The Wonder of Being Human
Today, we humans seem to be losing a rather obvious truth about ourselves, which is that it is an honor to be human. How can we fail to wonder at such a stupendous phenomenon? Yet, the fact of the matter is, we do! How often we pass by each other and ourselves, without the slightest wonder at our humanity. We are not merely things among other things in the world. Nor are we only creatures among others creatures in the cosmos. Rather, we are persons! As Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” says,
“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!”
The Failure to Act Humanly
Although we humans are, quite evidently, human persons, sometimes, we need to be taught to act humanly, that is, in keeping with the decency and dignity of persons. For example, to spit in the face of another human being is an insult to him or her and a dishonor to oneself, because such an act is beneath the dignity of a person. Again, when a person is beaten and robbed, that act is a disgrace to him or her and the one who commits it. Still again, to poke or make fun of others, belittling them, is to belittle oneself, because such behavior is not worthy of a human being. Thus, in dishonoring others, one dishonors oneself.
The Unconditional Ascription of Dignity to the Human Person
To be human, then, is not merely to be a human being, but also a human acting, that is, acting in ways that are worthy of being human. Therefore, a human being may lose — through evil habits or repeatedly acting dishonorably — the capacity to act humanly. However, he or she always remains a human being, neither becoming a thing nor a wild animal. As Viktor Frankl, the eminent psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, writes,
“[T]he dignity of each individual human being … is always to be ascribed to the individual person, whether he preserves this dignity or tarnishes it.”
There is a short Latin phrase that captures what I am saying: actio sequitur esse, that is, “action follows being.” Act, then, according to your being, not contrary to being human.
Viktor E. Frankl, Psychotherapy and Existentialism: Selected Papers on Logotherapy (New York, N.Y.: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1967), p. 111.