COLUMN: Human Nature: a meditation on politics and history

Charles Jeanes
By Charles Jeanes
February 28th, 2018

“[A]s individuals express their life, so they are. Hence what individuals are depends on the material conditions of their production… History involves ‘a continuous transformation of human nature‘…

‘[there is] human nature in general, and then human nature as modified in each historical epoch’ ”

                                                   Karl Marx, quotations from Wikipedia entry


The key to what you so recklessly call “human nature,” the open secret you live with, yet dread to name, is the fact that man is a being of volitional consciousness.                                                                                   Ayn Rand


Not to believe in the possibility of permanent peace is to disbelieve in the Godliness of human nature.                                                  Mahatma Gandhi


Human nature is evil, and goodness is caused by intentional activity.
                                                                        Xun Kuang

To feel much for others and little for ourselves; to restrain our selfishness and exercise our benevolent affections, constitute the perfection of human nature.
                                                                        Adam Smith

“Biology enables; culture forbids.”

                                                       Yuval Noah Harari, historian, futurist

natural: adjective. Intrinsic, fundamental, original, typical, characteristic,

                           inherited, innate, unstudied, spontaneous, real, actual

                                         — New International Webster’s Thesaurus (1997)

by Charles Jeanes

What’s on my mind?

I write this column under the influence of two recent pieces of input from my television, and the influence of a constant concern about how to understand humanity from its recorded history.

Another gun massacre in the USA has filled the news, and begun the latest cycle of debate about Americas’ unique social pathology: its gun culture and its horrifying violence at home. Coincidentally, BC’s Knowledge network is showing the superlative documentary history of the US Civil War created by Ken Burns. These media inputs to my mind have depressed me and left me as bewildered as anyone about why Americans alone of the world’s wealthy nations live with such a hideous blight upon their society and culture.

My constant fascination and intellectual labour in life has been to understand human history as some type of record of what kind of creature humans are, and to perceive in history some pattern that outlines our being, our essence. As my own personal record of past behaviour must surely indicate to other people what to expect from me, my character, my habits — surely human history must reveal something essential about us.

I believe there are profound spiritual and intangible qualities accompanying the mystery of human being. The mystery is consciousness; its qualities cannot be discovered only from study of our history. Other sorts of knowledge besides the historical are part of the answer to the mysteries of consciousness.

History, the record of humans written by humans, cannot prove our “nature” as beings.  But — although the essence of being human is not found only by observing our past behaviours in history    there is much we can learn from that past.

History is not entirely sufficient, I admit, to reveal human nature, but there is a lot to be learned from History about what to expect from us, and what are our characteristics as an entire evolved species on this planet.

Marxian inhibition

I was deeply imbued in my early twenties with the thought-system of Marx, which he called “historical materialism.” Marx was scornful of the notion that there is an unchanging quality in humans and our behaviours, determined by our biology. In this, he was typical of his times and the revolutionary tradition of politics in which he laboured, a man of the Western Enlightenment mind.

Thus, inculcated as I was with the historical materialist method and surrounding myself for a few years with like-minded people and peers, I was careful not to employ the phrase “human nature” in conversation or writing. I was as sure as Marx that humans were evolving constantly in our history to a condition of Freedom. Marx began his intellectual life as a philosopher of liberty studying the immensely-erudite opus of the Prussian George Hegel. Hegelian philosophy is obsessed with human freedom.

Freedom meant, among other things, not being subject to our body’s biology, and Marxists of course believed we were becoming freed throughout the march of history from the limitations of matter imposed on us by physical constraints. Because of our constant forward motion in knowledge, of our progress in science and technology, humans can free ourselves from the strictures placed on our less-advanced ancestors. Simultaneously, Marx taught, we progressed from Asian despotism to feudalism, through capitalism, ending at socialism.

I still shy away from using the phrase “human nature” as an explanation of history’s events or of patterns which seem to repeat. I expect humans to repeat themselves within the limitations of being, like all other animal species, defined by characteristics that are not subject to alteration. I commit at the same time not to expect human behaviour to be capable of infinite plasticity.

We humans will be forever identified by traits of human being unique to us and not transformed — despite the assumption by some thinkers that we can, we must, and we will, change. Yuval Harari expects we will cease to be homo sapiens   within the next century, transformed by our own knowledge.

Liberal and Conservative Perspectives on Human Being

There is neuro-scientific research demonstrating that a “liberal” person and a “conservative” one have structured their minds — by which I mean their grey matter (the brain, neural pathways, “biological hardware”) and their thinking (“software”) combined – to be quite different from one another. They process information in ways that are congruent with their entire orientation to reality, harmonious with their attitudes toward the outer world of matter and energy and the inner world of thought and feeling.

Humans exhibit mental constructs, call them worldviews, that we develop and design over our gradual, incremental maturation into adults — and fully-matured human brains are not arrived at until around the age of thirty, according to neuroscience. The recently-discovered quality of the brain referred to as neuroplasticity accounts for the manner in which thinking in repeated patterns creates pathways and habits in the mind. Still, the neuro-plastic brain is not infinitely malleable; it has limits to being changed. But, our sciences and technologies will extend the plasticity of our brains in future developments.

Information that would fundamentally challenge and transform the liberal into a conservative, or vice versa, is not received into the mind in the same manner and within the same territory of the brain as data which is congruent with the pre-existing worldview. Resistance to transformation of our fundamental worldviews and characters is immense in human beings. It is not as easy as “changing our minds.”

Liberalism: human progress 

A liberal person differs from the conservative on a host of measures, but there are a few telling details that separate the two. Liberals embrace the concept of forward Progress, of improvement in human and material affairs in the world. Conservatives question that premise, and incline to think of humans being circumscribed by nature or by God within limitations. Liberals are inclined to trust materialist science rather than traditional religion or spiritual paths when attempting to explain phenomena, or the world both human and non-human.

Liberalism must be understood as an historically-defined term. A liberal has a pedigree going back in Western history to the sixteenth century, the era of the earliest dim glimmering of the notion of “liberty.” In the Italian Renaissance with the novel philosophy of l’humanitas , in the Protestant Reformation and its stress on the soul’s individualism, in democratic political revolutions stirring England, the Netherlands,  and Germany, and in the Scientific Revolution, inspired by the works of Copernicus and Galileo, of Rene Descartes and Francis Bacon, liberalism (or liberal humanism) had historical origins.

Modernity was born in the same era. Henceforth, God was no longer the center of all serious scholarship, whereas God had been the focus of most medieval cultural and intellectual production. The improvability of Man and human affairs became thinkable. Mankind was accepted as worthy of study on an equal level with divine providence; theology was dethroned as the queen of all sciences.

Liberalism and modernity challenged aristocracy, Church, and accepted authority. Conservatives wanted to conserve the status quo, the Establishment, the hierarchies, the orthodoxies, of hitherto-known society.

Shakespeare, a Renaissance Englishman and contemporary of Bacon, put the new humanist philosophy in glorious poetry:

“What a piece of work is Man.

How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty.

In form and movement how like an angel,

In apprehension how like a god.”


Engineering the New Human: Constructing Perfection

With the dawning of “the modern age,” conventionally dated to the year 1500 by a consensus among historians, a very new idea of human nature was being birthed, optimistic and secular, materialistic and open-ended.

The terms “right” and “left” in political discourse is an artefact of history; in the French Revolutionary National Assembly of 1790, the members who sat to the right of the Speaker were monarchists and aristocrats, with conservative views, and on the left, liberals, “men of the People,” democrats, republicans. The slogan of the Revolution bears repeating: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.

All his intellectual life, Marx, like hordes of thinkers in Germany, France, Italy and Britain, was fascinated by this Revolution and sought to develop a systematic historical theory to explain it. Hegel had been one of the first to attempt it. Marx was decidedly an ally after-the-fact of the revolutionaries of 1793, when the Terror was unleashed in France. He was a man of violent temperament. Lenin said Marxism was “the Science of Revolution.”

Marxian thinking is liberalism pushed even further, to be applied by leaders such as Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Pol Pot, Kim Jong Un, and Guevara in their schemes for engineering the entirety of a human collective, to construct the best society. Every member of it must be designed to specifications so that they might harmoniously inhabit communist or socialist order. But the modern political Right is not so unlike the Left in this faith in the State to make society in the image of a perfect idea: Fascists and Nazis, ideologues of the far right in modern times, also practice social engineering with idealized blueprints for a more-perfect society. We call such societies “totalitarian” one-Party states.

On the political right and left, fascists and communists have similarly tried to impose social engineering on the peoples they ruled. But the fascist type of right-wing ideologues are modernists, not traditional conservatives.

Here ends Part One.  Part Two will begin by considering conservatism.

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