Abraham Joshua Heschel: “Who Is Man?”

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I’ve become a big aficionado in recent years of the writing of Abraham Joshua Heschel, a great philosopher and a Jewish theologian (1907 – 1972). Most recently I got a copy of his book Who Is Man? Considering its focus, it probably would have made ideal reading in advance of reading Heschel’s great (though earlier) works Man Is Not Alone and God in Search of Man, but no matter.

Like Heschel’s work generally, it’s very rich, at times quasi-poetic, and rewards enormous reflection on each page. Following is a short section on what Heschel characterizes as man’s inherent “nonfinality.” (In using the word “man,” of-course, Heschel is referring to humankind, both on the general level and the individual, and is not trying to disrespect the ladies.)

Nonfinality (pg 40)

Where is man? At what stage of his life and in what situation of his existence do we meet him as he really is? He is variable, fickle, appearing in different roles. Is he the same as father or mother as he is as salesman or soldier? Does he remain the same from the cradle to the grave, from the cave to the rocket?

All the definitions cited above have a ring of finality and presume to be definitive. However, there is no such entity as man in his permanent and final form. Man is rarely to be found in a definitive edition. A salient characteristic of being human is inconstancy both in behavior and in self-understanding, inability to remain what he is once and for all. Finality and humanity seem to be mutually exclusive. Man is caught in the polarity of being both tentative, undecided, unsettled as well as final, fixed, determined.

Anything is possible. The ambiguity of his traits and the ambivalence of his actions are such that his consistency involves inner contradiction. Man has many faces. Which is canonical and which is apocryphal?

To understand his being it is not enough to see him as he acts here and now, for example, as conditioned by our industrial society. Man is a being in flux. Yielding to a particular pattern of living he remains both compliant and restive, conforming and rebellious, captive and insurgent.

[...]

To claim to be what I am not is a pretension. To insist that I must be only what I am now is a restriction which human nature must abhor. The being of a person is never completed, final. The status of a person is a status nascendi. The choice is made moment by moment. There is no standing still.

I think that’s all true, and yet these are things we rarely stop to examine in our own selves, and probably even less so with regard to others.

It also struck me as something worthy of filing in my “Dylanosophy” section. If you’re a Dylan fan you may already know why. It’s because all of this reflection on the ever-changing nature of man sounds a lot like some scholarly (or at least rock-criticly) writing I’ve read about Bob Dylan in the past. In fact, you could substitute “Bob Dylan” for “man” in the text above and come out with something that would seem to fit the portrait so many have painted of Dylan in their effort to get their heads around his work.

Don’t believe me? Let’s try it:

However, there is no such entity as [Bob Dylan] in his permanent and final form. [Bob Dylan] is rarely to be found in a definitive edition. A salient characteristic of being [Bob Dylan] is inconstancy both in behavior and in self-understanding, inability to remain what he is once and for all. Finality and [being Bob Dylan] seem to be mutually exclusive. [Bob Dylan] is caught in the polarity of being both tentative, undecided, unsettled as well as final, fixed, determined.

Anything is possible. The ambiguity of his traits and the ambivalence of his actions are such that his consistency involves inner contradiction. [Bob Dylan] has many faces. Which is canonical and which is apocryphal?

Ha! Write it up, print it out, send it in, and you may just win yourself a Pulitzer. A new, great interpreter of Bob Dylan is born!


Yet, the amusing thing, obviously, is that Heschel is writing about all men, all humans; he’s writing about humanity, about what it means to be human.

That writers and critics are always singling Bob Dylan out for traits that seem common to all of us might tell you a few things.

However, today I’m not going to belabor any of those things. I’m just putting it out there.

…..

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