What Is Man? (King essay)

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"What is man?" is a 1959 essay from the book, The Measure of a Man, written by Martin Luther King Jr.

In The Measure of a Man, King raises issues of totalitarian government and democracy. He also states, 'Although there is widespread agreement in asking the question, there is fantastic disagreement in answering it'. There are some people, he continues, that believe 'man is little more than an animal' and there are those 'who would lift man almost to the position of a God'. There are then those who would 'combine the truths of both' and see 'man a strange dualism, something of a dichotomy' and quotes 'there are depths in man that go down to the lowest hell, and heights that reach the highest heaven' King sees logic in this view and uses the two following quotes as a basis for his position;

  • 'Thou hast made him a little lower than angels, and crowned him with glory and honour'. And the revised;
  • 'Thou hast made him a little less divine, a little less than God, and crowned him with glory and honour'.

He notices first that 'man is a biological being with a physical body', which is the 'less than God', as we think of 'God as a being of pure spirit, lifted above the categories of time and space'. The psalmist would then say that God made man that way, and because of this 'there is nothing wrong with it' and that 'everything God makes is good; therefore there is nothing wrong with it'. The Greeks, as King informs us, 'felt the body was evil' and that the 'soul could never reach its full maturity until it broke loose from the prison of the body'. However, Christianity raises the view that 'the body is not the principle of evil; it says the will is the principle of evil'. He then defines that in 'any doctrine of man, we must be concerned with man's physical well being'. To support this he brings up Jesus` quote that we need the "bread" to survive and also states 'this isn't the only part' and if we stop here we would see 'man merely as an animal'. He then brings an example of chemists who calculated that the values of man came to 'about ninety-eight cents', today with our living standards it comes to 'a dollar ninety eight for the average man'. King challenges this idea by questioning 'But can we explain the whole of man in terms of ninety eight cents?' and brings up examples of human genius; and again asks 'Can we explain the mystery of the human soul in terms of ninety eight cents?' To this he answers "no" and states that 'man is a child of God' and raises the second basic point of the doctrine 'that man is a being of spirit', which is the 'thou has crowned him with glory and honour', and because of our 'rational capacity, man has a mind, man can reason. This distinguishes us from the lower animals'. King then defines man as 'God's marvellous creation. Through his mind he can leap oceans, break through walls, and transcend the categories of time and space'. With this he defines what the biblical writers meant when they said 'man is made in the image of God', and that he has 'rational capacity; he has the unique ability to have a fellowship with God. Man is a being of spirit'.

King then defines the third doctrine of man which 'is the recognition that man is a sinner. Man is a free being made in the image of God'. Man also has the ability to 'choose between alternatives, so he can choose the good or the evil, the high or the low'. King then admits that 'man has misused his freedom' and concludes that 'man is a sinner in need of God's divine grace'. King also admits that we find excuses to avoid this reality, 'we say that man's misdeeds are due to a conflict between the Id and the superego'. He then states the conflict is 'between God and man', and that we want to cry with St. Augustine, "Lord, make me pure, but not yet". This then leads King to argue that 'the "isness" of our present nature is out of harmony with the "oughtness" that forever confronts us' with this 'we know how to love, and yet we hate. We take the precious lives that God has given us and throw them away in riotous living.' He then compares us to 'sheep (who) have gone astray.' With this line of thought he concludes with 'we are all sinners in need of God's divine grace'. He then looks at history and sees 'how we treat each other. Races trample over other races; nations trample over other nations. We go to war and destroy the values and lives that God has given us.' With this he realises that 'man isn't made for that' and 'we were made for eternity'. The example of the "prodigal son" is then used to describe our relationship with God, believing that God will forgive us if we ask for it, 'man is not made for the far country of evil…decided to rise up…I still love you'.

This is then defined as the 'glory of our religion that when man decides to rise up, from his evil, there is a loving God saying, 'Come home, I still love you"'. This is then compared to the actions of United States civilisation who started out right writing 'all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. Among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness', but after trampling over 'sixteen million of your brothers. You have deprived them of the basic good of life. You have treated them as if they were things rather than persons.' He ends the article with a prayer hoping for the 'high and noble good' and wishing America back home.


Selected quotes From "What is Man?" Martin Luther King jr. The Measure of a Man Fortress Press; Philadelphia 1959