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.