“What is true humanity?” Complex emotions? Intelligence? Free will? Religion? This question has prompted biologists to study the human brain, philosophers to contemplate the meaning of life, and psychologists to study human behaviors. In this essay, I have no way to explain every possible answer to this complex question and touch on all areas of human traits. Yet, I believe our evolving political and social systems shaped by the understanding of natural law and rights that were gradually realized through struggle and suffering provide an essential indication of humanity’s distinct quality.
All living beings have struggles. While animals deal primarily with finding necessities and shelter to survive, humans have been struggling with the question of natural rights, sovereignty, and morality. Since the beginning of the human race, we have witnessed the formation of tribal units with leaders and servants and rebellions following enlightenment. What separates humans from other intelligent social animals is the various political ideologies, philosophical principles, and governmental regimes that were established and have been continuously evolving as people attempt to not just survive but also enjoy dignity, honor, and happiness. As a result, those awakenings gradually shape human society and the establishment of authority or power dynamics. In Pacem In Terris, Pope John XXIII asserts that “each individual man is truly a person. His is a nature, that is, endowed with intelligence and free will. As such he has rights and duties, which together flow as a direct consequence from his nature. These rights and duties are universal and inviolable, and therefore altogether inalienable” (Paragraph 9). According to the natural law, a person is treated as fully human when all basic rights are respected because those are “inviolable” and “inalienable”. However, those universal and God-given freedoms come with duties/responsibilities that must be fulfilled. That is, we cannot violate the rights of others, cannot cause threats to the public, cannot impinge on justice and truths. Only when each individual fulfills those responsibilities that everyone’s basic rights are secured. Those ideas are widely recognized and acknowledged in the Western world today, after a thousand years of struggles, bloodshed, and conflicts. First developed in the Magna Carta, the idea that people should not be arbitrarily oppressed and exploited regardless of social class and wealth took root. The enlightenment helped spread the fundamental principles of human rights across the oceans to be further developed by philosophers and actualized in America, France, and Latin America. Even today, democratization continues to define the general political trend. This development is a manifestation of humanity’s ability to expand our understanding of human rights and natural law.
Despite the long, turbulent, and bumpy path to recognizing those basic principles, we collectively as the human race inevitably come closer to the preservation of individual freedoms and rights. Crisis and conflicts sometimes push this effort backward as shown in the rise of authoritarian communism in Asia. But more often, they evoke a deeper or extensive realization of humanity. Written after the Cuban Missile Crisis that could have destroyed half of the world, Pacem In Terris appeals to those developed principles to guide the world towards a more stable and peaceful direction. The Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was proposed and negotiated for a decade before the Crisis with limited progress. This deadlock was averted by the crisis. One year after the crisis, the bill was signed by the US, UK, and the Soviet Union to ban nuclear testing in any open areas or underwater to ensure the safety of the public. This demonstrates that humans often react to sufferings and struggles by designing a better solution that serves the interests, or wellbeing, of the mass. Through either gradual reforms or radical revolutions, humans contemplate the better forms of government and political climate, and social system. This continuous progression toward forming a society that optimally serves the “common good” without sacrificing individual liberties and rights exemplifies that humans have advanced significantly in terms of forming morality and understanding of our nature. This ability to advance through reflecting on previous failures and tragedies to infinitely get closer to the truths of existence marks full humanity.
Successful efforts of changing existing social or political systems always occur when individuals from the bottom-up obtain a new understanding of themselves or the world. We can always trace the roots of diminishing authoritarianism and rising democratic republicanism or constitutional monarchy from people’s realization that we deserve a better social system and living environment and that the government serves rather than rules. This ability to constantly transform our values drives the historical developments of human society. In Critical Thinking, Richard Paul, a leading expert in the study of critical thinking, asserts that “education implies a self-motivated action upon our thinking and a participation in the forming of our character. Through it we cultivate self-directedness of thought and transform our values” (50). History has shown the transformation created by education and evolving ideas. After printing technology made books accessible to the public, people became less dependent on the words of authorities (the Roman Catholic Church) in the 1500s and noticed the flaws in the system, including clergy abuse, corruption, hierarchy, distortion of the Bible. This is because they start to question and form judgments using their own knowledge and reasoning. Like the transformation experienced by the person that came out of the cave in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”, the subsequent Protestant Reformation and migration to the New Hemisphere, seeking religious freedom, attest to the power of firsthand witnessing and living the truth in “daylight” rather than interpreting based on the shadows depicted by a select few of the educated. Specifically, they no longer blindly listened to the orders of the Church. Instead, they gained the motivation to explore their faith individually by interpreting the Bible through a personal lens and focusing on the experiences of encountering God. This “self-directedness” is a step towards “intelligence and free will,” which are essential components of a full human as acknowledged by Pope John XXIII in Pacem in Terris. In Feminism is For Everybody, the author points out that the academic circle is more accepting of feminist thinking than the general public. Scholars, with critical thinking skills and a better-developed understanding of morality and reasoning, recognize feminism is truly about reshaping the problematic system to serve the common good for all genders. This further corroborates the idea that individuals become closer to “full human” when they are enlightened to interpret social issues objectively in light of basic principles of humanity. As a result of those skills, more stable and effective political regimes were established.
This process is difficult as people had to deal with earthly struggles and temptations. We manage to push through because of hope. This hope stems from trust in God and our innate ability to be “good”. After centuries of bloody conflicts, the 20th and 21st centuries transitioned to a more peaceful stage of world affairs. Yet, different kinds of challenges that humans face arose. The rapid development of manufactured goods during the Industrial Revolution in the 19th and 20th centuries upended the moral order of the public and distorted the source of happiness as argued by John Berger in “7”. Capitalism’s focus on external and fleeting pleasure creates a bubble in which most people falsely pursue unsustainable satisfaction by following the social trend. Unknowingly, defects such as greedy, selfishness, and envy took control of our social norm. The solution, according to Merton, is to turn to God for support and guidance (“Inward Solitude,” 186). The more humans recognize objectively our ignorance, self-centeredness, and greed, the humbler we will become. As Merton wrote in his Thoughts in Solitude, people should pursue true solitude that is “the humble acquiescence that stabilizes us in the presence of one enormous reality” (“Section 2”). This enormous reality can be interpreted as the earthly world all humans struggle to make peace with mentally, morally, and socially to be free from false social standards ingrained into our minds through meticulously manipulated advertisements, social media, and news. Material possessions, reputation, power, and sexual attraction are depicted as an indication of happiness and success in capitalist countries. Their glamour blinds the public of the true value of spiritual fulfillment and degrades people to animals that are driven by envy and competitiveness (“7,” 143). Without the pursuit of achieving the heavenly standard and morality, humans are reduced to creatures that indulge in bodily pleasure and earthly possessions (“My Secret”, 115). Petrarch, who refuses to recognize that his addiction to romance, consumption, and monetary entertainment, will not be able to attain a true connection with God and ascend morally to obtain actual solitude from the blinding glamour of the physical world. To make a change is likely to be uncomfortable because it is hard to be completely vulnerable and honest and expose one’s weakness and the darkest thoughts. This difficulty of steering the social trend towards human dignity is demonstrated by the video “Killing Us Softly 4,” which reveals that the sexualization and objectification of the female body have exacerbated rather than improved for the past decades. This issue is can be attributed to both women and men losing sight of the real meaning of life. We are conditioned into believing the patriarchal system to disregard their authentic self. The awakening is slow and painstaking and requires finding a lighthouse to guide us back on track when ubiquitous distorted information drags us into different directions. So, the only way to get through is to remain hopeful in God, in our humanity that is created in His image, and in the natural order of things.
Humans have rich and nuanced historical developments of societal progress and power dynamics that animals do not. Those signs of progress are closely associated with the exploration of our nature and thus inform the essential traits of humanity. The ceaseless wheel of history has shown that humans have been seeking the principles and truths of our existence and applying that knowledge to political and societal formation. The path was never smooth and seemed hopeless when thinking about slavery, world wars, and genocides. Yet, despite callous wars, countless deaths, endless sufferings, and ceaseless hate, we remain hopeful in God or the innate goodness of humanity. Only by doing so, we exercise our full potential as humans to strive for the ultimate truths and sublime order of life.
- Berger, John. “7.” Ways of Seeing. USA: Penguin, 1977. Print.
- hooks, bell. “Introduction: Come closer to Feminism”. Feminism is For Everybody. Cambridge, MA: South End Press. 2000
- Jhally, Sut, Jean Kilbourne, and David Rabinovitz. Killing Us Softly 4: Advertising’s Image of Women, 2010.
- John XXIII. Pacem in Terris: On Establishing Universal Peace in Truth, Justice, Charity, and Liberty. Encyclical Letter. 11 Apr. 1963. The Holy See. http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/ john_xxiii/encyclicals/documents/hf_jxxiii_enc_11041963_pacem_en.html.
- Merton, Thomas. “The Inward Solitude.” No Man is an Island. Garden City, N.Y.: Image Books, 1967. Print.
- Merton, Thomas. “Section 2: The love of Solitude; Ch. 1.” Thoughts in Solitude. New York, N.Y: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1958. Print.
- Office of The Historian. “The Limited Test Ban Treaty, 1963.” History.state.gov. https://history.state.gov/milestones/1961-1968/limited-ban.
- Paul, Richard W. Critical Thinking. Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, CA: Center for Critical Thinking and Moral Critique, 1990. Print.
- Petrarch, Francesco. “My Secret.” Main Currents of Western Thought. 4th Ed. Ed. Franklin LeVan Baumer. New Haven: Yale UP, 1978. Print.
- Plato. “Allegory of the Cave.” A World of Ideas. Ed. Lee A. Jacobus. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2006.