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What it means to be human


Roger Scruton tracks down the soul — the divine spark that distinguishes us from the rest of creation

Human beings are animals, composed of nerves and sinews, cardiovascular systems and digestive tracts. We hang from the tree of evolution on the same branch as the chimpanzee and the bonobo and not far from those of the elephant, the zebra and the mouse. We are governed by the laws of biology, and even our thoughts and emotions are the result of electrochemical processes in the brain. Such, at any rate, is the conception fostered by popular science and tub-thumped into us by Richard Dawkins. What room is there in this picture for the soul — the divine spark that supposedly distinguishes humanity from the rest of creation and which bears within itself the meaning of our life on earth? Can we not give a complete account of the human condition in biological terms, without referring to the elusive soul-stuff within? And if that is possible, what grounds have we for thinking that the soul exists, still less that it is the inner essence, the originating cause and the final end of our existence?

Suppose you were to look at a painting — say Manet’s ‘Bar at the Folies Bergère’ in the Courtauld Gallery — and ask yourself how it is composed. From the point of view of chemical science, it is a canvas on which pigments are distributed. From the point of view of the art-lover, it is an image of a woman on whose face the last pale twilight of innocence is fading. You could draw a graph across the picture, and indicate exactly what pigment is to be found at every pair of co-ordinates. This description would not mention the woman, still less her fading innocence or her blank but haunting gaze. Yet it could be a complete description. Somebody who daubed a canvas in the way mapped by the graph would produce an exact copy of Manet’s picture. He would do this even if he had not noticed the woman and even if he was entirely blind to pictorial images. From the scientific point of view, therefore, the woman is nothing over and above the pigments in which she is seen.

But this woman exists in a space of her own. We see the back of her head, reflected in the mirror, some ten feet behind her. Of course, there is no part of this canvas that is ten feet behind any other part. The space within the picture is not mapped by our imaginary graph, even if it will be automatically reconstituted when we follow the graph’s instructions. Moreover, no smear of chrome white can possibly have a fading innocence, nor can patches of cerulean and Prussian blue look at us inquiringly or await our interest. But all those things can be seen in the painting, and someone who doesn’t see them doesn’t understand what he is looking at.

In short, the picture can be described in two contrasting ways, and the descriptions are incommensurable. This resembles the case of the human soul. We can imagine a complete account of the human being as a biological organism from which nothing observable has been left out. Any creature with just this biological constitution will behave as I do, and lead the life that is distinctive of our kind. So why add a further story about the soul? Why not draw the obvious conclusion, that because nothing needs to be added to the biology, the biology is all that there is?

That would be like saying that since no woman is mentioned in the scientific description of Manet’s canvas, there is no woman in the picture. We can tell two stories about Manet’s canvas, both complete. One explains it, the other tells us what it means. Likewise we can tell two stories about the human organism, one that explains its physical appearance and behaviour, the other which tells us what it means to us. Many concepts that feature in this second story have no application in the first. For example, we describe people as responsible and free. We praise them, blame them and see worth and meaning in the things that they do. We criticise, argue, persuade. A complex language has emerged through which we relate to each other, and this language bypasses reference to the organism in something like the way our description of the woman in Manet’s picture bypasses the physical constitution of the canvas.

As in the case of the picture, the two descriptions that we give of the human being are incommensurable. There is no place in the language of biology for the concepts of freedom and responsibility. Biology can describe grimaces and facial contortions, but it lacks the concept of a smile — ‘for smiles from Reason flow ... and are of love the food’, as Milton finely put it. The concepts that we spontaneously use to describe the human being do not explain; they interpret. And the interpretation that we favour describes a reasonable creature, accountable to his kind.

Crucial to this interpretation is the concept of self. Other animals are conscious, have thoughts, desires and emotions. But only we are self-conscious, able to address each other from ‘I’ to ‘I’ and to know ourselves in the first person, as subjects in a world of objects. As Kant plausibly argued, self-consciousness and freedom are two sides of a coin. It is I, not my body, who choose, and it is I who am praised or blamed, not my limbs, my feelings or my movements. There is a mystery here: how can I be both a free subject and a determined object, both the ‘I’ that decides and the body that carries the decision through? Kant argued that the understanding stops at the threshold of this mystery, and I suspect that he was right. It is precisely this mystery that religions try to normalise with the story of the soul.

The story varies from epoch to epoch and creed to creed. But it is never more simply put than in the language of the Koran, in which one word — nafs — means both ‘self’ and ‘soul’. This soul is raised in me: only by learning the ways of accountability do I rise to the condition of a free being, who realises his freedom in his deeds. Hence the soul can be corrupted. There is such a thing as the Devil’s work, which consists in undermining the self, tempting people to see themselves as objects, leading them to identify completely with their biological condition, to squander their selfhood in orgies of concupiscence and to refuse all accountability for what they are and do. The moral truth is conveyed with admirable simplicity in the great Sura of the Sun, Koran 91, which invokes the wonders of creation: sun and moon, day and night, heaven and earth, and finally ‘a soul, and what formed her, to which He revealed both right and wrong’. The Sura goes on to tell us that the one who safeguards the soul’s purity will prosper, while he who corrupts it is destroyed. It requires no metaphysics to understand the words ‘wa nafsin...’ — ‘and a soul...’. They are spoken in me and to me. The verse refers to the self that harbours knowledge of right and wrong, and it is just this that is the source of meaning in me.

Christians, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists have other ways of capturing this simple thought, but the fundamental observation is shared. Human beings stand out from the rest of creation. They are subjects in a world of objects, and as a result they judge and are judged. Hence they can be redeemed and corrupted. This work of redemption and corruption is neverending. We do not need a metaphysical doctrine of the soul to make sense of this; as we learn from the Koran, the reflexive pronoun is enough. Faith adds just one crucial detail: namely, that the reflexive pronoun is used also by God.

Of course, seeing the matter in this way, we do nothing to justify the belief in immortality. Nevertheless, we can go some way towards making that belief intelligible. Although the woman in Manet’s picture is nothing over and above the pigments in which we see her, you do not destroy her by destroying the pigments. If Manet’s work were perfectly copied and then burned, we would confront a new canvas, but the same woman. The person seen in the new painting would be identical with the person seen in the old. This is a strange kind of identity, and not without paradox. But it provides a model for theologians, should they wish to explain the identity between the person that I encounter in encountering you and the person who exists eternally in God’s perception. Immortality, seen in that way, is not a prospect to look forward to but a light in which we stand.


Roger Scruton. "What it means to be human." The Spectator (March 20, 2004).

This article reprinted with permission from Roger Scruton. See his web site here.


Roger Scruton is a writer, philosopher, publisher, journalist, composer, editor, businessman and broadcaster. He has held visiting posts at Princeton, Stanford, Louvain, Guelph (Ontario), Witwatersrand (S. Africa), Waterloo (Ontario), Oslo, Bordeaux, and Cambridge, England and is currently visiting professor in the Department of Philosophy, Birkbeck College, London. Mr. Scruton has published more than 20 books including, An Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Culture, An Intelligent Person's Guide to Philosophy, Sexual Desire, The Aesthetics of Music and most recently The West and the Rest: Globalization and the Terrorist Threat, and Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner's Tritan and Isolde.

Copyright © 2004 Roger Scruton



Copyright © 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved