How Is Man Exceptional?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

G. K. Chesterton, in one of his masterpieces, The Everlasting Man, writes a powerful defense of something which should not need a defender.  That man is truly exceptional seems exceptionally obvious to all but the most unexceptional.  Here is Chesterton summing up his case in a way that only he can:

It will be well in this place, however, to sum up once and for all what is meant by saying that man is at once the exception to everything and the mirror and the measure of all things.  But to see man as he is, it is necessary once more to keep close to that simplicity that can clear itself of accumulated clouds of sophistry.  The simplest truth about man is that he is a very strange being; almost in the sense of being a stranger on the earth.  In all sobriety, he has much more of the external appearance of one bringing alien habits from another land than of a mere growth of this one. 

He has an unfair advantage and an unfair disadvantage.  He cannot sleep in his own skin; he cannot trust his own instincts.  He is at once a creator moving miraculous hands and fingers and a kind of cripple.  He is wrapped in artificial bandages called clothes; he is propped on artificial crutches called furniture.  His mind has the same doubtful liberties and the same wild limitations.  Alone among the animals, he is shaken with the beautiful madness called laughter; as if he had caught sight of some secret in the very shape of the universe hidden from the universe itself.  Alone among the animals he feels the need of averting his thought from the root realities of his own bodily being; of hiding them as in the presence of some higher possibility which creates the mystery of shame. 

Whether we praise these things as natural to man or abuse them as artificial in nature, they remain in the same sense unique. . . . It is not natural to see man as a natural product.  It is not common sense to call man a common object of the country or the seashore.  It is not seeing straight to see him as an animal.  It is not sane.  It sins against the light; against that broad daylight of proportion which is the principle of all reality.

I agree with Chesterton.  To see man as a purely natural product of blind nature is insanity.

5 thoughts on “How Is Man Exceptional?”

  1. Your conclusion makes as much sense as it does to say “To see a snowflake as a purely natural product of blind nature is insanity.

    It’s not insanity because it is demonstrable. It may be counter-intuitive to the arrogant but it is entirely reasonable because it is based on reasonable and compelling evidence. What is unreasonable is to reject all this in order to maintain a false sense of exceptionality.

  2. Man is exceptional on earth in several ways – ability to conceptualise abstract ideas, vastly superior engineering skills etc – all stemming from our superior reasoning abilities. You could argue that this has categorically different effects to the superior abilities of other species, but there’s nothing to suggest that ‘superior reasoning’ has a categorically different origin to ‘superior jumping ability’ or ‘superior eyesight’.

    “To see man as a purely natural product of blind nature is insanity”
    Simple argument from incredulity.

  3. “That man is truly exceptional seems exceptionally obvious to all but the most unexceptional.”

    It is not obvious to me that man is exceptional, therefore I am unexceptional. But as a man, I am exceptional. Holy non-contradiction logic batman!

    Kidding aside, that excerpt was babbling unfounded word salad. I think it boils down to solipsism.

  4. “There is only one thing worse than being witty, and that is NOT being witty… That was one of Shaw’s”

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