Human Nature

29 July 2009


Thucydides, Sartre, and Mill on Human Nature

Thucydides implies that there is such a thing as human nature by repeatedly invoking human nature in his History of the Peloponnesian War. Here, in the Richard Crawley translation, are five examples of Thucydides’ use of the idea of human nature:

And praise is due to all who, if not so superior to human nature as to refuse dominion, yet respect justice more than their position compels them to do. (Chapter III)

But while the nature of the distemper was such as to baffle all description, and its attacks almost too grievous for human nature to endure, it was still in the following circumstance that its difference from all ordinary disorders was most clearly shown. (Chapter VII)

Our mistake has been to distinguish the Mitylenians as we have done: had they been long ago treated like the rest, they never would have so far forgotten themselves, human nature being as surely made arrogant by consideration as it is awed by firmness. (Chapter IX)

In fine, it is impossible to prevent, and only great simplicity can hope to prevent, human nature doing what it has once set its mind upon, by force of law or by any other deterrent force whatsoever. (Chapter IX)

In the confusion into which life was now thrown in the cities, human nature, always rebelling against the law and now its master, gladly showed itself ungoverned in passion, above respect for justice, and the enemy of all superiority; since revenge would not have been set above religion, and gain above justice, had it not been for the fatal power of envy. (Chapter X)

C. D. C. Reeve of Reed College (a Portland institution) wrote an article on Thucydides on human nature (In Political Theory, Vol. 27, No. 4, August 1999), so we see that the topic has been of some scholarly interest. (The more I look, the more literature I find on the topic.)

I am going to take these translated passages from Thucydides at face value, though a sophisticated account of human nature in Thucydides would be a daunting undertaking. The world Thucydides uses, physis (the word from which we get our “physics”) has many meanings in ancient Greek thought (if you’re interested, check out the entry on physis in F. E. Peters’ Greek Philosophical Terms: A Historical Lexicon). These manifold meanings of the term ought to be systematically related to Thucydides’ usage, but that is an inquiry for another time.

A couple of days ago I quoted Sartre from his well-known lecture “Existentialism is a Humanism”, a passage that sums up much of Sartre’s thought on human nature:

I cannot count upon men whom I do not know, I cannot base my confidence upon human goodness or upon man’s interest in the good of society, seeing that man is free and that there is no human nature which I can take as foundational… I must confine myself to what I can see. Nor can I be sure that comrades-in-arms will take up my work after my death and carry it to the maximum perfection, seeing that those men are free agents and will freely decide, tomorrow, what man is then to be… In reality, things will be such as men have decided they shall be.

This is an uncompromising doctrine, like much in Sartre prior to his Marxist phase. Sartre is clearly a human nature skeptic; he does not believe that there is any such thing as human nature. Sartre’s position implies an unstated opposite, which would presumably be a rigid conception of human nature that would deny human freedom. John Stuart Mill occupies a middle position between Sartre’s human nature skepticism and its implied opposite:

Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing.

On Liberty, Chapter III

Mill’s organic metaphor implies a non-rigid human nature subject to growth and change. This is an important qualification to make. A thoroughgoing approach to an idea of human nature that could survive Sartrean skepticism (for in Sartre’s remarks there is an entire implied critique, much of which is spelled out with some degree of explicitness in Being and Nothingness) would systematically seek out ways in which human freedom might be compromised and to adjust our conception of human nature accordingly.

Sartre’s conception of human freedom, upon which he bases his rejection of human nature, is as uncompromising as the latter. This conception of human freedom Sartre himself modified in his later works (the two volumes of his Critique of Dialectical Reason) but I would be more inclined to retain as much of human freedom as possible (i.e., in an ontological sense) and to confine the bulk of modification to human nature. There is a sense in which human freedom is human nature (though this might be difficult to reconcile with Sartre’s human nature skepticism) so that the more precise and explicit we can be about human freedom, the more precise and explicit we can be about human nature.

And this observation suggests a line from another existentialist, one of Ortega y Gasset’s famous sayings: Man has not an essence but a history. If this history that Ortega y Gasset thought fungible with the essence of man is freely chosen, a construction of free human activity, then the essence of man — or the closest we may come to an essence of man; what we must substitute for an essence of man — is his freedom. An anatomy of human freedom may provide us with the physiology of human nature (again, for Thucydides, physis). (It is interesting in this context to recall that Georg Cantor famously said that the essence of mathematics lies in its freedom.)

Wouldn’t it be sensible to say that there is such a thing as human nature but that it is not equally represented by all human beings, that it is changeable and subject to social and cultural influences, that it varies both according to time and to place but that within a given time and place it displays consistency to a certain degree, that human nature, such as it is, manifests itself differently in different circumstances, that freedom itself is a crucial part of human nature, and that human nature does not determine anything but nevertheless is to be found present in all human outcomes? As Nietzsche said of willing in Beyond Good and Evil, we can say of human nature: at first it seems something simple, but upon closer examination we find it to be complicated.


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