Are We Human, or Are We Demon? Ancient Perspectives on Modern Ecological Challenges

This post is part of a multi-year project, Being Human in the Age of Humans: Perspectives from Religion and Ethics led by Lisa Sideris (Indiana University), Celia Deane-Drummond (Notre Dame), Sarah Fredericks (University of Chicago), and Kyle Powys Whyte (Michigan State University). To read the introductory post for the blog series, click here.


The Killer’s hit 2008 song “Human” is decidedly odd. The track’s most peculiar feature, of course, lies in its refrain “Are we human, or are we dancer?” From the beginning of its release, the song’s grammatically incorrect metaphysical musings befuddled listeners even while rising up the pop charts. The Killers’ lead singer Brandon Flowers defended the lyric, pointing out that the phrase worked well with the beat, even if it did not resonate with listener’s grammatical expectations. In the decade since its release, Flowers could add another defense of the much-maligned expression: prescience. I speak here not of trends in English syntax, but of questions recently raised in scholarly circles: are we human, or something else


Such inquiries stem from the increasing recognition among scholars that “humans” – often conceived of as organisms distinct from their surrounding environment – are in fact entangled with a host of “nonhuman” entities. This is evident in the human body’s increasing inter-implication with digital technologies, as well as in the growing awareness that human biology is founded upon a symbiotic relationship between a multitude of “human” and “nonhuman” organisms (e.g., bacteria). The importance of such insights has grown as scholars have argued that our inability to recognize (and grapple with) these interconnections is, in part, to blame for the human mistreatment of nonhuman nature, and thus is a culprit of ecological crises such as global warming. 


In response, cultural theorists have called for using the question – are we human? – as a starting point for re-inserting the human into its various ecosystems and, in the process, correcting the human tendency to disregard the nonhuman. In Staying with the Trouble, Donna Haraway, for example, has called for “thinking-with” nonhuman entities such that “the domain of ways of being and knowing dilates, expands, adds both ontological and epistemological possibilities, proposes and enacts what was not there before” (126­–27). Haraway’s recommendation evinces a key insight: the way in which we think about the human “self” is inevitably implicated in human behavior (and vice versa). Research in this area, however, has largely been forward-looking. Thanks in part to Haraway’s groundbreaking theoretical work on the “cyborg,” “posthuman” studies has primarily been interested in the ways humans are (or will be) implicated with nonhuman things now and in the future. 


Saint Clement of AlexandriaSt. Clement of Alexandria

My research, by contrast, looks to the ancient past in an effort to add a historical dimension to this querying of human subjectivity. I suggest that disrupting anthropocentrism requires not only interrogating human futures, but troubling the histories we reconstruct about the human past. Thus, my own work brings the nonhuman to the forefront in excavating historical formations of human culture and experience. My current research looks at the roles of the malevolent and capricious creatures that populated early Christian cosmologies (ca. 50–300 CE), including demons, fallen angels, and nonhuman animals. Interestingly, such entities surface repeatedly when Christians are defining the proper nature or performance of the Christian body. The Christian theologian Tertullian of Carthage, for example, argues in On the Veiling of Virgins that Christian women must wear veils over their hair in order to protect their body from attacks by malevolent angels. The second-century Epistle of Barnabas forbids Christians from oral sex since, the text claims, such “hated” activities are only appropriate to weasels (13.8). As a final example, In The Instructor, Clement of Alexandria warns his readers that anyone who engages in improper dietary practices (e.g., gluttony, excessive meat-eating) will become infested with a dreadful “belly-demon” (2.1.15). As seen in these three examples, nonhuman creatures play an important role in ancient questions about the proper boundaries of human identity – or, as Clement might put, are we human, or are we demon? Additionally, the nonhuman frequently provides underlying rationales for important Christian ritual practices (e.g., dietary regimes, clothing norms). Thus, angels, demons, and animals not only influence how Christians define the proper contours of the human body, but also in how they perform activities appropriate to Christian piety. Early Christian discussions of angels, animals, and demons, then, showcase how human entanglement with the nonhuman, far from being a characteristic unique to this “posthuman” period, has a very long history. 


The provenance of the Killers’ famous chorus, on the other hand, has a more tenuous past. When asked to clarify the origins of the “dancer” phrasing, Flowers explained that it came from a disparaging comment made by the late Hunter S. Thompson, who (supposedly) complained that contemporary society was raising a “generation of dancers.” The attribution to Thompson is perhaps apocryphal (the phrase does not appear in any of Thompson’s published work), but its derisive tone aligns well with what I have detected in early Christian literature – that definitions of proper human-ness so often take shape in and through accompanying definitions of the nonhuman “other” (in this case, whatever might have been meant by “dancers”). I would suggest that by re-populating our histories with such “inhuman” creatures, we can dilate the range of alternative modes of being human, especially vis-à-vis our nonhuman neighbors. Though some contemporary readers might find it unthinkable to imagine a fallen angel or evil spirit populating their local ecosystem, they can nevertheless more carefully consider the impact of the nonhuman, and thus be better able to detect – see, hear, smell, taste, feel (see Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter, ix) – a wider assortment of the nonhuman entities that circulate around and within them. If such “posthuman” subjectivities are possible, then our ancient past might come to play an important role in promoting more constructive relationships between humans and the nonhuman ecosystems with whom we share this cosmos. 

Travis Proctor is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Northland College in Wisconsin.