Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review

The Western Illusion of Human Nature*

Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review

The Western Illusion of Human Nature*

Article excerpt

(Preface: Over the past decade or two, courses on "Western Civilization" have been taking a smaller and smaller role in the curricula of American colleges. Here I attempt to accelerate the trend by reducing "Western Civ" to approximately one hour. My justification is the Nietzschean principle that big issues are like cold baths: one should get into and out of them as quickly as possible.)

For more than two millennia, the peoples we call "Western" have been haunted by the specter of their own inner being: an apparition of human nature so avaricious and contentious that, unless it is somehow governed, it will reduce society to anarchy. The political science of the unruly animal has come for the most part in two contrasting and alternating forms: either hierarchy or equality, monarchial authority or republican equilibrium: either a system of domination that (ideally) restrains people's natural self-interest by an external power; or a self-organizing system of free and equal powers whose opposition (ideally) reconciles their particular interests in the common interest. Beyond politics, this is a totalized metaphysics of order, for the same generic structure of an elemental anarchy resolved by hierarchy or equality is found in the organization of the universe as well as the city, and again in therapeutic concepts of the human body. I claim it is a specifically Western metaphysics, for it supposes an opposition between nature and culture that is distinctive to the West and contrastive with the many other peoples who think beasts are basically human rather than humans are basically beastsfor them there is no "nature," let alone one that has to be overcome.

Time permitting, I would offer so many qualifications of these essentialisms that I could be taken for an adept of "the post modern cult of self-inflicted failure" (Zurburgg). As it is, I am rather in the position of J. S. Mill's one-eyed philosopher, thinking to derive some universal truths from an obsession with a particular point of view. To call this "intellectual history" or even "archaeology" would be as disingenuous as it would be pretentious. All I am doing is selectively singling out a few examples of our long-standing tradition of human nature, and suggesting it is delusional. While I offer no sustained narrative of this lugubrious sense of what we are, I put in as evidence of its duration the fact that intellectual ancestors from Thucydides through Saint Augustine, Machiavelli, and the authors of the Federalist Papers, not to forget contemporaries such as the social scientists of "economic man" and the sociobiologists of "the selfish gene," have all been accorded the scholarly label of "Hobbesian." Some of these were monarchists, others partisans of democratic republics, yet all nevertheless shared that same sinister view of human nature.

I begin, however, with the much more robust connection between the political philosophies of Hobbes, Thucydides, and John Adams. The curious interrelations of this triad of authors will allow us to sketch the main coordinates of the Metaphysical Triangle of anarchy, hierarchy, and equality. For as different as were their solutions to the fundamental problem of human evil, both Hobbes and Adams found in Thucydides' text on the Peloponnesian War, notably his gory account of the revolution at Corcyra, the model of their own ideas of the horrors society would suffer if mankind's natural desires for power and gain were not checked-by sovereign imposition said Hobbes, by democratic balance said Adams.

Adams and Hobbes as Thucydideans

In 1763, young John Adams wrote a brief essay titled "All men would be tyrants if they could." The essay was never published, but Adams revisited it in 1807 to endorse its conclusion that all "simple" (unmixed) forms of government, including pure democracy, as well as all moral virtues, all intellectual abilities, and all powers of wealth, beauty, art, and science are no proof against the selfish desires that rage in the hearts of men and issue in cruel and tyrannical government. …

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