The End of Man
Imprimatur: Michael Augustine,
Archbishop of New York, 1893
Why am I here in this world? What is my destiny? What is the chief, proper, and only aim or object for the attainment of which I should struggle and strive? This question is one that every rational being must propose to himself, and to the solution of which all his thoughts, words, and actions should be directed.Is the World with its Goods the only Aim and End of Man?
Every human being must have, here below, some special and fixed aim and purpose. It is contradictory to the very nature of man to even think otherwise. Moreover, we see in the visible world surrounding us that everything created has its own peculiar aim and purpose, and one which it must and does strive to attain and accomplish. Indeed, we measure the worth or worthlessness of every created thing in proportion as it is fitted or unfitted for the end for which it is intended.
Now, as every created inanimate thing has its own duly appointed sphere, its proper place in nature, and its own peculiar destiny, it cannot be supposed for a moment that man, who is the masterpiece and crowning glory of creation, should be devoid of all aim and object.
But what is this end of man? What is his only true destiny? If we would enjoy peace of soul, we must first of all have a clear and certain answer to this question.
Even in the earliest times the philosophers or wise men of the world labored hard to solve this question. But as they were guided solely by their reason and their errors, like the feather in the breeze, or the foam on the ocean wave, they were tossed hither and thither and never reached solid footing. Thus St. Augustine, a bishop of the Church in the early part of the fifth century, assures us that even in his time these wise philosophers had enunciated three hundred different and contradictory pretended explanations of the end for which man was created.
It is but natural that we should in the first place institute an inquiry among the created things about us, in order to ascertain whether they can be the object for which we were created, whether they alone should constitute the object of our thoughts, sentiments, aspirations, desires, and actions. Very few words will suffice to prove the absurdity of such a supposition.What is the Only True End and Destiny of Man?
In the first place, the relation established between man and other created beings is such that the latter are subjected to man, while man is nowise subservient to them. This truth we are taught by our daily experience. It is true, indeed, that man, with his body formed from the slime of the earth, is closely allied with created matter, and is to a certain degree dependent on created things. But man's soul rises aloft above all these things and reigns supreme over them, though from a material point of view they may seem to be greater and stronger. Now if man, in view of his loftier and nobler nature, is conscious that he is lord of creation, it cannot be his duty to serve what is lower and less important than himself. He who would attempt to maintain such a theory would be compelled to find and to prove that it is natural for intelligence to be the servant of ignorance and irrationalism.
In the second place, man bears within his very being an irrepressible desire for happiness, to obtain which should be the true aim and object of his life. Now, the world even with all its goods can make no man happy. For true happiness is that state of being in which a man can have nothing further to wish for. Assuming a man to be in possession and enjoyment of all the wealth, honors, and pleasures that this world can afford, he cannot conceal from himself that he must one day leave all these good things, namely, on the day of his death. Moreover, as man cannot find true happiness in these things of themselves, it is still less the case if we consider them in their relation to him.
All the good things of this world, call them by the happiest and pleasantest names you will, are utterly incapable of satisfying the longings of the human heart. The great King Solomon, whose success and wealth are proverbial, and who owned and enjoyed everything that can rejoice the heart of man, declared them all to be folly and vanity. Alexander the Great, after having at the head of his forces conquered all of the then known world, wept bitter tears on hearing that there were still other unknown countries that he could not reach even with fire and sword. And even if he could have laid them prostrate in subjection, his cravings for more would still be unallayed.
What countless cares attend the accumulation and even the keeping of worldly goods! Where is the honored man who has honors enough? Where the millionaire who has millions enough? As the thorns surround the roses, so do cares and anxieties encompass honors, pleasures, and wealth. Where do we most frequently hear the songs and shouts of joy and happiness, those expressions that spring from a contented and peaceful heart--in the cabins of the poor or in the palaces of the rich? Such being the case, how can any reasonable being entertain the absurd belief that the true destiny and proper end of man is to be found in the fleeting, troublesome things of this world? On the contrary, he must acknowledge the truth of what the wise king says: "What hath pride profited us? or what advantage hath the boasting of riches brought us? All those things are passed away like a shadow, and like a post that runneth on: and as a ship that passeth through the waves: whereof when it is gone by, the trace cannot be found, nor the path of its keel in the waters: or as when a bird flieth through the air, of the passage of which no mark can be found: or as when an arrow is shot at a mark, the divided air presently cometh together again, so that the passage thereof is not known" (Wisdom v. 8-12).
And when those days come of which the Holy Scripture says: They please us not, those days of old age, of feebleness, of sickness, and of death,--of what avail then are honors and wealth?
In the hour of death, what comfort or help can we derive from mountains of gold, from a bed of costly down, or from an army of servants? Pain will be pain in the presence of untold wealth. Anxiety and sadness will be anxiety and sadness, death will be the same death, whether its victim be a king or a beggar. When did gold or honors ever check a drop of death-sweat on the brow of a dying man? If then, amid all that the world can offer us, it is impossible to secure contentment, unalloyed happiness, real comfort and strength, it is plain that the world with its goods cannot be the end for which we were created, nor the object for which we should strive and labor with all our best energies. It is not the goal for which our soul should long and pray. It is not the object of our purest and noblest aspirations. Peace of heart and tranquillity of soul must dwell in the destiny of man.
To this all-important question, St. Augustine in his Confessions gives us this answer: "Our heart, O Lord, will not know rest till it rest in Thee."The Means of Attaining our Last End
The truth of this statement is contained in what has been said above. Man has within him an irresistible craving for happiness. This craving can be satisfied only when the heart's possession of happiness is complete, unalloyed, and enduring. Now all these conditions the world with its happiness cannot fulfil. God alone can afford us such true and lasting happiness. He alone is eternal goodness, in the possession of which we need have no fear of losing it. He alone is the infinite good and the essence of all good such as can satisfy the human heart. He alone can fill its yawning chasms and thereby render it perfectly happy. In God alone, therefore, is man's true happiness to be found, in God alone, then, are we to find and secure the true end of our existence on this earth.
Again, man has within his nature an irrepressible desire for truth, and also the power of recognizing and accepting such truth. He seeks it with all the powers of his soul and will not rest contented till he discover it. First of all he desires most ardently to obtain a clear and decisive answer concerning himself, his whole being, and the aim and purpose of his existence. Where did I come from? Whither am I going? Can it be that the grave is the end of my existence, covering up forever all my hopes and aspirations, and rendering vain and profitless all the efforts of my life? Rather is there not a brighter and a better life beyond the tomb? How is such life to be reached? What must I do to secure it? Such are a few of the many vital questions that we cannot stifle in our souls. They will not be turned aside. They demand an answer. But who can answer them?
Is man's own private reason able to give a satisfactory reply? Experience and his own innate consciousness teach him the contrary. If we ask any or all of those pagan though learned nations who, because they drifted far away from revelation, had to labor in search of truth with no other light or help than their own clouded understandings and imperfect knowledge, they will one and all assure us that, although they have striven after truth, they have not been able to find it. For four thousand years was the human intellect groping after the precious jewel of truth, and yet at the time of the Saviour, Pilate was compelled to ask Jesus, "What is truth?" Thus we see that human reason, when left to itself, was not in a condition to discover truth. On the contrary, it was led to doubt even the very existence of truth.
The efforts of modern times in the same direction have led to a similar result. How many worldly-wise scholars, the so-called philosophers, all during the long course of ages down to our own day, have stood up on their proud rostrums, and with loud voice and high-sounding words pretended that they had secured this treasure without the aid of God or His revelation! And what does all their teaching amount to? One system of philosophy followed on the heels of another, and after an ephemeral life died, was forgotten, and was succeeded by a newer and a stranger system. One philosopher charged the other with error and falsehood, and the latter placed the same brand on still another. What wonder then, if today, as in the days of Pilate, human teachers have come to doubt even the possibility of obtaining genuine truth!
But the human soul will not be satisfied with the vagaries and doubts of these, would-be teachers. From them it cannot obtain any satisfactory answer to the grand questions that are continually pressing themselves on its attention. This fact alone the soul becomes assured of: namely, that in this material transitory life there is not to be found any satisfactory explanation to its inquiries, and that some other system of teaching must be brought into requisition, in order to make mankind happy and contented in the secure possession of genuine truth. When the world fails to afford light, man lifts his eyes aloft to the Supernatural Being from Whom all good proceeds, including light and consolation, for otherwise perplexed and miserable mankind. There alone is truth, eternal, undying truth. There, too, in God alone will the human intellect find rest and happiness, for there it will find truth and secure its possession. There will man learn why he was created; there he will find and reach his true aim and destiny.
Man is also led to this same object by his natural sentiments of morality and instincts of justice. Every man necessarily desires, both for himself and his fellow-beings, a properly earned measure of reward and punishment. Goodness has a right to recognition and compensation, while evil is justly liable to penalty. But here, too, as in the search for truth, a similar struggle ensues for man. First of all, he must ask of himself. What is really good and what is really evil? The fundamental principles of morality cannot vary with different nations or in different ages. They cannot be modelled after the opinions of individual men. They are everlasting, the same for all times and places, and are binding alike on nations and individuals. But who shall lay down for me these fundamental laws? Where is the authority to which all men will willingly submit? Here also we see that the man who is interested in true morality must seek his highest ideal, his noblest and last end, far above earthly things--in Infinity; that is to say, in an All-holy God.
As soon as man, instructed by the word of God, knows what is good and what is bad, he feels within himself an invincible, innate sense of justice, or a desire that virtue should be rewarded and vice punished. This sense or instinct of justice shows further that the world and merely material life cannot satisfy the wants of man; that they cannot constitute the chief end and destiny of a human being. Man's true destiny can be found only in God, Who is justice itself. For wherever man may look about among his fellowmen, he must confess that he can find perfect justice nowhere in this world. All about him he sees innocence suffering and weeping amid the iniquities of evil men. True virtue has to eat the hard bread of affliction, contempt, and poverty. At the same time pride, vice, and sin stalk proudly and triumphantly over the earth. On the man who turns away from his God the world lavishes its honors and riches, while the God-fearing Christian sighs and groans beneath the heavy hand of relentless persecution. Is this the kind of justice that the human heart craves and demands? Impossible! Where, then, is it to find that justice for which it sighs, and which, as it well knows, man must certainly obtain?--for the human heart has been created for it. Here it is that men respond to the invitation, ''sursum corda," "lift up your hearts" to God, the All-just One: there is your goal; He is your last end, your everlasting peace. In Him is the reward of virtue and the punishment of vice. Yes, indeed, the heart of man knows no rest till it finds it in its God.
Then the tendency towards God and the struggle to reach Him is the highest aim for man here below. How sublime such a tendency! Where can be found a loftier, nobler, or more sacred destiny? Oh, how poverty-stricken is the blinded intellect of that man who cannot tear himself away from earthly things and lift himself above the useless trifles offered by this earth! His efforts meet no reward, his yearnings are never gratified. His hopes are never realized, and what he obtains today he loses tomorrow. With what a look of despair he must regard the gloomy darkness of his grave! Are all his aspirations to be buried forever within its dismal portals? Are all his labors and cares, all his strivings and hopes, all his life-trials, to know no other reward than a tombstone, which will be the only means of preserving the memory of his name, and that but for a short time?
Impossible! impossible! says the reasonable being. My reason, my heart, the experience of all ages, proclaim to me that the ideal of man is loftier, holier, divine. Hence I will direct my life, my thoughts, my actions, my desires accordingly. Such is the grand and beneficent influence that Christianity exercises on the moral development of mankind. It raises man aloft to God, the just and Holy One, in order to make him holy and just, and consequently a child of eternal happiness. This truth is enunciated in words at once sublime and simple in Holy Scripture, when Our Saviour says: "This is eternal life, that they may know Thee, the only true God" (John xvii. 3).
If we would reach and possess God we must first endeavor to know Him. For it is only when we know an object and know it intimately that we will tend towards that object, and learn to love it and be ready to serve it willingly and cheerfully. In such a knowledge, such a love, and such a service is to be found the best and surest means to finally reach God, and consequently our last end and only happiness.* The Picture is in the public domain and provided by Wiki Commons
But, if I am to know God, then it is necessary that I should believe all that God has revealed.
It is true that from outward visible nature I may learn the existence of an almighty, all-wise, and beneficent Creator. But a satisfactory knowledge of God and a proper appreciation of the purpose of my existence cannot be acquired from a mere study of nature. Such knowledge must be imparted to me by God Himself. It is necessary that He Himself should instruct mankind on the internal nature and essence of His Godhead, on His outward existence, and on His divine law. God must reveal Himself to man. The supernatural can never result from the natural, nor be contained within it, any more than the earth could be grasped by the hand of man.
As soon as God reveals Himself to man,--that is, when, in His infinite mercy. He condescends to teach man,--it becomes man's bounden duty to place implicit faith in God's word and teachings. This faith is in accordance with reason, for it is a belief in eternal truth and wisdom. He who does not believe in God cannot have a correct knowledge of Him, and is thus deprived of the first and most necessary means of reaching everlasting happiness.
When by the aid of faith man learns to know God in His essence, in His attributes, and in His economy, he also at the same time learns that he himself is dependent on God, because God is the highest and most powerful Lord of heaven and earth, and the Father of all created things, including man himself. From such relation between God and man there grows up for man the duty of obedience to God. In other words, man ought to obey his Creator's law by keeping His commandments.
When we seek to discharge the high and holy duties of life, to do the divine will, we enter at once on the field of battle, and begin the unceasing warfare, and the series of strivings and longings which form the whole of every human life. With sin there came into the world that spirit of opposition which sets man at variance with God, with nature, and with himself. Even the apostle Paul complains that he does not do the good he wishes to do, and does the evil which he does not wish to do. Although Christ the Lord has redeemed us, there still lurks within us a strong inclination to evil, partly in punishment for the past, and partly for the purpose of trying our virtue and of acquiring merit. The strength in man of this tendency to evil and its powers to lead him far away from good are made evident in the countless and nameless vagaries to which men have drifted at all times. Hence Christ established, as one of the first requirements from His believers, that they shall deny themselves; that is to say, they shall fight and conquer their own inclinations. Man could never succeed in winning this difficult victory over himself if a merciful God did not assist and help him with His grace. Hence Christ established means of grace, especially the sacraments and prayer, by the use of which we may gain divine grace.