An Essay on the Website of
the Red Dirt Writers Society

by Zack Savage (Apr 2011)

Man has always set himself apart from nature, citing his ability to think and reason as his mark of differentiation from other more base beasts. If indeed it is man’s mind that sets him apart from nature, professions that provoke thought are the most human of affairs. This hypothesis has led me to believe that writing is the most human of professions.

Philosophy is a slippery slope; peeling the word down to its Greek roots, the word would mean to love wisdom. Wisdom is a quest for knowledge, a desire to know; a pursuit that will force a person to inevitably question themselves and the world around them. This is philosophy; and it is this slippery slope that led me to question my chosen profession and brought me to my stated hypothesis; however, philosophy is not an exact science. It is the pursuit of knowledge through the human mind, and the human mind is an imperfect instrument with fallible faculties. Three people standing on three different sides of a tree would describe that tree differently- does this make anyone of the people more right? No; the same is true if you were to ask multiple people what makes us human. This subject has filled many a lengthy volume, and it is not meant to be the subject of this piece; however, to prove my hypothesis I believe it necessary to hold my assertion against multiple beliefs of what it means to be human.

The traditional view of humanity is a dualist view, the view that one is composed of material and immaterial components; the material being the body, the immaterial being the soul or the self, depending on the philosopher. Rene Descartes described the self as a “thinking thing.” In Meditations he writes:


Thinking is another attribute of the soul; and here I discover what properly belongs to myself. This alone is inseparable from me. I am- I exist: this is certain; but how often? As often as I think; for perhaps it would even happen, if I should wholly cease to think, that I should at the same time altogether cease to be.


With this traditional western view of human nature, it is easy to see that thought is vital to proving ones existence and to identifying oneself as something more than a simple collection of organic compounds. An adherent to a branch of this philosophy would no doubt agree that reading was the catalyst to the creation of their “self,” for what else spurs thought and introspection more than reading. Many of these great thinkers would agree that their development would have been impossible if it had not been for the great works of the past and of their present; works that would not exist if it had not come by the minds and hands of writers. It is through the hands and the minds of these transcribers of thought, that we may access the vast and ever growing well of human knowledge; and many, dare I say all, are indebted to these artisans for their views on nature, human nature, and the nature of their “self.”

The conflicting view to Dualism is materialism, which is the theory that everything in the universe is composed of matter. This view reduces everything, humans, organisms, and celestial bodies into combinations of atomic particles and chemical processes. Hobbes the author of The Leviathan, saw things in this reductionist view, and he described humanity in these terms:


For seeing life is but a motion of limbs, the beginning whereof is in some principle part within; why may we not say, that all automata (engines that move themselves by springs and wheels as does a watch) have an artificial life? For what is the heart, but a spring; and the nerves, but so many strings; and the joints, but so many wheels, giving motion to the whole body, such as was intended by the artificer?


Hobbs’ in a sense is saying that humans possess nothing different than any other life form; humans are but carbon based automatons, a complex combination of matter, propelled by chemical reactions. Notice his failure to address the most obvious obstacle to his argument, his failure to address consciousness, the ability for humans to think and reason.

Hobbs’ nor any other materialist has not (at least in my, and others’ opinions) satisfactorily addressed the idea of the human consciousness, or the idea of the “self.” Even the materialist John Searle admits- “consciousness is a unique kind of human quality, one that is not reducible to something else.” Seeing that consciousness seems to be the thorn in the side of the materialist philosophy on human nature (or lack thereof), it would follow, that activities that increase ones consciousness also make them more human; and what increases ones inner dialogue more than finely written prose, poetry, or philosophy?

In more recent times, Darwinism has stirred beliefs on human nature. Many were reluctant to except his ideas, because they led to the logical conclusion that men had evolved from lower more animal like organisms. Some would say that this destroys the idea of human nature; how can we be human and possess souls or an inner self, if we are only highly evolved animals? I can’t answer this; but I can say that we are the one animal that has mastered the art of writing. Animals build and shape the environment around them (beavers), animals and insects harvest and hunt (spiders, wolves); but not one animal besides human’s have mastered the art of storing thought; saving our history, culture, and philosophy so that they may course through the brains of future generations, helping to shape the present.

“Cognito Ergo Sum,” no words inspire me more in my pursuit. Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull wrote- “I can make you feel, but I can’t make you think.” I believe it is the job of a true writer, to make you feel and think, because, to make one think is to make humanity exist. 

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