To Err Is Human — Or Is It?

What does it mean to be a human being? What does a normal human being look like? What is the good for man, and how is he to attain it? How should men live together in society? These and related questions I shall presume to discuss here, though my feeble powers of thought and expression be greatly taxed and quickly exhausted by bearing upon such weighty matters, and to do so at all in my poverty will require a wholesale looting of the best thoughts of others through the ages to make good my want. I shall lay no claim to originality of thought, despite an occasional original turn of phrase which, perchance, may emerge through the press of  words, while I fully accept all shortcomings of thought and expression as my own.

Speaking of shortcomings, one may often hear the words “After all, I’m only human” as a common excuse offered in our time to explain a fault or offense. This excuse we freely offer for ourselves and others, and we freely accept the excuse as sufficient explanation for our failures. So commonly is it said, we give it no thought, and we readily accept it as a truism needing no further explanation.

Why should we  not accept it? The thought has a good pedigree. In English, perhaps, it is best expressed by the poet Alexander Pope’s aphorism  “To err is human, to forgive divine” (Essay on Criticism, 1709).  Naturally, this thought is not original even to Pope. In the fifth century B.C., Euripides the Greek playwright wrote, “Forgive, son; men are men, they needs must err”  (Hippolytus),  and Sophocles in the same century has “To err is common to all men…”  (Antigone). In the first century B.C., Cicero the Roman Orator and Stoic philosopher says, “It is the nature of every man to err, but only the fool perseveres in error.” More than four centuries later, St. Augustine of Hippo preaches, “It is human to err; it is devilish to remain willfully in error.”

Modern permutations of Pope’s aphorism abound.  Benjamin Franklin is reported to have said, “To err is human, to repent, divine; to persist, devilish”.  The 1978 Farmer’s Almanac put it this way: “To err is human, but to really foul things up requires a computer”–and that was before the personal computer, the Internet, and modern financial derivatives. Much more recently, this developing strand was amplified on line by Tom 1 and Tom 2, et al. (January 2007):

To err is human
To blame it on a computer is even more so
To forgive the computer is the height of human imbecility
And to destroy said computer with a baseball bat, divine.
(http://www.english-test.net/forum/ftopic15496.html)

Given its venerable history and the luminaries who expressed it, to question the basic premise “to err is human” would appear a quixotic and foolhardy quest. But that makes the attempt irresistible, and is that not the purpose of a “blog”? So forward into folly, shall we?

Is it human to err? In many senses, yes. We are finite creatures who fail to know our own bodies, thoughts, motives, and feelings fully, let alone those of others. A new pain appears or some bodily function malfunctions, we run to a doctor to  learn what is amiss, and, there, we are likely to learn that the doctor doesn’t really know either as he subject us to intrusive tests and begins to experiment upon us by trial and error with various pharmaceutical concoctions to learn which may be the desired remedy. We find ourselves impulsively doing things we would rather not do for reasons we do not understand. We try to explain our thoughts or feelings to others and find that they are not clear even to ourselves. We do not have complete and exhaustive knowledge of our own physical world let alone the universe:  science expands and the proportion of  that knowledge that can be held by any one man declines, presumed ‘global warming’ may be the effect of sunspots rather than automobile emissions, and we still do  not even predict the weather with reasonable accuracy or know all the creatures that live in the depths of our own planet’s oceans let alone their morphologies and habits. After staring at the red planet for millennia, we only last year learned for certain that there is water on Mars. We often don’t even know our neighbors or our own backyards in any meaningful sense, especially when we hire out the care of our yard to lawn care professionals and rely on our automatic sprinkler systems to keep our plants green. Given our vast ignorance and our pretensions to know more about the world, ourselves, and others than we really do, error in knowledge, judgment, and opinion is inevitable. That our leaders, our friends, our teachers, our families are not infallible in knowledge usually does not trouble us, and to expect them so to be binds them with impossible expectations that only the most unreasonable person insists upon maintaining. Lest we too quickly excuse ourselves from being that unreasonable person, we should do well to examine the expectations we have placed upon our new president.

Is it human to err in the moral or ethical sense? This is the sense often intended when the excuse “He’s only human” is offered for someone’s wrongdoing. In Christian terms, the question would be phrased “Is it human to sin?”. It is this question that begs consideration here. Is moral and ethical wrongdoing–sin–an inherent part of human nature? Common experience and the statistical average would answer “yes”. Does anyone know anyone who has never been unreasonably angry, who has always been suitably grateful for all benefits received, who has never told a lie, eaten or drunk too much, lusted, envied, boasted, stolen, slandered, or hated? Even the saintliest people we have had the privilege of knowing have fallen short in these and other ways, and anyone who dares claim to be free of these vices is an arrogant fool who knows nothing of himself and who stands convicted by the sages whom we have just now consulted.

But even if we and all people we know have sinned, does that still license us to claim “to sin is human”? Whether we are licensed to make that claim or our license has expired, we shall consider in our next essay.

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Published in: on Tuesday, 27 January, 2009 at 12:21  Comments (1)  
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