Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Humanity and Human-ness

I had cause the other day to recall a friend and colleague's favourite quote by Lucius Annaeus Seneca, which is paraphrased (in contemporary form) as:

"Because I am human, nothing human is foreign to me"
Or - Nothing human is alien to me (Nihil humanum mihi alienum)
Or - I am a man: and I deem nothing pertaining to man is foreign to me (Homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto)
Or- I am a man, and, as such, concerned in every business that relates to man.

Because I am always interested in knowing the source and context of such quotes, this took me to the translation of Seneca's Letters, where Seneca entreats:

"Keep that line in your breast and on your lips: "I am a man and think no man's lot foreign to me." (95)
(as cited in Fantham (2000) Trans.)

We are told Seneca is quoting fellow dramatist, Publius Terentius (Terence) Afer's adaptation of Menander's play, 'The Self-Tormenter', where the line (spoken by the observant concerned neighbour of the toiling Menander) reads:

'I am a man, I think nothing pertaining to man alien to me'
(Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto)
(Heauton Timorumenos 77 ~ as cited in Motto (2007)

While the source of Seneca's quote, is another source quote, quoting another source, in this situation it is Seneca's sentiment that is profoundly expressive of a challenging and expansive ethic. This ethic rings true to me even though I stand almost 2000 years and 12,000 kilometres removed from its origins (going back to Terence's life as a slave and Seneca's fate in the intrigues of the palace of Caligula and Nero). This is the remarkable ethical proposition (for the time) that the equality of provision made in common to all mankind does not find discrimination by the divisions we create in our own minds. Seneca asks the ethical question: "How should we treat [another person]?" and answers, reflecting a now newly emerging global humanity ethic, as a single guidance on all things:

"Why should I mention everything that should be done or avoided? Instead I can briefly pass on to him this definition of human duty: everything you see, in which things divine and human are comprehended, is a unity; we are members of a great body. Nature gave birth to us as kin when she begot us from the same sources and for the same ends; she gave us mutual love and made us inclined to collaborate. She shaped what is fair and just; it is by her ordinance that it is more wretched to harm than be harmed; it is by nature's command that hands are ready for helping." (trans. Fantham (2010) p. 202)

In this stoic philosophy, the many ethical roles we hold as citizen, teacher, taxpayer, friend, prosecutor, helper, estranger, merchant, customer, stealer and provider ~ merge into the primary role of our in common membership of humanity. Seneca discusses how:

"The gods,"it may be said, "bestow much, even upon the ungrateful." ... God likewise has bestowed certain gifts upon the entire human race, from which no one is shut out. ... Some things are given to all alike; cities are founded for good and bad men alike; works of genius reach, by publication, even unworthy men; medicine points out the means of health even to the wicked; no one has checked the making up of wholesome remedies for fear that the undeserving should be healed." (XXVIII)

And in making a distinction between those things 'which no [person] could obtain unless they were given to all' and those which we 'seek for examination and preference individuals ... who are thought to deserve them', Seneca provides guidance, that in the pursuit of knowledge and humanity-level contributions, what we are given is given to all, and in those few small gifts that we make for ourselves, we may choose who receives them, using Seneca's guidance:

"As for things which men receive or not at my discretion,
I shall not bestow them upon one whom I know to be ungrateful"
as, we find on inquiry,
"There is a great difference between not shutting a man out and choosing him."

It is this ethical guidance, for a global ethic, which applies to our water, access to the ocean, the right to grow food, to sunlight, to traditional medicines, to knowledge freely shared and - for future generations the resources presently in our custody - that we find ourselves lacking in humanity. For who is not deserving of these basic human dignities.

In this one short quote, an ethic of commonality speaks to us, in potentially an age of impeding scarcity, where the freedoms extended will be truly reflective of our 'human' accomplishment:

For it is as humanity,
that we find each other in humanity,
with our sense of humanity.