Here, I want to present a baseline for what we mean by the term “human spirit” since that term appears on a number of pages in this site.
When we talk about the “human spirit” in terms of the potential of human beings and in discussions of our rights in our society, we are referring to it in general terms. We are not claiming any derivation of the idea of a “spirit” from any particular religious doctrine, or any religion at all necessarily. And, of course, on the other hand, we don’t intend to deride or deny anyone’s interpretation of the idea of “spirit” that they do get from their religion, either.
We use the word “spirit” to refer to the essence of a being or entity of any kind, including, occasionally, even a piece of literature or artwork. The “spirit” of humanity refers to the concept of the archetype of our human species in terms of our potential for constructive or destructive activity, our latent qualities of “good” and/or “evil,” and our ability to occupy or express any range of thoughts and emotions. And it holds this meaning equally well regardless of whether one believes that we have a metaphysical aspect to our beings or one subscribes solely to the explanations that the physical sciences have so far been able to discern.
The nature of the human spirit is multifaceted.
Sometimes we refer to our various aspects as “lower” or “higher” depending upon their nature. And this distinction is valid from a certain point of view. Human beings vary immensely from one individual to the next in their propensity and ability to operate on each of these levels:
We have an animal nature. We have primal, visceral, and intense instincts for individual and tribal self-preservation and reproduction of our species. In general, we are as acquisitive as we are wary of others and defensive of our acquisitions. And we are an apex predator. In fact, we have been the apex predator on Earth for at least the past tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of years. And we can be vicious and brutal and entirely un-“civilized” in both offensive and defensive activities. We share most of these traits with our more successful cousins in the animal kingdom. But through our organizational skills, we have become better at them than the other animals.
We have a highly developed emotional capacity. This is the first thing that sets us apart from other animals. Yes, (most) animals have feelings. All mammals certainly do. But with our greater capacity for understanding the complexity of the universe around us comes a deeper potential for such emotions as appreciation, nostalgia, romance, and even sadness and horror, as well as other complex feelings.
We have a substantial mental ability. There may be other beings somewhere in the universe who have figured out the nature of things better than we have. But consider for a moment that, in our short history of a few tens of thousands of years, we have gone from gazing up at the sky in awe at the power of the sun, to questioning the principles under which it functions, to discovering how it works to such an extent that we have successfully made miniature working models of it.
At what we might call the higher end of our mental ability, we have a potential for the abstract. We can consider hypothetical questions and situations. And we can ask the question, “What is the basic principle in operation here?” We can put ourselves figuratively in the place of others and consider things from different points of view. We are capable of using this ability for everything from probing the depths of the fundamental structure of the physical universe to solving problems for our personal relationships and our society.
And there are certain primary qualities of the creative spirit of mankind that can function on all of these levels.
For example, what we often call wisdom and consider to be related to intelligence obviously acts as an aspect of our mental capacity. But an aspect of it also can act on a visceral, instinctual level to warn us dangers or alert us to opportunities. And it certainly has an emotional aspect in the form of appreciation for life in ourselves and others among mankind and the world around us. Our ability to learn, to contemplate what we have learned and consider the relationship of one thing to another is hugely important to ourselves individually as well as to the evolution of our society.
Love is another primary quality of the essence of humanity. Within our animal nature, it manifests as a primal desire or lust, either sexually or through other various hungers and cravings. To “fall in love” is one of the most basic activities of most humans at certain stages of our lives. In its highest form, love is compassion and empathy as we enable ourselves to consider the needs of others. And we are ideally able to learn that the best kind of love is not something that we merely fall into, but is something that we create within ourselves by wrapping our empathy around our consideration and understanding of another part of the Life in the world around us. Love, in this highest state, along with its companion qualities of kindness and forgiveness, make up the central theme of some of our most important spiritual teachings, such as Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
Power, strength, courage are aspects of another important primary quality of the human spirit. Of course we see them in action in visceral and sometimes savage outbursts of our primal animal nature. We see this especially if they are triggered by the emotions of fear, horror, anger, or even uncontrolled craving. But our greatest power comes from engaging the highest aspects of ourselves. The calm, cool, calculating steadfastness of a soldier or military officer engaged in an important battle is the object of many legends. The same qualities are fundamental to an astronaut or test pilot when he or she is performing the most delicate and dangerous parts of a mission. And perhaps the most important exercise of this aspect of our nature is in its everyday use in interpersonal engagements: in a corporate boardroom or just between members of a team, in the interaction between a professor and a student, and in simple communication between members of a family. In its best application, we use our strength and courage to move forward with constructive activities and build up those same qualities in others around us. They are absolutely essential in order to maintain our resolve for positive accomplishment in life. And they function most effectively when we are acting from the highest level of our mental and emotional capacities.
The constructive engagement of all of the aspects of the Human Spirit is at the heart of all constructive human accomplishment.
On the other hand, what we call “evil” is a perversion, or perhaps sometimes just an absence, of each of these qualities and aspects of ourselves.
And all of these qualities on all of these levels, barring some neurological malfunction, which sometimes do occur in our physical bodies and brains, are subject to being developed by individuals through learning, introspection, exercise, and practical use.
Humanity’s ability to function, to introspect, and to learn on all of these levels is relevant to our discussion on these pages of our morals, our rights and obligations, and the functioning of our social and economic systems. And it may be especially useful to refer to certain fundamental aspects of our psyche as we discuss the constructive potential of mankind, and of each individual, and how to maximize it.
Things to think about:
What are you? What is the human psyche?
What are you capable of? – both good and bad?
What dreams and aspirations do you have?
What dreams and aspirations should mankind have as a species?
See links to:
Models of the human psyche: Freud, Maslow & others.
Nightmare aspects of ourselves: The Milgram Experiment & the Stanford Prison Experiment.
All you need is Love