What is a Man Worth?

Rabbi Morton J. Cohn

Recently I read the news bulletin of a Presbyterian Church parish in a small Ohio town. The Minister had just returned from Washington after having acted as chaplain in the House of Representatives for a day. In his observations which he recorded in his parish bulletin, he says: "On the floor of the House we met many of the congressmen and had a close-up view of many others. Along the road of life we have traveled, we have met quite a few people in high and low stations and in almost every manner of circumstances. Sometimes we are fooled, but most of the time we can tell whether or not a man is a pompous fraud, a stuffed shirt, a posing egotist — or whether he is sincere, genuine and able. We can tell, usually, after listening to a speaker for a few minutes, whether he is a windbag or whether he really has something to say. We are not awed or impressed by a title, a haircut, a monocle, or a Barrymore pose. At close range we liked most of the congressmen we saw and met."

Now you or I may or may not agree with this minister's estimate of the worth and caliber of the men who represent us in Congress. But it certainly is true that experience is our best guide in placing a value upon the worth, or lack of worth, of our fellowmen. By some method each of us places a price-tag on a man's head, depending on how he has impressed us. When we have assessed a person's worth, we place him somewhere in our scale of values. His position and status in our sight depend on how nearly he approximates our ideal man. If he is worth his salt we rank him highly — but if he does not measure up to our standards we put him in the lower value brackets.

Of course, we are not always purely objective in our appraisals of a man — our prejudices enter into the picture, and we all have different standards. Mr. A may dislike a certain newcomer because he happens to resemble a former rival in business or in love. Mr. B may dislike him because the newcomer outshines him in dancing the rumba. And Mr. C may regard him with profound respect because of his ability and civic-mindedness. Like the blind man with the elephant, we all take different views of our fellowman and see him from widely varying perspectives.

They tell me that in Washington, D.C., the first questions asked about a man are: Where does he come from? What is his home town? Does he represent New York City or Springfield, Illinois? In political Washington, willingness to listen to a man is largely determined by the constituency he represents. People want to know, for whom and for how many does he speak?

A different pattern prevails in New York City. There they usually want to know how much wealth a man has accumulated. When they know that, then they determine whether they want to listen to what he has to say.

In the Middle West it seems that a man is appraised by yet another standard. What has he done? What is he worth in terms of the achievement of position and power? Here we find the pragmatic standard determining a man's position in society.

In Boston, however, it would seem that the all-important factor in determining a man's worth is his family tree. How long have his ancestors been here?

Thus it is obvious that the standards we use to measure a man's worth may differ widely. But the standard traditionally applied by the ancient religionist was not influenced by wealth or power or family background. It was a far truer measure — perhaps the best measure yet discovered for answering the question, "What are you worth?" As the Psalmist expressed it: "When I consider Thy heavens, the work of Thy fingers, the moon and the stars which Thou hast created: what is man, that Thou art mindful of him?"

In a contemplative mood, out under the moon and stars on the Judean hills, such a Psalmist is able to focus his attention on the value of man. There are no sidelights or distractions. The starlit sky claims his undivided attention as he sees the world and man in true proportion. The mystery of the universe seems more transparent in the East, and the Psalmist sees the finger of God in all of creation. And as he meditates on the marvels of God's creation, the thought is forced upon him: What has dignified man, lifted him above nature, and revealed the fact that between God and man there is an eternal kinship?

Despite the fact that you and I live in a highly materialistic age, an age of bloodshed in which human life is cheap, an age of technology in which one atom bomb snuffs out the hopes and dreams of a quarter million souls, an age of secular science in which the chemist blandly informs us that man's body had a pre-war value of about 98 cents — yet, in the world of thought, man is something more than the sum of his instincts and impulses. He is something other than what social conditions and environment make him. The essential thing about man, and the essential thing to remember in determining human worth, is that God has placed His imprint upon him — this imprint, this spark of divinity by which he is privileged to claim kinship with God and brotherhood with his fellow-men the world over.

Now you may retort cynically, all of that sounds lovely and idealistic, flowery and beautiful. But as we look at the chaotic world about us, aren't we forced to believe that man has been dethroned from this place of dignity? Hasn't he been in revolt against God, against the divine in his own nature? We needn't look very far to see countless derelicts of human dignity. When we see how the finest of human values have become warped and twisted, we are tempted to get a perverted sense of the value of man. Life today seems to be turned upside down and the value patterns which we apply to the question of a man's worth are tragically distorted in this enlightened twentieth century of alleged civilization.

But, you may ask, does it make any real difference what value I place on man? It makes a tremendous difference. If you regard man to be of little worth, if you value human life cheaply, if your heart is not wrenched when you read of hundreds dying in China and India and Greece and Palestine, then you can condone almost any evil in society.

Dr. Emil Brunner has pointed out in his book Man in Revolt that man's view of himself determines his life. The value you place on your life will determine your every thought and deed. Our view of the nature and destiny of man enables us to determine the practical realities of human existence. Our solutions to such practical social questions as race, economics and politics are always based upon what value we set upon man. Our American freedom is built upon the bedrock of respect for the individual. Our religious faith teaches us to regard every person as sacred, whose dignity must be respected.

If you were to ask me, "What is an automobile?" I would not take you to a junk yard, point to the remains of a car that had been run over by a ten-ton truck and say, "That is an automobile." So when we ask, "What is man?" — when we want to know man in a world of true values, we do not turn to the wrecks of a ruined humanity and point to the sin-warped man, the calloused, indifferent, unthinking man. We point to the great prototypes of saintliness whose moral nobility and spiritual maturity have won them our veneration. We point to Moses and Confucius, Lincoln and St. Francis of Assisi, Israel Baal Shem Tov and others — and we say, "That is a man."

All of these have demonstrated in their lives that true civilization is not to be found in material things, in earthly tangibles, but in the divine spirit that breathes in the heart of man. A thousand years hence our civilization will be judged, not by its intricate machinery and atomic gadgets, but by the degree of our freedom of spirit, our understanding and our brotherhood. True civilization means the crowning of man and his lordship over material things, rather than his enslavement to them.

It means that no man, no matter who he is, will ever dare to say, "What are other men to me?" It means that no man will ever dare advance his own material self-interest at the price of desolation in the homes and hearts of other men. It means that religious and racial and political groups will never dare to create bitterness and hatred against other groups of human beings. It means that we will never be satisfied with a value-pattern which assumes that one man is superior to another because of the color of his skin, the country of his birth, the parents who bore him, or the creed he professes.

This is the greatest, most decisive moral message of our age. There is only one way of discovering life's highest values, and that is by returning to and taking seriously and putting into daily practice the fundamental principles of our faith: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy might . . . and thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. Ye shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. It hath been told thee, O man, what is good, and what doth the Lord require of thee: only to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God."

When all men learn to live in accordance with these eternal verities of our heritage, we shall comprehend at last the infinite value of every single human life. We shall answer the question "What is a man worth?" not in terms of wealth or power, ancestry or prestige. We shall know with our minds and with our hearts that as the child of God, earth-bound man is the son of heaven, a living bit of divinely dowered dust, bearing within his soul the imprint of the Divine.

(From Sunrise magazine, September 1952; copyright © 1952 Theosophical University Press)

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