The Measure of Man

Part 3 of The Question of God

So far we’ve examined the role that imagination (part 1) and senses/reason (part 2) play in human efforts to answer “the big questions of life.”  Using the former, we find answers through stories (“myths”) that explain the material world around us—and ourselves—in terms that integrate supernatural and natural “realities.”  Through the latter, we use our capacity think about our experiences in the natural world (or vice-versa), looking for answers in that have rational and material (“scientific”) explanations alone.

By Freud’s time, the wide acceptance of “science” as the only valid way of “knowing” reality allowed highly imaginative theories (like Darwinian evolution) to gain widespread intellectual credibility—so long as they were couched in the language of empirical methodology.  Unfortunately for Freud, his own theory of the unconscious failed to win the imprimatur of the scientific community (although it greatly influenced  20th C. social science and popular culture!).  But the broader influence of “scientistic modernism” created an academic culture in which religious interpretations of the human condition were increasingly untenable.  In this atmosphere C. S. Lewis was himself first educated and then professionally engaged.  Yet within him still lingered an attraction to the “deeper” well of Classical learning as a source of truth, goodness, and beauty.

Of course, imaginative interpretations of the human experience are nothing new.  During the “Classical” age of Greece (4th-5th C. bc) such approaches to understanding the human identity, condition, and destiny were foundational to the formation of what we call “Western Civilization.”  Protagoras’ famous utterance, “Man is the measure of all things,” voices a human claim as sole  interpreter of the cosmos that rings down through the centuries.  More significantly, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle aim the imagination not at mere individual interpretation, but rather toward deeper principles woven into the cosmos, directing personal and social existence toward a greater good.  Even the characters and plots of Greek drama (Aeschylus, Sophocles, etc.) were designed to remind audiences of truths they already knew about humanity and the consequences of transgressing those truths (while also providing Freud the source of his famous “Oedipus Complex”!).

Socrates was condemned for insisting that human interpretations of truth must reflect timeless, absolute truths that transcend individual and temporal interpretation.  Though he never himself claimed to have “The Answers,” he believed a well-lived life must be based on the presumption of their existence and the cultivation of their influence.  Plato extended philosophical idealism from the individual to society, advancing in his “theory of forms” the “reality” of eternal, immutable ideas (from which all material reality derives).  A well-lived life aims to subject “lower” natural and material forms of human existence to the higher “virtues” that shape both individuals and societies.  Aristotle’s theory of “four causes” begins with material substances that comprise physical “reality,” but it also considers the essential ideas, activating agents, and ultimate purposes that give true “existence” to natural and material phenomena (metaphysical causes).  These all point to a design in the cosmos, which must logically be an “uncaused cause.”

Classical foundations provided the model for education in the West.  From Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum the “Arts and Sciences” emerged as a unified expression of the “fullness” of human learning. Protagoras provided the basis for modern divisions of learning into man-made, often exclusive categories of “expertise.”  Lewis and Freud were both educated in a culture still shaped by and mindful of its Classical influences (which will ultimately be to Lewis’ benefit).  At this point in their story, however, each is much more captivated by the trends of modernity (a captivity from which Freud will never escape).

Learn more about Classics and the Human Story—

Louise Cowen and Os Guiness, eds.  Invitation to the Classics (Baker, 1998)

Robt. Littlejohn and C. T. Evans, Wisdom and Eloquence:  A Christian Paradigm for Classical Learning (Crossway, 2006)

About Rick D. Williams

Teaching and writing have been my life's work for over two decades as a journalist and educator. My degrees in History were earned at Illinois State University, and I've done additional graduate work at Lincoln Christian Seminary and Urbana Theological Seminary. Over the years I’ve led conference workshops and authored articles and book chapters on topics ranging from religious education and international student ministry to state and local history.
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