What Makes Us Human

Final exam grading time.  Among other things, it means I get treated to a parade of students telling me that passions are what make us human.

My knee-jerk reaction to this, always manifesting in a red pen correction, is that passions make us animals.  Passions are the sense appetite responses to objects; we share them with everything from box turtles to lions.  It’s the rational soul that makes us human: our difference that specifies us out from the seething mass of animality.

The turn of phrase, I’ve come to realize, is an interesting shibboleth.  Because my students are not comparing us to animals.  They are comparing us to machines.  We are machines that feel.  It’s a Copernican Turn, leaving behind the living world for the artificial as our model for self-reflection.

My internet crush James Chastek has been posting on this stuff for ages and ages, better than anything I could ever do.  But here’s a thought that I’ve been kicking around since the last time I made this correction on an exam: it’s also a way to capture our difference from angels.  We are angels that feel.

This is a throw-away post so I’m not going whole-hog on the Aquinas, but keep this note posted for a while so I can think about it later: should we think of moving up the ladder of being as adding something, or subtracting something?  Coarctation ain’t just river in Egypt!

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