Human Exceptionalism

Happy New Year

To all the readers of SHS, a wonderful, safe, healthy, and happy New Year. And remember, in the end we all destined to be yesterday’s news–as the above photograph I took in Rome symbolizes. (You will, no doubt, notice that there isn’t a photo. Blame Blogger: It won’t upload. But hey, that’s what imaginations are for.)

The end of a year is a kind of dying, and it reminds us that a time will come when we shall not be here to pop the champagne. Leon Kass believes–and I think he is entirely right in this–that our knowledge of death is, ironically, a crucial ingredient to our living better lives. He writes:

Could life be serious or meaningful without the limit of mortality? Is not the limit on our time the ground of our taking life seriously and living it passionately? To know and to feel that one goes around only once, and that the deadline is not out of sight, is for many people the necessary spur to the pursuit of something worthwhile. “Teach us to number our days,” says the Psalmist, “that we may get a heart of wisdom”…

[T]there is the peculiarly human beauty of character, virtue and moral excellence [that can come from our knowledge of mortality]. To be mortal means that it is possible to give one’s life, not only in the moment, say on the field of battle, but also in the many other ways in which we are able in action to rise above attachment to survival. Through moral courage, endurance, greatness of soul, generosity, devotion to justice–in acts great and small–we rise above our mere creatureliness, spending the precious coinage of the time of our lives for the sake of the noble and the good and the holy. We free ourselves from fear, from bodily pleasures, or from attachments to wealth–all largely connected with survival–and in doing virtuous deeds overcome the weight of our neediness; yet for this nobility, vulnerability and mortality are the necessary conditions. The immortals cannot be noble.

So, while we are here, let’s make the most of it and give our posterity something about which to be proud. We won’t get a second chance at this life, so it makes sense to do it right. And if there is a life beyond, well what we do here undoubtedly matters there, too.

And on that rather morbid but I think important note, I bid you a fond adieu until 2008. Y’all come back now.


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