Human Nature: Rational and Mortal (in Thomas Paine and Boethius)

Cruikshank's print showing Paine's works leading to absolute anarchy, race-mixing, etc.
George Cruikshank, The Age of Reason; or the World turned Topsyturvy exemplified in Tom Paine’s Works!!. Published Thomas Tegg, 16 October 1819. See first fn for source.

This is my talk for the International Congress on the Study of the Middle Ages, Leeds, 2022, session on “Borders of Human Nature, Boundaries of the Imagination.”


Hello from Brooklyn. Today’s paper contributes to what might be my third book, tentatively titled The Irrational Animal. You certainly know the foundational definition of what it means to be human, from the Isagoge of Porphyry the Phoenician: “man is the rational mortal animal”:[1] animal, because we are ensouled things, mortal because we are not gods, and rational because we are….well, the uncertainties of this last term will be the subject of my book, knock on wood.

Per most medieval thinkers, the rational soul is the one kind of earthly soul that can exist without the support of any corporeal organ. It can therefore outlast our bodies, so enabling the system of postmortem punishments and rewards fundamental to the Christian economy of salvation. Without postmortem human existence, there’s no sense to the divine self-sacrifice.

But what reason looks like in practice, and what it requires of us, is a little less certain.[2] Recent scholarship by Anselm Oelze, Juhana Toivanen, and Ian P. Wei nicely illustrates how scholastic theologians labored to produce and preserve the difference between us and the mass of what they called irrational animals.[3] When such animals seem to make plans, think syllogistically, or develop abstract concepts, they apparently erase the only significant boundary between humans and nonhumans. Theologians universally insisted that such behavior was only quasi-rational: if a dog is beaten by a stick, and comes to fear all sticks, it has not, in fact, developed a universal concept of “stickiness.” Its cognition is still bound to physical conditioning, and its self, inescapably, to the mortal body.[4]

Keeping animals from reason was one thing. But what reason looks like in a positive sense is another. It allows us to dominate or control things: the irrational animals, chiefly, but also the animal in ourselves — the body and its desires — so that the ideal image of a truly human life is one of what we might call internalized domestication.[5] It allows us to respond and not merely react to the world. It allows us to leave this world behind altogether, since medieval thinkers, like their classical antecedents, tended to divide mere handicraft and worldly knowledge — scientia — from incorporeal and therefore truly rational activity, sapientia.[6] And depending on who or what you’re reading, reason is the opposite of bestiality, passion, revelation, faith, received authority, rusticity, or anything that falls short of universal truth.[7]

Above all, reason allows us to seek out that truth. The rest of my talk explores the relationship between reason and truth, because it seems to me to divide reason from its presumptively human character. To give a little shake to the foundations of our supposed rational age, the first of my two test cases will be a modern one. It’s Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason, begun in 1793 while he awaited arrest by French revolutionaries, and which would prove to a scandalous success, owing to its demonic tone and its affordability.[8] His target is Christianity, which he gets at through the Bible, which, he argues, is irreparably marred by contradiction, moral incoherence, parochialism, and obviously false authorial ascriptions.[9] That said, Paine still preserves religion: a Deist, his arguments for God rest on the twin assertions that God is the first cause, and that, for any reasonable investigator, the immutable order of God’s creation proclaims his wisdom, munificence, and mercy. Here’s Paine himself:

by displaying the principles of science in the structure of the universe, [God] has invited man to study and to imitation. It is as if He had said to the inhabitants of this globe, that we call ours, “I have made an earth for man to dwell upon, and I have rendered the starry heavens visible, to teach him science and the arts. He can now provide for his own comfort, AND LEARN FROM MY MUNIFICENCE TO ALL, TO BE KIND TO EACH OTHER.”[10]

Laudable, but not without logical faults: the presumption that there’s a single, identifiable cause to things, that this cause has a personality, that it can be identified with an eternal, still-living God, that this God is benignant rather than indifferent or something worse, and no doubt so on.

Putting that aside, I’m struck that the Age of Reason spends so little time puzzling out what counts as “reason,” except insofar as Paine divides the age of reason from the one before, the one we study, impeded by unexamined scriptural authority and priestcraft. What he means by “reason” is apparent, however, both in Paine’s method, which, by destroying logical inconsistencies, identifies rational truth with unity, and which implicitly asserts that any truly rational thinking will be met by the unchanging order of the world of things. Reason, rightly exercised, mirrors the universe.

For Paine, rational activity is most evident in the investigation and application of mechanical principles, like using a lever, or constructing a mill. Unchanging mechanical principles are not our invention, but God’s. Reason’s best use is to find out these principles and, through them, to contemplate the imitable creator.[11] In other words, neither our creativity nor our untethered thinking guarantees reason, but rather our discovery of preexisting laws. The fundamental rational action is “true theology,”[12] and true theology, as he writes, “consists in contemplating the power, wisdom, and benignity of the Deity in his works, and in endeavoring to imitate him in everything moral, scientifical, and mechanical.”[13] To my mind, there’s nothing particularly human about this rational activity. Although Paine allows for the existence of extraterrestrial life, on this earth, humans are the only thinking beings. But our thought here is truly thinking only when it follows the preexisting patterns of eternal order, indifferent to any particularly human existence. The rational animal is rational when it’s most in tune with the innate mechanicity of things.[14]

So. My second test case is Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, and I’ll come to a similar conclusion. As Boethius’s Lady Philosophy argues, reason enables our free choice, which enables us to distinguish ourselves from temporary, valueness things. As he makes this argument, Boethius uses some form of the word ratio — reason — more than 100 times.[15] Many concern the particularly human cognitive faculty necessary to there being any consolation whatsoever, but many have little to do with any specifically human consciousness at all.

The meaning of ratio that’s the most closely connected to the cognitive faculty is ratio used to mean “arguments,” as when Lady Philosophy states “But now … the warming applications of my reasons,” rationem, “are penetrating more deeply below your skin,”[16] or when she curtails an argument with “so as to prevent the ratio” — which we might translate here as “argumentation” — “from advancing into infinity.”[17] Reasons here are what reason creates: it’s perhaps slightly confusing that ratio can mean both a particular kind of cognition and the product of that cognition, but such a use at least still suggest the direct involvement of a reasoning subject.

      Ratio appears less directly involved with us when we recall, with Paine, that reasons aren’t just something people make by reasoning; they are also something that people collect or assemble through reasoning. The distinction between reasoning and reasons, between what we do and a less subjective use meaning what we turn up by reasoning, is sometimes hard to discern. When Lady Philosophy states that “Ratio in fact establishes that God’s goodness is such as to demonstrate … that perfect good resides within him,”[18] just what does ratio mean here? Does ratio refer to a thinking subject reasoning their way into truths? Perhaps, but reason might refer just as well to a series of explanations that reasoning has uncovered, whose truth exists independently of the thinking subject.

One class of such objective facts are material causes, which we might take as a kind of physical “argument.” These too are “reasons.” We encounter the word, for example, in a phrase like “aegritudinis tuae rationem,” “the cause [or the reason] of your sickness.”[19] Despite the familiarity of these usages — we all know what it means to “give reasons” for something — the point is worth belaboring to help us apprehend the strangeness of one word marking our particularly human mode of cognition, which anchors our capacity for free choice, and thus the possibility of doing good in any meaningful way at all, and the same word also marking a chain of material causes quite independent of any immediate conscious guidance.

In such uses of the word ratio we stray further and further not only from thinking, but also from anything that seems connected to a thinking subject exercising free choice. When Lady Philosophy reminds Boethius that he believes “that the universe is guided by regimen … rationis [reason’s guidance], and is not subject to random chance,”[20] reason’s guidance or “government” here suggests not choice but rather an impersonal clockwork inexorability.

We can return to thinking itself, now, and discover that even this, in the Consolation, has an inexorable quality, suggesting not a free subject thinking its way towards the truth but someone being forced to it as a captive. Lady Philosophy’s reasoning overwhelms and constrains us. Boethius praises Lady Philosophy for “tuis rationibus inuicta,” “your unconquerable reasons.”[21] He acquiesces to Lady Philosophy at one point like this: “for your entire discourse holds fast, linked together [nexa] with the strongest of reasons [rationibus]”:[22] nexa might be translated as bound or tied, while perhaps even recalling to Boethius’s readers the related word nexum, an obligation between creditor and debtor. Elsewhere he ominously describes Lady Philosophy’s reasoning as “weaving a labyrinth of reasons [rationibus] from which I cannot find my way out.”[23] At this point, thinking isn’t that different from being shut up in something.

Thinking strikes Boethius as an irresistible force of rectitude, as absolute as a material fact. Reasons are things to be discovered as well as thought; they function both as deliberate choices and impersonal causes; arguments are not so much considered as imposed on the thinker. Though “no rational nature,” argues Lady Philosophy, “could exist if it did not possess freedom of will,”[24] once we gather the various Boethian uses of the word reason, it’s hard to keep a path open between reason and the promise of either free thinking or free choice.[25]

The only truly rational choice in the Consolation is to devote ourselves to eternal things, to seek to reach outside ourselves. Anything that falls short of that is less a choice than an abandonment to the irrationality of ungoverned existence. For a vicious, irrational, unphilosophical human, he tells us, is no more human than a corpse is.[26] We’re human, then, only in that pause between seeking the divine and falling into bestiality, and the only truly free choice is free not because of the number of options on hand but because of what it frees us from, and what it connects us to. As in Thomas Paine, the highest form of reason, that only form worthy of the dignity of the name, ultimately has little to do with any specifically human activity as it’s usually recognized, because reasoning means modeling ourselves on eternal truths.

Today’s paper originated years ago with my distaste for the phrase “why can’t you just be reasonable,” which, in typical usage, is not a demand that someone start thinking. It’s not a call to freedom. It’s a demand that someone accommodate themselves, that they just get along with things as they are. Thomas Paine wants us to be reasonable, and so does Boethius, and though each believes himself to be defending human dignity, I’m a little suspicious of whole lot.

Thank you.

[1] See Porphyry, Isagoge, trans. Edward W. Warren (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1975), 46. For the Cruikshank above, see Ian Haywood, “The Spectropolitics of Romantic Infidelism: Cruikshank, Paine, and The Age of Reason.” Romanticism and Victorianism on the net 54 (2009),

[2] Some medievalist treatments of “reason,” incidentally, have tended to be not so much studies of as advocates for “reason.” See, for example, Alexander Murray, Reason and Society in the Middle Ages (Oxford UP, 1978; rev ed 1985), who distinguishes between three uses of the term: “reasonableness,” “taking a stand on common sense and a wish for smooth social relations” (7), which it contrasts to the excesses of, for example, “ascetic monasticism” (7); “reason” as “gather[ing] information and mak[ing] deductions from it” (8), a practice that the medieval Church ranked secondary to faith; and finally “rationalism,” called by “church authorities” Averroism, clearly Murray’s favored practice. As gracefully learned as it is, the rest of the book tends not to worry much about defining the term. It finds the best evidence of increasing rationality in improved mathematical reasoning in the later middle ages (indeed mercantile accounts books in late medieval Venice were called Libro della Ragione) and the increasing reliance of aristocratic courts on trained lawyers. A later description of “characteristically rational” (260) activity – “holding aloof from popular superstition; making up one’s own mind; then telling everyone about it” – of course describes antivax conspiracy theory as well as it does reason. Edward Grant, God and Reason in the Middle Ages (Cambridge UP, 2001) is somewhat fuzzier than Murray: its defense of Scholasticism’s rigorous Aristotelian logic offers up such characteristic observances: “without the rigorous use of reason to interpret the natural phenomenona of our physical world, Western society could not have developed science to its present level” (7).

[3] Anselm Oelze, Animal rationality: Later medieval theories 1250-1350. Brill, 2018 and Animal Minds in Medieval Latin Philosophy (Springer, 2021); Juhana Toivanen, 2018. ‘Marking the Boundaries: Animals in Medieval Latin Philosophy’, in Animals: A History, ed. by Peter Adamson and G. Fay Edwards, New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 121–50; Ian P. Wei, Thinking about animals in thirteenth-century Paris: theologians on the boundary between humans and animals. Cambridge University Press, 2020.

[4] For example, see Aquinas’s refining of Avicenna; Oelze, Animal Rationality, 61-64.

[5] Or internalized mastery – see Philo of Alexandria “Only the Good Man is Free” for an example of metaphors of slavery to notions of reason and free will.

[6] For an excellent discussion, see Philip Sidney Horky, “The Spectrum of Animal Rationality in Plutarch,” apeiron 50.1 (2017): 103-333. See Augustine’s De Trinitate 12.14-15 for a classic division of scientia (concerned with temporal things) from saptientia (concerned with eternal things). For a more elaborate division, see the schema of the Questions on Metaphysics by the 14th-century Parisian philosopher John of Jandun, quoted in Murray 269.

[7] For some of this, see Murray, Reason and Society, 237-44

[8] I reproduce a note from Seth Perry, “Paine Detected in Mississippi: Slavery, Print Culture, and the Threat of Deism in the Early Republic.” The William and Mary quarterly 78, no. 2 (2021): 313–338: “On responses to The Age of Reason, see Michael Lasser, “In Response to The Age of Reason, 1794–1799,” Bulletin of Bibliography 25, no. 2 (January–April 1967): 41–43; Gayle T. Pendleton, “Thirty Additional Titles Relating to The Age of Reason,” British Studies Monitor 10 (1980): 36–45; Patrick Wallace Hughes, “Antidotes to Deism: A Reception History of Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason, 1794–1809” (Ph.D. diss., University of Pittsburgh, 2013)”

[9] Among those who did this work before him was Émilie du Châtelet (d. 1749), whose Examen de la Genèse is shockingly unavailable online, nor readily available in anything but microfilm in libraries. On parochialism – namely, Paine’s argument that Jesus’s incarnation couldn’t have been divinely meant for all, as there is no universal language, and the printing press was not yet in use – I wonder whether he had read the Baron Lahontan’s 1703 Dialogues with Adario, where Adario (that is, the Huron leader Kondiaronk) makes many similar arguments. That is, does deistic ecumenicalism have any roots in the European conversations with, say, North Americans? Further reading: Martin Clifford’s 1674 A Treatise on Humane Reason, also a succès de scandale.

[10] Book I.11

[11] There’s more than a little resemblance here to ibn Tufayl’s Hayy ibn Yaqzan, although Hayy ultimately goes beyond reason in his quest for God. The work would be translated into Latin in the late seventeenth century, would famously influence Defoe, as well as French speculative philosophers on the origins of human culture (Condillac, Mandeville), but whether it would have reached Paine, even indirectly, is an open and perhaps unexplored question.

[12] Book I.11

[13] Book I.13

[14] For a sophisticated, rather than reactionary, response, see William Blake on the impossibility of a purely “natural” or rational religion, for without imagination, “the Poetic or Prophetic character’ everything would ‘stand still’, becoming a repetitive ‘mill’ of Memory—‘a mill with complicated wheels’”: Paul Miner, “Blake, Paine, and Moses,” Notes and Queries 59.3 (2012): 355–361

[15] For the sake of convenience, citations from the Latin are generally from the 1882 Piper edition, because that version, used by the Oslo Website, is what I used to conduct my search at the University of Oslo’s Bibliotheca Polyglotta website for the word “reason”: here. Per Walsh (Oxford World Classics trans), the most authoritative edition of The Consolation of Philosophy is Ludwig Bieler, Corpus Christianorum Series Latina 94, 1957, rev. 1984. Since Walsh’s translation, another still more authoritative edition has appeared — per Philip Edward Philips, “Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius: A Chronology and Selected Annotated Bibliography,” in A Companion to Boethius in the Middle Ages, ed. Noel Harold Kaylor, jr. and Philip Edward Phillips (Brill, 2012), 554 — Claudio Moreschini’s, for Teubner, 2005. In most cases, I have compared the Piper to Moreschini, and will cite from the Moreschini whenever this argument is published.

[16] (28, 2p5)

[17] (58, 3p10).

[18] (58, 3p10),

[19] (17, 1p6).

[20] (17, 1p6)

[21] (4p1) Walsh’s translation, “beyond dispute by reason of your arguments” (71), obscures Boethius’s military metaphor.

[22] (3p11, 61)

[23] (68, 3p12). As at 35, 2p7, “So are you aware of how confined [conclusi] and circumscribed is the fame which you struggle to extend and spread abroad?

[24] (99, 5p2)

[25] I want to mark a recent important reading of Boethius, Seeta Chaganti’s “Boethian Abolition,” PMLA 137.1 (2022): 144-54: Chaganti likewise constructs a Boethius that undoes “the limits of liberalism and liberal humanism” (146), but to quite different ends than mine.

[26] (76, 4p2). For a clear discussion, see Robert J. Porwoll, “This Indeed may seem Strange to Some: Boethius on the Non-Being and Inhumanity of ‘Evil Men,'” Carmina Philosophiae 17 (2008): 57-79