Throughout the history of philosophy great minds have sought to explain what it is to be human and to do so in a way that gets to the heart of our understanding of what is essential in our species. Plato, possibly with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, called humans “featherless bipeds” and had the tables turned on him by Diogenes who presented the audience with a plucked chicken stating, “Here is Plato’s human!”
Plato was a bit more serious when he called us “political animals,” and this theme was taken up by his pupil Aristotle in his writings. Aristotle also noted that the human being is unique because of the possession of the capacity of reason and therefore can also be named a “rational animal.” This is obviously linked to the very common Homo sapien (“wise man”), but as many philosophers have rightly pointed out, anyone who has lived with Homo sapiens knows that there isn’t much in the name that fits reality.
Maybe a better name is one that sprang from the philosophical writings of Gabriel Marcel, the 20th Century Catholic existentialist. This French luminary influenced numerous intellectuals from Jean-Paul Sartre to Pope St. John Paul II to the American writer Walker Percy. Marcel’s great work Homo Viator offered the world a new binomial for use as a synonym for human beings, but also gave hope to anyone who might also answer to Homo “postmodernus”.
Homo viator means “man on the way”. Within the simplicity of this phrase lies enough depth of meaning to give birth to a 300-page book as well as numerous articles, videos, and dissertations that dig deeply into the understanding of human persons as pilgrims in this world. For those of the Catholic faith this understanding of the human person as someone who is “on the way” has a resonance that goes all the way back to the Apostles. The New Testament tells us that the earliest Christians called their new religion “The Way”, possibly in reference to the quote by Jesus in John’s Gospel where He says, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”
For those who are not Catholic, and even for those who are not religiously inclined, Marcel’s vision is still of use. An atheistic existentialist, like Sartre - a protégé of Marcel, may very well draw strength from the vision of moving forward on a journey that can provide life with meaning. The other option is Homo erraticus, “wandering man.” A person on the way has an end (whether in sight or not), but a wanderer has no itinerary, no map, no goal.
The Christian virtue of hope, infused in the human soul by God at baptism, is at the core of the “way” of the pilgrim. The virtue of hope is not “wishful thinking that things will go well,” but the desire for the eternal life of happiness in the Kingdom of Heaven. When the follower of The Way hopes, the focus is on placing trust in the promises of Jesus and the grace of the Holy Spirit rather than in human strength.
It is with a real sense of symbolic harmony that hope is linked with the Holy Spirit, often pictured as a dove, since Emily Dickinson once defined hope as “that thing with feathers” referring to a bird in rough weather flying toward its destination. For her that destination symbolized heaven - that place where hope completes its journey.
So maybe Plato was right after all. The human person without hope, without the grace of the Holy Spirit as a guide to salvation, is just a featherless biped, a Homo erraticus and nothing more. But, with the gift of grace, that biped gains feathers and can soar to great heights on The Way as an authentic Homo viator.