Define Man in Two Words

That’s the challenge I posed to my Humanities course. I made it clear that I was using the gender-neutral variety of “man” (meaning I wouldn’t accept a “cheating pig”), that I wanted to avoid unrewarding labels like “Homo sapien” and “human being,” and that I preferred an adjective paired to a noun, or a genus and specific difference.

Think, I said over confused glances. What makes man different from every other living and non-living thing?

Their answers were wonderful.

Men are “former cavemen,” “Allah’s children,” “God’s leftovers,” “noble diers,” “apex puppets,” “kissy worms,” “man-made,” “artful intelligences” (wordplay, I think, on artificial intelligence), “stone bacteria,” and of course “cheating pigs.”

A week later we had Open House, and I posed the same question to a room full of parents. According to them, men are “(made in) God’s image,” the “souls’ tabernacles” (those last two were from a married couple, and their child groaned the next day – she knew exactly who’d written them immediately), “Earth’s tyrants,” “universal measurers” (a fan of Protagoras!), “creative survivors,” and my favorite, because it praised our rationality, our compassion, and our autonomy: “thoughtful people.”

After our sharing time, I launched into a spiel (both to Humanities and to Open House) on history’s many two-word definitions. Plato, for example, classified man as a “featherless biped.” Allegedly, in response, the great cynic Diogenes brought Plato a plucked chicken and said, “here’s your featherless biped!” In response, Plato revised the definition to “a featherless biped with a long, flat nail” (IV.40).

I haven’t found a definition by Diogenes, but my guess would be “not birds.”

Aristotle, another pupil of Plato, defined man as a “rational animal.” This completed his taxonomy of two-worded definitions for all living creatures. Plants were “insensible things,” animals were “sensible things,” and humans were both “rational” and “sensible” or “rational animals” (I.13). Aristotle also defined man as the “laughing animal,” and although laughter is not unique to humans (apes and rats also laugh), I appreciate the seriousness to which he gave a sense of humor (III.1).

The division in Western tradition between our sacred and secular nature is clarified rather well by Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather: man is the “falling angel” and the “rising ape.” In-between, said Pratchett, was the realm of fantasy. Likewise, Joseph Campbell and Northrop Frye identified man as “story teller” and “myth maker.” Ernst Cassirer, revising Aristotle, called man the “symbolic animal,” and Kenneth Burke called man the “symbol user” and “symbol abuser.”

What is your two-word definition?


Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Fourth c. AD. Translated by Joe Sachs, Focus Publishing / R. Pullins Co., 2002.

Burke, Kenneth. “Definition of Man.” Language as Symbolic Action. University of California Press, 1968.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 1949. Princeton University Press, second edition, 1972.

Cassirer, Ernst. An Essay on Man. 1944. Yale University Press, reprint edition, 1962.

Frye, Northrop. Man the Myth Maker. Harcourt School, second edition, 1981.

Laertius, Diogenes. Lives of the Eminent Philosophers. Third c. AD. Translated by Robert Drew Hicks, 2nd Volume, Loeb Classical Library, 1925.

Pratchett, Terry. Hogfather. 1996. Harper, reissue edition, 2014.

Aristotle. “On the Parks of Animals.” Fourth c. BC. The Works of Aristotle. Translated by William Ogle, 5th volume, Wellesley College Library, Oxford Clarendon Press, 1912.