Wednesday, April 29, 2015

What Makes Us Human

Montaigne begins his essay An Apology for Raymond Sebond by stating that, "Of all creatures man is the most miserable and fragile, and therewith the proudest and distainfullest". He then goes on to talk about how humans are not truly superior to other animals, and how non-human animals do have means of communicating, perhaps their own language, it is just a matter of our inability to understand one another. He speaks on how although animals have not made attempts of their own accord to verbally communicate with humans, we too are at fault for making no attempt to speak in the language of animals. This is important because indicates that humans do posses a kind of understanding that other animals do not, however it does not prove that we are necessarily superior or that animals do not think or feel. This idea that humans are some of the proudest because of there frailty brought to mind this quote I remember reading awhile back:

"Try to imagine a life without timekeeping. You probably can’t. You know the month, the year, the day of the week. There is a clock on your wall or the dashboard of your car. You have a schedule, a calendar, a time for dinner or a movie. Yet all around you, timekeeping is ignored. Birds are not late. A dog does not check its watch. Deer do not fret over passing birthdays. Man alone measures time. Man alone chimes the hour. And, because of this, man alone suffers a paralyzing fear that no other creature endures. A fear of time running out.” 
― Mitch AlbomThe Time Keeper

I think that this is a very interesting perspective on human cognition, because it demonstrates one of the fundamental differences between human and non-human animals, which is that of abstract thought. Humans have developed such abstract concepts of time, morality, and have the ability to think about the future and recognize that we all one day must die. This type of high-cognitive processing shows a clear distinction between us and non-human animals, and it is indeed more complicated and thus seen as superior, however it comes with many drawbacks. Montaigne describes us as the most miserable and frail, and perhaps that is because of this ability to think on a level outside of simply existing and surviving, and the ability to question "why". It is this curiosity of the human spirit that is cause for much of our suffering, as a dog will not worry about the inevitability of death, and a horse will not try to find some greater meaning to life than in living itself. We strive for something greater than simply existing, which some may argue puts us on a level superior to other animals; however, it also puts upon us a pressure that no other animal faces, and it is simply what makes us human.

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