The fundamental difference between man and what we call the lower orders of life is not in the physical form but in the psychical function. In human life the mind has reached a level at which it can think. Man not only sees, but reads and interprets things. He looks far beyond the senses. His knowledge is not confined within the domain of sense perception. The human mind has the capacity to probe the deepest secrets of nature and unravel the profound mysteries of life. Not only that, man can also regulate his life by his knowledge. The practical application of man’s knowledge for the advancement of individual and social welfare is a characteristic feature of civilized life.
Much more important than sheer intellect is the moral sense of man. He is not a mere instrument of his instincts, as some psychologists hold. He can discriminate between right and wrong, true and false, noble and ignoble, good and pleasant. The instinctive urges are no doubt strong in man; but guided by reason, he can develop will power to control the natural impulses and pursue his chosen course. He has the choice of decision as well as the choice of action. He can dominate and direct the lower self by the higher self. This self-mastery constitutes the real nature of man. Man’s advancement is proportionate to the development of this virtue.
Self-assertion and self-aggrandizement are the instinctive urges of animal life. Self-denial and self-sacrifice are the human attributes developed by moral culture. This distinguishes humanity from animality. Indeed, ‘humanity’ is the distinctive mark of the human race as brutality is that of the beasts. In the animal kingdom life grows chiefly through rivalry and hostility in the struggle for existence. Those live who can subdue others. The fittest survive. On the human plane the scene changes. Mankind advances, as we see, through cooperation, self-abnegation, altruism. Man’s worthiness rests on the fulfillment of his duties and obligations. Whenever this truth is forgotten, human society faces dissention and disaster, with attendant misery.
In human life there is an ideal, a regulative principle, a philosophy. Man’s outlook on life determines his way of life. To man the art of life is more important than mere living. A life devoid of meaning and purpose is regarded as of little value. He who has no aim in life is like a breathing machine in human form. Man alone considers it glorious to sacrifice his life for the sake of the ideal. Such martyrdom immortalizes him. There have been martyrs in religion, in philosophy, in science, in nationalism. We revere them as heroes.
In man self-consciousness is much more developed than in other living beings. He is fully aware of himself as an individual distinct from the rest of the world. He can analyze his own being. He can distinguish the self from the not-self. He draws a distinction between the body and the mind, and knows that he has an outer as well as an inner life. He finds that his inner life is greater, deeper, and more glorious than the outer life. The physical body, however dominant and fascinating, forms but the exterior of his personality. The intellectual, moral, aesthetic, and spiritual aspects of life are the expressions of his inner consciousness.
One special privilege of human life is the power of self-expression. It has been rightly observed that nature begets, but man creates. Man not only has the ingenuity to invent but also the creative genius of the artist. He can give aesthetic expression to his ideas, thoughts, feelings, and imagination in varied fine arts, such as architecture, sculpture, painting, literature, music and poetry. These works of art, more marvellous than the achievements of science, are the cherished treasures of man on earth. How poor mankind would have been without them ! The cultural life of man begins with the development of the artistic ability. As long as man is concerned only with the bare necessities of life he cannot develop art. The production of art becomes possible when man emerges from the animal-like struggle for food and learn to idealize life.
from Introduction to the Book THE GOAL AND THE WAY by Swami Satprakashananda, 1974