What Piece of Work Is A Man?

(Photograph taken from a psychology conference held at Clark University, Massachusetts in 1909, the attendees depicted are Abraham Brill, Stanley Hall, Ernest Jones, Sandor Ferenczi, Carl Gustav Jung and Sigmund Freud).

Human existence is unique in nature, as a species we have evolved from brutish ape to a sophisticated creature of superior intelligence. However the individual human mind is unparalleled in the animal kingdom, it almost defies scientific explanation. The diversity of human experience is infinite and this has perplexed the greatest thinkers of the 20th century and this in turn created a schism between theologians and scientists which remains particularly pertinent even today, in the 21st century.

Theologians argue that man rebelled against the creator of heaven and earth and the problems that continually afflict the people on earth, war, starvation etc are a consequence of this arrogance and rebellion. Theologians believe that in spite of man`s innate free will he was also made to seek meaning to his existence, and that only a higher being has the answers. Scientists are unconvinced by theology and counter it with a purely material explanation of the vicissitudes of human life on earth.

Unfortunately there are flaws in the purely materialist theory of man, it suggests that all human behaviours are predictable when obviously this is untrue because unlike other animals the powerful instinct to just survive and reproduce has weakened, and it also infers that our actions are entirely cold and functional as if we were machines.

The scientific rejection of religion has almost become a dogma in itself. This seems to be a paradox as science is ultimately supposed to be an evolving set of theories which develop through rigorous inquiry. Clearly it is impossible to live in the modern world as an impassive observer. Robert Musil was acutely aware of this when he wrote his lengthy masterpiece “The Man Without Qualities”. This was a novel written during the Imperial decline of Austria, when the world was on the brink of the First World War and the grandeur of old civilisations appeared to be losing their lustre.

The main protagonist, Ulrich, is also the eponymous “man without qualities”. He has very little personality, lives his life in a measured and pragmatic way and cares little for sentimental affectations. He is a self proclaimed intellectual but seems snobbish, rude and entitled. Yet he thrives in Viennese society. In contrast another character, Moosbrugger, is a violent rapist and psychopath who has survived through manipulation and deviousness. He is considered an aberration but in some circles of polite society there are calls for some leniency and sympathy for his predicament.

The naive sympathisers look at Moosbrugger as a victim of an unequal society, and are vehement in their belief that if society became kinder and fairer then there would be no crime. Other commentators on the case are equally vehement in their belief that deviants like Moosbrugger should be hanged to protect society. These comments are just as naive, as these criminals possess such low intelligence that they cannot understand that their actions are wrong. Patently death is no deterrent for the pitiful, pathetic and brutish who will always live among us, and no state intervention can force people to become kind and generous.

The problem facing us now is that material explanations for the most aberrant human behaviours are not sufficient. Some human beings are genuinely disturbed and need chemical and social interventions, but others are not, they are simply wicked. It is facile to believe that virtue can be artificially moulded by mortal men, it can only be inspired by a higher consciousness that is beyond us.

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