Monday, August 24, 2009

What is Man?

It is said that two literary forces shaped the English language of today--Shakespeare's plays, and the King James' version of the Bible.

Each of these works of literature has a marvelously eloquent passage considering the question that titles this post: what is man?

In Shakespeare's play Hamlet, Hamlet is once again ruminating on the meaning of life. The character Hamlet is perhaps Shakespeare's most thoughtful character--he has more lines of dialogue than any other Shakespearean character. He has 6 major soliloquies where he ponders his situation, and tries to sort out what to do. Of course, the most famous of these soliloquies is his "to be or not to be" one.

In Act II, 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 beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me,
what is this quintessence of dust?
(Act II, scene ii, lines 303-312)

These lines are so lovely, so lyrical that when the musical Hair was written, these lines were used as one of the solos. I can hear the music now, as I write.

The King James version of the Bible has a Psalm that seems to echo and reinforce Hamlet's query.

From Psalm 8, verses 3-8

When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers,
the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained;

what is man, that thou art mindful of him?
and the son of man, that thou visitest him?

For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels,
and hast crowned him with glory and honor.

Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands;
thou hast put all things under his feet:

all sheep and oxen,
yea, and the beasts of the field;

the fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea,
and whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas.

There it is again--that question--what is man that thou art mindful of him?

In my teaching, I have encountered students who absolutely dispute the need to do anything about the environment because, they say, man is in charge. That God gave man the whole earth to use, to dominate, to bend to his will. And if destruction is the consequence, so be it--God allows it.

I cringe when I hear such a sentiment expressed. These students are reflecting a dominionist train of thought--"thou madest him to have dominion over all".

And, now we have this story that absolutely stopped me in my tracks--and made me want to retch with disgust. This
BBC report is hard to take, so only read it if you think you can handle it.

I don't have an answer, only a question.

What is man?

I trust you will pardon my gender specific language. I acquiesced to it because of the convention of language in the two pieces I used. I do not think men are more blame-worthy than women. So perhaps, the most inclusive question is...

What is humanity? Or even whither humanity?

As go our cousins in the animal kingdom, so go we.


NCmountainwoman said...

Obviously, I have no answers either. But this I do know...we must all realize that we live in a global environment and share a global economy. We cannot isolate ourselves from what is happening elsewhere on this planet.

We have many people in the mountains who believe that man is indeed given complete dominion and they totally forget that part of that dominion includes being good caretakers of what we are given.

Lynne at Hasty Brook said...

Carolyn made my point. One might say a parent is given dominion over a new infant but with that control comes the immense responsibility for taking care of and nurturing that child, caring for its long-term health and for its unseen future.

warriormom said...

With great power comes great responsibility.....or the flip side, "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely"...just finished reading A Thousand Splendid Suns, lemurs/women, ...sigh.

Climenheise said...

NCmountainwoman said it rightly: dominion includes being good caretakers of what we are given. You know my thoughts in this area. I recently did a study (I was going to say "careful", but who am I to say it was really "careful") of Genesis 1 to 3, and clearly the "dominion" idea means in our language today "trustee". One who abuses his trustee-ship is prosecuted in the courts, and if found guilty serves jail time. The implication is not pretty for those from your class whom you cite.

A better image for our role is that of "gardener". A gardener is also interventionist and leaves her mark; but no gardener wants to leave evidence of destruction all around the garden. The more "natural" the final result appearts, the better the work the gardener has done.

Ginnie said...

The harm that man is capable of rendering never fails to amaze me. Where is the humility and awe that we are even here on this earth?

Tossing Pebbles in the Stream said...

There are those who emphasis the domination (dominion over Nature) and those who emphasis stewardship as our proper responsibility toward Nature. It has been shown that the former is for short term gain and the ultimate destruction of all while the later is for the long term sustainability.

I live where most of the work is resource based. When they want to cut some old growth forest, (now we are down to areas that the Native population view as sacred)you hear the argument that the area to be cut is 20 years work of us. How short sighted. What happens after 20 years; the resource is gone and it would take 200 years to reestablish it. What happens is towns are shut down and they move on to other areas to exploit. Our time lines for development are too short: 5 years, 10 years, 25 years, when it should be 100 years, 500 years, 1000 years.

Well Canada has the best example of ultimate irreversible destruction of Nature in the tar sands in Northern Alberta. Canada's version of mountain top coal mining, yet much worse. It exists because there is lots of money to be made to meet the US need for oil.

There is a new movie out that is a powerful revelation of this destruction. Without out any commentary it makes its horrifying case.

Ultimately, an area the size of Britain will be destroyed. (As long as the water lasts for it takes 3 barrels of water to extract one barrel of oil. Vast toxic waste ponds, viewable from space are what are left behind.

Anvilcloud said...

A long time ago, I blogged about this fundamentalist view of the world. I think I was trying to point out that even within their own framework, it's a fallacious notion. But I won't get into it all now.

Okay, I went and found it here if you're interested.