The Essence of Humanity

Yasterblyansky in a philosophical essay critiquing David Brooks’ column on moral radicalism pulls out a great passage from George Orwell’s “Reflections of Gandhi”:

“The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals. No doubt alcohol, tobacco, and so forth, are things that a saint must avoid, but sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid. There is an obvious retort to this, but one should be wary about making it. In this yogi-ridden age, it is too readily assumed that “non-attachment” is not only better than a full acceptance of earthly life, but that the ordinary man only rejects it because it is too difficult: in other words, that the average human being is a failed saint. It is doubtful whether this is true. Many people genuinely do not wish to be saints, and it is probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings. If one could follow it to its psychological roots, one would, I believe, find that the main motive for “non-attachment” is a desire to escape from the pain of living, and above all from love, which, sexual or non-sexual, is hard work…”

I’ve long believed that we tend to perceive love as either a selfish act or a selfless one, but as Orwell suggests, ought to do neither. We ought instead see it as an act undertaken irrespective of self, one fundamental to humanity and thus inevitable regardless of our individual desires (or lack thereof.) Love is pure drive and though its main components–lust, a selfish act; compassion, an unselfish one–have a personal basis, love itself is the one thing that transcends the being who experiences it.

We must follow love to its unknowable ends,
For without it we would gain no momentum.
Life does not travel on any mere emotion:
      Without reason
And motive to refuse another.


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