“Alone of all, the human race lifts up its head on high, and stands in easy balance with the body upright… Thy glance is upward, and thou dost carry high thy head, and so thy gaze is skyward…”
Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy
Philosophers and theologians, biologists and other scientists have all observed it from time immemorial. Human persons stand out from the other animals. Literally.
The human body incarnates the human difference. Of course it does. This fits with what we consistently discover in the natural world. Anything but random, and anything but rooted simply in the demands of survival (though for that too they are well fitted!), the bodies of living things—if we carefully consider them—exemplify beauty, meaning, and deeper purpose.
The song of the lark or the cardinal is a masterpiece, as is the body capable of performing it. Each living thing has its place, and each (though some more remarkably than others) exemplifies a kind of plenitude, a sort of excrescence of being. In spring we might think of the redbud or the iris, the wild turkey or the swan.
And then there is man! Standing in easy balance with body upright and head on high; one of the creatures, but standing out among them.
The biological reality is that the human body’s structure is a stunning combination of factors—skeletal, muscular, etc.—all of which concur to enable us to do something absolutely unique: to stand upright with grace and ease. And so we move through the world with head on high, and able to gaze heavenward, if we but choose to do so.
Boethius suggests that this amazing and prominent feature of our biological reality should act as a lesson for us. We are different—not in a way that alienates or separates, but in a way that gives right order, and thus real unity among creatures, as well as direction and meaning to life. To all of us.
To step up to our place as the upright animal that gazes skyward, even as we move and live among terrestrial things, is to begin to discover the gift of being who we are.
Boethius (477-524 AD), Roman senator and philosopher, his Consolation of Philosophy is a seminal work that brought ancient thinking to the medieval world.
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