“Whenever we meet a human being, then, we meet that extraordinary creature who can think of time past and time to come, and times that never were,” writes Anthony Esolen in an essay on “the Subhumanities.” To reduce a human to his animal instincts is an act of violence: Meeting a human being is meeting someone “whose next thought rarely has to do with food or the act of sex but with shaking a bough of wet leaves to see the drops spatter and splash, or with a jest to cap the jest of a friend as they sit on a shady porch, or with one who walks down to the quiet graveyard to place a vase of flowers at her mother’s headstone, to stand awhile there, and say a prayer, and think of her while the cardinals whistle their love calls from the trees.”
Esolen goes on,
“If I say, ‘Who is John?’ you cannot answer me correctly by saying that he is six feet tall, 150 pounds, with Italian and Irish ancestry on his mother’s side and African American and Latino ancestry on his father’s side, with a family income of such and such a year, voting in such a pattern, living on Maple Street and selling insurance. These are all things about John, but they are not John, the man. It does violence to the man to reduce him to such categories. It is an act of contempt for his humanity. It reduces him, not so that we may get to know him, but so that we can manipulate facts about him while not getting to know him at all. It is a study in subhumanity.”
True, but since we’re speaking about violence, shouldn’t we acknowledge that the violence can go both ways. Trying to know a person without knowing their specific circumstances and story is just as reductively violent as ignoring the divine depth of his soul. Knowing things about John is part of knowing John, isn’t it? There’s a “nominalist” or “scientistic” violence; but there’s a Platonic one too.
Don’t we need both? To know a human being in full, don’t we need to know species and genus, facts and shared humanity?