A couple of recent guest lectures in a Grade 12 Philosophy class on “the Self” have prompted me to do some reading on the topic of “Human Nature”. In the philosophy curriculum, the unit on “the Self” mostly focuses on the philosophy of Réné Descartes and that of G.W.F. Hegel. There’s no such thing as pretending to know what Hegel was writing about; I tried my best, and I had my hands full. Nevertheless, the discussion on these two philosophers is rather fascinating.
On the one hand, Descartes thinks that we have the completely autonomous, self-sustaining, independent human being; one can find his identity and truest self through self-introspection. On the other hand, Hegel thinks that human being only becomes a human being, and continues to develop as one, through his interaction with other human beings and with the rest of creation. One needs all of creation for essentially all aspects of human development. While Descartes certainly gives credit to the help of family and culture as one grows and matures, this can only go so far. At a certain point, these become obstacles and prevent us from truly becoming our truest selves. Hegel, however, is quick to point out that there never can be a self at any stage without its relationships with other selves.
Many Catholic thinkers since Hegel have built on Hegel’s philosophy through the use of explicitly Catholic ideas. For example, this theme can be found in Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate (CV), where the Pope states: “As a spiritual being, the human creature is defined through interpersonal relations. The more authentically he or she lives these relations, the more his or her own personal identity matures. It is not by isolation that man establishes his worth, but by placing himself in relation with others and with God” (CV 53). Furthermore, from the pastoral constitution of the Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes (GS), it is stated that “man...cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself" (GS 24). This is going beyond simply “receiving” from the other; we must also give ourselves to others for their sake! These capture the whole of Jesus’ mission of service: to love one another is to serve each other in all charity.
These concepts help to paint a very dynamic picture of human nature. It is not something static once it is being defined. It is rather something organic that has the potential to mature through our daily encounters. These interactions, however, may have positive or negative effects on us. Through our interactions with people of good will, we grow and are edified; but through our interactions with people of bad will, we become worse. As the saying goes, “you become what you contemplate”.
Given all these, we must ask ourselves: how do we approach our relationship with God? With each other? With creation? The grace that we ought to pray for, then, is to be conscious of God’s formative work on us by means of all our relationships. It is also a grace to recognize that we also collaborate with God to help form others. What kind of influence do we want to be?