What is Man?

C. S. Lewis once remarked, in a memorable phrase, that he had never met a mere “mortal.” What is a “mortal?” A mortal is someone who dies. It is opposed to someone who is “immortal,” who does not die. Obviously, all human beings are “mortal,” that is, each will die. Lewis meant one thing and implied another. He meant that the soul of each human person was in fact immortal. In that sense, we have never met a “mere mortal.” Each person we chance to meet has this immortality about him.

But Lewis also implied that, as we read in the Old Testament, that God never intended that we die. Death as we know it is a punishment, a consequence of the choice of our first parents. We inherit this condition wherein we die. The promise of the resurrection of the body consequent on Christ’s sacrificial death, however, restores the completeness in which we were originally created. So in this sense, we have never met anyone who will not be complete again, body and soul. This understanding of what we are obviously makes a considerable difference on how we look on ourselves and those with whom we meet and live.

Ignatius Press recently republished Frank Sheed’s 1952 book Society and Sanity. Sheed was one of the most effective speakers and debaters of his or any time. He spoke often in such famous places as Hyde Park Corner in London. He said that the one topic that always caused a hush in the listeners and to which they paid close attention was that of the Trinity, something that Sheed discusses more thoroughly in his Theology and Sanity.

The central theme of Society and Sanity is based on the fact of man’s unique difference from other beings in the universe, including God. We can only properly deal with man when we know what he really is. We normally like to say that several differing levels of being—inert matter, life, sensation, and spirit or intellect—can be found in reality. They are irreducible to each other.  What makes the difference between non-living matter and living things is generally called a soul, or an animating principle of life, unique to the being at issue that guides it to be this thing, not that thing, a cow and not an oak tree.

The soul of any given being is not “shared” by any other being. Omne ens est unum, as Aristotle said; each thing is one, is what it is. Each living thing has and must have its own soul, even if it be a dandelion or robin. This thing cannot “be” that thing. If anything, at the same time, can be something else, we have no possibility of knowing anything about anything. We cannot be sure what is there if each thing can be at the same time something else.

This soul, moreover, will itself be varied according to the kind of life that it sets in motion for the course of its living existence. The human being is unique in the universe as itself being composed in an integrated whole of all levels of being—matter, life, sensation, and spirit. Moreover, in man, these levels are organized hierarchically, that is, the lower activities, life and sensation, by being what they are, also provide a basis for the next level. Within man, all his “parts,” as it were, are ordained to the end or purpose that he may know and freely will or act. Thus man not only knows what it is to be “mortal” but he knows that he himself will die. He also knows that something about him is not subject to death.

Sheed remarks that we have had, in our civilization, three general principles by which we determined what a man really is. He is first a being whose end, whether he knows it or not, is God Himself. Secondly, each person possesses his own immortal soul. And, thirdly, all men are in principle redeemed by Christ. No other beings in the universe have this scenario to describe what they are, why they are here.

Plants and animals do have souls but not knowing or immortal souls. Angels are immortal spirits, not souls that animate bodies. Christ redeemed man and through His incarnation and death, as St. Paul said, began the restoration of the cosmos to its original purpose, which had to do with man’s purpose. The cosmos itself is not devoid of signs of intelligence.

What does it mean to say that man is created by God? It means first of all that he is not an accident. It means that before he was created, he was not except in the providence of God. It also means that he is not the cause of his own being, nor is he the product of chance. Here we speak not of the abstraction “human race” but of each distinct person who actually had life—Tom, Mary, and Elsa. The human race does not exist apart from the individual persons who make it up. Each person was created with the purpose that he returns to God, but not without his own free choice.

This choosing constitutes the prima drama of the universe. In this sense, man’s purpose is more than that owed to human life in the scale of being. Were he not elevated to a higher than his nature, his natural end would be an immortal life of his soul. The whole person, body and soul, are intended to reach God, however, by the manner that God provides for it. In one sense, the history of civilization has been an endeavor to find a way to some complete end by bypassing the path God intended for it.

When we say that man has an immortal soul, we mean that the principle animating him to live will not cease to exist at his death. In part we know this fact from reflecting on our knowledge which, though it knows material things, is not itself composed of matter. Our ideas are not things that have their own weight and extension.

Indeed, ideas enable us to be more than we are by our own animating souls. They enable us to know other things and other persons. Our souls themselves have this knowledge power as a property of what they are. The person we meet with has an immortal soul. This fact means that no person will ever disappear from the universe, even if he dies.

Each person is also, in principle, redeemed by Christ. I say “in principle” because we must ourselves in some form know and accept this redemption. All human beings bear the mark of something wrong in their orientation to their final reality. They find that nothing that they encounter in this world will satisfy them. They also discover that they are not sufficient to save themselves, to get rid of what they did that they know to be wrong. They search for a way to be rid of their sins with the suspicion that someone else needs to forgive them, to absolve them. This is what Christ’s sacrificial red emption is about. We might think it an odd way to deal with us, but it is one that preserves our freedom and allows us to acknowledge the force and errors of our own acts.

So what is man? Whatever other theory or explanation we might have as to what he might be, none can replace these essential elements. He is made by and for God. His soul is immortal. He is redeemed by Christ. Unless each of these three elements is included, something about what he is will be missed, neglected, or denied. C. S. Lewis was right. We have never met a “mere mortal.” We have only met individual persons, each of whom live their lives in their mortal condition to decide what they shall be in eternity.

The paradox of man is that he himself can choose, not to be what he is, but he can choose to reject the end for which he was created. The reason for this possibility is that not even God can make us un-free. What He can do is to redeem us, but even then, we are still free to accept or reject the redemption offered to us. This possibility is both our woe and our glory.

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. His latest book, The Mind That Is Catholic, is published by Catholic University of America Press. His forthcoming book Remembering Belloc will be available from St. Augustine Press in the spring of 2013.
Articles by Fr. Schall:

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  • Luke Jenson

    Hello Fr. Schall, thank you for your article. It is difficult to imagine life without death. To me it seems that death’s shadow makes us fully human in a positive way. If we had never fallen, we would be crowded and everything would be stale. In that sense, the urgency of death seems beneficial. It’s comforting to think that Christ’s sacrifice restored our ability to be as close to God as we were meant, but in a sense it seems it was an even greater gift given to us: the ability to live both a mortal life and an immortal one. For God loves us so much, indeed.

  • stroika

    “He spoke often in such famous places as Hyde Park Corner in London.” I am sure he did not. Hyde Park Corner is a busy and noisy traffic junction at the south east corner of Hyde Park in London. Speakers’ Corner –where by custom is within the park itself in the north east corner (near Marble Arch and Tyburn).