We live in an age that promotes life and life values. In this respect, we interpret ourselves according to the now dominant Darwinian paradigm exclusively as organic beings whose society, culture, and thoughts are rooted in organic impulses, having their inceptions in animals. We think of ourselves as animals: as highly evolved animals, certainly, but still as animals.
Although acknowledging the animal component of the human being, the cultural history from which we come has never accepted the reduction of human beings to animals. It has always maintained that there is a more elevated component of man that is and cannot be originated in animality: his spirit. This component is nowadays considered as emerging from animality.
What was the reason why people from the past did not want to reduce man to animality? Is the similarity between human organism and whatever other animal organism not quite evident to everybody? You do not need to be a Darwinian scientist to see that man is an animal, that he behaves from many points of view like an animal, and that sometimes he is even worse than an animal.
We need food like animals; we breathe like animals; we reproduce ourselves like animals; we need community like animals. We feel pain and pleasure like animals; we bleed like animals; we die and rot like animals. And the series of similarities could continue indefinitely.
Were these features not immediately apparent to people from the moment they managed to reach some self-consciousness? Still, despite the obviousness of these similarities, those people tried hard to raise man from the sphere of animality and endow him with features that were not attributed to animals.
What made them do this? They thought that man had values, whereas animals could not have values.
Let’s take an example. Man can be courageous, whereas it is inappropriate to call an animal ‘courageous.’ Yes, animals fight, too, for many reasons. However, courage is not only the wrath of the warrior, that blind fury that carries a man in war and makes him kill his enemies.
Courage is a contradictory emotional state, one in which fear and fury are mixed together. But what is more, courage is not an impulse. You are not carried away by courage. Indeed, animals can be very aggressive because of their dread. But their aggressiveness is a reaction to some immediate danger.
This is not the case with human courage. Usually, people do not fight because of a reaction; they prepare themselves for a fight. And they can prepare themselves long before the fight, sometimes for a whole life, from the moment they understand that they are mortal, for example.
Courage is considered a value because people do not tend to be courageous naturally. As animals commonly do, when confronted with danger, they tend to flee. The immediate and thus natural impulse of an animal when threatened is to save its own life.
An animal does not compare whether something can be more important than its own life and therefore be worthy of risking its life to secure the further existence of that more valuable thing. Even when animals sacrifice themselves, as we see sometimes happening with more evolved animals, their sacrifice is rather a reaction to the immediate situation than the result of previous preparation.
We do not say that someone who fights bloodily is courageous if that person does not have a higher goal. If he is just very powerful physically, does not risk anything and smashes mercilessly other people that are fragile physically, we rather call him cruel than courageous.
Courage implies accepted risk. It is entering a dangerous situation whose evolution and end you do not know. A courageous person does not simply fight; they fight for something.
Those who are courageous, as impulsive as they might be, do not react. They know the risk to which they expose themselves when they start acting even impulsively, and fear that risk, but they decide that they must take it on; otherwise, they could not live with themselves any longer because they would start deeply despising themselves.
Knowledge is thus part of courage. In this respect, Socrates was right when he said that values, in general, imply knowledge and that, for example, wickedness results from ignorance and that people who knew the consequences of their evilness would immediately cease being evil.
Even the worst assassin could not accomplish their murders if they knew that they harmed themselves infinitely more than their victims. It’s something like Pascal’s wager: it is quite reasonable to think that no human who is able to choose would choose the momentary pleasure of killing someone knowing for sure that, as a consequence, he would have to suffer the most excruciating eternal pains, both physical and spiritual.
(And the reply that such killers do not feel anything is invalid because we start precisely from the premise that they should know, i.e., they should feel. Such assassins kill because they also imagine or assume that there cannot be any adequate punishment for their deeds.
There might be an argument, in favor of Socrates’ idea expressed previously, drawing on the saying that there were countries where you could leave a pocket full of gold on the street, and no one would take it because people knew that the rulers of that country always cut off the hands of thieves.)
In remote antiquity, people discovered that values could be taught and that you could educate someone. They discovered that those values had to be transposed into reality, actualized, and realized.
Those values did not exist as material things exist. They had a different condition, hovering over reality, being always there, in a space beside reality: and humans needed them.
Men had to go hunting to bring food for themselves and their families. Hunting was a dangerous activity. But it was necessary. Thus, humans very early understood the contradictory character of life – which animals may feel but cannot express – that what you wish is rarely at your disposal, so you must fight for it.
It happens similarly with values: you cannot access them simply by following your impulses and moods. Values grant stability to human life that impulses are unable to offer.
And sticking to them due to your will and not to an impulse is something that those people of the past thought to be proof that humans are more than their bodies and impulses.