Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

If I ever write a book, I will be content if it is half as thoughtful, profound, and meditative as Gilbert Meilander’s Neither Beast Nor God.

I am tempted to stop with that sentence; but I won’t. And I won’t write a book that even comes close to half, try as I might.

Meilander’s work was forged in response to the conversations he had during his time on the (controversial) President’s Council on Bioethics. Neither Beast Nor God is an exploration of dignity , a concept which he thinks the Council left ambiguous.

Meilander contends that dignity needs to be understood in two senses.

The first is human dignity, which is characteristic of our status in between God and beasts: “Not simply body, but also not simply mind or spirit; rather, the place where body and spirit meet and are united (and reconciled?) in the life of each person.” He argues that birth, breeding, and death are the features of life that most offend this sense of dignity, and as such are the central battlegrounds for those attempting to help us become more than human. Human dignity is “to be found in the kind of life that honors and upholds the peculiar nature that is ours.”

But because this human life is shaped by human powers and capacities, it invites us to “think in terms of comparative degrees of human distinction or dignity—and of some as more dignified than others.” To offer a tendentious example, insofar as Dante’s powers of writing exceed my own (which is to say, by a lot), he attained a greater degree of distinction with respect to that power than I. The same could be said with respect to the intellect of Einstein or the wisdom of Solomon (not to mention that of my wife).

But beneath human dignity is personal dignity, which is an equality all humans share that is grounded:

not in any particular characteristics but in the belief that every person is equidistant from Eternity—and that, as Kierkegaard says, “eternity . . . never counts.”  The God-relation individualizes.  When all are equally near (or far) from God, all other distinctions are radically relativized, and one can even say that ‘all comparison injures.’

Neither Beast nor God proceeds along these two lines, then, exploring the way in which birth, breeding, and death offend our sense of human dignity (and the ways in which human dignity must be maintained in those acts), and how human dignity and personal dignity relate to each other.

Because they do relate, at least if Meilander is right. Specifically, personal dignity stands beneath and grounds human dignity.

Near the end of the book, he explores the puzzle of a virtuoso violinist who loses her abilities to dementia, highlighting on the one hand his reluctance to view the loss of the abilities due to dementia as a loss of dignity, and to view her as more “dignified” than a janitor by virtue of her virtuosic abilities.  The problem with a vague concept of dignity is that if we attempt to ground it in some characteristic or property, it will inevitably create inequality (by virtue of some people having more of that characteristic than others) or endanger those who had dignity of losing it if the corresponding capacity should be lost.  The only way to preserve equality, Meilander argues, is through personal dignity:

We can deal safely with these puzzles and difficulties only when we put personal dignity first.  A society can acknowledge and reward differences in accomplishment and achievement, it can recognize the sadness and tragedy of disability and fading capacities, and it can appreciate the worth of particular loves and special bonds of association—it can, that is, honor and affirm the dignity of the human condition, of this creature who is neither beast nor god.  But it can safely do this only when its first and last commitment is to respect the equal dignity of persons, each of whom is made for community with God.  It will sometimes be difficult to sort out the relation between these two concepts of dignity, and it is no shame to find ourselves sometimes puzzled and uncertain, but it is an effort that honors the human dignity we share.

His proposal might not sit well, of course, with those who don’t accept the existence of God. But he recognizes that, pointing out that it is “others who find themselves mute when asked to give an account of our shared public commitment [to equal respect for every human being],” not believers.

Meilander writes with a reflective tone that invites the reader not only to engage his arguments, but also with his ethical vision. He is aware of the need for affective presentations in addition to rigorous argumentation, and as a result his book is as inspiring as it is intellectually challenging. For those who are seeking to understand the deeper dynamics of the human experience and the path of wisdom in a challenging age, Meilander is a helpful and perceptive guide.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles