There’s reality-based and there’s smug-based. Today, I was defining terms used often by Americans around the founding. (Doing an on-line course has forced me to be more precise and less airy – perhaps bullshitty is the appropriate word – than on-site teaching.) Googling “human nature”, the Merriam-Webster definition, first used in the 1500’s arises: “the nature of humans; especially : the fundamental dispositions and traits of humans.” Good enough. It linked the lengthier Britannica definition. This begins with the simplified traditional question: is man intrinsically selfish and competitive – as Hobbes and Locke would argue – or intrinsically social and altruistic – as Durkheim and Marx would argue. So this is how some saw (see) the divisions – such stark simplicity! Ah, some care and love humans; others don’t. The scripts and asides in class and subtle accusations in arguments write themselves. So, I tartly framed this for my students, observing that those who see man as altruistic have certainly proved it by murdering a hundred million of them in the last century.
The Britannica entry goes on to discuss the arguments of evolutionary psychology, which may begin to make those responses not only more scientifically accurate but more like the vision of those people of over two hundred years ago I teach. They observed human nature with honesty and brought to it skills (in some as strong believers and in others as merely immersed in a strongly Judao-Christian culture) of analysis enlarged by the histories and assumptions of their faith – man is fallen, rent from one another by that fall, but in love might repair that alienation. (Later, Pinker, certainly not a believer, would point out the wisdom that this long history gives if we but read it.) The latter, of course given modern teaching constraints, I did not put so explicitly. But it does seem to me that the fruit of their observations, the concepts of the Constitution and human rights, have weathered two centuries better than those of the nineteenth century observers have weathered one.
I’m no philosopher and didn’t want to tackle writing this myself. Few students will follow the links, but if they do, I want more; Will Wilkinson at Cato provided more. And here, he quoted Denis Dutton (one of my heroes, his A&LDaily greets me every morning and every evening with the riches he has found on the net). Cato’s lengthier description concludes.
As Immanuel Kant famously remarked, “from the crooked timber of humanity no truly straight thing can be made.” But, in the words of philosopher, Denis Dutton, “It is not . . . that no beautiful carving or piece of furniture can be produced from twisted wood; it is rather that whatever is finally created will only endure if it takes into account the grain, texture, natural joints, knotholes, strengths and weaknesses of the original material.”
Benjamin Franklin and George Washington would, surely, have seen this as a truism.