Some time ago now, I wrote a post asking what it is that makes us human, in contradistinction to the rest of the animal kingdom, with whom we undoubtedly have much in common, but from whom we are also undeniably separated by an enormous qualitative gulf. Recently, in making my way through Gene Wolfe’s remarkable The Book of the New Sun tetralogy, I came across a passage of dialogue which I thought gave excellent imaginative expression to this topic. It is often the case that concepts which do not convince by argument alone will find a way through to people by imaginative means, and in this case, the question-and-answer structure provides an extra dimension with which to engage the reader.
It is also the case that in fantasy literature, such as these books are, the author can consider situations that are not extant, but that are yet possible. In this particular case, the story is set on Earth, far into the future, in many ways similar to Earth as we know it, but with significant differences, Wolfe is able to examine the complexities of human nature in settings which are unavailable to us, and which enable him to ask interesting questions about ourselves. In the passage I shall relate, the question of what makes us human is addressed by supposing the existence of human beings who have willingly given up the very Reason which makes them what they are. They retain the form of humans, but behave like beasts, and Wolfe thereby allows for a separation of our purely biological features (which connect us to other animals) and those faculties which set us apart.
In this passage, the central character of the series (Severian) and a young boy that he is chaperoning (‘little’ Severian) are walking through some dangerous country, where they have just come across a group of the people I have just described, who are called zoanthrops – those who were once human, but though retaining the form, have lost the Reason which made them so. The boy begins to ask Severian about the nature of these strange creatures:
‘I knew whom he meant. “They were not men, although they were once men and still resemble men. They were zoanthrops, a word that indicates those beasts that are of human shape. Do you understand what I am saying?”
The little boy nodded solemnly, then asked, “Why don’t they wear clothes?”
“Because they are no longer human beings, as I told you. A dog is born a dog a bird is born a bird, but to become a human being is an achievement – you have to think about it. You have been thinking about it for the past three or four years at least, little Severian, even though you may have never thought about the thinking.”
“A dog just looks for things to eat,” the boy said.
“Exactly. But that raises the question of whether a person should be forced to do such thinking, and some people decided a long time ago that he should not. We may force a dog, sometimes, to act like a man – to walk on his hind legs and wear a collar and so forth. But we shouldn’t and couldn’t force a man to act like a man. Did you ever want to fall asleep? When you weren’t sleepy or even tired?”
“That was because you wanted to put down the burden of being a boy, at least for a time. Sometimes I drink too much wine, and that is because for a while I would like to stop being a man. Sometimes people take their own lives for that reason. Did you know that?”
“Or they do things that might hurt them,” he said. The way he said it told me of arguments overheard; Becan had very probably been that kind of man, or he would not have taken his family to so remote and dangerous a place.
“Yes,” I told him. “That can be the same thing. And sometimes certain men, and even women, come to hate the burden of thought, but without loving death. They see the animals and wish to become as they are, answering only to instinct, and not thinking. Do you know what makes you think, little Severian?”
from The Book of the New Sun, Volume 2: Sword and Citadel (2000), pp.140-141, Millenium.
In examining the case of these hypothetical creatures, Wolfe is able to give close attention to what it is that separates us from other animals – it is clear that other animals have instincts for survival, as we do, and also that they think (in some sense of the word, with the level of ‘thought’ differing from one species to another). But no other animal is self-aware as we are – aware of our own mortality, of our own simultaneous significance and smallness, of the very fact that we are aware! This is what Wolfe terms the ‘burden of thought’. It is an especial gift bestowed upon mankind to be able to consider the world and the self as we do, but it can also be a great weight.
Other animals do not feel this – as far as we know (and it is just another indicator of the great difference between us and other animals that they cannot tell us otherwise – their communications, no matter how highly developed, are distinctly different in kind to our language) there are no dogs weighed down by a sense of ennui, no chimps that find it difficult getting out of bed in the morning because of the oppressive burden of carrying the world within one’s head. The idea of another animal considering suicide because of a perceived pointlessness to existence is not only without precedent, but in and of itself slightly absurd – to consider it immediately reminds us that we are the only ones for whom meaning and purpose are questions at all.
I would not want to suggest that existential despair is characteristic of all human beings – there are certainly many happy and fulfilled people. My point is really only to draw attention to the fact that it is only for us to consider these questions, and thus, just as our free will enables us to be fully moral agents, able to choose evil as well as good, our self-awareness and apprehension of meaning allows us to either see meaning in the world or to despair at a perceived lack of it. It is one of the stranger ideas of modern atheists (and utterly foreign to most of humanity, past and present) to suggest that one can both affirm a purposeless universe and yet be satisfied by ‘creating’ one’s own meaning.
On that note though, it is certainly the case that as Christianity has become gradually sidelined in the West, and people have been urged to find their happiness in short-term, material ends which do not satisfy the whole person, that the natural human faculty for existential awareness seems to be edging towards a sense of despair. And in one sense, this might be a good thing, for it shows us that we are not just animals – we do not just need food and comfort to be satisfied, we need something more. Kierkegaard, realising this paradoxical situation that the burden of existence on the mind can be a blessing and a curse, wrote:
‘Is despair a merit or a defect? Purely dialectically it is both. If one were to think of despair only in the abstract, without reference to some particular despairer, one would have to say it is an enormous merit. The possibility of this sickness is man’s advantage over the beast, and it is an advantage which characterises him quite otherwise than the upright posture, for it bespeaks the infinite erectness or loftiness of his being spirit. The possibility of this sickness is man’s advantage over the beast; to be aware of this sickness is the Christian’s advantage over natural man; to be cured of this sickness is the Christian’s blessedness.’
from The Sickness Unto Death (2004), pp.44-45, Penguin Classics.
For Kierkegaard, man is a homo religiosus, a being before God, and when we lose our sense of this context for our existence, we lose a proper sense of the self – we become dis-integrated, our physical faculties no longer being properly ordered to our mental and spiritual faculties. This is, as Kierkegaard also saw, precisely what we understand to be the results of Original Sin, and so the only true remedy for it – for the despair that comes from awareness of our fallen condition – is faith in Christ, who restores us to a proper relationship with God and our selves.
Thus the aspect of humanity explored by Wolfe in his Book of the New Sun can provide us with a particularly immediate means of recognising our essential uniqueness. The ‘big questions’ we ask ourselves – why am I here, what is the point, why is there something rather than nothing, why am I able to even ask these questions – themselves point not only to our having a special place within creation, but also to our relationship to the Creator. The more we try to escape His gaze, and to distract ourselves with the things of this world, the more uncomfortable the nagging of our inner voice (when we allow it to re-surface) becomes, reminding us of our source, our place in the world, and our ultimate goal.
So, not only does our sense of dislocation and difference point to our being unequivocally unique compared to other animals, but the sense of despair that it can engender when repressed may actually have a positive function – to draw us, as a culture, out of our materialistic lifestyles and force us to face those questions that we may have been trying to muffle. The louder the inner voice gets, the more we will feel the need to seek out a solution to this despair, until finally we realise there is only one lasting cure for the sickness unto death – God – and that there is really only one place in which we can meet Him in all his fullness – Jesus Christ, in and through whom we will receive within us ‘a spring of water welling up to eternal life’ (John 4:14).