What Is Your View of Human Nature?
By Martin LeFevre
A telling sentence by a conservative thinker (an oxymoron?) jumped out at me: “They had no illusions about the depravity of human beings.” Given what is happening in the world, that worldview seems to be confirmed. But it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. ‘Human nature’ is one of those terms, like love, that everyone thinks they know what it is, but very few can say just what they mean by it. Saying human nature is depraved is like saying there will always be war. “Only the dead know the end of war” is a platitude of the past that cannot pertain to the future if humanity is to survive.In any case I wonder, could anyone maintain a worldview of “the depravity of human beings” if they weren’t partly depraved themselves? Making such a generalization, even about man, is misanthropic and self-fulfilling. To be sure, humans are often depraved. And in this culture, as someone said to me recently, “people have become shitty and shady.” Civilization hasn’t civilized man. And man, the dominant strain in humans (whether male or female), is increasingly depraved. But human beings, by definition, are not depraved. To fail to make that distinction is to reject and deny the path of growing into a human being. ‘Depravity’ means “moral corruption; wickedness.” Some of its synonyms are: “degeneracy, degradation, immorality, shamelessness, sordidness, wickedness, sinfulness, vileness, baseness, iniquity, nefariousness, criminality, viciousness, brutality and brutishness.” Listing them that way seems funny, until one watches the news for a half hour. Cynicism about human nature, even when dressed up in salvation creeds, lies at the root of the, Christian worldview, whether Roman Catholic/Protestant or Eastern Orthodox. Indeed, the idea that man is inherently a sinful, depraved creature is foundational to religions’ rationalizations for war. It’s no simple perversion that Putin quoted the Bible at his recent rally speaking of Russian soldiers decimating Ukraine: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” As if Jesus meant to kill or be killed for one’s brothers in combat. Nearly all commentators and analysts of this incipient world war are making what philosophers call category mistakes. They foolishly see the war either in personal terms — Putin vs. Zelensky and Biden — rather than as an eruption of historical forces with tremendous momentum. Or they see it in facile categories such as “democracy vs. autocracy,” and the “clash of civilizations.” Continuing to place the uncontrollable pathology of war in either nationalistic or religious contexts reinforces the sources of man’s depravity and perpetuates its manifestations. It’s no exaggeration to say that our relationship with others and the world is predicated on two things: one’s relationship with nature; and one’s worldview, which is formed around our view of human nature. So what do I mean by human nature? To my mind, human nature is the condition of being conditioned. That means being ruled by psychological thought, with its strong tendencies toward division and fragmentation, which are culminating in our age ecologically and politically. To be sure, human nature, however we conceive or intuit it, is very old. And the implicit assumption is that given our long experience with human nature, it is immutable. However the present world, with all its cresting crises, is testing to the hilt the assumption that human nature can and will never change. I submit that since the human species does not have an unlimited number of chances to change course, continuing to believe in the unchangeability of Homo sap (as on old philosophy prof and friend used to call man) is a tremendous impediment to human nature radically changing. What would that look like? It’s become imperative to the inward survival of the individual, and perhaps the outward survival of the human species, that ordinary humans care about more than just ‘my family’ and ‘my country.’ People have to begin, for the first time in human history, to care about humanity as a whole. Moreover, ordinary folks urgently need to learn the daily art of quieting the mind-as-thought, thereby bringing peace to our hearts and renewal to our brains. The passage from humans/man to human being is a pathless journey. As difficult as it is, self-knowing individuals take that inward journey, growing out of the destructive tendencies and conceptions of human nature (wrought by the wrongful use of symbolic thought) to having minds and brains that are regularly bathed in silence and emptiness. The evolution of conscious thought made us man, but his time is over. Take total responsibility for human consciousness as it is enfolded within one. Continually question and attend to the movement of thought and emotion without judgment or choice. That is the way ahead. At dawn’s first light, Venus, rising in the southeastern sky, is as bright as you’ve ever seen it.
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Martin LeFevre, a contemplative, philosopher and writer in northern California, serves as a contributing writer for The Seoul Times. His "Meditations" explore and offer insights on spiritual, philosophical and political questions in the global society. LeFevre's philosophical thesis proposes a new theory of human nature. He welcomes dialogue. firstname.lastname@example.org