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The Emergence of Ethical Man
By Joseph B. Soloveitchik
Ktav Publishing House, Inc.Copyright © 2005 Toras HoRav Foundation
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMan as Organic Being
Two Views of Man
Should we inquire of a modern historian of philosophy or of any educated person well acquainted with the history of ideas what he understands by the word "man," he would immediately advise us about a basic controversy concerning the destiny or essence of this being. By the sheer force of associative thinking, he would at once refer to three disparate anthropological-philosophical viewpoints: the Biblical (referred to by many as the Judeo-Christian view), the classical Greek, and the modern empirico-scientific. Pressed further, he would probably say that the discrepancy between the concepts of man dating back to antiquity - the Biblical and the classical Greek - is by far not as wide as the gap separating those two from the empirico-scientific one. As a matter of fact, he would say, we may speak of some degree of affinity, of commensurability between the Biblical and classical anthropologies. Both are united in opposition to the scientific approach to man: they set man apart from other forms of organic life.
The world of man, these two anthropologies maintain, is incongruous with that of the animal and plant, notwithstanding the fact that all three groups of organic life are governed alike by kindred rigid natural processes and structural developmental patterns. Man is finite and corporeal, yet different; he is not a particular kind of animal. He is rather a singular being. The Biblical and Greek views, of course, disagree as to the distinctive element in man. For the Bible, the mystical image of the transcendental God (tzelem E-lokim), as well as the metaphysics of the nous and the logos for Greek antiquity, serve as the ground of man's essential autonomy and his "incommensurability" with other living beings in the ontic realm.
In contradistinction, the modern scientific viewpoint spurns the idea of human autonomy as mythical and unfounded and denies the ontic discrepancy between man and animal-plant. The unity and continuity of organic life is looked upon as an indispensable postulate of all chemical sciences. Man, animal and plant are all placed in the realm of matter, organized in living structures and patterns. The differences between the vegetative-animal and human life concern just the degree of diversity, complexity and organization of life-processes. Life as such is a common grant from nature to all three forms of organic matter, and they share it alike.
As a matter of fact, the contemporary scientific view insists that man emerged very late in the process of organic evolution and thus differs very little from his non-human ancestors as far as his biological existence is concerned. He is an integral part of nature. Even his so-called spiritual activities cannot lay claim to autonomy and singularity. There is no unique grant of spirituality in man. The alleged spirit is nothing but a mere illusion, an appearance, the sum total of transformed natural drives and sense experiences. Spirit, or soul, is reduced to psyche, and the latter - to a function of the biological occurrence.
Indeed, one of the most annoying scientific facts which the modern homo religiosus encounters and tries vainly to harmonize with his belief is the so-called theory of evolution. In our daily jargon, we call this antinomy "evolution versus creation." The phrase does not exactly reflect the crux of the controversy, for the question does not revolve around divine creation and mechanistic evolution as such. We could find a solution of some kind to this controversy. What in fact is theoretically irreconcilable is the concept of man as the bearer of the divine image with the equaling of man and animal-plant existences. In other words, the ontic autonomy or heteronomy of man is the problem. The Bible and Greek philosophical thought separated man from the flora and the fauna; science brought him back to his organic co-beings.
The ramifications of the controversy between the Biblicoclassical and scientific interpretations of man extend into all areas of human philosophic thought. One's theoretical worldview as well as one's practical creed are deeply affected by one's anthropological philosophy. Every axiological system presupposes an understanding of the nature of man, and, of course, the schism between the Biblico-classical and empirical doctrine is of paramount importance to our moral and ethical code. Whether man is a transcendental or a natural being is quite essential to our axiological experience.
However, I wish to emphasize that the widespread opinion that within the perspective of anthropological naturalism there is no place for the religious act, for the relatedness of man to eternity and infinity, is wrong. Perhaps more than man-as-a-divine-person, man-as-an-animal needs religious faith and commitment to a higher authority. God takes man-animal into His confidence, addresses him and reveals to him His moral will. When I said earlier that our axiological experience is interwoven into our doctrinal interpretation of ourselves, I meant to convey the thought that our anthropological view molds our relationship - not to God, but to ourselves. Our self-appraisal and self-evaluation depend upon our self-interpretation. If man is a natural being, the axiological emphasis is placed upon his biological integrity and welfare. If, however, man is in his essence a spiritual personality, a bearer of a transcendental charisma, be it a universal logos, a free will or a heroic modus existentiae, our value judgments revolve about this mysterious ultimate self-reality. Our task now is to investigate the cogency of the almost dogmatic assertion that the Bible proclaimed the separateness of man from nature and his otherness.
It is certain that the fathers of the Church and also the Jewish medieval scholars believed that the Bible preached this doctrine. Medieval and even modern Jewish moralists have almost canonized this viewpoint and attributed to it apodictic validity. Yet the consensus of many, however great and distinguished, does not prove the truth or falseness of a particular belief. I have always felt that due to some erroneous conception, we have actually misunderstood the Judaic anthropology and read into the Biblical texts ideas which stem from an alien source. This feeling becomes more pronounced when we try to read the Bible not as an isolated literary text but as a manifestation of a grand tradition rooted in the very essence of our God-consciousness that transcends the bounds of the standardized and fixed text and fans out into every aspect of our existential experience. The sooner Biblical texts are placed in their proper setting - namely, the Oral Tradition with its almost endless religious awareness - the clearer and more certain I am that Judaism does not accent unreservedly the theory of man's isolationism and separatism within the natural order of things.
The Jewish and Christian Views of Man
Surveying the history of the problem of man's autonomy or heteronomy (which came to the fore long before Darwin, when people were ignorant of evolution), we notice that this problem troubled Christian theologians more than Jewish scholars. The naturalistic formula of man was to a certain extent common knowledge among Hazal, who did not resent it, while Christian theologians, beginning with Augustine of Hippo and ending with the neo-scholastics, are still struggling with the secularization of human existence by scientific research. The reason lies in the discrepancy between the Jewish Bible and the Christian gospels, the "Old" and "New" Testaments. The Hebrew Bible is cognizant of man as a natural being found on the same plane as the animal and the plant. Indeed, such an idea is a motivating force in Jewish ethics and metaphysics. The nihility, instability, helplessness and vulnerability of man - human life and death - are popular themes of prophets who contrast him with the eternity, unchangeability, everlasting life and omnipotence of the Creator. All those negative traits suggest the naturalness and immanence of man rather than his spirituality and transcendence. Such phrases as
Man is like a breath (Ps. 144:4)
All flesh is grass, and all its grace is as the flower of the field ... the grass withers, the flower fades but the word of our God shall stand forever ... (Isa. 40:6-7)
so that man has no pre-eminence over a beast: for all is vanity (Eccl. 3:19)
are not epithets of human-divine character. They denote the common fate of man, animal and plant, the cycle of birth, growth, deterioration and death. As a matter of fact, the terms shokhnei batei chomer, "those who dwell in houses of clay" (Job 4:19), benei temutah, "those who are appointed to die" (Ps. 79:11), ben adam, adam, and basar (flesh) all involve the basic concept of man as a natural being. "Death," in Hebrew, mavet, applies equally to man and animal - "and if any beast ... die" (Lev. 11:39) - and bespeaks the end of the organic process. Man is presented by the prophet under the aspect of temporality which he tries to convert to eternity, of weakness that in his pride man disguised as glory and magnificence. In all this the intimacy and immediacy of man with the physis comes to expression.
The New Testament, drawing on the idea of individual het ("sin") which found its full formulation in Ezekiel, shifted man to a different plane and portrayed him in a different light. Man is not any longer the pendulum, that swings between birth and decay, but the being who is torn by satanic revolt, sin and obedience, between living and falling from his God-Father. Both sin and submission are traits related to man as a spiritual-transcendental being. Man-animal can never sin nor humble himself. It is the spirit that revolts, the spirit that submits itself. Man as a biological being is incapable of either. The spirit is in an eternal quest for self-transcendence, to exceed its own relativity and conditionality, and reaches out beyond itself toward regions of absoluteness and indeterminacy.
Man's haughtiness becomes for Christianity the metaphysical pride of an allegedly unconditioned existence. Jewish Biblical pride signifies only overemphasis upon man's abilities and power. In view of all that, the New Testament stresses man's alien status in the world of nature and his radical uniqueness. To be sure, all these ideas are not only Christian but Jewish as well. Christianity did not add much to the Biblical-philosophical anthropology. We come across a dual concept of man in the Bible. His element of transcendence was well-known to the Biblical Jew. Yet transcendence was always seen against the background of naturalness. The canvas was man's immanence; transcendence was just projected on it as a display of colors. It was more a modifying than a basic attribute of man.
At any rate, both ideas were considered inseparable by the Bible; Christianity succeeded in isolating them and reducing the element of naturalness to a state of corruption and encountering the transcendent being with an alternative: death or life, while death means transcendental forms of existence and non-existence.
The Christian theologians never tried to reconstruct the story of the creation of man out of the wholeness of creation. Whenever they read the story, they instinctually clung to the verse "Let us make mankind in our image" (Gen. 1:26), and by doing so, they established his supernatural character, his interaction with a transcendental world. They did not dare to tell the story of man in the aboriginal terms of Genesis. Let us analyze this.
The Story in Genesis 1
The story of creation is the biography of nature. The story is not related to any transcendental world or any supernatural phenomena. On the contrary, the Creator is depicted not as transcendent God, who creates a world with which He will never come in contact (what would be a contradictio in adjecto), but as E-lokim, as the powerful being who dominates all, and who is not at an infinite distance from His creatures. There is no doubt that E-lokim bespeaks the dynamics of the world whose source is the Creator. Creation of the earth, light, water, darkness, vegetation, planets, atmosphere (sky), the sun, animals, constitute the main phases of the story. Even the elements with which the Torah begins its story are concrete natural phenomena.
Secondly, the story bespeaks the idea of the unity of the created universe. The emergence of the world by the word of God is presented to us according to a certain principle of order, of a logical dynamic sequence. First Heaven and earth - the frame of the universe - then light, the emergence of the earth-globe, the coming forth of vegetative life, animal, and finally man. The Torah pursues a meaningful pattern of succession; there is no heterogeneity of a disorderly creation. Of utmost importance is the description of the creation of life.
And God said, "Let the earth bring forth grass, herb yielding seed, and fruit tree yielding fruit after its kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth" and it was so. And the earth brought forth grass, herb yielding seed after its kind, and tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after its kind (Gen. 1:11-12). And God said: "Let the waters swarm abundantly with moving creatures that have life, and let birds fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven." And God created the great crocodiles, and every living creature that moves, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged bird after its kind. And God blessed them saying, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply in the earth" (1:20-22). And God said, "Let the earth bring forth living creatures after their kind, cattle, and creeping things, and beasts of the earth after their kind," and it was so. And God made the beasts of the earth after their kind, and cattle after their kind, and everything that creeps on the earth after its kind (1:24-2,5). And God said, "Let us make mankind in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth." So God created mankind in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, replenish the earth" (1:26-28). And God said, "Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed which is upon the face of all the earth ... to you it shall be for food.
Excerpted from The Emergence of Ethical Man by Joseph B. Soloveitchik Copyright © 2005 by Toras HoRav Foundation. Excerpted by permission.
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