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29 answers to the question 'What is a human being?'
We humans are such complicated creatures
"But breath and shadow, nothing more." -Sophocles
"But breath and shadow, nothing more." -Sophocles Thinkstock/iStockphoto
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ho are we? Why do we exist? What is our essential nature? These questions have been pondered by humans for a long time, and we still haven't figured it out. But we have come up with a few theories. We're either pretty smart, pretty ridiculous, pretty inconsequential, or pretty big jerks. Or perhaps some combination of all of those things:

1. "The image of God." (Book of Genesis)

2. "A god in ruins." (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

3. "The measure of all things." (Protagoras)

4. "An intelligence served by organs." (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

5. "A reasoning animal." (Seneca)

6. "But a reed, the most feeble thing in nature, but he is a thinking reed." (Pascal)

7. "A tool-using animal." (Thomas Carlyle)

8. "A tool-making animal." (Benjamin Franklin)

9. "An ingenious assembly of portable plumbing." (Christoper Morley)

10. "Nature's sole mistake." (W.S. Gilbert)

11. "But breath and shadow, nothing more." (Sophocles)

12. "This quintessence of dust." (Shakespeare)

13. "A featherless biped." (Plato)

14. "The naked ape." (Desmond Morris)

15. "An animal that makes dogmas." (G.K. Chesterton)

16. "A political animal." (Aristotle)

17. "Animal so lost in rapturous contemplation of what he thinks he is as to overlook what he indubitably ought to be." (Ambrose Bierce)

18. "The symbol-using (symbol-making, symbol-misusing) animal, inventor of the negative (or moralized by the negative), separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making, goaded by the spirit of hierarchy (or moved by the sense of order), and rotten with perfection." (Kenneth Burke)

19. "The only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are, and what they ought to be." (William Hazlitt)

20. "The only animal that contemplates death, and also the only animal that shows any sign of doubt of its finality." (William Ernest Hocking)

21. "The only animal for whom his own existence is a problem which he has to solve." (Erich Fromm)

22. "The only animal that learns by being hypocritical. He pretends to be polite and then, eventually, he becomes polite." (Jean Kerr)

23. "The only animal whose desires increase as they are fed; the only animal that is never satisfied." (Henry George)

24. "The only animal which devours his own kind, for I can apply no milder term to the governments of Europe, and to the general prey of the rich on the poor." (Thomas Jefferson)

25. "The only animal that laughs and has a state legislature." (Samuel Butler)

26. "The only animal that can remain on friendly terms with the victims he intends to eat until he eats them." (Samuel Butler)

27. "The Animal that Blushes. He is the only one that does it or has occasion to." (Mark Twain)

28. "A noisome bacillus whom Our Heavenly Father created because he was disappointed in the monkey." (Mark Twain)

29. "The poorest, clumsiest excuse of all the creatures that inhabit this earth. He has got to be coddled and housed and swathed and bandaged and upholstered to be able to live at all. He is a rickety sort of a thing, anyway you take him, a regular British Museum of infirmities and inferiorities." (Mark Twain)

Arika Okrent is editor-at-large at TheWeek.com and a frequent contributor to Mental Floss. She is the author of In the Land of Invented Languages, a history of the attempt to build a better language. She holds a doctorate in linguistics and a first-level certification in Klingon.

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