Posted on: March 23rd, 2024 Courage & the Stable “Subject”

For years I’ve grappled with the question/issue of whether the human being—not one’s body, but one’s soul, or what modern folks sometimes refer to as the “subject”—has a stable form or not.

For example Alasdair McIntyre writes about “man as a functional concept.” This is one version, I think, of affirming that human beings have (something of) a fixed nature. On MacIntyre’s side (in super broad strokes, also limited to modern culture): Hegel (hence Marx), most “conservatives.” In opposition we have Nietzsche & Foucault (to name just two thinkers about whom I have a modicum of understanding), as well as the existentialists, for whom “existence precedes essence.”

I want just to register one little “data point” in favor of the stable soul/subject/essence/identity: courage. I do firmly believe that courage is the baseline virtue. That is, all the other virtues (moderation, prudence, justice, as well as the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love) are off limits to the human being who lacks courage/fortitude.

We cannot alter or bypass or deny this reality … and what that means is that there is some kind of structure, some kind of givenness, some kind of stability or fixed essence, to the human being or subject.

Now, is that all there is to say? By no means! This little indication of “fixed structure” leaves much to be determined. To name just two examples: deification and autopoiêsis (which are related, by the way).

Deification. The vocation of human beings is to become divine (which might sound resonant with “fixed nature”), but the only pathway to this destination is paved with the necessity of human freedom. In other words there is not deification part from the free choice, the free decision, in a thousand different ways, of the human being.

Autopoiêsis. Following thinkers like Hadot & Foucault, but also so many Christians monastics down through the centuries (from Evagrius to Merton), human beings are called to relate to themselves artistically. We have the ability, the calling, the drive, to create something out of ourselves. To live our lives as a project of becoming something beautiful, disciplined, strong, and (again) god-like.

So these—deification and autopoiêsis—are qualifications (while, strangely, also serving as confirmations) of the basic point above that there is something fixed about human nature, namely that courage is the doorway to, the necessary condition for, the other virtues.

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