The Possibilities of Human Nature
Jerome NathansonFrom Jerome Nathanson, THE POSSIBILITIES OF HUMAN NATURE, in John Dewey, The Reconstruction of the Democratic Life.
Human nature is wondrous in many ways, not the least of which are the ways in which it can think and talk about itself. It is good or evil, changing or unchanging, clean or corrupt, reasonable or emotional, promising or perverse, sacred or vile. With the shifting of the social winds and tides, each emphasis seems almost to be a matter of vogue, with now this virtue and now that vice in fashion. An objective mind might view this curious careening with amusement, if not with tolerance, were not such important issues at stake. But they are at stake--and what we think about what we are has more than a little to do with what we are to become.
Nowadays, some "serious" thinkers seem to be very down on human nature, to be selling it short. They are condescending toward what they call the easy optimism of an earlier day, and sometimes downright contemptuous of it. Why is it, one is forced to ask, that for so many of these thinkers optimism is always "easy" and "sentimental," pessimism always "hard" and "realistic"? Grown to maturity in a barbarous age, such pundits and prophets fancy themselves of sterner stuff, ready to accept the "fact" of man's corruption and sinfulness. It is not enough for them that human beings in our time live with a burden of anxiety. No, indeed; this commonplace must be given a metaphysical status, a place in the inner structure of the universe. The anxiety with which we are all familiar thereby becomes for them the Angst before which we are all to bow down.
Sociologically, historically: this is not difficult to understand, although the movement of men's minds always has some unanalyzable surd in it. The invention of progress, with endless testimonials in physical science and industrial technology, was for many years regarded as applying almost mechanically to human beings as well. Man had advanced from the horse-drawn carriage to the steam locomotive, from the locomotive to the dynamo, from the dynamo to the gasoline engine, from the engine to nuclear energy. He had moved from literal manufacture to mass production, from feudalism to industrialism, from a society of status to one of opportunity, from aristocracy to democracy. Why should he not, then advance the kingdom of heaven itself, moving it up from an unseen afterworld to the world of here and now? Why should not the Christian gospel become a social gospel, with human eyes fixed not on some eternal perfection but on temporal perfectibility? The answer for many people was almost self-evident: it should be, it could be, and it was.
Then came the nightmare years, in which the era of good feeling was shredded and shrouded. In retrospect, the horrors of World War I seemed almost like a harmonious prelude, a colorful intimation of the cataclysmic twilight of the gods. First the world goose-stepped and trembled before the comically grim little man in Berlin. Next it gaped, beyond nausea, at Buchenwald and Dachau. Then it found ruthless oppression blithely called "the people's democracy." And finally it looked upon the atom bomb as an intelligent means of defense.
It is no wonder, in this through-the-looking-glass world, that old myths crept out of hiding to be accepted as new realities. Everyone of any sensitivity felt somehow dirtied by what the world was, tainted by a sense of guilt which was no less pervasive because it was so often unavowed. "There, but for the grace of God, go I," it was once remarked when a criminal was seen being marched to the gallows. Now the saying was generalized and, however subconsciously, the bestiality of other people was seen as one's own possible lot. But for the grace of God! That was it, and the theologians began to have their field day. The trouble with humanity is its secularism, its failure to have a consciousness of God in daily activities, one hierarchy assured us. The trouble with humanity is its essential corruption, the fact of original sin to which we have tragically blinded ourselves, another group of religious thinkers averred. The trouble with humanity is that it is human, they agreed. And our only hope lies in the intervention of God's grace, whether through one churchly institution or another--which one they could not agree. Faith in intelligence is a snare, and faith in people a delusion. What we are is what we always have been and always will be: poor creatures struggling against our own evil natures; or, if we prefer the accents of the neo-orthodox, creatures haunted by the cosmic precariousness of our existence, desperately seeking to salvage hope even out of the hopeless odds against us.
The strange part of it is that these pessimistic religious views of human nature have something basic in common with the optimistic materialist views of communism. Where the one speaks of man's essential evil, the other speaks of his essential goodness, attributing all evil to economic institutions. Where the one speaks of religious, the other speaks of political salvation, each to be achieved in equally miraculous ways. Where one speaks of spirit, the other speaks of science, but they are brothers in dogmatism. And however divergent the ways, each is convinced that his is the way to the truth in a world in which this is what human beings are.
Where, in all this, is the infinite richness and variety of human nature?
The fallacy common to all these attitudes, whatever their distinguishing differences, is the assumption that human nature is somehow "given." For them, it is what it is, and there is a persisting core which dictates what man has to be. It is evident that in Dewey's terms, this assumption is just one more manifestation of the quest for certainty--the need for an unchanging Reality to which we can anchor ourselves in a world of seeming flux. By the same token, it manifests the dualistic emphasis of the tradition; for it pits the "rational" against the "emotion," the "good" against the "evil," the "spiritual" against the "animal" man. And having created these almost unbridgeable gaps between different aspects of man's "nature," it requires some kind of miracle to bridge them. Needless to say, in this as in other respects the philosophic and theological traditions have been as inventive in producing these miracles as in creating the difficulties that required them.
If we start from another assumption, however, we are led to altogether different conclusions. Let us assume that there is no original datum called Human Nature which, through the ages, is an endless series of copies of the first creation. Let us assume, instead, that what we lump together as human nature is a conglomeration of processes, just as is the rest of nature, processes of discovery and creation, of action and interaction, of tension and intention. We see, first, that it cannot be described in fixed categories, because it is not fixed. We see, second, that at any moment in the historical movement of events human nature cannot altogether say what it is, simply because it has no adequate idea of its possibilities, of what it can be. And we see, third, that we have to ask ourselves what makes human nature what it is at any given time--reminding ourselves of Shaw's witticism that if human nature never changed, we would still be climbing around in the trees.
In effect, these are the assumptions Dewey makes, justifying them, not dogmatically, but by an appeal to our ongoing experience. When he asks what makes us what we are, he finds the answer in the organization of society, in the culture to which we belong. Human nature is not merely the adaptation of a biological organism to the environment in which it finds itself. One of its distinguishing characteristics, on the contrary, is that it can adapt the environment to itself. In a measure, it creates its environment, and in doing so, it creates itself. Nor is the environment nothing but the physical world of sun and rain, trees and mountains, rivers and deserts, growth and decay. It is a human environment as well, consisting of people and their products--or, to speak more technically, of the artifacts and institutions that comprise a culture. An infant is the creature of its environment, making demands upon it, to be sure, but helpless to enforce them. As it develops, it gains a measure of control over its environing conditions: in its ability to manipulate things physically, and even more in the ability to manipulate its parents psychologically. What happens in the process is that a person is being created (the process ends only when life does); and we see developing before our eyes this specific bit of human nature.
Just so does human nature as a whole, as a collection of all the individuals who are "expressions" of it, develop and create itself. Accordingly, when we say that although individuals vary, human nature itself never changes, we are looking at life nearsightedly, without sufficient perspective. it is like saying that although the water of a river constantly changes, the banks endure. Relatively, of course, they do endure, or there could be no river. But the changing geography of the globe is testimony enough to the fact that they do not endure in the same way forever. To continue with the figure, "human nature" is the banks of the stream of human life, and while its rate of change is slower than the passage of individuals and generations, change it assuredly does.
But apart from the theoretical niceties, what difference is made by rejecting the theory that human nature never changes and accepting the theory that it does? What difference is made by rejecting the instinct theory and accepting the theory that human nature is a function of cultural organization? The answer is that the differences are revolutionary, however simply they may be stated. For the Deweyan position means that no limits can properly be assigned to the capacities of human beings. Consequently, "human nature" is not to be regarded as determining the contours of social organization. On the contrary, social organization is to be seen as largely determining what human nature is to be. In other words, every form of social organization is an expression of interests (by no means just economic interests). It expresses, consciously or unconsciously, explicitly or implicitly, the preponderant interests in producing certain kinds of human beings. Plato had a good deal of insight into this fact. This is why he insisted that the rules of the ideal republic would have to stress the doing of certain things while rigorously excluding certain others. His insight was overweighted, however, and in the end sunk by the metaphysical structure which, according to one interpretation, he built and which the tradition inherited and developed. Dewey, dynamiting the superstructure, has helped us to see the foundations for what they are. He has gone further. He has helped us to see how the foundations are laid, leaving it to us to dig them out, if we so choose, in order to lay other foundations better suited to the structure we might like to erect.
For all the headaches and heartaches of the contemporary world, therefore, we see that we are in a commanding position with respect to the future. Better than any age in the history of mankind, we are able to see the wonderful malleability, the infinite plasticity, of human nature. From the viewpoint of easy intellectual classification, this has its difficulties, which is one reason why so many traditionalists resist Dewey's whole approach to the matter. We have a much simpler intellectual problem if we can say that human nature is A, B, C, and ID, and then spell out various ways in which these elements can be combined--it is simpler to do this than to say that human nature is a complicated X, with the X varying in subtle ways according to changes in social conditions. But while, from this point of view, our difficulties are increased, from another point of view our problems are simplified. For instead of having to resign ourselves to human nature's being what it is, and making the best of it, we see that its plasticity makes some of our highest ambitions practical possibilities. No longer can the "realists" dismiss the longings for a good and peaceful world as utopian fantasies, or will-o'-the-wisps. In doing so, they convict themselves: of absolutism, of prejudice, of narrow vested or self-interests which they attempt to cloak in the cover of "fact." We can see, rather, that the clarification of the interests involved in every social struggle is one step in the clarification of the desired goals of mankind. And we can see, further, that the clarification of the goals, dependent as it is on the use of intelligence, in turn opens the way for the free use of intelligence in the pursuit of them. If this sounds like circularity of reasoning, it is not of the vicious kind. It is one expression of that inseparable interplay between means and ends which characterizes the life process, in which intelligence is, because it has to be, man s chief reliance.
This document is part of a larger document, Understanding Ethical Religion edited by Howard B. Radest.
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