On Being Human
Volume 128 no. 5 of MLN (originally Modern Language Notes) includes a collection of papers from the conference on Kierkegaard that was hosted by Johns Hopkins last September. Leonardo Lisi very kindly sent me a copy as a thank you for my having chaired a session at the conference. I went immediately to the paper by Jonathan Lear because it had been one of my favorites from the conference. The paper, “The Ironic Creativity of Socratic Doubt” (MLN 1001-1018) takes its point of departure in a passage from Kierkegaard’s journals that reads:
Socrates doubted that one was a human being by birth; to become human, or to learn what it means to be human does not come that easily–what occupied Socrates, what he sought, was the ideality of being human (Journals 278).
Lear says he’s going to pursue the suggestion that “we should read the or as exegetical” in the sense that “what follows the ‘or’ explicates what precedes it” (MLN 1004). That is, Lear argues that learning what it means to be human is precisely to “become human.” Learning what it means to be human, Lear asserts, is not “tantamount to acquiring a practical skill” (MLN 1005) because if it were, then it would seem easy enough to do, yet Socrates had difficulty with it and Kierkegaard seems to accept this difficulty as natural for anyone who is sufficiently reflective.
Lear’s essay is extraordinarily rich and I cannot hence to justice to it here. I want here only sketch Lear’s thesis and point out what I believe is problematic about it. That is, I’m going to argue that while Lear presents a beautifully persuasive reading of Plato’s Symposium, this reading cannot unproblematically be attributed to Kierkegaard.
Lear uses Diotima’s discussion of “pregnancy” from Plato’s Symposium to gain insight into what might be the difficulty involved in learning what it means to be human. This is indeed, I would argue, a fruitful approach to the problem because though Kierkegaard skips over this part of Diotima’s speech in The Concept of Irony, the metaphor of pregnancy becomes very important to Kierkegaard.
Diotima’s speech is about love. “[L]ove,” she asserts, “is wanting to possess the good forever” (206a; Lear’s emphasis). But the only way we are going to be able to do that, observes Lear, is if “we create it ourselves.” “The ‘real purpose of love,’ Diotima say, ‘is giving birth in beauty whether in body or in soul’” (206b; Lear’s emphasis) (MLN 1010)
“What we lack and seek,” asserts Lear, “is not the missing good object… Rather what we lack and seek is the beautiful environment–the beautiful other–in which we can then give forth something from deep within ourselves” (MLN 1010). Lear acknowledges that ordinarily we associate the erotic in Plato with a kind of lack and that. “No doubt,” he observes, “there are passages that support that though. But here in the heart of the Platonic Socrates’ discourse on eros, he says that the erotic encounter is the occasion to experience ourselves as full. Since Socrates says he is persuaded by Diotima’s teaching (212b),” continues Lear, “he cannot here be thinking of himself as empty” (MLN 1011).
It is not necessarily the case, however, that the “lack” traditionally associated with erotic love in Plato is equivalent to “emptiness.” That is, the “lack” that the lover seeks to fill through the possession of the beloved in not incompatible with his experiencing himself as full in some other respect. A lover may be filled, for example, with a wonder at creation and yet lack a beloved to share it with. Alternatively, the fullness the lover experiences may simply replace the lack that served as the impetus to love. That is, the traditional Platonic conception of erotic love as related to a kind of lack in the lover is not necessarily incompatible, in the manner Lear suggests with Diotima’s view of love as a kind of fullness that issues in birth.
This point is not essential, however, to Lear’s thesis. His thesis is actually that human life has a “characteristic activity.” This activity, he explains is “pregnancy and giving birth in the beautiful. That is, it is the creativity in the presence of –or in the presence of a memory of–a beautiful other person who stimulates and inspires us. Try to imagine,” Lear continues, “a human being who has no pregnancy in them whatsoever: no ability to reproduce biologically nor even a spark of creative impulse. If one can imagine this at all, one is imagining someone at the far end of an autistic spectrum. This is not just another instance of a human being, but an impaired one” (MLN 1014).
“We see from the inside,” continues Lear, “that human being is characterized by creativity stimulated by our encounter with others–and that a biological instance of the kind that lacked that creativity would be a problematic instance. This,” asserts Lear, “is not an arbitrarily high standard; it is a constitutional condition” (MLN 1015). I like this definition of what it means to be human, but I’m not entirely convinced that this is what Kierkegaard had in mind. Lear asserts that “giving birth in the beautiful is our characteristic practical activity” and that “[l]earning what it means to give birth in the beautiful just is the self-conscious understanding that we acquire in giving birth in the beautiful” (MLN 1015). But if a human being who is unable to do this and hence to gain an understanding of it is, as Lear asserts, someone “at the far end of an autistic spectrum,” then it is difficult to understand why Kierkegaard would believe that “to learn what it means to be human does not come that easily.” That is, if Lear is correct in his claim that “giving birth in the beautiful is our characteristic practical activity,” then learning what it means to give birth is this way would be something that everyone did as a matter of course.
One might be tempted to argue, that when Kierkegaard says “learning what it means to become human does not come that easily,” what he means is more that it is painful rather than that it is rare. Perhaps, after all, that is what Lear means. Lear is a practicing Freudian analyst, so it’s unlikely that he would want to exclude from the category “human” the vast number of individuals Kierkegaard’s gloss on Plato’s text suggests would be excluded. This can’t be what Kierkegaard means, however, because he clearly does, ironically, want to exclude vast numbers of human beings from the category “human.” We are supposed to be “human,” according to Kierkegaard, in the manner Lear describes, but in fact, most of us are not. [T]he ideality of human being” that Socrates sought is impossibly high according to Kierkegaard, in that it is not something we can achieve without God’s help. That’s the irony. We cannot become who we are, according to Kierkegaard, in the beautiful environment of human love, but only in the beautiful environment of divine love.