Wonders of human mind is what differentiates man from beast

It is painful to observe that, of all the rich black people, none has adopted the University of Fort Hare as their legacy project, says the writer.
It is painful to observe that, of all the rich black people, none has adopted the University of Fort Hare as their legacy project, says the writer.
Image: Michael Pinyana

In his essay on Reading and Books, the great German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer makes a timeless observation so apposite about most wealthy people today: "Rich men who are ignorant live for their pleasure only, and resemble a beast."

Think of a cow amidst lush pasture. It eats, drinks, sleeps, gives birth and eventually lands on our plates in small pieces as fillet, sirloin, T-bone and so on.

A human being does not end up in pieces on a plate; our end takes the form of a small quantity of ashes or nothingness underground.

That a cow was once fat means absolutely nothing beyond the moment when we enjoy the steak that marks the last traces of the forgotten cow's existence. And the whole story ends right there.

It is true that we can trace a departed cow by linking those that live to the ancestor-cows whose steaks we have enjoyed some years ago. This is the sense in which we can speak of the continuity of cowness in the same way we speak of humanity as a continuing phenomenon.

But cows have no meaning beyond eating, sleeping, giving birth or any other nature-ordained impulses that drive their lives.

What distinguishes man from beast is his capability, nay, choice to rise above the dictates of nature by combing the reified products of his mind with those of nature to embody his existence long after his body has taken the form of ashes or nothingness underground.

Such is the domain of history, a realm only accessible to mankind. It is accessible only to mankind because it is the terrain of the mind. The human mind is truly an amazing thing. It is the instrument that makes it possible for man to rise above his naturalness, to view and comprehend himself from the elevated perch of abstraction.

Man's startling ability to rise above himself enables him to visualise his continued existence way beyond the moment of his death. The idea of a legacy is precisely the form that man's existence takes in immortality, just as religion can grasp a form of man's eternal existence in the spirit world.

To say rich men who are ignorant live for their pleasure only is to reveal beastliness as a very possible upshot of wealth. We all have witnessed in our communities rich idiots who spend their money on prostitutes, concubines, expensive alcohol or many cars they don't even have time to drive.

Glamourous as they may appear, such fools are tormented by an intense emptiness of the soul. They live with a vast void they think can be filled by being observed while wasting money by an envious public. It is like a cow that swishes its tail, thinking that its beholders are envious of the lush grazing ground around it.

Only the life of the mind, which is far above that of sensuousness, is capable of ennobling, and indeed eternalising, riches.

It is not difficult to know whether the rich fellow whose splendid house you are visiting is a beastly idiot or a man of wisdom. The truly great will take a visitor through a private study full of books, while rich fools will show you a bar full of expensive alcohol.

The wise don't horde books for a show; the books on their shelves reflect the state of their mind.

Such people would typically be engrossed in ambitious pet projects meant to benefit humanity long after their death.

It is painful to observe that, of all the rich black people, none has adopted the University of Fort Hare as their legacy project. This university planted the seeds of black freedom in SA.

Go to any previously white university in our country, and you will see the practical evidence of private wealth immortalising the life of some rich white man. Which books have they sponsored?

The greatest challenge to black people is to make the rich among them shed their beastliness by becoming conscious of how close sensuousness brings them to the world of animals, and how they can make history by embarking on the serious life of the mind.

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