The dignity of man

Hallie Beard

Column by Hallie Beard, Junior from Louisville, Ky.

In “Oration on the Dignity of Man,” (c. 1486) Italian philosopher Pico della Mirandola makes an argument for man being the most wonderful creation, ultimately because of our ability to make choices.

He states, “Considering that we are born with this condition, that is, that we can become whatever we choose to become, we need to understand that we must take earnest care about this, so that it will never be said to our disadvantage that we were born to a privileged position but failed to realize it and became animals and senseless beasts.”

He continues to address the idea of man becoming beast, using the metaphor of planting to illustrate human development: “Whatever seeds each man sows and cultivates will grow and bear him their proper fruit.”

Whether or not you realize it, you cultivate your seeds – or develop your character – every day, and continually re-establish yourself as man or beast.

By now, most likely all of us have heard about the terror attacks in Paris, Beirut, Baghdad and other places throughout Europe and the Middle East.

Hopefully, we’re all in agreement that these heartbreaking events are unnecessary examples of wickedness and ill will, more an act of a “senseless beast” than reasonable man.

If you have read about the attacks, though, you’ve probably also seen the duel between those who say, “Pray for Paris,” and those who say, “thoughts and prayers accomplish nothing.”

This happens during any event of terror – people argue over what kind of action matters, who is right or who has the most effective aim with their compassion.

But do we resolve anything? Do we ever settle the debate and find out if thoughts and prayers actually work or not? No, and we never will. That’s the catch with thoughts and prayers: you send them out with best intentions but have no guarantee on whether or not they will come true.

If you’re of the belief that thoughts/prayers/intentions/wishes are useless, fine. I’ll assume you either have alternate plans for physical service or that you are indifferent to the issue – you do what feels right to you.

On the other hand, though, what’s the harm in praying or sending good thoughts to those who are hurting? Not everyone has the ability to put forth physical effort in a time of suffering; does that mean that person’s heart is not in the right place?

I know I’m asking a lot of touchy-feely rhetorical questions here, but I think we’re missing the point by arguing.

We must remember in times of disaster that we’re all doing what we can to cope, whether that’s praying, donating, speaking or fighting. 

Everyone reacts to trauma differently, and there’s no wrong way to feel empathy.

It’s also important to note that we’re all the same species. (That sounds strange, but stay with me.) It would be a relief to find out that terrorists, murderers and all evil-doers are a different breed than the rest of us. If that were the case, we would have a clear grasp on the cause of distress.

But we’re all flawed humans, made of the same skin and blood, and we’re all capable of both good and evil. It’s up to you to decide, as Pico might put it, which seeds you sow.

I’m no philosopher, and neither I nor anyone else can tell you if your earnest thought or prayer will come true or bring peace to another person. Only you know if it brings you peace or makes you feel kind, or good or loving.

If you’re shaming others for their attempts at being compassionate through a certain medium, though, I’d start paying attention to the seeds you’re sowing and the fruit they produce.