What is it to be a human?
Before I can address what it is to BE a human, much less a good human, I ought to first pin down what a human is.
If we look at the human anatomy, we will find various physical traits which are shared with the animal kingdom at large: a brain, a skeletal structure, circulatory system, eyes, nose, mouth, digestive system and the many other bits which connect us to the other animated sprites of creation. Upon this there can be no disagreement with the readily apparent fact that a man is an animal, just as an ape is, and just as a cat is.
To stop here and say that all men are animals is too imprecise, as I’m sure you would agree that there is something between simply being an animal and being a human.
Just as there is a phylogenetic continuum which makes visible a distinction between a tree and an ant, an ant and a dog, a dog and an ape, there is another difference, perhaps more differently than each of the aforementioned distinctions, which exists as a vast chasm between all of creation and humans. This quality, call it intelligence (or a significantly heightened capability thereof), manifests itself in the notion of being a person; of a pride which follows from the acknowledgement of the self, of a planning for a future where there exists this self. Here we can see the departure from simply subsisting within an ever-changing and advancing ‘now’, and instead viewing accumulated sensory data as experience which occurred (and somehow still exists) in a past. This past is thought to exist as truly as the now, and the future moments which the changing moment precipitates.
With this human view of existence, of the present being stretched to include past presents and (projected, anticipated, and sought after) future presents, there is derived a reverence for the ‘agent’ which is thought to be responsible for actions in these three states of ‘now’ within this distension (this stretching) , or creation (through perception, and framing of actions from an existential perspective of actions and culpability) of time. Here we find the core of the human that seperates it from a mere animal.
However, this separation is not absolute. We still are caused by our wholly animal bodies to crave things as animals do; sustenance, sex, power, and the like.
Upon this I argue that the human is a mix of animal and person (the person being the indivisible autonomous agent which constitutes a ‘brand’ of self).
While it may be that this agency, or soul, might just be the consequence of intelligence precipitating language – precipitating a particularly human framing of the soul being responsible for actions and existing not simply in the now, as animals do, but through time, this shouldn’t lessen the ostensible magic of being a human. None of the animals are closer to God than humans.
If a human is then a mixture of animal and person (the person being the accumulated history, present circumstances, and hopes of the individual), then what makes a good human? If a good animal is a being that best follows the driving forces of the body, and from this best follows the cues of the environment, and survives to ensure its genetic material continues to the next and subsequent generations, then I argue that a good human wills its constitution (the mix of animal and person) to be more of a person than an animal.
Preserving history, suppressing irrational and carnal desires; using that which is best in man, namely the intellect, to seek the good and right, and to pursue and to hold on high that in the face of what the animal might want necessarily of its ‘ancient, animal composition’.
And so a human is an animal that tends away from baseness and toward Godliness, toward truth and goodness by virtue of the intellect. Moreover, the good human is he who does not sleep with all of the world’s women in order to promote prudence, provide stability, and to maintain a family, and to promote such Godly restraint with his kin and fellow humans. It is the woman who does not think hatefully of he or she that cannot yet deny the destructive desires of the loins, but understands that this movement away from mere animality is a process of learning, and yearning, and humanification. (Of course, she would be wise to leave or avoid this person, as natural selection can pick not simply the strongest animals, but so too the strongest of humans.)
[A note on the above example of family: The male human, viewed strictly as an animal, has a wired-in desire to spread his seed to every woman on the planet in order to promote his genes, to keep the whole human condition going. Restraint from this animal-extreme is what being a good human is about. Just as refraining from killing others is said to be civilized, it is an action of the good human. The female example is applicable to males as well, as it simply pushes for a suppression of thoughtless reaction to changing circumstances. We ought not be angry when people deceive us, rather, we ought to understand that this is a flaw in that person’s ability to transcend the base animal desires & (re)actions. In short, the examples are to communicate the necessity of acknowledging that which is within us that is animal, that which allowed our comparatively underdeveloped ancestors to get us here today, and to rise above it as a means to attain a higher level of humanity. In conclusion: humanity stands as the middle ground in the continuum which stretches from base animality to Godliness, and moving from the lower to the higher is done by denying that which is animal and embracing/aspiring toward that which is right, good, and true.]
What then is it to be a good human? To be a good human is to transcend natural/physical limitations, to want to create new limitations that allow further transcendence away from and above the animal that can never understand, ultimately, one day far away, toward being the God that is wholly understanding. Stoicism (the endurance of pain or hardship without a display of feelings and without complaint), in humane doses, is where the human animal will find further autonomy. And in collective autonomy we may find good, the right, the truth, our collective destiny.
From this we might find that the collection of ‘great humans’, working together may create something greater; something like a super-organism, a societal construct that harnesses this humanness toward a greater, larger end. Of course that’s not what it is to be a good human, that is what it is to create a greater humanity. That’s a talk for another day, but it likely necessarily requires further, collective Stoicism; the further denial of our animal desires to the end such that we fulfil something greater, more good, truer.