Pertaining to the Measure of a Man
By: Liz Stein
What defines the “fullness”– or, in alternate terms – the identity of the individual? Can the true ‘self’ of a human being be viewed as more dependent upon the will and the intellect alone?
It is perhaps a popular belief that mere intentions, as they exist within the intellect – whether they exist as fruit of some varying degree of objective ‘good’ or ‘evil’ – are what can bring value to the ‘self’ of the one who possesses these same intentions. Simply put, if one possesses what they perceive to be “good intent”, their subsequent actions, which result from the intention, are of little substantive value “goodness” of the act itself. Even if it is truly evil, it is conceivable that a thought which exists within the intellect can be thought of to be a “good” – despite its incompleteness.
However much moral confusion and inevitable error such a mindset inevitably leads to, the idea that our intentions – rather than our actions – define our truest character, seems to be a frequently held one, particularly within the current post-modern culture. This idea that “intentions are all that matter” is usually traced back to eighteenth century German philosopher Immanuel Kant. It is not a surprise that there is no lack of popularity for a viewpoint which appears to promise the most abundant amount of immediate gratification. However, while certain charm and comfort are attached to such a promise, it is also bound to a two-fold consequence: the very perspective requires little-to-no necessity for self-mastery and temporal suffering, and it contributes to a culture which diminishes the importance of personal responsibility. From the lack of such things (self-mastery, the value of temporal suffering, and personal responsibility) is born the cursed existence of immorality and eternal suffering. Truly the decay of value in the moral life is a grave consequence. Why then does such a stance bear such relevance to the current culture? How has it maintained its hold over individuals of the second millennium? Indeed, it seems to have stemmed from certain Cartesian ideas such as the disassociation of body and mind. This is the assertion that what exists or is perceived to exist within the mind must then exist in reality. Reality itself is in fact of lesser importance than the reality which exists within the mind. Upon simple reflection, the rational individual will reach the conclusion that such a view is void of rationality to its very core. Thus by extension, it is irrational to assume that the core “self” of a person is left merely to the intellect of a person, for in this assumption we neglect the body and its subsequent physical realities.
So – if the true ‘self’ of the individual cannot be left up to the intellect – can it be left then unto the will? For it seems that the truth of character lies within the physical reality and the action, rather than the intention. I propose that in the sphere of moral character itself, the will indeed has supremacy. As Hildebrand writes in his work The Heart,
“In the moral sphere it is the will which has the character of a last, valid word. Here the voice of our free spiritual center counts above all.” (1)
And so, if the will can be said to determine the moral character of a being, is the measure of man’s essence in his moral character? The will is often prone to disorder. As it can be the decider of one’s good moral character, it is just as easily the decider of one’s evil moral character.
Who then are we? Are we the measure of our faulty and weary intellect? Are we merely our calculated moral character – based upon the decisions freely exercised through the channel of our own will? Surely, because of their imperfections, the intellect and will cannot be the measure of the man – at least “man” as he has his worth and beauty as an individual.
It seems that there must be a missing and third ‘aspect’ of man. Enter the heart. Indeed, the heart – which is center of human affectivity – is such a faculty that can only be obtained as freely given gift. Of what merit is affectivity in contrast to the will or the intellect? Hildebrand comments in The Heart,
“It is the heart which is the most intimate part of the person, the core, the real self, rather than the will or the intellect. This is so in the realm of human love. The heart is here not only the true self because love is essentially a voice of the heart; it is also the true self insofar as love aims at the heart of the beloved in a specific way. The lover wants to pour his love into the heart of the beloved, he wants to affect his heart, to fill it with happiness; and only then will he feel that he has really reached the beloved, his very self.” (1)
Because it involves the exercising of human freedom, are the will and the intellect truly of higher rank than that of the heart? Freedom is certainly a mark of our personhood, but one must consider the mark the true “self” of man which also exists in that which can only be obtained through gift.
I plead once again – Who then are we? We must consider – are we the measure of our weaknesses and failures? Or are we perhaps the “sum” of our capacity to be affected – and if affected – then possibly transcendent beyond the frailty of our human incompleteness?
- Hildebrand, The Heart 68