Wednesday, 27 September 2017

The Great Ideas ~ How To Think About Man

As I start my sixth lecture/essay of Adler’s, we are moving from the examination of knowledge and opinion to the nature of Man.  Adler is appearing to take one idea and have five lectures that focus on it, and so far I’m really impressed by the way he logically and reasonably develops his arguments.

In dealing with the Great Idea of Man, Adler states that the problem can be posed in two questions:
  1. With regard to man’s nature, is man different or different in some degree from animals?
  2. With regard to man’s origin in that, is he a created or an evolved being?
Adler says that if he presented a thesis to you that “there is a discontinuity between man and the rest of nature,” you would disagree or feel very uncomfortable with his claim.  Why?  Because of the instilled beliefs prevalent in the 20th century.

Luckman, his co-host, here interjects, challenging Adler.  Is Adler only allowing for the Darwinian view of man, because there are certainly a number Christians who hold a very different view from that of Darwin.

Adler agrees that there is a lively division between science and religion with regard to the views of man’s nature and origin, but he wishes to speak outside of the religious scope and simply wants to address that the traditional view of man has had very little defense.   Apart from faith, there has been very few who have stood against Darwin’s theory “on the grounds of reason or in terms of the facts and the interpretation of the facts.”

The Three Ages of Man (1500-1501)
source Wikiart

Before and After Darwin

Adler means that in the 20th century, the main secular worldview would reject his thesis that there is discontinuity between man and the rest of nature.  Looking back historically, there is a traditional view of man before Darwin and a completely different view after Darwin.  He will explain the history.

The predominant traditional view of man began with the Greeks and continued into the 19th century.  They believed man was the only rational animal and therefore distinct from the other animals.  While many great thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle, the Roman Stoics and the Roman Epicureans disagreed on many things, they all held that man had a “special character” and was the “only thing on earth descended from the gods.”  This is also true of the Middle Ages, as well as Mohammadan and Jewish culture and beliefs; although they disagreed on much, they agreed on this point, as “theologians, but as philosophers as well, in terms of reason.”  One can say the same of Decartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Kant and Hegel.  He supplies some quotes but claims Hamlet says it best:
“What a piece of work is a man!  How noble in reason!  How infinite in faculty! In form, in moving, how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals.”
Or Milton, who is less poetic but perhaps more clear:
“A creature whom not prone and brute as other creatures, but embued with sanctity of reason might erect his stature and upright with front serene govern the rest, self-knowing and from thence magnanimous to correspond with heaven.”
The opposite point of view did not become popular until the end of the nineteenth century, although as early as the sixteenth century people such as Machiavelli and Montaigne introduced the idea that man was no better than beasts.  It is the biology, psychology and science of modern times that have entirely altered society's perception of man.  Sigmund Freud points to three men who have fatally injured man's traditional view: Copernicus who displaced man from the centre of the universe; Darwin with his research stole man's special privilege of a created being; and himself, who said, "Humanity has in the course of time had to endure from the hands of science two great outrages upon its naïve self-love ..... But man's craving for grandiosity is now suffering the third and most bitter blow from present-day psychological research, which is endeavoring to prove to the ego of each one of us that he is not even master in his own house, but that he must remain content with the various scraps of information about what is going on unconsciously."

Luckman interjects asking if Adler is going to deal with Copernicus and Freud instead of Darwin, but Adler confirms that his focus will be on Darwin for he feels he has made the only serious attack on the traditional view of man.

Study for 'Man and Nature' (1987)
Stephen Conroy
source ArtUK

How Are Human's Different From Other Animals?

Copernicus does not essentially attack the view that "man differs in kind essentially and radically from other animals," and Freud does so only from the perspective that he is a follower of Darwin, so Darwin is the true obstacle.

Bear with me here because he gives a quote of Darwin's:

"The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, is certainly one of degree (Adler directs us to notice the word 'degree,' and not of 'kind'.) ....... We have seen that the senses and the intuitions, the various emotions and faculties such as love, memory, attention, curiosity, imitation, reason, of which man boasts, may be found in incipient or even sometimes in a well-developed condition in the lower animals.  They are also capable of inherited improvements ...... If it could be proved that certain high mental powers, such as the formation of general conceptions, were absolutely peculiar to man ...... "  which Darwin doubts, and claims that man merely has a higher language than other animals.

Now Adler say that, apart from the question of God's existence, this question about the nature and origins of man is the most serious question that can be considered as it involves all of religion and science and philosophy.

He reminds us that by arguing his points, he is going to make no appeal to faith whatsoever and approach them merely on the terms of science, philosophy and in interpretation of the facts.  The facts that will be dealt with have crucial consequences for religion, morals and politics, that are even more serious than the division of culture between the West and the East and the way each views man and animal.  He gives examples of the customs of India with regard to monkeys and cattle, then goes on to present a description of a novel by Vercors, You Shall Know Them, where the line between man and animal is blurred and by this uncertain distinction, so is the moral code against killing a human being.

Origin of Species IV (1959)
Coqué Martinez
source ArtUK

Man's Nature and Origin Are Inseparable

Luckman asks is there not two questions: the origin of man, which Adler is discussing, and the nature of man? Are they inseparable, and Adler states they are indeed, although be believes the question of man's nature is more important than the question of man's origin.

The contemporary view starts with "an hypothesis about man's nature, about man's origin, his evolutionary origin," which moves to "a conclusion about man's nature."  The traditional view begins with a conclusion about man's nature which moves to "some hypothesis about his origin."  Adler believes it's best to start with man's nature and then move to his origin.  Why?  Because we have more observable facts about man's nature yet more conjectural facts about man's origin.  To start in the reverse order would be "beg(ging) the whole question, scientifically speaking."  Where one begins is of paramount importance.

In the next lecture/essay he wants to devote a good amount of time to the logic of the issue.  We need to be distinct when we are referring to "degree" and "kind".  Then he will present Darwin's point of view, followed by the opposite point of view.  Finally he will emphasize the significance of this issue and reveal why everyone must take sides.  And even though he has taken a side (which I won't reveal yet) he is going to attempt to argue the question as fairly and equitably as he is able and he welcomes any objections, happy to include other viewpoints in the argument as well as his own.

Adler's next essay is entitled, How Different Are Humans?, where he continues his discussion on the nature and origin of man.


  1. forging on with Adler: true grit... you might check Fred's latest post: it has some bearing on this... lovely pictures and good summation... tx...

    1. Yeh, this one rather stretched my brain, but I have my October post approaching so I'll have much lighter material to compile. Phew!

      Thank you! And I will head over to Fred's blog to see what he has to say.

  2. Awesome review as always! I am absolutely struck by Adler's assertion that "it's best to start with man's nature and then move to his origin. Why? Because we have more observable facts about man's nature yet more conjectural facts about man's origin." There is so much truth in this fact and yet so few of us approach it like that! I must think a little more on this!

    1. Adler has so many things to say about this subject which, to be honest, I haven't devoted the thought to as I should. I'm interested in what he has to say coming up!

  3. Great overview of Adler's book. I was struck while reading your post that man is the only animal, in any culture, that buries their dead and with ceremony.

    I think man's nature is very much the key. We are not simply matter made conscious. We are made in the Image of God. And the makes all the difference.

    I believe evolutionists (although I know there are Christians that believe in evolution, although I think that number is dwindling) believe that man developed into the complex creature to the point where he achieved self-awareness but they have not explained how that happens. Their faith is strong that it did, however.

    1. I can't wait to hear how Adler approaches this, especially because he's going to leave religion out of his examination. He is right that we never hear the traditional point of view argued in a scientific manner. So interesting .... !!

    2. If I'm not mistaken, Adler was Jewish and became a Christian later in life. Have you read anything on that?

    3. This is an interesting link.

    4. He was born into a non-observant Jewish family but was very interested in Thomism (Aquinas) --- it sounds like he was attracted more to the logic than the religious aspect at first. He became Episcopalian because of his wife and then a Catholic later in life. I don't think he was a Christian at the time of this lecture though which makes his examination of evolution even more interesting.