognize the similarities and the differences. Plato was challenged in trying to pinpoint the distinctive features that would separate or distinguish a human being from all other forms of life. Finally, he figured it out: he called man a “featherless biped.” One of his students got a plucked chicken, wrote a sign across its chest saying, “Plato’s man,” and put it on the wall at the Academy—and Plato had to start all over again.
Karl Marx described man as Homo faber: man the fabricator, or maker. Marx sought to understand the uniqueness of man not in his chemistry or anatomy but in his work habits. Man’s whole life revolves around work, and much of the history of civilization, especially the history of warfare, has to do with a conflict over economic forces and the yield of human labor. Humanity’s greatest alienation is the alienation from the fruit of labor, which is unnatural, Marx said. So Marx’s theory of economics was rooted in the fact that he saw man as a toolmaker. When anthropologists and paleontologists look back into history and try to draw the line between other kinds of primates and human beings, the presence of tools among the fossils becomes very important because man—Homo faber—is the one who fashioned tools and used them to increase production.
Homo volens is another way in which man has been described, particularly in the latter part of the nineteenth century in a school called “voluntarism.” This view claims that what makes man unique is his capacity to make choices. Friedrich Nietzsche took this idea farther, saying that the real man, the authentic man—the Übermensch, the superman—was a person who made his choices entirely on his own, not living by the pressure of what Nietzsche called “the herd” morality. Rather, he defined a master morality. He affirmed his own personal existence and determined to live his life on the basis of his own private choices, because that’s the essence of being human.
Edmund Husserl spoke of man’s intentionality—that is, the ability to choose with a purpose in view—as being his basic uniqueness. Jean-Paul Sartre, in a more pessimistic vein, concluded that “man is a useless passion.” But both Husserl and Sartre focused on the dimension of choices. Sigmund Freud explored the sexual dimension of what it means to be human, and he thought that the central drive that defines all social interactions and all other values is based in an erotic dimension of humanity.
In the Christian faith, we understand what it means to be human through the lens of Scripture. This key question—what is man?—is found even in the Bible, issuing from the pen of David: “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Ps. 8:4).
Notice that David’s question does not concern man alone, but man’s relationship to God. The proper focus of theology is God—His character, His works, His attributes. But John Calvin said that no one can really understand who God is without first having some kind of understanding of who we are as human beings. Yet, paradoxically, there’s no way that we can really understand what it means to be human until we first understand the character of God. So the knowledge of God and the knowledge of man work together; they are interdependent. The Scriptures tell us that man is made in the image of God. In some way, we are like God, so the more we understand who God is, the easier it is for us to understand who we are. And the more we understand what it means to be human, the more insight we can gain about the character of God.
R. C. Sproul