What does it mean to be human?
The ancient, “in the image of God” sums it up quite nicely for me. I’d put it two ways: it is our ability to reach eternal, invisible truths, such as maths, the laws of physics, beauty, morality, love, humanity, etc. and also our ability to explore and express these in entirely new ways, through our own creativity and shared life. We bring eternity into time. I believe this is what St. Thomas Aquinas was getting at (more or less) when he claimed we each have a “rational soul”.
While animal life, even as far as they are capable of reasoning, is determined by the nature of each species, life for humans has no boundaries imposed upon it, but is capable of reaching/creating entirely new horizons. Humanity is essentially transcendent, innately seeking to go deeper, and express more fully, breaking apart old ways to create new possibilities.
But we see how terribly humans can abuse this power, these new possibilities. We see our great inhumanity. The same scientific breakthrough that allows billions of people to live today, was utilised by the Nazis in their horrific gas chambers. I would argue that our greatest atrocities follow when we sever these two ways; separating eternal truth from our self-creation, and so making our self-creation a mere perversion. Here is, I believe, the original sin, the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil.
Our personhood, I believe, refers to our freedom in our relationship, both with these higher truths and with each other. We deny others their personhood (and our own too) when we refuse to relate to them in freedom, whether because we don’t understand, or we are afraid, or we wish for power.
What about those who are unintelligent, or incapable of self-expression? The definition I gave is, I believe, entirely qualitative, and so we do not become “more human” as we become more intelligent or more expressive. Intelligent people often scoff at meaningful questions, while the supposedly stupid often have profound insights (though they also often lack the confidence to recognise them as such). Regardless of intelligence or ability, we have an innate openness to eternal truths, to the divine, and for these to come to the world through us (even those without working brain cells). Indeed, at her very conception, the Blessed Virgin Mary was intimately united as spouse to the Holy Spirit of God.
[This originated as a comment on the video.]
God bless you