CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In reading an article on Thoreau, I discovered the question: "What does it mean to be a human being?" It intrigued me. The answer could be the description of one who is more chimpanzee than man, or more sinner than saint -- or the reverse.
But I suspect that the question was posed to elicit an answer that describes a human being with the character and occupation that other beings could look upon, say, a millennium from now, and exclaim proudly and consensually, "There is what it means to be a human being."
It would not be a medieval knight. It would be, perhaps, one who is an incarnation of Thoreau, who preached the virtue of simplifying life to the extent of throwing away baubles to save the time of dusting them -- a preachment that in this day of Wal-Mart madness would be a whisper in a whirlwind. Perhaps it would be one who when asked why he was in prison (for refusing to pay a tax to support the Mexican War) asked his interrogator why he was not in there with him.
Or it could be that Donald Trump would be the victor in a contest among moderns who have never heard of Thoreau or Emerson or Whitman or any other personality whose obsession and occupation were other than women and tall buildings and profits.
If nature were to chose an individual who reflects the optimum meaning of being human, on the basis of what would be conducive to the happiness and future of human beings, what character would that person exhibit? What would be his chosen occupation and principled stand? I do not know the answers, but I am tempted to formulate some.
First, he would express and live a refusal of the world as it stands. He would because it is obvious that the world cannot continue as it is without a dire consequence, probably a slow miserable extinction rather than an apocalypse. Therefore, he would foremost protest the abuses of the environment, particularly capitalism's cancerous abuse, its conversion, pillage and plunder of life's natural endowment: its forests, lands, waters, and every other resource susceptible to being cut, dug and fashioned into stuff that sells and returns a profit, mostly stuff and things that the Id yammers to have.
He would deplore mass- and assembly-line production, which confines marvels of evolution, namely man and woman, to do over and over and over what an idiot could be taught to do, and makes of persons of great potential automatons, who, if they work at it long enough, sacrifice their promise and spirit and life often for unfair returns.
Man's joy is the use of his hands and mind to imagine and produce from raw materials that which he needs. The shoemaker of centuries ago was happier at his craft than is the mass-producing Asian gluing sole, after sole, after sole -- stressed to meet a goal -- to Nike shoes for hours for a pittance.