Man has always been his own most vexing problem. These were the words of American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in his seminal work The Nature and Destiny of Man. Penned just prior to the outbreak of World War II, they seem still true, if a bit forgotten in a time when Gallican anti-humanism is more popular than a classical Humanism. Though perhaps the times have changed a bit.
Man no longer thinks much upon himself, or, at least, not in the Western World. Where once we thought ourselves part of an eternal hierarchy of Being in the Middle Ages, we also thought ourselves something quite fine in the Renaissance and the early modern era. past century has been filled with men declaring themselves to be the same as worms, apes and other beasts; this leaves the question of why they should be heard if they are no more than a smelly beast….but onward to my next point. Our ideas of ourselves have ranged from indolent submission under Pharaohs, Emperors, Caesars, Tsars and Kings to beating our chests in pride at our own genius and understanding of, what were once, mysteries.
Even though we have changed we have remained our own amaranthine enigma, the question we must ask, but are apparently unable to answer.
Shall I then devote my energies to a brief look at how this question has been answered in the past?….Perhaps I shall, so I will close with a few words from the poet Pope, who possessed such insight into the paradox of humanity.
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan,
The proper study of mankind is man.
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great
Your Humble, if Inadequate, Servant, C. McDonald