It started with an argument on Google Reader. Someone shared a blog post about the President’s hunt for a politically astute position on same-sex marriage. At the end of the post, the author claims that our political leaders “respond to only one thing—power.” This should not, however be misconstrued as a flaw in our governing system, the blogger assures us; this is the central kernel around which American democracy is built. It’s supposed to work this way. I consider this a spurious argument, and said so in a comment posted to my friend’s share. Building a system around an idea does not sanctify that idea. I would argue that if our political system really encourages our leaders to only respond to power, then the entire system has been spoiled by the rottenness at its root. Another reader disagreed. The system might be flawed, he said, but it works because those very flaws are part of human nature. We argued back and forth about this awhile, neither of us getting anywhere. But it planted a seed in my mind.
What do we mean by “human nature”? And how does it relate to that other force which drives us, namely, what we call civilization? Few will say so explicitly these days, but conventional wisdom seems to hold that civilization’s main purpose is to hold human nature in check: unrestrained, our natural tendencies would destroy us completely. In this view, human nature encompasses our darkest impulses: dishonesty, greed, violence. Under our cultured exteriors, we are the Beast incarnate, kept at bay through the heroic efforts of modern society.
Could we commission a less flattering portrait? I found myself wondering who might have wielded those brushes, stretched the canvas, mixed the paints that make up this picture of human nature we seem to have internalized. I can’t claim to have found the answers; I can only suggest some possibilities. Still, I think I make a fairly strong case…
Let me begin by confessing my own prejudices on the subject. Politically, I consider myself an anarcho-communist (Peter Kropotkin rocks), and like most a-cs, I don’t really accept the idea of an innate human nature. I believe each of us is born equally capable of good and evil acts, but that the particulars—whether we are kind or snobbish or giving or greedy or honest or deceitful—are largely culturally determined, both by society at large and by the family into which we’re born. Yet I think most people today do believe in an innate human nature, and their conception of it likely fits the description I’ve outlined above. But whence came the idea?
The West’s strong Judeo-Christian tradition no doubt played a role. When Adam and Eve fell, the closeness they had known with God was torn away. They became creatures of the flesh. Later, God gave Moses the laws so that His chosen people could lift themselves above their earthly natures. Christianity holds that the teachings of Jesus and his crucifixion served the same function: to bring us once more toward God. Grace would be restored if we forsook our earthly desires.
This idea became deeply embedded in Western thought over the next several centuries. It formed the basis of all Christian denominations (including the Quakers; George Fox, confronted by ministers who would not cede to him on theological points, declared his opponents were following their own natures, not that of God). These same attitudes persisted even as Western society edged toward a more secular worldview.
With the coming of industrialization, the dark view of human nature took on a more terrible significance. It proved advantageous to the capitalist to promote an image of human nature which legitimized the competitive, profit-driven mentality of the marketplace. Capitalism itself sprouted from seeds planted by the Puritans, who taught that one’s outward successes indicated inner purity. To be rich and propertied was to enjoy God’s favor in this world and the next; less fortunate persons were likely damned. No wonder Western society came to be defined by an almost mad drive toward social and economic success. Further, attributes which encouraged the capitalist mindset were lauded as natural.
Thus armed, industrialized man pursued colonialism with a renewed sense of purpose, confident that their own culture was natural and sanctified. Cultures that lacked the cutthroat instincts of modern civilization were branded primitive and either exploited or quickly converted into proper human beings. Individualism and the capitalist mindset spread, and as it became ubiquitous, it became difficult to argue that it was not natural—it was, after all, everywhere.
It was against this backdrop that Charles Darwin published his Origin of the Species. A man of his time, Darwin cast the evolutionary process in competitive terms: species adapted to conditions in ways that allowed them to better compete for resources, and those who could not compete died. Darwin presented a grim, dog-eat-dog world, and the capitalists lost on time in appropriating his concepts, combining them with the familiar Puritan idea into what became known as “social darwinism.” They touted individualism as the natural order of things. Those who could not compete should perish, in business as in the jungle. Meanwhile, racial and cultural chauvinists now had scientific ammunition for their own arguments of superiority. European civilization had evolved to a higher plane than their primitive contemporaries; doubtless they were also more biologically evolved.
Thus by the 20th century, Western society had painted its portrait of human nature. Greedy, self-centered, ready to lash out violently at a moment’s notice—this concept simultaneously elevated modern civilization (which kept these instincts in check) and excused the worse crimes of man against himself (except in times of war, killing was frowned upon, therefore, destroy him in the market). With few alterations, this picture appears unchanged as we pass into the 21st century.
But is it accurate? Are we really to believe that the human capacity for hatred, our tendency to kill each other for resources (food, raw materials, religious truth) or to play endless games of screw-thy-neighbor are innate within us, while every act of love, every moment when two human beings face one another and recognize each other’s humanity, is an artificial product of society? I call bullshit. I give no credence to Rousseau’s Noble Savage, but I also cannot believe that we are all really Edward Hyde, capering madly beneath a scrim of comforting fictions and manufactured custom. We are indeed imperfect beings. But let us not chain ourselves to our imperfections. Let us instead work with and around them, nurturing our light as we nurture those shadows. Let us go forth in the world with the belief that we can be more than the worst that is in us. And let us, as William Penn once counseled, see what love will do.
Next week: In Defense of Stephen King: A Flickering Light In the Darkness