We Are Not Brutes

Aristotle defined man as “rational animal.” The point of contrast is with irrational animals, or brutes, which, according to the Roman Stoic philosopher Epictetus, “make use of appearances” but do not “understand the use of appearances.”[1] Or to put it another way, God has created man with a particular nature, one that includes rational faculties that give us the ability to wonder about the universe and to ask the persistent questions: what is the meaning of life? Why am I here? Does God exist? Is there objective value? And so on.Part of what it means to flourish as humans is to find answers to such questions. We were created to know. Again Epictetus:

But for us, to whom He has given also the faculty [of reason], [eating, drinking, sleeping, copulating] are not sufficient; for unless we act in a proper and orderly manner, and comformably to the nature and constitution of each thing, we shall never attain our true end.[2]

And what is our true end?

God has introduced man to be a spectator of God and His work; and not only a spectator of them, but an interpreter.[3]

I think that Epictetus is partially correct. God has created us to know the truth about Himself and the world. And more, amazingly, He has also created us to have a relationship with Him—not only to know about God, but also to be directly acquainted with God, to be in a loving-trusting-abiding relationship with our Creator. The idea that mans true end is to know and love God has been the consistent chorus of thinkers in the history of ideas (from Plato, Epictetus, Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin and more).

But, in this age of YouTube, Internet, sound-bites, and image, I have a worry about man:

In general, as a culture, we no longer possess intellectual virtue. We no longer know how to make informed decisions on things that matter most—whether it is on the topic of God’s existence and nature, the morality or war, abortion, homosexuality, and so on—we are guided more by feelings, than by right thinking. We are guided more by our desires and experience, then our minds.

To the extent that we are poor thinkers, to the extent that we fail to use our minds, we are becoming more like brutes than man. And, for those who, like C.S. Lewis acknowledge the reality of a spiritual world and battle, the implications are even more sinister. Consider the advice from Screwtape (the senior devil) to wormwood (the junior devil) on how to trip up their “patient:”

The trouble with argument is that it moves the whole struggle onto the Enemy’s own ground. He can argue too; whereas in really practical propaganda of the kind I am suggesting He has been shown for centuries to be greatly the inferior of Our Father Below. By the very act of arguing, you awake the patient’s reason; and once awake, who can foresee the result? Even if a particular train of thought can be twisted so as to end in our favour, you will find that you have been strengthening in your patient the fatal habit of attending to universal issues and withdrawing his attention from the stream of immediate sense experiences. Your business is to fix his attention on the stream. Teach him to call it “real life” and don’t let him ask what he means by “real.”[4]

We have become a culture “fixed on the stream of experience,” a brutish culture—more in love with sensual pleasure, personal satisfaction and, fulfillment than with right thinking, intellectual virtue, and nuance. And as brutes, we end of worshiping created things instead of the creator.

Do you want to flourish in light of your nature? Do you want happiness (in the classic sense)? Then you “ought to begin where [irrational animals begin] and to end where nature ends in us; and nature ends in contemplation and understanding, in a way of life conformable to nature. Take care not to die without having been spectators of these things.”[5] Well said by the Roman philosopher!


[1] Epictetus, Discourses 1.6.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (Westwood, NJ: Barbour Books, 1941), 12.

[5] Epictetus, Discourses 1.6.

2 Responses to We Are Not Brutes

  1. Pingback: Feed, Fatten, Fornicate | Paul Gould

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