Open Letter to My Students 42: The Cat is Not on the Mat. 

The cat is not on the mat. 

It’s not even my cat. 

But its owner has sent me its picture. 

It is sitting outside the refrigerator, as if stalking something that has crawled, scampered or otherwise hidden beneath it. A spider? A mouse, maybe? Or worse. In any case, there sits the cat, with all the primary patience that the slow march of evolutionary time has bred within it, to make it a hunter. I would have given up long ago. I’m on different evolutionary journey.

But what is that human journey? That question obsesses me more and more as I get older. And I think I have an answer.

I’m not the first person to ask the question. Aristotle (384-322 BCE) thought we are bred for rationality: we are, at bottom, rational beings. One of the most rational among us, mind you, the great Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) included that definition in his collection of “intellectual rubbish,” although a concurring opinion comes from philosopher and mathematician, Rene Descartes (1596-1650) who said, “I think” – not “I hunt” – “therefore, I am.” 

Opinions multiply. Fixated on the plight of the proletariat, and armed with an economic theory whereby the value of a product is determined by the labor that goes into it, Karl Marx (1818-1883) called us “laboring beings.” Mircea Eliade (1907-1986), the pioneering historian of religion called us “religious beings”; and philosopher of symbolic forms, Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945), preferred (of course) “symbolic beings.”

Judaism too has its definition: we are beings who are made in the image of God; we are the species, therefore, that strives to be Godly.

But what is “Godly”? The obvious answer is “holy” (as in Leviticus 19:2, “You shall be holy as I, your God, am holy”), but in and of itself, that doesn’t help very much: it just substitutes one unknowable term for another.

So what does it mean to strive to be like God?

However we conceive God, we all agree that God, traditionally, is the name we give to denote an idealized portrait of perfection. God is eternal, we say: also all-knowing, all-good, and all-powerful. True, that definition gets us into trouble with such questions as, “Why would a perfectly good, omniscient and omnipotent  God allow bad things to happen to good people?” But my concern here is not the reality of God so much as it is just the concept of God, as an ideal toward which human beings at their best seem intrinsically to strive. 

As God is all-knowing, we have, over time, sought to know more and more; as God is all good, we seek increasing to fill the world with goodness, even in the face of continuing (and often horrific) evil. As God is all-powerful, we inherently strive for power, influence, and impact upon the little corners of our private world, and even beyond it. And because God is eternal, we seek our own eternality: longer and longer lives; works that outlive us; even life after death. 

  We don’t chase spiders under refrigerators. We chase knowing things: the what of the universe. We chase the good, the right, and the just: the why of the human enterprise. And we chase the ability to exercise power beyond our paltry selves: the how of getting good things done. The “what,” the “why” and the “how” are questions only human beings agonize over. And we ask these questions not just for the moment, but for all time. Human beings do hunt, but not only for prey; we have evolved to hunt for the ingredients of forever.

To be sure, this search to be like God is not found equally among everyone. Our own time is one in which the existence of truth itself has been thrown into doubt. Some postmodernists believe that there our so-called “truths” are so fraught with politics and power that all we have is disparate and competing self-serving narratives. So too, if everything is self-serving, then there is no such thing as the good; each individual is the measure of all things. And power is just what corrupts: those who have it just manipulate it for their own ends, not for the good of humanity.

These are the pervasive heresies of our day; they should be vigorously denied. They reduce the world to a sorry state of redundant selfishness and conflict, with no hope of bettering things over the course of history.

Yet the historical record is satiated with progress over the long run.

First, the search for truth: an easy case to make. Can anyone deny the buildup of knowledge over the years? I don’t just mean in science, which goes back seriously only to the 17th century. I mean art as well, the truths of the human condition portrayed by Van Gogh, celebrated by Beethoven, and amassed in poetry and literature throughout the globe. 

Second, power, which is well recorded by historians as the essence of what makes the world turn. But Plato (428-348 BCE) already urged the use of power only to attain virtue. It was Machiavelli who dispensed with virtue, but the reason we read him is that he is despicably Machiavellian. Increasingly, we have arrived at the point where we believe that power is necessary, and that as much as it can be wielded for evil, it can also be exercised for good.

The hardest case to make is that we human beings are increasingly striving for the good. But compare us to ancient Rome: 25% of the population were slaves; torture was an accepted practice; aristocrats cheered on gladiators who maimed and killed one another. To be sure, just last century, Nazi Germany murdered 6,000,000 Jews; Stalin starved 4,000,000 Ukrainians; Americans lynched black people with impunity. But 2,000 years after Rome, the world is at least increasingly aware of just how inhuman those things are; and that is progress.

Cats are better than we are at all sorts of things. But the best they can do is smell their prey under the refrigerator and wait for it to come out. We humans have attained a higher-order imperative: to be like God. The search for truth, the drive to be good, and the virtuous exercise of power to influence history far beyond our own meagre lifetimes – these are what make us distinctively human.  


3 responses to “Open Letter to My Students 42: The Cat is Not on the Mat. 

  1. Eloquent Wise Beautiful Hopeful Inspiring Hope you are well. Warmly, Irwin

  2. Virginia Fineberg

    As always, knowledgeable, and sensitive. I would like to add another interesting sign of increasing wellbeing in humankind, in spite of all the horrors that still abound. People are getting taller, not only in developed countries, but all over the world. Which means that, overall, people eat more and better in spite, again, of fried McDo’s.

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