Column: PART II -- Human nature: a meditation on politics and history
(Part One ended with this paragraph:
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.)
It is time to consider conservatism.
Conservatives: old and new
Conservatism is less simple to summarize than liberalism, less amenable to a doctrinal statement of credo and premises. Its history is somewhat complicated; it does not begin with modernity, as liberalism does.
Conservatism has two taproots: one, traditional social order that pre-dates the upheavals of modern politics and industrial economics, and two, the modernist variety of right-wing thought, conservativism-by-ideology such as Fascism.
Religion is a deep taproot of conservative feeling, but that does not equate with calling conservatives medievalist or backward-looking, as their liberal critics might argue. Liberals have no monopoly on what is true and real merely because they are agnostic or atheist, though that attitude also is widespread.
Christian religious thought is fractured into a multitude of streams, but I think it fair to say Christians must agree on one premise: the human being is a flawed being, depraved by Original Sin or some defect God has allowed, and therefore never capable of improvement beyond divinely-ordained limit. Jewish and Muslim thought are in harmony with this notion of the fallen status of humans. Non-theistic religion such as Buddhism is less likely to see humans as flawed but still inculcate a view of life in the material world as a condition from which a human must be liberated, to end the cycle of birth-life-death-rebirth. Conservatives generally credit the notion of a human soul.
Traditional conservatives tend to believe in basic inborn inequalities among humans, therefore we naturally fall into hierarchies of aristocracy/ nobility “lording over” commoners because the lordly ones are naturally superior. A traditional conservative lays great emphasis on qualities of human character, such as the Roman patricians’ belief in their gravitias, integritas, nobilitas and potestas. Examples of traditional conservatives in recent times would include Winston Churchill, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Queen Elizabeth.
Hierarchy is a quality conservatives both old and new uphold. God over man, men over women, lords over commons, clergy over laypeople, Catholic Church over nation-state, Europeans over other races. These are rankings old and new conservatives have approved at various times and places over history.
Liberalism has a tortuous relationship with egalitarianism. Liberals want equality – recall the French revolutionary slogan – but also exalt the individual person. Liberals espouse liberty for the individual. If the individual rises to a position of great wealth, power, status, and privilege within the free capitalist market, that person is not equal to those he passed by on his upward path; domineering, “talented” individuals who achieve more than less-endowed people, make social equality impossible. Liberals still struggle to square this circle. How to allow liberty for the individual and give equality to the mass?
Socialism resolves this by subordinating the individual to the collective, at least in theory. Socialism puts equality and justice above individualistic liberty.
Voices for Liberalism and Conservatism
As a typical spokesperson for the liberal perspective on the human condition, I put forward Yuval Harari, whose book Homo Deus gives a fine example of the mind of someone who sees the human future in terms of progress. Humans confront great challenges ahead, as Harari describes them, but he evinces no doubt we will go forward with the tools of science and technology to heights such as the achievement of near-immortality and creation of artificial non-human intelligence – to become “godlike” in our powers over matter and energy. Harari is aggressively atheistic, ridiculing believers in human soul.
As a voice for conservatism, I would not choose a religious figure such as a pope, dalai lama, or prophet; I turn to the philosophical musing of a man notorious for his demise in an insane asylum. Friedrich Nietzsche is no easy writer to summarize or systematize, but he wrestled vigorously with the mysteries of human being. I have cited this next quotation in a previous Arc, to make a point about how difficult it is for humans to change on an individual basis rather than as an entire species.
There is an assumption in “progressive” culture that each of us can change if we just “put our minds to it.” Such messages are all over my social media pages. Winfrey Oprah Nation believes fervently in the power of the individual to transform the self, to become whatever one’s imagination can aspire to.
Is this true? Do we change by deciding to “just do it”?
Nietzsche makes this observation: “The individual is, in his past and in his future, a piece of Fate. He is one law more – one necessity more — for everything that is and everything that will be. To say to him ‘change yourself’ is to demand that EVERYTHING should change, even in the past.”
One could dismiss this Nietzschean proverb as a piece of mysticism, with its peculiar references to law, necessity, and Fate. In fact, that is the reaction I would predict for a liberal person. But there is wisdom in the philosopher’s insight. And it must be noted that Nietzsche’s view of the interconnectedness of all beings, all phenomena in the natural world, has become quite popular in progressive political discourse.
A person becomes who she or he is by virtue of a unique past. To say they must change is to implicitly say, your past (which has made you what you are) can be let go or therapized, overcome or transcended (i.e., that humans possess the one thing they need in order to change the self – Intention). That attitude is the liberal’s response to individual problems: self-help, personal growth.
Fascists and other ideologues of the political Right also have a perspective on human willpower, but quite at odds with the liberal view. The Right exalts the power in the Will of a “superior man” like Mussolini or the Fuhrer, whose immense domineering willpower directs historical phenomena; such a one is a “superman”, a distorted version in Hitler’s mind of what Nietzsche meant by that label. Thus one of the great propaganda films of the Nazi era was titled Triumph of the Will. Ironically, the new communist state of Soviet Russia exalted the genius of Lenin and Stalin, so that the Right and Left once again share an ideological theme.
Changing Human Nature from Left and Right
The science of therapeutic psychology, the art of meditation, the instruments of pharmacology and chemistry, are trusted by progressivist liberals to help people change themselves into “who they want to be.” This is nothing but a statement of faith and is no more “scientific” than the tenets of religion. Self-transformation is a modern and post-modern dogma.
True “old conservatives” — rather than the rightist ideologues of the modern age such as Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, and Pinochet — do not believe humans can morally be engineered by the State. True old conservatives eschew involvement of a mammoth State machinery to alter the consciousness of humans, whereas liberals are much more inclined to turn to the State for solutions. New conservatives of ideological bent align with liberals on this.
Old conservatism dislikes interventionist government intensely, and inclines strongly toward the rights of private property and private family life. Old conservativism accepted the right of religious institutions to enforce norms of behaviour, morality, and spiritual practice, whereas liberals reject such authority invested in a clerical hierarchy. Liberals are staunch secularists.
I have merely scratched the surface of a profound topic, the difference between liberal and conservative, but I have done what I need for this essay.
Natural History and Human History: incompatibles
A century ago, it was commonplace to find books with titles such as “A Natural History of the County of Essex.” Such books were written by educated people of leisure, oftentimes in the English-speaking world by clergymen. Natural History was a recognized field of study; we do not hear of it in our own times.
“History” as a word seems to present no difficulty of understanding for us now. It is the study of the human past. What has happened is the proper material of research and writing for the historian.
Natural history, as it was written in our recent past, was not about the human past. Natural history was a lot like what we might call the study of ecology today. It was an accounting of organic life forms other than humans within a defined geographic region such as a watershed. The natural historian described the activity, life-cycles, processes, and so forth of the plants and animals in the circumscribed area. It was very emphatically descriptive, not analytic, and the natural historian would not likely have an academic credential in the physical sciences such as biology or chemistry, botany or zoology. Natural history was for amateurs to write. Such “history” would have nothing in common with a history of people. Humans were left out of natural history accounts.
Here is my challenge: can one imagine that the history we think we know about humans is our “natural history”?
Can you imagine that a historian of humans has no need to do what historians have been doing for so long, attempting to answer “why” questions from our past? Can you imagine history that does not conjecture different courses in human events, but accepts that the broad outline is determined by human nature? Can you accept human nature is circumscribed, not elastic? Can you align with an old conservative perspective that sees humans as flawed beings?
It is the assumption of the large majority of Western citizens of democracy that the most interesting questions about History are the “why” questions, such as “Why did Germany attack Russia in 1941?” or “Why is the West so much more advanced, richer, progressive, and free than the rest of the world?” No one would be satisfied with a universal, generalizing answer to such questions; one wants specific responses. Imagine, however, that the answer was a general one. Humans have wars because it is their nature to have wars, as it is for certain species of ants. Humans have reason, yes, but that is not our dominant trait.
History and Nature: Mysteries to me
I am suggesting that we might cease to write history the way we have been writing it. We would still describe events, the words people used in their attempts to explain their motives for action. We would still sort through various “causes” for things like war, poverty, economies, or empires.
But we could frame the entire discussion differently when we start to assume there was no other way for the events to unfold generally, different in any significant fashion. We would cease to trouble ourselves with “what if” questions. What if someone did something differently – would history have been changed? Would the present be better or worse? Let it go.
Humans fight wars. The details are variously interesting or not, but no one should assume that if one studies a war, one might see how it could have been avoided and how a “lesson” can be learned for the present and the future.
I realize this is heresy, and seems to defy common sense. Since I can see that I personally learn from a mistake I made yesterday not to repeat it today, then I have learned from my history, my past. This is the paradigm of learning from history. It is assumed the same process works for all of humanity as a whole.
My past gives me matter to think about and draw conclusions from, and then discern a lesson for my own behaviour. Why would the collective past of humanity, which we call history, not be amenable to the same process? … because, in my example of personal learning, History did not teach me.
I taught myself a lesson from experience, from my history. Someone else looking at my past might say the lesson is not what I think it is. Who would be correct? Could we both be correct? Could we both be wrong?
Stop the foolishness. No one knows The Lessons of History.
I would love to help people break the habit of saying “History teaches us… [fill in this blank]” – starting with people who are supposedly educated, such as teachers, professors, journalists, and political leaders, who love to spout this nonsensical proclamation. History does not teach.
History is an abstraction turned into a metaphorical person who can teach. But of course this individual, this entity – History – is incapable of offering a lesson.
History has taught nothing to anyone, anywhere, anytime. Historians do that.
And just as there is no History to teach any person any lesson, there is no entity, “The Human Race,” to receive a lesson from the past mistakes of humans. The phraseology is silly, and is not helpful. Humanity is not learning from its past because there is not enough unity in the human population to warrant saying “we” can learn from historical events. No we, and no us.
Being Liberal, desiring Justice, feeling responsible
One Lesson of History I have heard repeated, as if it were true rather than a pious opinion, is this one. “Violence does not work. The violent never benefit ultimately from their actions against others.”
A liberal person does not want to hear this, but the violence of some states has allowed some peoples to prosper and others to wither and die; the colonization of the Americas, which tremendously benefited Europeans and damaged the aboriginal people of the New World, is proof. Europeans, no other people, had industrial economics and advanced sciences in the nineteenth century. They used their power from this advantage to take over most of the world, create a global economy which enriched the West and impoverished other places — and the result is the massively unequal distribution of wealth, human rights, democracy, and good health around the world. What lesson of history does “History teach Us” in this recent past? Who is Us?
Liberals today are in a cleft stick, which might be dressed up with the term “cognitive dissonance.” The liberal view of the future is a continuation toward the global community, one world village, one world government, one code of human rights, one economy. The liberal is committed to social justice up to a point, so every individual starts out in the “race” for a good life on a level playing field, and then capitalist markets determine who prospers, who is poor – but the State will ensure a universal safety net so no one is absolutely destitute, nor lacks human rights to live at some defined minimal level of “happiness”. A human life is sacred.
A great number of the liberals who espouse this view are far above minimal levels of comfort: they are middle-class Westerners of some education. A statistical measure of what percentage of the humans on earth live at the comfort level, in a situation of basic income security, of middle-class people in the rich or developed nations, is not high, less than three percent. Outside the rich nations, an elite of wealthy, privileged, ruling-class people in the Arab world, Africa, Latin America, and Asia, live well, but the middle class is small.
Liberalism is a privileged perspective, and I share it. I am a middle-class male Canadian, university-educated to a post-graduate level, pale-skinned. I am not about to jettison a life-long conviction that humans can create more justice than we have, that we are condemned by nature to injustice and unfairness.
It is historical events that put the West in its favoured status. It is our recent history of imperialism, colonialism, capitalism, and scientific advancement, that put us atop the global pyramid of development. Liberals know this.
Liberals want to undo the past, bring justice to the aboriginals, to women, to sexual minorities, to all who have suffered under the regimes of the nineteenth and twentieth-century State set up by European and North American power. The past is what has raised liberals of the West to this position of dominance, and the liberal mind is uncomfortable with its privilege.
I have written myself into a corner. I will not transform myself into a conservative after a lifetime spent advocating socialism. Readers of this column will know of my struggles with our changing times and my experiences and aging — and their influence on my politics and philosophies.
I reject the phrase “white male liberal guilt” as a summary description of my intellectual and emotional condition today. I reject guilt for the past when I was not born, for events I could do nothing at all to change.
In the present, I do what I can with what I’ve got within limits of what I feel is right for me and for my loved ones. In that, I am like all the people I call friends and family.
There is no conclusion possible from what I have written today, for application to my personal life. I began by intending to explore the question of human nature. I end knowing I cannot do anything other than ask questions, not offering answers. I live comfortably with that.
For a well-written book review by John Semley, in the Globe & Mail, of the optimistic Stephen Pinker’s latest work, “Enlightenment Now: The Case For Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress,” click the link below: