Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Mourning as the Origin of Humanity

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Mourning as the Origin of Humanity

Article excerpt

Since the beginning of human history and even in the most archaic societies, human beings have always been conscious of the difference that separates them from other living beings, as shown for example by the mere fact of wearing clothes or painting and sometimes deforming their bodies in accordance with specific rituals. In Greek philosophy man has been defined as a zoon logon ekhon, as an animal possessing logos, a word that should not be immediately translated as "reason," as was the case in the standard definition classical metaphysics has given of the human being as animal rationale. The Latin word ratio means calculation, whereas logos comes from the verb legein, which means to gather, to put together, and, consequently, to speak, to utter sentences which are as such a gathering of different elements. It could therefore seem that speech and not reason constitutes the specific difference attributed to this living being that is the human. However, in both cases, as Heidegger rightly underlines in his Letter on Humanism, "metaphysics thinks of man on the basis of animalitas and does not think in the direction of his humanitas" (Basic 227). This metaphysical definition is still the basis of Aristotle's more concrete definition of man as zoon politikon, political animal, as an animal who needs the presence and help of its congeners in order to develop itself and to survive. We find indeed in Aristotle many precious indications of what distinguishes man from all other animals, such as the standing position and the possession of this very special organ which is the hand, indications which will give the basis of the modern definition of man, which is no longer considered merely as homo sapiens, as possessing knowledge, but as homo faber, as a maker of tools. But even with this last definition, which puts the emphasis not so much on the mental, but on the practical capacities of man, we have still to do with the same pattern of thought, which consists in adding a specific difference to the general species to which man is considered to belong, i.e., to animality.

Against such a pattern of thought, which results in defining the human being as an animal plus something else, as a "superior" animal, I would like to argue that what distinguishes the human is rather something negative, which is its relation to this nothingness which is death, making of the human, as Heidegger says in Being and Time, a being-toward-death. This is the reason why the human cannot be said to "live," but rather "to exist," existence meaning here, as Heidegger explains in What is Metaphysics?, "being held out into the nothing" (Basic 103-04) and thus exposed to anxiety, this fundamental affective disposition in which "the nothing is originally disclosed." What is thus revealed in anxiety is the fact that the human being "exists as thrown being-toward-its-end," in other words, as "thrownness into death" (Being 232), which explains that he knows with certainty that he must die. We cannot deny that this knowledge accompanies the human being in a more or less patent manner throughout his existence. There are indeed different ways in which the human being may relate to its own mortality, in confronting it in anxiety, or in taking flight from it in letting itself be absorbed in everyday tasks. But even then, the human being continues to face death in the mode of flight. This is why Heidegger can legitimately say that the human being is dying in fact as long as it exists (233).

We are here far from the humanistic discourse which puts the emphasis on the "greatness" of man, since his being-toward-death is the revelation of the fact that the human is not the "lord of beings" (Basic 245), an allusive reference to Descartes's saying that man has to become the master and possessor of nature, but rather, as Heidegger says again in What is Metaphysics?, the "place-holder of the nothing," a nothing which is not in the human's power to bring before itself and in which it finds itself held (106). …

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