What does it mean to be human? In a world where technology is slowly taking human form and being charged with responsibilities that people used to perform in the past, it has become more imperative to understand what makes us “human.” In philosophy, great thinkers have explored human nature, with their thoughts revealing that there are aspects that make us unique from all other beings. This short essay explores this elusive question by focusing on various famous philosophers and their thoughts on humanity.
Plato, in the Theory of Human Nature, explained that human beings have souls, which exists before birth and after death. Plato believed that humans are made up of both the material body and the mind or soul, which attains knowledge of all forms. Plato further divided the soul/mind into 3 segments that include reason, appetite, and will, explaining that when these aspects are not in harmony, human beings fall victim to mental conflict. Reason becomes the unifying factor, helping human beings to control their appetites (urges) and wills (emotion, passion, spirit). Reason, thus, emerges to be a major factor that makes us human, and a difference between us and horses for instance. When the 3 factors work together, they control our souls and determine how we turn out as members of society. Plato’s beliefs about the soul were enforced with Thomas Aquinas, who felt that we have connections to more than the things we have in the observable world. Aquinas felt that human beings are extraordinary since their intelligence transcends matter, delving into the spirit world and the endless potential for imagination.
Second, another factor that Plato considered necessary for humans is belongingness in society, as he felt that people could never be self-sufficient. Plato explained that since human nature is imperfect, we need other people as guides to complement our weaknesses and vice-versa. Deriving meaning from these social relationships makes the human bond special, a feeling that is reciprocated by Karl Marx, a 19th-century philosopher. According to Karl Marx, human nature is shaped by our histories and the records on how we view things such as social cohesion, morality, and fulfillment. Marx said that without society, human beings, as social creatures, cannot develop. His ideologies on the social nature of humanity helped him to introduce communism as a manifesto that dictated societies in Europe and beyond.
Another philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, felt that what makes us human is our ability to think consciously. Consciousness, or knowledge of the mind and the world around us, has been noted to be the element that allows human beings to transcend animal instincts. In Tractatus-Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein notes that when we interact with others, we do so intelligently. To become competent communicators, we distinguish truth and false thoughts about things we observe and feel in a world to improve our accuracy. The combination of these thoughts, therefore, helps us to understand our world in its entirety, and the basis of being human. To be human, therefore, is to think.
Immanuel Kant’s views on being human are impressive since he desists from obscurity and opts for a clear answer, knowledge. Kant, who was influential in the western world, believed that human beings are creatures who can perceive and understand the knowledge and act on it without any other motivations. Kant felt that even though we have religion and government, we can use the knowledge from our senses and from interpreting data in our world. Ultimately, the human perception of our world becomes part of our knowledge, and when we act, we do so out of reason. Unlike animals therefore, we can provide reasons for our actions, whether good or bad, since we can perceive knowledge. Our ability to understand is why we are at the top of the food chain.
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