Space and the Stature of Man

Hannah Ardent’s 1963 essay on The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man is a bit dated and a bit timeless…

reflection of earth and self in visor of astronaut Clayton C. Anderson, image from NASA

“Has man’s conquest of space increased or diminished his stature?” The question raised is addressed to the layman, not the scientist, and it is inspired by the humanist’s concern with man, as distinguished from the physicist’s concern with the reality of the physical world. To understand physical reality seems to demand not only the renunciation of an anthropocentric or geocentric world view, but also a radical elimination of all anthropomorphic elements and principles, as they arise either from the world given to the five human senses or from the categories inherent in the human mind. The question assumes that man is the highest being we know of, an assumption which we have inherited from the Romans, whose humanitas was so alien to the Greeks’ frame of mind that they had not even a word for it. (The reason for the absence of the word humanitas from Greek language and thought was that the Greeks, in contrast to the Romans, never thought that man is the highest being there is. Aristotle calls this belief atopos, “absurd.”) This view of man is even more alien to the scientist, to whom man is no more than a special case of organic life and to whom man’s habitat — the earth, together with earthbound laws — is no more than a special borderline case of absolute, universal laws, that is, laws that rule the immensity of the universe. Surely the scientist cannot permit himself to ask: What consequences will the result of my investigations have for the stature (or, for that matter, for the future) of man? It has been the glory of modern science that it has been able to emancipate itself completely from all such anthropocentric, that is, truly humanistic, concerns.

Read the rest and commentary from some great thinkers…

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