Human Nature and the Human Condition
3 December 2010
I have written several posts on human nature, such as it is (or isn’t), and even have human nature as a category. In a post simply titled Human Nature I considered the various views of Thucydides, Sartre, and John Stuart Mill. There I quoted several passages of Thucydides that are classic statements on human nature, considered Sartre’s explicit skepticism, such that “there is no human nature that we can take as foundational,” and lastly discussed Mill’s organic metaphor in which he compared human nature to a tree, “which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides.” More recently in Agents and Sufferants I returned to Thucydides to consider human nature in terms of its agency.
Yet more recently I have learned that distinguished anthropologist Marshall Sahlins has written a short book on human nature, The Western Illusion of Human Nature, with the wonderful subtitle, with reflections on the long history of hierarchy, equality and the sublimation of anarchy in the West, and comparative notes on other conceptions of the human condition. I don’t have a copy of this yet, so I am at the mercy of the reviews. The title makes it sound as though Sahlins is a human nature skeptic as thorough as Sartre, but a review says that Sahlins rejects a Hobbesian account of human nature as savage and violent in favor of, “the one truly universal character of human sociality: namely, symbolically constructed kinship relations.” I hope to read the book for myself, but this encounter with another suggestion of human nature skepticism provoked me to further thought.
In addition to several posts about human nature I have also repeatedly quoted a line from Marx, that is one of my favorites:
“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”
Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, first paragraph
This Marxian reference to men making their own history ties in with my use of Ortega y Gasset’s line — Man has not an essence but a history — that I quoted in my Human Nature post. I think Marx would have agreed with this. Both Marx and Ortega y Gasset place man within history, and make human nature, if there is any, a function of history.
I realized a couple of days ago that one way to express this would be to say that human nature is a function of the human condition. And the human condition in turn is an historical reality. Thus we could paraphrase Marx as follows:
“Men make themselves, but they do not make themselves as they please; they do not make themselves under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”
Further, we can observe that the human condition is a function of the longue durée. The longue durée, in turn, is an historical reality, or, rather, a way of looking at history. More importantly, the longue durée endures, but it is not permanent. The apparent rigidity of human nature — which for some recommends the idea, while for others is a reason to reject it — is a function of the human perspective. Given the perspective of the longue durée, human nature is not fixed, but is a function of the changing human condition. However, the human condition changes so slowly that from the perspective of the individual human being, it appears fixed and stable.
The human condition does change, and sometimes it changes dramatically. In The Atomic Bazaar: Dispatches from the Underground World of Nuclear Trafficking, which I just discussed a couple of days ago in The Poor Man’s Bomb, author William Langewiesche wrote, “The nuclearization of the world has become the human condition, and it cannot be changed.” (p. 13) I agree with this. The human condition was changed with the advent of nuclearization, because it represents the practical possibility of the suicide at least of civilization, and perhaps also of our species. This is an important development, and it is a changed aspect of the human condition that will, over the longue durée, result in a changed human nature.
In several posts in which I have distinguished what I have called the divisions of integral history, I have divided history not according to the customary distinctions of Western historiography, but according to primarily demographic concerns, based upon how the bulk of the human species lives. Another way to phrase this would be to say that the human condition was initially that of hunter-gatherers under the nomadic paradigm, which was followed by a human condition of subsistence farming under the agricultural paradigm, and has now become a human condition of mass industrial employment under the industrial paradigm. There is a sense, then, in which each of these primary divisions in the human condition would correspond with a human nature that emerges from these conditions.
Human nature, of course, even when conceived as a function of the human condition, is not monolithic. Small changes — changes like nuclearization — will make their contribution to a human nature substantially shaped by the institutions of industrialized society. There is room for variation, and even for incommensurable individuals existing within the same paradigm. The world, for all that it has shrunk, is still a very big place, and admits of individual and regional variation as certainly as it admits of temporal variation.
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