The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 11, 2018

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Last Things: The Rational Animal
James V. Schall, S.J. - 06/16/10
Pay phone
“The greater part of students are not born with abilities to construct systems, or advance knowledge, nor can have any hope beyond that of becoming intelligent hearers in the schools of art, or being able to comprehend what others teach. Even those, to whom Providence has allowed greater strength of understanding, can expect only to improve a single science. In every other path of learning they must be content to follow opinions, which they are not able to examine; and, even in that which they claim as peculiarly their own, can seldom add more than some small particle of knowledge of the hereditary stock devolved to them from ancient times, the collective labour of a thousand intellects.”
—Samuel Johnson, The Rambler No. 121, Tuesday, 14 May 1751
“The prospective for wonder and thought—and for a sociality founded on and conducive to thought—are supported by striking differences in the mouth itself. Animal jaws, previously equipped to grasp and crush, are extensively remodeled, as are the snout, teeth, tongue, and muscles of the face. The human mouth—still the organ of ingestion, taste, and mastication—has acquired the flexibility and subtle mobility to serve the expression of emotions and especially the articulation of speech. Where sight once served mouth, now the mouth gives utterance to what mind through eyes has seen.”
—Leon Kass, The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfection of Our Nature

As a gift that she thought I might enjoy, a student gave me a book entitled Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy through Jokes. I often point out to students that, according to Aristotle, wit is a sign of intelligence. If someone has to have repeated the same joke four or five times before he gets the point, chances are that he is not the swiftest intellect on the block. Intelligence is a question of seeing relations through distinguishing things. And relations are at the heart of metaphysics, of how things stand and stand to each other. Such was more or less Aristotle’s point.

Here is one of the “philosophical” jokes. It combines language, mathematics, and logic. “Salesman: ‘Ma’am, this vacuum cleaner will cut your work in half.’ Customer: ‘Terrific! Give me two of them.’” When does this little story become funny? It is precisely when we realize that no amount of cutting time can result in having no work to do with the cleaner. Yet the argument seems valid enough in its form. Intelligence means holding together in one mind all the variables pertinent to the issue.

No one can explain from the outside why this story is funny. Its humor consists in some person in his mind hearing and understanding all the meanings together, including the incongruity of the lady’s conclusion even though, in mathematical terms, it is perfectly exact. That is, the first machine takes up one half of available work and the other the second half.

The same story, however, can bring up the Zeno problem. That is, once the lady purchases the first vacuum, the second would clean only half of what is left. Understood this way, the lady would need an infinite number of vacuum cleaners. The only thing that needs to be added is that we do not know whether the response was of a “dumb blonde” sort of lady, or from a philosophical lady who understood perfectly well the issue but wanted to see if the salesman did.

Aristotle indicates that man is by his nature a rational animal. He adds that he is also an animal that speaks, not just yells or grunts. He is thus also a political animal, one that gets things resulting from speaking. Recently, I was waiting in the parking lot of Sibley Hospital here in Washington. Across the fence, a large new building was being constructed. It was about two stories above the ground already. In front of me was a crane that went about ten stories high and swept nearly a block. From trucks, it picked up the construction materials. Then it drew up the individual items to arch them across the lot and lower them on the top of the building in construction.

As I watched this always fascinating scene of a new building going up, I suddenly wondered how it was that the man who was running the crane knew that the men on the roof who received and installed the material knew where to go and when to start. No one appeared on the roof shouting instructions down. What was new from previous construction sites that I remembered watching was the cell phone. The workers and construction foreman communicated obviously by cell phone. They did not need to see each other or to have directions shouted down.

On any street corner today or campus or airport, the disappearance of the pay phone and its replacement by the cell phone, in its various styles, is pervasive. When I walk across a campus, at least half of the students, faculty, workforce, and visitors are using cell phones. The missing telephone booth is now everywhere.

With these preliminary observations, I now make an official addendum to the work of Aristotle. “Man is a cell-phone-speaking animal.” We are endowed with the power of speech, itself connected to the form of our physical body that is given in nature. In addition, by this means almost the whole world is available to us anywhere we are, any time of day or night. We listen to the whole world one hearing at a time. The principal drawback to this capacity is that we seldom hear what is immediately around us as we are busy talking to someone in Kansas City or Berlin.

Of course, the fact that I can talk to anyone anywhere at any given moment does not mean that Schall has much to say that might be considered memorable. We have long distinguished chatter, gossip, babbling, and ranting from conversation and communicating the highest things, which last, it seems, is still best done face to face. Samuel Johnson’s sage comment about the relative candlepower of various human intelligences is both accurate and sobering. Yet we would not have it otherwise. Even the brightest among us “live off the collective labour of a thousand intellects.” To be a human being means that others have spoken, seen, and thought before we have. It also means that we can often call up through books or technology or oral memory what was spoken before us, or in places in which we did not live.

Indeed, as Josef Pieper points in Tradition, we want to have handed down to us just what these ancients knew, what was first given to them. We do not want the addendum of subsequent minds, though we are interested in that, too. We want to know the original statement of truth kept alive in every age from the beginning. We thus wonder about the relation of speech to being.

Aristotle said that our minds have the capacity to “know” all that is. This knowing implied our power to speak of what we know to others and likewise to listen to what others say. We have a mental “word.” We speak it in a language. We write it, ponder it. We know the word relates to something not itself. We do not know our own minds as the object known. Every “word” has an origin in being. Even fictional persons like King Lear come to be through the words of a Shakespeare, words that we read in a now.


In Charles Schulz’s My Life with Charlie Brown, we have another “person” like Lear, someone who lives in drawing and word, a “sub-creation,” as Tolkien would say. In one of the very earliest strips, the one that defined the whole subsequent adventure, we see a very young Charlie Brown in the distance walking towards a park bench on which another young boy and girl are sitting. They are watching him. Charlie is smiling and waving happily. The boy says, looking at Charlie: “Well, here comes ol’ Charlie Brown!” Charlie needs to be loved. Charlie walks by without acknowledging the two kids on the bench. He has a happy smile but does not look at the kids on the bench. The boy again says, “Good ol’ Charlie Brown. . . . Yes, sir!”

No cell phones

In the third scene, the kids on the bench are now looking down the walk at Charlie’s back after he has passed them. The boy repeats a third time: “Good ol’ Charlie Brown. . . .” And finally, in the last scene, the boy’s face contorts into a terrible frown. The girl looks at him fixedly. The boy says: “How I hate him!” Charlie is too good to be true The whole theology of the fall suddenly appears among the kids in Charlie’s world. We find here the tradition, of what happened in the beginning, of good rejected because it is good, of good naively thinking that all ought to go right but never does.

In a very careful study, Leon Kass writes of the very structure of the human body. Without going into the question of how it got that way, he shows that the relation of all its parts, its uprightness, the location of the eyes and ears, are designed to facilitate his knowing what is not himself. Everything conspires to the occasions of our being together, of what we say to one another. The highest naturally human perfection is our “dining” together in friendship and conversation, good food, good manners, good wine. Everything fits together somehow—body, soul, speech, conversation, wonder, and yes, even our sins and sicknesses and disorders.

“Man is by nature a cell-phone-speaking animal.” “Man is an animal who laughs.” “Man is a political animal.” “Man is a rational animal.” The speaking, the laughing, the political are all aspects of mind’s knowing. Everything in man’s bodily structure is suffused by mind. Everything does not gradually come from the bottom up, but seems to proceed from the top down.

Man is a being endowed not just with mind but with hands as well. Without hands, the mind remains inside itself. It cannot “reach out” and touch. But neither can it reach out until it has first “received in.” And what does it receive in? All that is not itself. But all that it knows remains what it is. Our knowing as such changes nothing. And yet, knowing what something is, we can address ourselves to it. We can work on it, change it to our purposes. The hand is the great tool that reflects in and on the world the configuration of the mind. Mind and hand belong together.

I have always liked the fact that we are not the primary objects of our own intellects. We are said to be the lowest of the intellectual beings in the universe. We do not know by knowing ourselves. We know ourselves by knowing first what is not ourselves. While knowing what is not ourselves, we become alive, active. We reflect that it is my very self that knows. I become alive to myself through the gift of what is not myself. Again this suggests that things fit together. They serve one another even by being what they are.

Aristotle pointed out that a medical doctor has a very precise purpose that limits what he does. If things could not go wrong with the physical side of man, we would not need doctors. They are called in when things do not function properly. The doctor does not, however, cure us. Nature cures us. The doctor removes or adds to what is preventing our bodies from curing themselves. The doctor is not qua doctor concerned with the good life. He is concerned with life, health. His activities are properly directed to restoring a particular patient to health. When this is accomplished, the relationship of doctor and patient ceases.

“What does one, who is healthy, after all do?” we can legitimately wonder. On finding himself cured, this “cell-phone-speaking animal.” Discussion of his health has limited interest. Health means that he does not have to talk of his health. He can talk of everything else. When he was sick, he thought his condition was of enormous interest to everyone besides himself. It wasn’t. The best way to cut off conversation is often to talk of one’s health. The doctor becomes useless when the patient is healthy.

Then what? What is left is precisely everything that we want to know just for its own sake. And we can do this only if we are somehow free of our selves enough to look to what is not ourselves. This is what “rational animal” really means. We live other lives than our own. We know things that really have not much relation to ourselves except that they are just there and quite interesting if we set about looking at them, knowing what they are in their operation and reality. And if what we would like to know is another rational being like ourselves, we quickly discover that we cannot know him unless we know the invisible side of him, of what stops with touch, sight, hearing, smelling, seeing.

We have to use words that express abstractions. We have to talk about love and hatred, good and evil. We wonder about things. We do not just wonder for wondering’s sake. We really want to know. But when we know something, we do not want to destroy it. We want to let it be. And the things we destroy by eating, for example, they seem peculiarly ordered precisely to keeping us alive, as if our being alive is worth something more than the physical creation. We are struck by this receptive aspect of our own being, how we have to wait for things, especially the most important or highest things.

We realize that we are the rational animals. We complete ourselves outside of ourselves, yet things come to rest in us also. We ask ourselves, having been exposed to what is, how it got to be as it is. Why is this thing this thing and not that? Curious question, we realize. We want to know not only what but also why. We suspect if we lack the whys that we will not really know the whats. We find that we can say things of other things. But we cannot predicate one being, say George, or another being, say Thomas. These latter things are only what they are. George cannot be Thomas. Each is his own world within the world.

Yet the rational animal, at his best, dines with his kind. Rational animals can talk to one another if they want to know the truth. Each knows that his very capacity to know did not come from himself. It was already there, as if he were intended to have it. Evidently, we are first known. We keep returning to the fact that we seek to know others of our kind as they are, “face-to-face,” as Scripture keeps saying. We have the impression that we are being gazed at in the drama of our lives as it unfolds.

The rational animal, the Greeks used to say, is a micro-cosmos. That is, in him every level of reality exists, and, indeed, exists in what can only be called a unified order. The most surprising thing about the rational animal is that he can be surprised. He is surprised that he does not already know everything. Yet he is delighted in what he could not himself concoct. He finds that he approves of the things that are, that they are. He finally sees that by remaining himself, he can become all things.

Things are directed to a rational animal from outside his ken. It is almost as if someone wants him to know, since there is much yet to tell him. Some of our words are exclamations. “Rejoice!” they tell us, “in the things that are.” In the end, man is the animal who laughs. He is also the being whose delight is an afterthought that comes to him on knowing what is. Touching, seeing, smelling, tasting, and hearing, all point him to things that are. They also take us to eyes and ears and faces and the suspicion that, as we look at what is out there, we are being observed about how we live, when we live.

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