If I ask myself what makes us human, one answer jumps out at me straight away – it is not the only answer but it is the one suggested by the question. What makes us human is that we ask questions. All the animals have interests, instincts and conceptions. All the animals frame for themselves an idea of the world in which they live. But we alone question our surroundings. We alone refuse to be defined by the world in which we live but instead try to define our nature for ourselves.
The intellectual history of our species is to a great extent defined by this attempt. Are we animals like the others? Do we have souls as well as bodies? Are we related, in the order of things, to angels, to demons and to gods? All science, all art, all religion and all philosophy worth the name begins in a question. And it is because we have questions that human life is so deeply satisfying and so deeply troubling, too.
Not all questions have an answer. In mathematics and science we solve our problems as well as create them. But in art and philosophy things are not so simple. Hamlet’s great soliloquy starts with the line: “To be or not to be: that is the question.” The play revolves around that question. Would it be better not to exist? Is there anything in human life that makes it worthwhile? When, confronted by the extent of human treachery and scheming, we fall into complete contempt towards our species, is there some trick of thought, some perception, some argument or some appeal to higher authority that will restore the will to live?
When I look at the great artists of the past, I am often struck by the extent to which their work has evolved in response to a question. Milton asked himself how the flawed world in which he lived could be the work of a supremely good God and his answer was Paradise Lost. Bach asked himself how variants and permutations flow from the basic moves in music and his answer was The Art of Fugue. Rembrandt asked himself how the soul is revealed in the flesh and what the lights and textures of our bodies mean, and his answer was his extraordinary series of self-portraits. In art it is always as though the question is what the work of art is really about.
Milton’s poem implants the question of man’s relation to God in the centre of our consciousness. It does not answer the question but instead creates wonder and awe in response to it. Wonder and awe are the diet of the artist and without them the world would be far less meaningful to us than it is.
The same is true of philosophy. Although there are philosophers who give answers, it is usually their questions and not their answers that have survived. Plato asked how it is that we can think about the property of redness and not just about red things. How can finite human minds gain access to universal realities? Plato’s question is still with us, even though few people today would accept his answer to it. Aristotle asked how it is that there can be time and change in an ordered universe. Is there a prime mover who sets it all in motion? Few would accept Aristotle’s answer to this question: but the question remains. How can there be time, change, process and becoming, in a world that could as easily have been permanently at rest? Kant asked how it is that human beings, who are part of the natural order, can freely decide to do this rather than that, can take responsibility for their decisions and hold each other to account for the consequences of their actions.
Kant was honest in acknowledging that the question lies beyond our capacity to answer it; but until we have asked it, he implied, we have no real understanding of our condition.
In the monasteries, libraries and courts of medieval Europe the big questions were constantly debated. People would be burned at the stake for their questions, and others would cross land and sea to punish people for their answers. In the Renaissance and again at the Enlightenment the big questions were asked and answered, and again death and destruction were the result, as in the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries and the French Revolution. Communism and fascism both began in philosophy, both promised answers to the ultimate questions and both led to mass murder.
Our nature as questioning beings seems to have a huge cost. And maybe we are no longer prepared to pay it. Certainly if we look around ourselves today, we see a mass of ready-made answers and very few attempts to define the questions that would justify them. Should we then give up on the habit of asking questions? I think not. To cease to ask questions would be to cease to be fully human.
This article is part of our “What Makes Us Human?” series, published in association with BBC Radio 2 and the Jeremy Vine show