Tuesday, October 28, 2008

FLG's Rambling Take On Human Nature And Its Political Consequences

Sir Basil's recent post, much of which hit a bit too close to home for comfort, reminded me of something:
You also have the academic grad student type blogs where they are so fey and pretentious that they actually deserve rude comments. As with all college students, their ideas have never been thought of by anyone before, so they become miffed if one is not suitably impressed by their quite original brilliance and obviously correct opinions. Of course, their plans to change human nature for the better are also original and perfect. “Better” meaning to get rid of all the evil white male oppressors, of course, see what I mean. Best to avoid these sites except that they are useful for brushing up on your swear word vocabulary and locating the latest in “Che” fashion wear. Smart people seem to cuss a lot and look like Che.


I used to think the primary question was whether human nature was good or bad, but as of late I have changed my mind. It just is. What I once thought of as the secondary question, but now believe to be the primary question, is "How malleable is human nature?"

My conclusion is that human nature is pretty darn immalleable. I reached this conclusion after reading enough material from across enough cultures and centuries to realize that irrespective of the particular milieu, most of the important concerns, questions, and issues arise over and over again. Cultures choose different ways of answering and resolving these questions and issues.

Sometimes the solutions are very similar, as is the case with extremely common existence of monogamous, heterosexual marriage. Yes, yes. Exceptions and nuances exist across time and place. Greeks had homosexual lovers. Polygamy appears throughout history. Kings had harems. Yada, yada, yada. Yet, none is as common as heterosexual, monogamous marriage as the basis of society.

Other times, cultures choose to answer eternal questions and issues in vastly different ways. Creation myths, for example, are strikingly different from place to place. (There is a surprising recurrence of great floods in those stories though.) Nevertheless, all cultures have one. The desire to know where we came from is universal. The answers may have been socially constructed, but the question was not. Or even if the question was socially constructed who cares? If it is socially constructed over and over it might as well have a biological basis.

I'm rambling on, but my point is that if you read any literature or view any art from any culture, all of them deal with fundamental human emotions, questions and issues: Love and beauty, good and evil, light and dark, children and education, individual versus society, selfishness versus charity, etc and etc.

No amount of re-education is going to remove selfishness, pettiness, greed, or envy from human nature. But to think that these are the root of all human problems is foolish as well. As they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Father Schall wrote a fantastic piece in The Hoya at the beginning of this year about how idealism is the root of political problems:
The account that Plato gives of the situation of his own formation is memorable. “I thought of entering public life as soon as I became of age.” He had many connections, relatives in high places who gave him preferred positions. At first, he had no scruple about working for them. “I thought they were going to lead the city out of the unjust life she had been living and establish her in the path of justice.” As we read these lines that are familiar to our souls about the supposed ease with which we can change the world, we catch an ominous sense of irony in Plato’s words. Plato kept his eyes open. “As I watched them (the new politicians) they showed in a short time that the preceding constitution had been a precious thing.” The revolution, the election, produced something not better, but worse. Aristotle later warned about the same thing. It often happens. “Why?” we wonder.


Most people, and I believe each generation, think that the world sucks because the people before them were stupid, selfish, or petty. If they could just change a few things, then the world would be perfect. Once they have their chance things will improve. But, alas, many things never change.

I think Plato's explanation of how his just city in the Republic falls is instructive here:
Shall we follow our old plan, which we adopted with a view to clearness, of taking the State first and then proceeding to the individual, and begin with the government of honour? --I know of no name for such a government other than timocracy, or perhaps timarchy. We will compare with this the like character in the individual; and, after that, consider oligarchical man; and then again we will turn our attention to democracy and the democratical man; and lastly, we will go and view the city of tyranny, and once more take a look into the tyrant's soul, and try to arrive at a satisfactory decision. -- The Republic, Book V III


Concern for the Good becomes concern about Honor becomes obsession with Wealth becomes a demand for Freedom becomes a demand for Power. Each of these is more and more focused on the individual. One must be honored by society, so it's primarily outward focused. Wealth is usually important relative to others' wealth, but does not require the approval of others. Democratic man wants to be free from the constraints imposed by others. A tyrant is the most selfish, and in a sense is trapped in a prison of absolute freedom.

In fact, this is a microcosm of most every politician's career, and the plot of every movie about politicians. The idealistic dogooder is motivated to set things right in Washington. Then they become enamored of the attention they are getting. Then they start focusing on getting money to get reelected. Then they get the freedom to get things done. Lastly, they want to protect what they have and destroy all threats to their fiefdom. Ah, but our hero doesn't fall into the trap, and at the last moment uses his wits and rhetorical skills to shame those who have.

This story occurs everywhere and always. Whether it was eunuchs in China, Aztec priests, or American politicians the story is always the same. Human nature cannot be changed.

The truly diabolical things happen when people try to change human nature, and inevitably fail but place blame on those who weren't changed rather than accepting the impossibility of the goal. History is littered with the corpses of people on the wrong side of the illusion that human nature is perfectly malleable.

The beauty and genius of The United States Constitution is that it accepts human nature as a given, even with all its failings. In fact, it uses human nature's worst instincts to keep the other branches honest. The founding fathers knew that petty rivalries and fiefdoms, not an enlightened sense of honor and duty, would be the only timeless method to curb the constant desire for more power.

To recap:
Human nature has good and bad parts. People who think it can be changed are both crazy and missing the point. The founding fathers were geniuses.

4 comments:

Basil Seal said...

My Dear FLG, I wasn't thinking of you when I wrote that...I didn't know about your collection of Che t-shirts until after publication. Sorry.

FLG said...

No reason to apologize. No reason at all. We murdering communist bastards know how to deal with your kind.

The Maximum Leader said...

Solitary. Poor. Nasty. Brutal. Short.

Never were truer words strung together... I tend to fall more into the Hobbesian view of human nature.

I wonder if the idealistic dogooder you describe hasn't already reached the enamored with the attention stage before they begin the quest for high office.

FLG said...

The Hobbesian view of human nature is tempting, but ultimately wrong. It only applies when we are in fear. Since we don't live in constant fear, it isn't valid as a first principle.

But that's just my take.

Good point on the dogooder though.

 
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