Wednesday, October 24, 2012

man as animal and beyond...

From "The God-Seeking Animal", Eric Cohen's essay on Leon Kass in First Things...

I once asked Kass which piece of his own writing gave him the greatest pleasure and pride. He paused, smiled, and directed me to a passage about a squirrel:

What, for example, is a healthy squirrel? Not a picture of a squirrel, not really or fully the sleeping squirrel, not even the aggregate of his normal blood pressure, serum calcium, total body zinc, normal digestion, fertility, and the like. Rather, the healthy squirrel is a bushy-tailed fellow who looks and acts like a squirrel; who leaps through the trees with great daring; who gathers, buries, covers but later uncovers and recovers his acorns; who perches out on a limb cracking his nuts, sniffing the air for smells of danger, alert, cautious, with his tail beating rhythmically; who chatters and plays and courts and mates, and rears his young in large, improbable-looking homes at the tops of trees; who fights with vigor and forages with cunning; who shows spiritedness, even anger, and more prudence than many human beings.
We, too, are animals with bodies and doings—conceived and then born, nursing and then eating, crawling and then walking, babbling and then speaking, getting sick and then getting well, growing up and then giving birth, working and then resting, aging and then dying. Yet we are also animals with a difference—animals who think and sin, sanctify and degrade, live in darkness and yearn for God.

In Kass’s great work The Hungry Soul, he explores one of those activities—eating—that we share with the other animals. Like them...Yet man alone...

Eating is just one example of man remaining an animal while seeking to be more than an animal. Like other animals...but man alone...In one realm in particular—as sexual animals—we demonstrate both our animal nature and our potential transcendence of it.

Sexual desire, like all forms of desire, is always and only felt by an individual animal: the lone wolf, the lone ape, the lone man. The individual body is aroused, and the lusting animal covets both intensification and relief of that arousal. The sexual impulse drives the aroused animal toward the body of another who is like yet unlike, the complementary counterpart. This is equally true of monkeys and of men. But then comes the crucial turn, when the animal becomes the human animal. As Kass describes it, following Genesis:

Man became man when he became self-conscious not of his mortality but of his sexuality, of the uncanny and mysterious doubleness in his (animal) soul. He became human—rather they became human, man and woman together—when each saw through the eyes of the other the fact (and meaning) of their nakedness. . . . In turn, clothing and adornment, by means of refusal and its effects on the imagination, transform animal lust into human eros, which takes wings from the recognition that there are higher possibilities for man than the finally unfulfilling acts of bodily fusion. Among these possibilities are the establishments of long-lived familial societies, grounded in the awareness that sex means children, that human children need long-term rearing including rearing for sociality, morality, and love, and that children are indeed life’s (partial) answer to mortality.


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