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To Be Human Then and Now

In: English and Literature

Submitted By ateamer
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To Be a Human- Then and Now Throughout the span of time humankind has asked the question: What does it mean to be human? Some of the world’s greatest men have contemplated over this question and there are a vast number of theories on what makes a human. A scientist might take a more literal opinion of the question, thinking that we are human because we are higher on the evolutionary chain; we are physically, emotionally and mentally complex. While others might take a more philosophical position on the matter, like René Descartes who originally spoke the famous phrase: “I think, therefore I am”. A philosopher would value the fact that humans can intelligently communicate their thoughts, and these thoughts can change the very existence of man as a whole through invention and innovation. Religious groups would base their opinion of humans on their faith; we are human simply because we are not God. At times science, philosophy and religion can confuse a person opinion on what it actually means to be human. Maybe the concept of being human is much simpler then some may think. Being human could simply mean that we as a collective race are imperfect. The idea of human imperfection is not easily explained by science, philosophy or religion. They can all sometimes be too complex to understand. Science exemplifies the human race as a species, philosophy praises human race as thinkers and religion looks at the human race as sinners and how we all must be perfect to please God. Even society tells us we must be perfect in the eyes of the world. We as a human race all possess the trait of imperfection thus making us all the common men among one another in society. The concept of the imperfection of the common man is addressed in many different pieces of literature. In William Shakespeare’s play, Othello, Shakespeare created his characters to depict the different features of human imperfection. Othello and Iago, are two of the more important characters in the play. Through Iago, Shakespeare shows the audience how the common man will act without the constraints of societal rule. Throughout the play Iago becomes somewhat of a “devil” character and the audience is pushed to dislike him because he defies the rules of his society, which is to act in a godly manner. Shakespeare uses Othello to show his audience how a “good” man of the time was expected to act, and how his personal imperfections led to his downfall. In Othello’s time period to behave in a godly manner was accepted. But to so easily fall into temptation was intolerable. Othello was expected to remain infallible even after being lied to by Iago so many different times. In Othello Iago’s deceitful personality and Othello’s downfall where two kinds of human imperfection that have been described be Shakespeare.
The concept of human imperfection cannot be addressed without first creating a definition of perfection. This is somewhat hard to consider because perfection is determined by the relevant society. It is also determined by the attitude and atmosphere of the people. For example in William Shakespeare’s the idea of society was to live by the laws of the church. Men were expected to act in a Godly manner while heading their individual families. Women were to behave as angelically as possible, tarnish to their names would not be accepted by the outside world. Yet, the play is full of characters who did not privately act the way they should have publically. Every character in Othello portrayed a different aspect of society’s flaws. Beginning with the most obvious, Iago. Iago was deceitful from the very beginning, proclaiming “I am not what I am,” (I.I.67). Iago, throughout the tragedies of the play Iago played the devil-like character, turning the other charters against one another through a vast web of lies and deceit. In a story such as this one, acting as the devil like character would be looked at as highly imperfect. Yet, in light if his imperfection Iago is the most human of all the characters in the play because of the number of imperfections he acquired within his personality. It is not completely human to suppress ones emotions of jealousy, rage or even murderous tendencies. With the influence of the general public, we realize that one must restrain our urges to be evil or else face far more terrible consequences at the hands of those around us. The society, in which Iago was part of, saw the traits in Iago extremely disturbing, which is why Iago had to go through so many steps to keep his true self hidden from the eyes of the world around him.
Another character in Shakespeare’s play, Othello, who showed acted considerably different in private than he did in public was Othello. Othello was seemed to be a composed, reliable and virtuous general of the Venetian Army. This reputation upheld that he did not act as a rash man would. Lodovico was astonished to see when Othello slaps Desdemona, saying “Is this the noble Moor whom our full Senate/ Call all in all sufficient? Is this the nature/ whom passion could not shake?” (IV.I.271) Lodovico is surprised not because of the act of violence, but because of who committed this act. Othello had always acted as a good Venetian man should, which in this society means that he acted Godly. Why would the senate of the Venetian government speak well of a black man who just recently converted to Christianity? Because he acted with the dignity of a man of God. Othello was perceived to be one type of man, but after his mind was poisoned by his ancient, he became a murder. His downfall was not that he committed a rash crime, but that he was so easily fell to temptation. In Othello’s society imperfection in character is not tolerated. So in their eyes his humanly imperfections led to hid ultimate downfall.
The society that surrounds Othello and Iago are good examples of how relevant societies define imperfections in character. Society implants certain spoken and sometimes unspoken rules as to how people must behave in order to be seen as “perfect”. For example in today’s culture, we look to the celebrities and expect that they live perfectly, or what we see as perfect. This means that they must look young and fresh and skinny, they must wear all the most expensive cloths and go to the trendiest parties, and above all they must never fall off their pedestal. Those who do fall will be ridicules tremendously without mercy. Our culture tells us that perfection is synonymous with beauty and riches, so those with out one or the other are considered imperfect. Just like in Othello and Iago’s society, imperfection is not tolerated. In today’s world we do don’t easily accepted people who are not in some way beautiful or wealthy. But there are other ways that society can create rules for how people must act.
Similar to Shakespeare’s Othello, Beowulf tells the story of a common man and his many imperfections. In the epic poem Beowulf, the main character Beowulf, struggles in battles against dragon and monsters. Beowulf is a hero by the most definitions of the word. He came and saved the Geats from a dreadful monster one two different occasions and he became the king of the Geats, and then saved his kingdom once again from a dragon. What leads to Beowulf’s disgrace is not his inclination to save his people, but his pride. In Beowulf’s society hero’s were considered perfect. Strong, brave and untimely fearless is what a hero was considered to be. Hero’s did not save not because of pride but unselfishly for the sake of the people.
Beowulf proves to be less of a hero and more of a common man when he lets his pride get in the way of his bravery. When the dragon comes to terrorize his kingdom, Beowulf thinks selfishly. “‘Yea, death is better for liegemen all than a life of shame!’ ” (line 2516) Knowing that he is much too old to fight a dragon alone Beowulf set out to defeat the dragon and in the process he foolishly looses his life. Beowulf refuses to assemble an army, he remembers his youth when he defeated Grendal, the monster, so easily and he is unwilling to let go of that part of his legacy. This major imperfection of his character leads to his demise. In Beowulf’s case, his society told him that he must always emerge as the hero. Although he was to so selflessly for the good of the people not for his own gain. Another piece of literature that portrays yet another type of human imperfection is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The story tells of how Sir Gawain of King Arthur’s round table accepts the challenge of a mysterious Green knight. The latter of the two invites Sir Gawain to his home in order to continue the challenge further. While staying at the Green Knights home Sir Gawain is asked to return anything the Green knight’s wife gives him and Sir Gawain does not do what he is asked and so he is made to learn a frightening lesson. In the story Sir Gawain is a member of King Arthur’s Round Table, which is famous for the strict code of chivalry that the all the knights adhered to. The code called for the knights to be heroic, reputable and responsible for their actions. The society in which the knights lived held them up to a high moral standard which the knights where expected to meet without question. The Green Knight came to test the chivalry of the Knights of the Round Table; he came and proposed a challenge. Sir Gawain accepted without faltering and when it was time to carry out the agreements of the challenged he did so with dignity. Sir Gawain imperfection is that when it was time to do the only thing that the Green Knight had asked of him while in his home, Sir Gawain decided to try to save his own life instead of live up to the code of the honorable knights that he worked with and for. “But the third time thou didst fail, and therefore hadst thou that blow.” Although all these stories and their respective characters each depict differing imperfections, they all show how the restriction of public rule defines perfection in the culture. With each character their imperfection proved them to be human and gave the audience a chance to see them for who they truly are imperfect and completely human. For Othello that meant that he did not always act as “godly” as he was perceived to. In Iago’s situation it also meant that who he was thought to be was not who he actually was. In the case of Beowulf, his imperfection showed itself by way of pride. He was not the perfect picture of a hero. Lastly Sir Gawain proved that he could not always live up to the Code of the Knights of the Round Table. All these characters humanly imperfections where caused because they attempted to be what their society told them they must be, and they failed to met the expectation. This proves that in most cases human imperfection triumphs over the societal need for perfection. These characters also have differences in how their author’s used them to represent imperfect humans. Othello was genuinely a good and godly man in the eyes of his peers, but his downfall was brought on by an outside source. Where as Iago on the other hand only acted as though he was a different man with a different personality. For Iago there was never a critical moment in the play where he changes into the antagonizer. Iago stays they same through the course of the play. Beowulf is also different because his imperfection is more internal then public. His pride had always been a part of his personality, yet he never let it get in the way of his unselfish bravery. When a new battle called him to arms he fought against himself as to whether or not he should face the battle alone. No one was telling him he was too old to fight. Beowulf allowed himself to work prideful way. And lastly, in the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Sir Gawain’s humanly flaw was a short term reaction to a problem. Sir Gawain did what any other common man would do, he decided that his live was more important then the chivalry code of his time. He allowed himself to become just like the common man around him, instead of above them. In today’s life there are many ways in which our society has defined perfection. In a students life the most honorable definition of perfection usually falls under National Honor Society status. Fresman year of hig school I learned that if I could not be perfect in a worldly manner, then I also could not be perfect in the classroom. That year of Honors Humanities changed the way I viewed my education up untill this very day. I no longer strive for perfection but rather for understanding and new educational expierences. I am gratful that an old white dude tought me to learn outside my little perfected box. And having used htis new found philosophy throughout my for years of high school, I plan to use it thoroughout the rest of my life, whether I am in school or not.ic perfection or chivalrous perfection it must be understood that the common man or woman cannot always rise to the standards of their society. The common man is full of flaws in his character that he may work to fix in the eyes of his society or not. Either way it is human to be imperfect, and if you are perfect it is safe to say that you may not be human.

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