The Great Conversation:
By Gabriel Blanchard
If man is the measure of all things, how are we to understand man? And if not, how are we to understand anything?
In our first post in this series, we discussed what can be called the modern scientific and the traditional philosophic definitions of man. The former is relevant in fields like biology, medicine, and anthropology; the latter is more pertinent in the humanities, the arts, and ethics. The second installment featured social-historical and conditioned-perspectival definitions, typical of political science, law, or history on the one hand, and on the other of psychology and various kinds of cultural criticism.
This brings us to the last two major answers we’ll discuss to the question What is man? We may describe these as the religious or esoteric answer and the nihilistic or absurd answer.
V. Man is the Microcosm.
This is probably the most compact way to express an idea shared by religious and magical traditions of thought. We tend to use the word microcosm casually (if at all) today, meaning something like usefully typical example: “twelfth-century France was a microcosm of contemporary Europe,” say; the original meaning of the word μικρόκοσμος (mikrokosmos), “little world,”* was more literal than that. Man was conceived as being, in some sense, the universe itself in miniature. From this point of view, man is the measure of all things not just for the practical reason that he’s the only measurer around, but for the mystical reason that he somehow contains all things, that he is the symbol or synthesis of the universe. The fictional sage Hermes Trismegistus was credited with the formula: As above, so below.
Different interpretations of this idea were set forth in different cultures, religions, and states. Hinduism tended to take it in a pantheistic direction, treating the material world as māyā (a term conventionally translated “illusion”**) and the soul as an extension of the highest divine reality, Brahman. This gave rise to classics of Eastern mysticism which would have a significant influence in the West as well, the most famous being the Bhagavad Gītā. On an academic level, this influence traveled west through authors like ascetic philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, mystical poet T. S. Eliot, and pioneering psychologist Carl Jung. At the popular level, the counterculture of the 1960s was shaped by an influx of Indic religions—or “Indic-flavored” religiosity, anyway (listening to the Beatles is easier than learning Sanskrit, so it’s natural more people did the former than the latter).
Western versions of man’s “microcosmic” significance are traceable through two principal lines, both of which go back to ancient Sumer. The first, which we have touched upon already (both in passing here and at greater length in our Great Conversation series on magic), is that of Western esotericism. Esoterica refers to forgotten, mystical, or secret things—which, by an amusing paradox, are always popular. The interpretation of “man is the microcosm” set forth in this tradition usually involved a complex series of correspondences between different parts or aspects of the universe and different parts or aspects of the human person, especially the human body. Astrology is the most enduring strand of this tradition. It was developed by the peoples of Mesopotamia, if not indeed invented by them: our earliest record of it dates to the early second millennium BC. W. B. Yeats’s poem “The Dawn” captures the mood well:
Or on the withered men that saw
From their pedantic Babylon
The careless planets in their courses,
The stars fade out where the Moon comes,
And took their tablets and did sums …
But the other lineage, though it took longer to flower, descends through a man who famously forsook Mesopotamia. Get thee out of thy country, unto a land that I will shew thee; I will make of thee a great nation, and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed. The Bible does not contain the statement that “man is the microcosm” in so many words, but what it does contain is, if anything, much more shocking and (to those disposed to reject its claims) arrogant: Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. This makes humanity out to be not, or not merely, an epitome† of creation, but an epitome of its very Creator—a notion that, while not interchangeable with the Hindu doctrine noted above, is arguably more akin to that than to Western esotericism.
But of course it isn’t long after that soaring verse from Genesis chapter 1 that we come to the serpent in chapter 3—and so to our sixth and final answer to the question What is man?
VI. Man is inhuman.
The self-contradiction of the sentence “man is inhuman” is intentional. There is some mysterious thing in humanity that is self-destructive: St. Augustine’s peccatum originale (“original sin”), Sigmund Freud’s thanatos (“death”), Edgar Allan Poe’s “imp of the perverse.”
The Christian doctrine of original sin is one articulation among many of this strange disharmony between human beings as they are in our experience, and human beings as they ought to be. Which a strange idea in itself—”how we ought to be” is something none of us have never witnessed, and yet we seem unfailingly to believe in it. Even the most hardened cynic will be not only frustrated but indignant if you mistreat him.
As said above, articulations vary; some versions are mutually compatible, others not. Some, like Christians, explain it in theological terms as a function of free will. Others give it a more philosophical spin, as in Absurdism, which accepts the nihilistic conclusion that the world and life are meaningless, but then add that the salient and most admirable trait of man is to defy meaninglessness. Others again, often linked with the (rather vague) label “progressive,” think of man as a perfectible being, if only we can get the conditions—genetics, domestic life, education—just right. This is a noble goal, and there is certainly nothing to be said against improving the conditions of human life! But one of the many tragedies of humankind, and one complete with its own tragic irony, is that this noble goal has produced some of the worst monstrosities in history. The eugenics movement is just one example: its project was‡ to deliver man from the afflictions we suffer through heredity, and to accomplish this, it set out on a program of sterilization and, in some times and places, outright extermination of “the unfit.”
Speculative fiction has drawn partly on such atrocities for its darker phases. Much of the genre has to do with the question of what makes us human, and whether that quality, whatever it is, can be lost or acquired; this is so common in stories of artificial intelligence and the undead as to be a cliché in these subgenres. Yet one of its earliest explicit appearances comes before the catastrophes of the world wars, from an early sci-fi novel that speaks, among other things, of degraded beings it names abhuman:
To my right … there stood, very far away, the House of Silence, upon a low hill. And in that House were many lights, and no sound. And so had it been through an uncountable Eternity of Years. Always those steady lights, and no whisper of sound—not even such as our distance-microphones could have discovered. And the danger of this House was accounted the greatest danger of all those Lands. And round by the House of Silence, wound the Road Where The Silent Ones Walk. And concerning this Road, which passed … nigh by the Place of the Ab-humans, where was always the green, luminous mist, nothing was known; save that it was held that … it was, alone, the one that was bred, long ages past, of healthy human toil and labour. And on this point alone, had a thousand books, and more, been writ; and all contrary, and so to no end, as is ever the way in such matters. —The Night Land, ch. 2
Hesiod, Works and Days
St. Augustine, The Trinity
Omar Khayyam, Quatrains [Rubáiyát]
Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment
William Hope Hodgson, The Night Land
H. P. Lovecraft, “The Doom That Came to Sarnath”
Albert Camus, The Plague
*The Greek word κοσμός (kosmos) originally meant “arrangement,” especially a beautiful or satisfying arrangement (hence cosmetics); from here, it came to signify the universe, viewed as a beautifully-ordered whole.
**Conventionally, because it has other meanings. It ultimately comes from a Sanskrit root meaning “to create, make”; since “making” is a pretty broad concept, words with this meaning have a tendency to develop in many directions. Depending on period and context, māyā can also mean “magic” (either in the sense of real supernatural power or sleight-of-hand), “binding,” “fraud,” “compassion,” “play,” and more things besides!
†An epitome, like a microcosm, is an encapsulation or exemplary summary of something. It originally referred to summaries of longer, less accessible books, which were frequently made in classical antiquity (since before the printing press, books were far harder to circulate due to the time and cost of copying); many ancient works survive only “in epitome.”
‡Or more accurately, is. The horrors of European and North American history notwithstanding, there are still people who cling to the idea of eugenics, sometimes disguising the fact by euphemism.
Gabriel Blanchard is a microcosm and/or abhuman local to Baltimore, MD. He is CLT’s editor at large.
If you liked this piece, you might also enjoy other installments from our extended series on the Great Conversation: we have brief introductions and suggested reading lists for ideas like beauty, definition, signs and symbols, tyranny, and many more. For another perspective on the Great Conversation, you might like our Journey Through the Author Bank seminars, hosted by professional scholars from all around the country. Thank you for reading the Journal!
Published on 23rd March, 2023. Page image of Francisco de Goya’s The Adoration of the Name of God (1772); author picture taken from Franz von Stuck’s Sisyphus (1920).