Theological Meditations, Uncategorized

RIP Mary Midgley: A Tribute from a Christian

It has recently come to my attention that earlier this month, the British philosopher Mary Midgley died. Mary Midlgey was born in September of 1919, the daughter of a local chaplain named Tom Scurtton. Both sides of her family were well-educated: her father was a member of the clergy who worked as a chaplain both in the military and in academia; her mother’s father was an engineer. She first discovered her love of philosophy while studying at boarding school as a young child. She later went on to study philosophy at Somerville College; yet, she did not pursue a career immediately upon graduation, for it was during her time in college that she met her husband, and the two married in 1950, when she was 31 years of age. She first began to teach and lecture in the early 1960’s, when she received a teaching position at Newcastle University in northeastern England in 1962. She spent the rest of her career teaching there until the philosophy department closed. [1]

One of her first major works was written in the 1970’s. In 1973, she published an article titled “The Concept of Beastliness” in an the academic journal Philosophy. The article eventually caught the attention of Max Black, a professor of philosophy at Cornell University. In 1976, Black invited Midgley to deliver a lecture at Cornell based on her article, and was encouraged to expand upon her lecture and turn it into a book. This resulted in the publishing of her work Beast and Man in 1978. In the ensuing years, she published many other books, particularly in the fields of ethics and anthropology, including Heart and Mind (1981), Animals and Why They Matter (1983), Wickedness (1984), and The Ethical Primate (1994). [2]


She later gained a reputation for being one of the big-name philosophers in the English-speaking world. A writer for the British newspaper The Guardian once described her as “the most frightening philosopher in the country; the one before whom it is least pleasant to appear the fool.” [1] In the field of anthropology, Midgley was a strong opponent both of scientism and its opposite. While Midgley became an atheist at a young age, she rejected the belief, common among many contemporary atheists, that all phenomena can be explained in terms of and are determined by science (a.k.a. scientism – think of Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris). Her criticisms of scientism were so strong that she was once called “the foremost scourge of scientific pretension in this country.” [3] Yet, she also rejected a view of the human person that was completely divorced from science, more particularly the view that man could completely overcome or act independently of his natural or animalistic tendencies.


You can see this in her work Beast and Man, her early classic. She was writing partly in response to Dr. E.O. Wilson’s work Sociobiology: A New Synthesis. Sociobiology refers to the application of genetics and evolutionary theory to social behavior – that is, the study of how natural selection influences behavior, particularly in terms of how our behavior is manifest in our interaction with others. Midgley’s main thesis was that insofar as humans have a physical body, one regulated by genetic information formed by evolution – many aspects of which humans share with non-human creatures – certain elements of sociobiology do have implications for human life; yet, sociobiology was not an all-encompassing theory of human nature. [3] Jane Heal, writing for The Guardian, described Midgley’s theory as such:


It is clear that human achievements have their roots in abilities and patterns of response which we share with other animals. So we are not (as some existentialists imagined) totally free to create ourselves. But, Midgley insisted, we should not extrapolate from this insight to some depressing biological determinism. More careful reflection shows that our biological endowment includes a capacity to develop a shared culture, and our culture in turn sustains individual creativity. [2]


Midgley, in essence, attempted to analyze how human nature is continuous with that of the lower animals, yet how human nature is simultaneously distinct or unique from the natures of lesser animals.


I read Beast and Man several years ago, towards the end of my second semester of freshman year in college. One chapter of Midgley’s book I think it is good to reflect upon is the eleventh chapter. Titled “On Being Animal As Well As Rational,” she begins the chapter by saying something which, in many ways, touches at the heart of her philosophy: “I have suggested that, instead of a single distinguishing mark for man, we look rather for a knot of general structural properties…” [4] There is no one, singular characteristic that defines human nature; human nature is defined by the sum total of all characteristics present within us, the extent that they are manifested within us, how they are manifested within us, and how they interact with one another. Midgley thus goes through several characteristics that are seen as the end-all-and-be-all, that is, THE characteristic whereby man is defined as man, and shows how they cannot serve such a role. In the chapter prior to the one in question, she did the same thing with one characteristic seen to define man’s nature – language – and now does so with another such characteristic, namely reason.


The purpose of this chapter, she writes, is “one of asking how this unique thing, rationality, is possible for a being that is not just a disembodied intellect, but also among other things some kind of animal, how it fits into such a life.” [4] The mystery of consciousness – that is, how consciousness emerges from matter, and how consciousness and matter interact – within an evolutionary context (or any context for that matter) seems to make the most sense, or at least has the easiest solution, within the realm of religious belief. The notion of a Divine actor Who intervenes in the process of evolution, and at some point infuses the human person with a soul attempts to provide a solution to mind-body problem. As many problems as this solution raises – especially when it veers into the realm of Cartesian dualism – at least it recognizes the problem and attempts to resolve it. It situates man in a certain way within the context of the larger world, and attempts to show where there is continuity and discontinuity between man and the rest of creation. Midgley goes on to say, “[T]he chief difficulty about accepting continuity between man and other species, or between the human intellect and the rest of man, now comes not from traditional religion, but from those who do amputate the soul.” [5] The difficulties we now face with regard to the mind-body problem stem from cutting out the concept of a non-physical mind or soul, or from collapsing the mind into the body. There is a lot that cannot be explained purely in those terms.


In modernity, one way of perceiving rationality is in terms of cleverness or intelligence. Such a conception of rationality ironically leads to a lot of the same issues that pop up around religious fundamentalists who reject evolution: man is the smartest or most intelligent creature around, and thus is above (and even has the right to dominance over) other creatures. This leads to the upholding of man as the epitome of all living creatures among humanists and supporters of scientism, which can take on a quasi-religious element. [6]


We need to move beyond such a view of rationality, and adopt a view described by Midgley: “[R]ationality  is not just cleverness. … [R]ationality always means more. It includes a definite structure of preferences, a priority system based on feeling.” [7] Rationality is thus something structural within man; it is the ability to organize or prioritize goods in accordance with whatever our deepest desires are. In this view, rationality is thus not in conflict with feelings or emotions. Feelings or emotions are not something chaotic to be conquered by reason. Such an understanding of reason – that is, that feelings or emotions are brute, sub-rational desires to be controlled or conquered by rationality – was first articulated by Plato, and continued on through the Stoics, and later spilled over into the modern era due to thinkers like Descartes, Spinoza, and Kant. But this is not the case [8]


What does Midgley mean by this? In order to understand this, we have to delve deeper into her view of rationality as such. Most advanced creatures have overarching systems by which they organize their desires. The fact that most creatures have this is the evolutionary framework which rationality emerges. This is what man has in common with lesser creatures. What is unique to man is the self-reflexive element of rationality, that is, the awareness of – and thus the ability to articulate – these principles. This thus includes the ability to change our larger value structure. [9]


The self-reflexive nature of rationality entails, for Midgley, integration. Integration is, for Midgley, “having a character, acting as a whole, having a firm or effective priority system.” It is this which lays the basis for intelligence and cleverness, and in fact is a necessary prior condition of it. For Midgley, this means developing the fullness of the human person. Human personality is warped when one particular good or set of goods dominates our focus. You see this with obsessions. Here she uses the term “obsession” both in the broad sense (modern society, which is suffering from an obesity epidemic and where everything is hyper-sexualized, has an obsession with sex and food), and in the clinical sense (i.e., frequently occurring intrusive thoughts). Our thoughts, actions and intentions become focused in on one particular thing. That one thing becomes our center. What we need is a center wherein we can create a balance between goods, and be able to order all lesser or proximate goods towards higher or ultimate goods. [10] Rationality thus does not conflict with emotions, but rather organizes and arranges them in a constructive and healthy manner.


Midgley summarizes the overarching point by making reference to a sermon by the 18th century British theologian and bishop Joseph Butler titled “On Human Nature.” He states that for a lesser creature to pursue the gratification of an immediate desire, even at the expense of their own health and safety in the long-term, is something we would expect from them, for their ability to order goods does not extend far beyond the ability to ensure their survival in the immediate present. Yet, if a human were to do so, this would be considered inappropriate. Why? Because, this sort of activity is natural to or to be expected from lesser creatures; yet, such forms of activity are not natural to man. Midgley expands upon this by saying that it is the nature of man to live in accordance with certain universal, overarching principles. Even the choice to not live by such an overarching principle or set of principles is itself an overarching set of principles. This ability to reflect upon our actions and motives, and to regulate them as we direct them towards various ends is, in Butler’s view, what is referred to as conscience. Conscience includes our ability to think beyond the immediate here and now, and direct the things of the here and now to something greater. What Butler refers to as the conscience could also be referred to as reason. Reason/conscience is not a dictator promulgating or forcing us to follow some arbitrary set of rules. It is a reflection upon our own nature, and the understanding of how our nature is or should be constituted. This is a law unto itself, which man is obliged to follow, and it serves as the principle by which we regulate our actions. Aristotle speaks similarly, saying that the core of man’s personality, from which reason originates, is something distinct from man’s impulses, is the core of man’s identity, and this is capable of controlling man’s impulses. [11]


What is a Catholic to make of such a view? How does such a view fit into the larger Catholic worldview, particularly from the perspective of anthropology and epistemology?


In a previous article, I pointed out how modern views of depression are overly-simplistic at best, and misleading at worst. New evidence suggests that our ability to cope with our problems and rebuild in the aftermath of tragedy plays a major role in whether or not we avoid or overcome depression. In general, such things as our levels of emotional stability, stress levels and social interaction (or lack thereof) influence our bodily health and cognition. Thus, just as our emotional and psychological states are influenced by our biology, so too is our biology influenced by our psychological and emotional state. In my analysis of this, I asserted that one better way to deal with depression was to come up with better, truer, fuller views of the human person, particularly one rooted in the hylomorphism of Aquinas and Aristotle. This view saw a close connection between the body on the one hand and the soul/mind on the other.


Midgley was not a pure Aristotelian; further, she was not born and raised as a Catholic, and by the end of her life had rejected Christianity in all of its forms. She thus did not see herself as beholden to a hylomorphic view of man; yet, it seems that her thought approximates to it. Her anthropology in general, while not rooted in an (at least not explicitly) Christian worldview, rejected the purely mechanistic and physicalist view of late modernity, particularly of contemporary atheism. She attempted to show how if there is anything we could call “human nature,” it must have, by necessity, some overlap or continuity with that of non-human creatures; yet, at the same time, humans are unique. We have a common animal nature that shows through in all that humans say and do; yet, this does not undermine the fact that what it means to be human is different and even unique when compared to what is encompassed by the nature and identity of apes, fish, birds, or other creatures.


Catholics – at least those who continue to adhere to Aquinas’ theory of hylomorphism – can join with Midgley in denying that human behavior or human nature is merely product of blind, evolutionarily-contingent processes without in any way denying that such processes played a role. Now, the Catholic view on the human person does see rationality as one of the key or central elements of human nature. Rationality is one of the things that results from humans being created in the image and likeness of God. Even with regard to those truths which transcend the capacity of the human mind or our reasoning faculty to comprehend, our ability to assent to such truths is the result of grace assisting the human mind in its limited capacity to search for truth on that level. When beholding God in the beatific vision, we will not be able to comprehend the fullness of God, but what limited aspects of God’s being we can comprehend we will perceive due to reason perfected by grace. So, the Catholic view also places an emphasis on reason guided and perfected by grace, which goes beyond what is seen in secular philosophy, including in the thought of Midgley; further, unlike Midgley, because of what was just said above, reason is not just one in a complex structure of interrelated qualities. It is among THE defining or central qualities of man.


Yet, it is this point of difference that also explains a point of agreement between Midgley and Catholic theology. In the above-cited article from this blog, I quoted from the American Catholic scholastic Fr. Bernard Wuerl, S.J., who stated that the rational soul is the noblest of all forms since it both encompasses and transcends all lower qualities, both those found among existing things generally, those found among living things generally, and those found among animals generally. Thus, both Midgley and the Catholic Church would recognize that the ability to think and act rationally includes the capacity to think beyond our own immediate wants and desires. Our ability to think and act in a manner beyond our immediate wants and desires does not mean suppressing them, but rather includes regulating and rightly ordering them, that is, ordering them to a worthwhile long-term goal. It is only trough this that the human person can become balanced, and human personality and identity can be fully expressed.




  1. “Mary Midgley,” found on the webpage of the Gifford Lecture Series. Accessed on:
  2. Jane Heal, “Mary Midgley obituary,” published in The Guardian, October 12, 2018. Accessed on:
  3. John Motyka, “Mary Midgley, 99, Moral Philosopher for the General Reader, Is Dead,” published in The New York Times, October 15, 2018. Accessed on:
  4. Mary Midgley, Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature (London: Routledge Classics, 2002), pg. 243
  5. ibid., pg. 244
  6. ibid., pg. 244-245
  7. ibid., pg. 246
  8. ibid., pg. 250
  9. ibid., pg. 249
  10. ibid., pg 252-255
  11. ibid., pg. 255-260

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