A Reference Point

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things (Phil. 4:8).

Most Scientists have the propensity to explain all phenomena of life through biological processes. They want to make matter the cause of human activities. Observing the human person, they want to explain his activities such as nourishing, metabolizing, formation, dispositions, motions, and organization etc. in term of what they see. They look at him as a machine, or a mere biological entity. They forget that he is a continuous and integral whole that cannot be explained in term of his parts. They ignore the fact that everything has an underlying principle, or a cause that allows it to be what it is, and capable of performing its activities. According to Leon Kass in his book entitled The Hungry Soul, the human person cannot be explained through his biological activities, which are constantly changing. Form, something that remains stable in the midst of flux, is the best way to explain the activities of the human person.Cravings-FrontCover-DigitalFinal-Vsn2-300x300

Kass makes form the heart of human activities. The form can be understood as the order that maintains unity in the midst of diversity, “giving it an integrity that the components by themselves do not have”. Form is like a reference point, a constant, or something unchangeable. He thus emphasizes the supremacy of form over materiality “though form and material are interdependent in definition and in fact”. It is not visible, but “’invisible looks’ is announced in the language of visibility”. Our look is a manifestation of our form. So, we can perform our activities because we possess a form. In fact, the form represents the foundation for everything that a person does. Action follows upon being as Aquinas says. The action that a person performs is a reflection of how he is structured. I will compare Kass’ primacy of form with Aquinas’ view on the primacy of form, and show that what we are, and do is a result of the way we are formed.

For both Kass and Aquinas, the form determines what a thing is. As Kass sees it, the form is the organizing principle allowing something to continue through a lifetime. For instance, although metabolism means the continuous exchange of stuff between inside and out and no molecule in the organism, although it seems to remain the same and persist over time, although it seems to be maintained of the self, by the self, and for the self, metabolism of itself cannot persist. Its persistence is contingent upon the form. Metabolism undergoes change over time; it needs the form to sustain it when some of its components are changing.

aaaWithout the form, in Kass’ view, the metabolism would disintegrate during change. The form of a given organism is a certain organization-in-action. So, organism is only the effect of the real cause that allows a thing to perform its activities. The true organizing cause is the form. Aquinas follows the same path. The intellect is the form of the human body. For that whereby primarily anything acts is a form of the thing to which the act is to be attributed. What allows the soul to know is primarily knowledge. So, knowledge is a form of the soul. We primarily perform vital activities through the soul. The soul is the primary principle of our nourishment, sensation, and local movement, and likewise of our understanding. Therefore this principle by which we primarily understand is the form of the body (ST I, Q. 76, 1). What is true for the relationship of soul and body is also true for the relationship of form and metabolism.

anatomyanimalMoreover, our human uprightness, which is due to our form, allows us to relate to our world. As Aquinas asserts it, it is fitting that man possesses an upright stature (ST I, Q 91, reply 3). Further in this same reply, he says that due to his erect stature, man’s superior part (the head) allows him to turn toward the superior part of the world (heaven), and his inferior part turns toward the inferior part of the world. Our uprightness, in the word of Kass, is reflected in every detail of our deep structure. The way we are shaped and formed allows us to experience the world in a manner different from all animals. Even though they and we are experiencing similar objects, we respond to these objects exponentially different. As Strauss asserts through Kass, “upright posture pre-establishes a definite attitude toward the world”. As Aquinas would have it, our structure permits us to better accomplish our proper end (ST I, Q 91, 3).

Though that is the case, our uprightness does not happen without steep effort, but that effort is rewarding because it removes us from the ground, distances us from things while at the same time allows us to overcome distance, and provides a certain mastery over nature. One of the greatest benefits of our upright standing is that it allows us to become ‘detached beholder’, or ‘disinterested interest’.

aweFor instance, a deer looks a person in order to detect whether or not he is a potential danger. We, on the other hand, look so as to see to behold and discover something new. Being a detached beholder gives us the capacity to search for the true, the good, and the beautiful through our seeing, imagining, understanding, pointing etc. Looking disinterestedly opens us to see things the way they really are without seeking closeness, nor remoteness, nor unification, nor separation. We must keep in mind that we are capable of performing these activities on a consistent basis only due to our inwardness— the form.

Our hands and arms are two of the most obvious manifestation of our inwardness. The form gives us the freedom to use our arm and hand in space and time. Though animals do seem to have hand and arm, unlike them, ours can be used on a variety of ways. our hand and arm allow us to have a ‘gnostic’ encounter with the world. When the hands and arms are cooperated with the eyes and ears, we can swing our arms to and fro, sideways, upward and downward etc. so as to relate to the different parts of our body. The capacity to perform these activities gives us the freedom to provide for ourselves through crafting. The fact that we have hands and arms opens us to “unspecified possibility”. That means that there is nothing we could not do with our hands—be it fighting or defending. Moreover, our hands and arms allow us to express our affection and create new forms of communications. In encountering someone we express our joy to him with a handshake, a hug, or simply with a wave. When we see something that catches our attention, we point to it; we behold it or show it to someone. As Aquinas says, we look for beauty and of itself. Through our hand and arm, we express both friendship and philosophy according to Kass. Again, it is due to our uprightness that we are able to access, or perform these activities. What we do with our hand and arm is a reflection of what is going inside of; it is an expression of our inwardness.

rsWhat is obvious from all this is that the human person is a mystery being that cannot be reduced to mere material entity. The human person is a masterpiece that science can never completely decipher. This lesson is simple, but profound. We are not to change our biological makeup as we see fit because we are much more than a biological being. We transcend what science will ever be able to discover about us; so, even if science opens the door to endless possibilities by allowing us to change how we were born, we must not do so because it stands in steep contradiction with our underlying principle. That’s a choice that demands us to be grounded in something other than biology. It is a reminder that man is a middle between nothingness and greatness, so he must labor if he is to be great. He is nothingness due to his biological makeup for today he flourishes and tomorrow he withers and fades like the lily, and greatness because when he grows old and decay, our body and soul are not annihilated but glorified. We are nothing since biologically speaking we are like animals, but we are great because what regulates our biology transcends biology.

constantTherefore, our decisions must not be based on our emotional needs primarily or on what the body is demanding of us. They must be grounded in something incommensurable— something constant. That’s the moment of choice. For each one of us, there will be a time when we will have to decide for or against the Good, for or against the Truth, and ultimately for or against greatness. So the question is: will you choose mediocrity or greatness? Choose wisely.

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