Hamlet’s views on man are well known: “What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world!” (II-ii, 315-20)
Nevertheless, reflecting upon the vicious reality of the human mind, he declares: “And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me . . .” (II-ii, 320-22)
Humans have both a bright and a dark side. The mind may lean strongly toward the dark side: it must be understood in order to create a more humane approach to life.
In the poem, “The Martyrdom of Bishop Farrar,” Ted Hughes (1930-1998), a British poet, vividly delineates the insane excesses of Mary I (1516-58), queen of England (1553-58) and daughter of Henry VIII:
Bloody Mary’s venomous flames can curl: They can shrivel sinew and char bone
Of foot, ankle, knee, and thigh, and boil
Bowels, and drop his heart a cinder down;
And her soldiers can cry, as they hurl
Logs in the red rush: “This is her sermon.”
This poem about human violence explicitly portrays the fact that a fiery ice (brutality) or icy fire (vehemence) exist within a person, and can gush forth in a moment to freeze people’s lives or char their bones. Brutality and vehemence exist beyond reason. No matter how merciless, their existence is undeniable. This is why human beings can make both happiness and sadness.
In the 20th century, humankind suffered horrendous wars and other man-made catastrophes. The American psychologist Erich Fromm (1900-80) states in “The Sane Society” (1955): “In the 19th century the problem was that ‘God is dead’; in the 20th century the problem is that man is dead.” In “After Auschwitz,” American poet Anne Sexton (1928-74), describes man’s worst lunacy:
And death looks on with a casual eye and picks at the dirt under his fingernail. Man is evil, I say aloud. Man is a flower that should be burnt, I say aloud.
World War II ended over a half century ago. Yet some countries continue to heap horror upon others by producing weapons of mass destruction. These weapons are dehumanizing. Their production and use increase the power of the fiery ice or icy fire and sterilize the foundations for world peace.
Given this, it is hard to explain what it means to be human.
In the last century, the world has seen how violence and hate have affected human lives. One example is this account, based on a letter addressed to an English-language newspaper in Japan on April 12, 1987 by a Mr. Stewart:
In June of 1944, in Burbank, Calif., high-school students had a gloomy graduation. A few days later most of them were drafted into the army and sent to training camps.
Among them was George, the son of Mr. Stewart. He was trained in field artillery. Day by day he crawled on his belly while live ammunition shot over his head.
After six weeks of training, George was sent to Okinawa where he underwent an appendectomy. During surgery, a typhoon hit the land and carried off the hospital tent. George lay in a ditch with an IV in his arm.
Some time later, having survived all this trauma, George stood on sentry duty when he saw a human figure move among the bushes. It was a young Japanese soldier with a grenade in his hand. For a moment both men stared at each other. Eyes froze on either side.
The American soldier stood at attention. The Japanese soldier pulled the pin on the grenade, pressed it into his own stomach and blew himself up.
How deep are the effects made on the human psyche by the horrors of war!
It is hoped that the 21st century will be a brighter one, and emphasize human creativity rather than its destructibility; a series of brighter years in which human beings can declare the truth about themselves with dignity, or failing that, simply declare:
as there is nothing peachier than a peach, so there is nothing more humane on earth than a human