My favorite maxim of all time, by the sophist Protagoras, is usually considered oracular if not obscure: “Man is the measure of all things.” I have never doubted what Protagoras meant: in our pursuit of knowledge, we are trapped within our humanity. We may never know the world as God knows the world, which may be too bad, but we will also never know it as a sea slug knows it, which (come to think of it) might also be a cool perspective.
Man is the measure of knowledge. No more, no less. Even divine inspiration must work through a human vessel.
But the maxim of Protagoras also represents a profound moral insight, in which I seek guidance during confusing circumstances. If we are the measure of all things, then our behavior sets the standard that defines humanity, and by implication all that we as humans can know. Mean or selfish behavior makes a good standard for a silly, insubstantial species. Noble or courageous behavior raises high the standard, and makes one proud to be human rather than a sea slug.
On this foundation rests our faith in human dignity. To the extent that we are free, we can indulge in self-abasement, or we can choose self-command and direct our lives toward some ideal. If I may misquote Tolstoy: all base souls are the same, but each noble and courageous person is so in his own chosen way. Each is a true individual, and a worthy citizen of a free republic.
Recently, however, while I walked down the aisles of a pharmacy, with reminders of human frailty stacked up at every shelf, I suffered a moment of doubt about the whole concept of human dignity. For sale around me was help against incontinence, diarrhea, constipation, bunions, diabetes, runny noses, and weepy eyes, plus walking canes for the hobbled and high toilets for those too weak to squat.
On TV commercials, everyone is young, fit, and beautifully healthy. That’s the ideal. But the human body can be a source of humiliation, disgust, and despair. In the end, we all must meet the reaper and living flesh must turn to mush. To base uses we return, brooded Hamlet, and we may find the noble dust of Alexander stopping a bung-hole.
In the pharmacy, indignity seems to define the human condition.
Yet suppose we were all supermen, or immortal gods. In that case, dignity or indignity would be meaningless terms, utterly besides the point as descriptors of our behavior. The standard could be very low — in fact, there would be no standard, no measure, no applicable morality, because no matter how foolish or trivial or vicious our actions, there would be no consequences.
Humans are consequential creatures. In that respect, we may aspire to something denied to the immortal gods: call it dignity, or strength in adversity, or public courage in the face of private frailty and pain. We have a standard, while the gods have none. To the extent that we are free, we choose that standard, and strive to raise it high. That striving only has value when we are least godlike, and most in need of a pharmacy: when we are tired, or sick, or forsaken, or enfeebled by age, or crossing the threshold to death.
In our striving we often fail — true. But each success, by raising high the standard, ennobles us all. Anyone who has visited a hospital emergency room knows that many there, sometimes with minor injuries, will scream and moan with abandon. Some don’t. It may be an old woman putting up with a crushed shoulder, or a young man dying quietly in his curtained cubicle: if man is the measure of all things, they are the standard, the source of pride in our shared humanity.
Dignity in good times is a feckless pose. In the dark night of the soul, in the breakdown of the body, it is the greatest and most astonishing achievement of which organic life is capable.
We begin the journey in a muddle of desires. It need not end there. If each of us is the measure of all things, we can drive our desires to behaviors morally indistinguishable from those of a sea slug, or to a life that, by assuming a high valuation, in truth enriches the entire species. The choice belongs to each of us, and can’t be dodged.