The Round Table

Fred Smith

Fred Smith


March 22, 2023

The Measure of All Things

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To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ralph Waldo Emerson the Philosophy Department of Harvard University commissioned a new campus building for the Departments of Philosophy and Psychology. In December 1905, it was officially opened with the esteemed member of the psychology department, William James, speaking. The professors of philosophy had determined the engraved stone inscription at the top of the building was to be, “Man Is The Measure of All Things” as that would have been appropriate for whom the building was named. While it would be difficult to neatly summarize the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson, those words certainly reflected his own philosophy. In his lecture titled “Self-Reliance” he spoke to the importance of above all else trusting your own beliefs and instincts to break free from societal norms and expectations and live according to your own individual truth.

“Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string...And truly it demands something godlike in him who has cast off the common motives of humanity, and has ventured to trust himself for a taskmaster. High be his heart, faithful his will, clear his sight, that he may in good earnest be doctrine, society, law, to himself, that a simple purpose may be to him as strong as iron necessity is to others!"

To their dismay, the President of Harvard, Charles Eliot, while a great admirer of Emerson, changed the inscription to read instead, “What is man that Thou art mindful of him?” 

It is the right question and the answer is to be found less than a week into the creation of the world. 

The last act of creation is man. Normally, we read that to mean we are the pinnacle of God’s purposes for calling the world into existence. I’ve heard it said that God worked His way up to finally forming man and everything is there for us. The world is a gift to His crowning achievement. I’m not so sure of that. 

Instead, you might read the account to say that man was formed out of the dust to care for the world he inherited. God created a beautiful world but then it was not complete without someone to tend it. For that, the Lord needed a special creature. One a little lower than the angels and suited to serve. In return, he could enjoy the fruits of his productivity but it was not his to own. He was created to tend and take responsibility.

And “responsible for” is what those words “dominion and rule” really mean. They do not imply we have been put here to have our own way or to shove the rest of creation around. They mean we have been formed and placed to fulfill a role in creation. We did not decide what we wanted to do or even where we wanted to be. The garden did not grow around us. We were placed there. God has not given us free rein over the rest of His creation. Instead, we have been created to be God’s employees, his servants, and, essentially, his yard men. We don’t like that, do we? It doesn’t quite fit with the way we have read the creation story. God created the world for us to enjoy.  Yes, and we can enjoy it in the same way my yard man enjoys my yard – but he cannot do whatever he pleases. He is not the leader of the yard. He is the employee of the one who owns the yard. There are benefits to being God’s subjects and servants but we were created last because God wanted caretakers for a finished world – not kings.

All of Scripture follows this pattern. I like the way someone put it. “The way up is down.” We become first by being last. We rule by serving. We were created from the beginning to be servants and responsible for what God created and to be answerable to Him.

But from the beginning Man had other plans and other interpretations of the order of creation. “I was created last not to serve but to be most like God himself. I am special. I am not merely a caretaker or yard man. I want to be a managing partner and not an employee. Greatness and position – not serving – is my destiny.”

President Eliot was right. We would much prefer the choice of the philosophy department for a permanent reminder of our unique position. We would prefer seeing ourselves not as employees but as owners and free to do as we see fit but that is not an option. Just as the owner of the vineyard in the Gospel of Luke returned and rewarded those who had been faithful and productive there will be the reward of even more responsibility for those who have resolved the question we are asked:

“What is man that Thou art mindful of him?”

Art by Richard Sargent

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