Friday


The very idea of the “human condition” is one that we might call an “existential idea,” since in the best existentialist fashion it tries to get to the root of existence. When thinkers engage with the idea of the human condition they often enter into an existentialist idiom, wittingly or (more likely) unwittingly. And it’s not just philosophers — or moderns. Pope Innocent III devoted a whole book to the misery of the human condition, in which he wrote:

Who therefore will give my eyes a fountain of tears so that I may bewail the miserable beginning of the human condition, the culpable progress of human behavior, the damnable ending of human dissoluteness. With tears I might consider what man is made of, what man does, what man will be. Man is indeed formed from earth, conceived in sin, born to pain. He does depraved things that are unlawful, shameful things that are indecent, vain things that are unprofitable. He becomes fuel for the fire, food for worms, a mass of putridness. I shall show this more clearly; I shall analyze more fully. Man is formed of dust, of clay, of ashes: what is more vile, from the filthiest sperm. He is conceived in the heat of desire, in the fervor of the flesh, in the stench of lust: what is worse, in the blemish of sin. He is born to labor, fear, sorrow: what is more miserable, to death. He does depraved things by which he offends God, offends his neighbors, offends himself. He does vain and shameful things by which he pollutes his fame, pollutes his person, pollutes his conscience. He does vain things by which he neglects serious things, neglects profitable things, neglects necessary things. He will become fuel for the inextinguishable fire that always flames and burns; food for the immortal worm that always eats and consumes; a mass of horrible putridness that always stinks and is filthy.

Pope Innocent III (Lotario de Segni, before he was Pope), De miseria condicionis humane

This passage reminds me of Sartre’s analysis of slime in Being and Nothingness. It is difficult to be optimistic about the human condition when it is phrased in terms like these.

Pope Innocent III: something of a pessimist on the human condition.

Recently in Banishing Despair I wrote the following:

In order to “cure” the episodic and transient melancholia that is native to the human condition, and which everyone feels in those moments when their vital energies are at a low ebb, we would need to change the human condition itself, and there are definite limits on the extent to which we can change the human condition.

Indeed, in order to eliminate the possibility of existential despair one would have to eliminate the very possibility of Miserable and Unhappy Civilizations, which might well come about as a result of what comes after civilization, but these latter concepts constitute civilization as an historical idea; civilization as a political idea is problematic. Human agency has its limits, and in fact the same limits to human agency that make it difficult if not impossible to alter civilization by political fiat also are the source of transient despair and despondency. After all, did not Alexander the Great cry because he had no more worlds to conquer? (Or, in the alternative version, because, of the infinity of worlds, he had not conquered even one?)

The latter part of this quote invokes a distinction that I recently made in Globalization as Political Idea and as Historical Idea. I haven’t yet arrived at an elegant formulation of this distinction between the historical and the political, but even in its nascent and inchoate state I find that I can make use of it to bring a little analytical clarity to my thoughts, and in the above I have used it to distinguish between the historical and the political senses of civilization. One might also think of these as, respectively, the descriptive and the prescriptive senses of civilization. Civilization did not come about as a consequence of an explicit decision and action taken, yet the idea has a certain usefulness to describe what in fact human beings have done, even if they didn’t know what they were doing as they did it.

We can also distinguish the historical and the political aspects of both human nature and the human condition — or, if you like, the descriptive and prescriptive aspects of human nature and the human condition. This latter formulation immediately clarifies one source of disagreement over human nature. In several posts I have discussed skeptics of human nature, Sartre chief among them. The subtext of many skeptical accounts of human nature is that, if there is a human nature, this limits our freedom. Furthermore, if the limitation of human freedom is a bad thing, then assumptions about human nature that limit freedom are undesirable. Therefore, we must deny that there is a human nature in order to defend human liberty.

Please note that I am not defending this reasoning; I am only observing that this seems to be a common subtext of critiques of human nature, and even here the reasoning remains implicit, and therefore retains the philosophical equivalent of plausible deniability. Nevertheless, I believe I am right in this, and if I am right in my analysis I need only to further observe that one can explicitly deny a prescriptive human nature that constitutes an aim toward which human being inevitably converges while accepting a descriptive human nature based only on what humans beings have been in actual fact. Even then, it is obvious that the dedicated human nature skeptic may well continue to maintain that even a descriptive account of human nature implies a continuing condition that ought to be fulfilled in the future, but if such an objection is made, it becomes even more obvious that the motivation of the objection to human nature is not based on logic or ontology, but upon a moral objection.

In another context (Human Nature and Homo Economicus) I have managed to refine my formulation of the human condition into a few (six, to be precise) reasonably clear theses:

Human nature is a function of the human condition.
The human condition is a function of la longue durée.
Therefore, human nature is a function of la longue durée.
La longue durée endures, but is not permanent.
Therefore, human nature endures, but is not permanent.
Human nature, as a function of la longue durée, reflects the paradigm of metaphysical history within which it takes shape.

In these theses I have attempted to show that way in which human nature and the human condition are inextricably linked, but returning to the problem of human nature from the perspective of the distinction between descriptive and prescriptive concepts, we need to separate the two again in order to ask four questions:

1. What is human nature descriptively? (What is human nature in fact?)

2. What is human nature prescriptively? (What ought human nature to be ideally?)

3. What is the human condition descriptively? (What is human nature in fact?)

4. What is the human condition prescriptively? (What ought the human condition to be ideally?)

While these are very large and very general questions that could not be satisfactorily answered short of several treatises, we can, however, get a sense of what is usually assumed by these modalities of human life, and we can do so in one or two words each, as follows:

1. moral corruption

2. moral perfection

3. misery

4. utopia

Some immediate observations can be made about this rather schematic summary. If the misery of the human condition follows from the moral corruption inherent in human beings, we call this original sin. If, on the other hand, the moral corruption of human beings follows from the misery of the human condition, then we have a position more or less like that of Rousseau, which is sometimes identified with the perfectibility of humanity. Further, if a utopian human condition would follow from the moral perfection possible for human beings, this is an affirmation of individual agency, and thus, in a sense, the antithesis of the idea of original sin and of the doctrine of salvation through grace alone. If, on the other hand, the moral perfection of human beings would follow from a utopian human condition, then we have something like behaviorism.

Now, of course I realize that by using “loaded” religious terminology like “original sin” that I am inviting misunderstanding, but I am willing to take this risk in order to place these concepts in historical context, which is to say, to place them in a larger context than that of our immediate concerns today. I want to get at the root of the idea, and sometimes the quickest way to the root is to use the term that will he instantly understood and which has the strongest emotional impact. From my point of view, the idea of original sin is just one of many exemplifications throughout human history of a conception of human nature as essentially evil. Many have believed this, but many also have believed that human nature is essentially good.

Similarly, there have always been those who believe that human beings are utterly at the mercy of circumstances (this position could be identified with what I have elsewhere called the cataclysmic conception of history) and who may therefore be considered behaviorists, since they believe that individuals and human nature are shaped by larger forces. Similarly again, there are always those who believe in the power of individuals not only to change their own lives, but also to change the lives of others. In its pure form, I have called this the political conception of history. There are all, then, differing conceptions of human agency, and therefore exrpessions of agent-centered metaphysics.

Whether or not you think it is worthwhile to attempt to change the human condition will have a lot to do with your attitudes to these questions, which I strongly suspect is largely a function of temperament. If you instinctively believe that human beings are at the mercy of forces we do not control, then you are more likely to believe that the human condition changes us than that we can change the human condition. But further complications arise, since the world may not be uniformly open to change; there may be things that we can change, and things that we cannot change, and so forth.

A distinction must be made between that which is amenable to change and that which can be changed. The difference here is the difference of agency. That which is merely amenable to change may or may not be changed as the result of the intervention of human agency (or the agency of any sentient being, human or otherwise, including successor species). That which can be changed is susceptible to human agency and admits of definite results. The future is amenable to change, but anything that we do to change the future may or may not have the intended consequences. topography can be changed; human agency can devise and carry out changes to the landscape in which intentions are concretely realized with a high degree of accuracy. These two examples are not picked at random: history and geography together are the unavoidable concomitants of political science; history is merely amenable to change, while geography (at least in some instances) can be changed.

We can and do change topography every time we build a highway or blast a tunnel. This changes our relationship to the land, but it does not change the arrangement of the world’s land masses. However, the combined effect of our construction of a transportation infrastructure may have the practical consequence of annihilating distance and thus making geography nearly irrelevant to the further development of human affairs. In this sense, even geography changes. Certainly human geography changes as rapid transit and mass transit moves populations. Here we have effected social change as a result of our ability to nullify geography.

With history, we are much less free, much less in control. History is infinitely flexible and highly amenable to change, but we cannot change history and walk away, expecting everything to remain the same. Even when we remain continuously and constantly engaged in the process of history (i.e., even when we don’t walk away), unintended consequences may pile up to the point that we simply cannot sustain our effort and we must surrender before the forces of history, allowing ourselves to be changed by it, rather than effecting the intended change. Here we have failed to effect social change as a result of our inability to nullify history.

Implicit within the idea of social change in the interest of social justice (and this is usually how the idea of social change is framed) is the idea that effecting a change in the human condition will effect a change in human nature. The possibility that the human condition might be changed and human beings would persist in stubbornly acting out their human nature regardless of circumstances is incoherent from this point of view. In other words, the idea of social change is antithetical to that of original sin.

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Four conceptions of history - human nature and human condition

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Friday


Kurt Gödel 1906-1978

Kurt Gödel was possibly the greatest logician of the twentieth century, and certainly among the handful of greatest logicians of all time. Tarski called himself the “greatest living sane logician,” implicitly conceding Gödel first place if the qualifier “sane” is removed. Gödel’s greatest contributions were his incompleteness theorems, which have subsequently been extrapolated to an entire class of limitative theorems that formally demonstrate that which formal systems cannot prove. I just mentioned in The Clausewitzean Conception of Civilization that Gödel’s results were widely interpreted as the death-knell of Hilbert’s program to provide a finite axiomatization for all mathematics.

Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, however, were not his only contribution. Over the past few years his correspondence and unpublished papers have been published, giving a better idea of the full scope of Gödel’s thought, which ranged widely across logic, mathematics, cosmology, and even theology. Hao Wang in his Reflections on Kurt Gödel called Gödel’s, “A life of fundamental theoretical work,” and this is an apt characterization.

It strikes me as fitting and appropriate, then, to apply Gödel’s fundamental theoretical work whenever and wherever it might be applicable, and I will suggest that Gödel’s work has implications for theoretical geopolitics (and even, if there were such a discipline, for theoretical biopolitics).

Now, allow me to back up for a moment and mention Francis Fukuyama again, since I have mentioned him and the “end of history” thesis in several recent posts: Addendum on Marxist Eschatology, Another Future: The New Agriculturalism, Addendum on Neo-Agriculturalism, Geopolitics and Biopolitics, and Addendum on Geopolitics and Biopolitics to name a few. Should the reader think that I am beating a dead horse, I would submit to you that Fukuyama himself is still thinking through the consequences of his thesis. In his book The End of History and the Last Man, the idea of a “struggle for recognition” plays an important role, and Fukuyama has mentioned this again quite recently in his recent Foreign Policy essay, The Drive for Dignity. And this is the way it should be: our impatient society may frown upon spending ten or twenty years thinking through an idea, but this is what philosophers do.

In the aforementioned The End of History and the Last Man Fukuyama poses this question, related to his “end of history” thesis:

“Whether, at the end of the twentieth century, it makes sense for us to once again to speak of a coherent and directional History of of mankind that will eventually lead the greater part of humanity to liberal democracy?”

Fukuyama answers “yes” to this question, giving economics and the “struggle for recognition” as his reasons for so arguing. Although Fukuyama seems to avoid the tendentious formulation he employed earlier, yes, history is, after all, coming to an end. But wait. There is more. In his later book Our Posthuman Future and in some occasional articles, Fukuyama has argued that history can’t quite come to and end yet because science hasn’t come to an end. Moreover, the biotechnology revolution holds out either the promise or the threat of altering human nature itself, and if human nature is altered, the possibilities for our future history are more or less wide open.

From these two lines of argument I conclude that Fukuyama still thinks today that the ideological evolution of humanity has come to an end in so far as humanity is what it is today, but that this could all change if we alter ourselves. In other words, our ideological life supervenes upon our physical structure and the mode of life dictated by that physical structure. We only have a new ideological future if we change what human beings are on an essential level. Now, this is a very interesting position, and there is much to say about it, but here I am only going to say a single reason why I disagree with it.

Human moral evolution has not come to an end, and although it would probably be given a spur to further and faster growth by biotechnological interventions in human life (and most especially by human-induced human speciation, which would certainly be a major event in the history of our species), human moral evolution, and the ideological changes that supervene upon human moral evolution, will continue with or without biotechnological intervention in human life.

To suppose that human moral evolution had come to an end with the advent of the idea and implementation of liberal democracy, however admirable this condition is (or would be), is to suppose that we had tried all possible ideas for human society and that there will be no new ideas (at least, there will be no new moral ideas unless we change human nature through biotechnological intervention). I do not accept either that all ideas for society have been tried and rejected or that there will be no fundamentally new ideas.

The denial of future conceptual innovation is interesting in its own right, and constitutes a particular tradition of thought that one runs into from time to time. This is the position made famous by Ecclesiastes who said that, “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” Politicians, geopoliticians, geostrategists, and strategists simpliciter have been as vulnerable to “group think” (i.e., intellectual conformity) as any other group of people, and they tend to think that if every idea has been pretty much discussed and exhausted among their circle of friends, that ideas in general have been pretty much exhausted. The idea that there are no new ideological ideas forthcoming represents group think at the nation-state level, and in part accounts for the increasing ossification of the nation-state system as it exists today. I have mentioned elsewhere the need for nothing less than a revolution to conduct a political experiment. It is no wonder, then, that new ideas don’t get much of a hearing.

To the position of Ecclesiastes we can oppose the position of Gödel, who saw clearly that some have argued and will argue for the end of the evolution of the human mind and its moral life. In a brief but characteristically pregnant lecture Gödel made the following argument:

“Turing . . . gives an argument which is supposed to show that mental procedures cannot go beyond mechanical procedures. However, this argument is inconclusive. What Turing disregards completely is the fact that mind, in its use, is not static, but is constantly developing, i.e., that we understand abstract terms more and more precisely as we go on using them, and that more and more abstract terms enter the sphere of our understanding. There may exist systematic methods of actualizing this development, which could form part of the procedure. Therefore, although at each stage the number and precision of the abstract terms at our disposal may be finite, both (and, therefore, also Turing’s number of distinguishable states of mind) may converge toward infinity in the course of the application of the procedure.”

“Some remarks on the undecidability results” (Italics in original) in Gödel, Kurt, Collected Works, Volume II, Publications 1938-1974, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 306

Since we are, today, living in the Age of Turing (as I write this, the entire current year of 2012 has been declared The Alan Turing Year), ushered in by the pervasive prevalence of computers in contemporary life, it is to be expected that those who follow Turing in his conception of the mind are at or near the flood-tide of their influence, and this conception might well be as pervasively prevalent as the computers that Turing made possible by his own fundamental theoretical work. And in fact, in contemporary philosophers of mind, we find a great many expressions of the essentially mechanical nature of the mind, sometimes called the computational model of the mind. It has become a commonplace to see the mind as the “software” installed in the body’s “hardware,” despite the fact that most of the advocates of a computational theory of mind also argue strongly against Cartesian dualism.

Gödel is right. The human mind is always developing and changing. Because the mind is not static, it formulates novel ideas on a regular basis. It is a fallacy to conflate the failure of new ideas of achieve widespread socio-political currency with the absence of novel ideas. Among the novel ideas constantly pioneered by the dynamism of human cognition are moral and political ideas. In so far as there are new moral and political ideas, there are new possibilities for human culture, society, and civilization. The works of the human mind, like the human mind itself, are not static, but are constantly developing.

I have recently argued that biopolitics potentially represents a fundamentally novel moral and political idea. An entire future history of humanity might be derived from what is implicit in biopolitics, and this future history would be distinct from the future history of humanity based on the idea of liberal democracy and its geopolitical theoreticians. I wrote about biopolitics because I could cite several examples and go into the idea in some level of detail (although much more detail is required — I mean a level of detail relative to the context), but there are many ideas that are similarly distinct from the conventions of contemporary statesmen and which might well be elaborated in a future that would come as a surprise to us all.

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The Agricultural Apocalypse

29 January 2012

Sunday


The four horsement of the apocalypse -- war, disease, famine, and death -- constituted a traditional litany of the disasters to which humanity was subject, i.e., the familiar terrors of history.

There is more than one list of exactly those evils represented by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The Biblical passage from which the image is derived mentions the horses as being white, red, black, and pale. These have been interpreted as representing conquest, war, famine, and death, though in the Dürer etching above the four horsemen are commonly identified as war, famine, plague, and death.

If we take this latter litany of war, famine, plague, and death as the evils of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, it immediately becomes clear that these are not four evils of apocalypse, but one evil intrinsic to the human condition (death) and three evils intrinsic to settled agricultural civilization.

It is settled agricultural civilization itself that is the apocalypse; the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution was at the same time the Agricultural Apocalypse. For in so far as anthropologists and archaeologists have been able to determine, prior to the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution, there was no war, no famine, and no plague. There was, of course, death, since death is the human condition, but it was the change in the human condition brought about by settled agricultural civilization that added war, famine, and plague to the human condition.

I have mentioned in several posts that the Paleolithic is sometimes called the Paleolithic Golden Age. It is well known that our hunter-gatherer ancestors, before they settled down into agricultural civilization, had a more diverse and therefore a healthier diet. From this healthier diet followed a healthier life. Individuals were taller and lived longer.

It also seems to be the case that settled agricultural civilization made possible war, famine, and death. I have argued many times that civilization and war are born twins. Only the social organization provided by civilization can make organized violence on the scale of war possible. I have even suggested that instead of seeing war and civilization as a facile dichotomy of human experience, we ought to think of large-scale human activity sometimes manifesting itself as civilization and sometimes manifesting itself as war. The two activities are convertible.

With settled civilization and control of the food supply, our ancestors allowed family sizes to grow — both because it was now possible to raise more children than the parents could physically carry, and because more children meant more farm labor. The entire family could be impressed as a labor gang to work on the farm, which produced surplus food when conditions were favorable. However, when conditions turned unfavorable, there were now many mouths to feed, and they could not be readily moved to another location, having surpassed the numbers that can be realistically transformed into a roving band. The obvious result was famine.

Also with settled civilization came the concentration of growing populations in urban centers and in extending trading networks. These concentrations of human population effectively created disease pools in which both viral agents and bacteriological infections could be easily transmitted through a community in close physical proximity. The obvious result was plague.

While the Industrial Revolution allowed us to transcend many of the institutions of agricultural civilization, the pattern of settled life remains, and with it remains the possibilities of war, famine, and death, which now are part of the human condition, and having lived with them for so long they are also become constitutive of human nature.

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Personal Dystopias

21 June 2010

Monday


In some earlier posts I have mentioned Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius’ lectures on Utopia and Terror in the 20th Century from The Teaching Company (specifically in The Threshold of Atrocity). One of Liulevicius’ themes is that the attempt to realize ideologically-inspired utopias has more often than not issued in actual dystopias. This is not a theme unique to Liulevicius, but has been a matter of some comment once the trends of the twentieth century became clear. Ideologically motivated terrorist organizations as ruthless and bloodthirsty as the Khmer Rouge, Sendero Luminoso, and Al Qaeda, in their pursuit of utopian political communities, have been the source of death, destruction, and immiserization.

Plato begins the utopian tradition in Western political thought, and therefore also unintentially initiates the dystopian tradition as well.

Such “efforts” — if such we may call them — constitute utopian thinking on a grand scale — visionary utopianism — and therefore issue in dystopian circumstances on a grand scale — if you will, visionary dystopia. While this is the most familiar species of the genus (i.e., the genus of dystopias), it is not the only species of the genus. In the Republic, Plato’s Socrates begins with the inquiry as to what constitutes a just man, and then asserts that, since it is easier to see justice in the large than justice in the small, that he will first inquire into what constitutes a just state. This inquiry constitutes the bulk of the Republic — another utopia which, if realized, would have been a genuinely philosophical dystopia — and so we think of the Republic as a work of political philosophy. But Plato’s Socrates does eventually come around and apply his theory of a just state, mutatis mutandis, to the question of what constitutes a just man. So too it is with dystopia: it is seen more easily in the large than in the small.

Today it occurred to me that small scale dystopias — dystopias decidedly less gruesome than the “visionary” dystopias of the likes of the Khmer Rouge — are not at all uncommon in life, and that they follow from similar motives; namely, the desire to have things be perfect. I am sure that almost anyone reading this who has some life experience has known someone (if not several persons) who are so obsessed with getting things right and making things perfect that these efforts ultimately make the other people around them miserable and unhappy because of their demands for perfection. This is especially the case in regard to the planning of events that are especially valued and which the planners and at least many if not most of the participants would like to have come off as a wonderful event that leaves everyone concerned with wonderful memories. I am thinking about events like weddings and graduations and maybe even birthday parties.

This obsession with perfection and getting everything right, quite explicitly undertaken with the idea that it is in the selfless service of the happiness of others, often takes on a dark and sinister edge. This is one reason I have always instinctively hated and avoided events and parties and social occasions of all kinds. And I have no doubt that many who plan and participate in such events are so deluded that they truly believe that a good time was had by all and that everyone took home wonderful memories. Probably many people did. But by now we all know that utopias come at a cost, and they always come at the greatest cost for those who are least valued. One of the slogans of the Khmer Rouge was, “To keep you is no benefit; to destroy you is no loss.” In other words, if you weren’t with the Khmer Rouge, you were against them, and if you were against them they would rather you were dead. And this was a slogan upon which they acted vigorously and decisively.

It might seem a little bit overly-dramatic for me to compare a wedding or a party gone sour to the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge, but I believe that both follow from the same source, and as long as we are not aware of how utopian thinking goes horribly wrong, we are vulnerable to its depredations on the ordinary — and imperfect — business of life. The overly-eager party planner who wants to regiment the lives of others for an evening is a terrorist in miniature who creates a personal dystopia, and we should be as proportionately intolerant with this kind of for-your-own-good meddling as we are (or should be) proportionately intolerant of terrorism. It is imperfection that makes us human and teaches us humility, and in this spirit we ought to celebrate our imperfections, if not as what is best in us, at least as part of what is best in us.

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A Note on Human Freedom

10 April 2010

Saturday


The ideas that we have of things often trump the reality of the things in themselves. The idea we have of human freedom or the idea we have of human nature can end up being more powerful than human freedom or human nature are in themselves.

I have several times cited Sartre’s contention that there is no such thing as human nature. In Existence precedes Essence and Human Nature I quoted at length from Sartre’s famous “Existentialism is a Humanism” lecture to the effect that “If man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself.” In his later life, after he became a Marxist, Sartre repudiated his earlier absolutizing of human freedom, but certainly the earlier Sartre is more interesting that the later, compromised Sartre.

I have also had occasion to point out one could say that, for Sartre, human nature is simply identical to this absolute freedom he posits. Now I see that an absolutely free human nature is free to conceive of itself as unfree: human nature is nothing but human freedom, but human freedom is constrained both by material circumstances as well as by an idea of an authentic human nature, and these constraints in turn become de facto human nature. These constraints on human freedom are not necessary constraints; they do not inherently, ontologically limit human freedom. Nevertheless, they do constrain human freedom as a part of what Sartre called man defining himself.

As we all know so well, material circumstances vary considerably among individuals and social classes of individuals, so that what functions as a constraint for one individual or for one social class functions as a facilitation for another individual or another social class.

The idea of human nature that we entertain as a consequence of our place in history and society lacks the vulgar directness of material constraints, but for the same reason is all the more pervasive because abstract and apparently inevitable, as belonging to the realm of ideas rather than to the realm of things in an ever-changing Heraclitean flux. Our individual human nature is free, and because it is free we can impose upon it an idea of human nature. Because we are free, we are free to entertain any idea we like. But because we find ourselves in the midst of an existential context of family, community, society, and political subdivisions of humanity — that is to say, we find ourselves in history — we are likely to find in these pervasive, enveloping milieaux some already existing idea of what a man should be, or what a human being should be.

These twin constraints on human freedom — the material constraints that are imposed upon us and the intellectual constraints that we impose upon ourselves — are nicely summed up in a passage from Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, when she recounts her first and only meeting with Simone Weil:

“She intrigued me because of her great reputation for intelligence and her bizarre outfits… I managed to get near her one day. I don’t know how the conversation got started. She said in piercing tones that only one thing mattered these days: the revolution that would feed all the starving people on the earth. I retorted, no less adamantly, that the problem was not to make men happy, but to help them find a meaning in their existence. She glared at me and said, ‘It’s clear you’ve never gone hungry.’ Our relations ended right there. I realized she had classified me as a high-minded little bourgeoise, and I was angry.”

In this exchange Weil represents the hard facts of materially imposed constraints on life — viz. hunger — while de Beauvoir represents the intellectual constraints upon life — viz. meaning. The early Sartre, with his emphasis upon the freedom of consciousness, is given voice by de Beauvoir; the later Sartre, with his emphasis upon the force of circumstances and practical ensembles, is already anticipated by Weil.

To a certain extent, the absolute freedom that the early Sartre expressed was more true in his milieu than it had been for previous generations. In a stable society, the idea of human nature is also stable. But from the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century, previously existing society and its social conventions were profoundly called into question. The Industrial Revolution changed societies and changed the social roles and life histories of individuals. I noted in Social Consensus in Industrialized Society that ever since the Industrial Revolution those societies that have industrialized have sought some kind of social consensus by which to live in industrialized societies. Two paradigms (or, if you prefer, two models) of industrialized life were tried and found wanting. The advanced industrialized regions of the world are still groping after the formulation of a third paradigm of life in industrialized society.

In times of social change the gap between the individual’s absolute freedom and the idea of human nature that he may impose on himself narrows: freedom has greater range to express itself, and the idea of human nature itself becomes more fluid and open to revision. In times of long term social stability (say, the tens of thousands of years of anatomically modern human existence prior to the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution, or the period from the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution to the Industrial Revolution), human nature becomes an idée fixe and the gap between ideal, absolute human freedom and the idea of human nature becomes greater the longer these conditions obtain. This is one of the sources of acculturation to absence of change that I discussed in my Political Economy of Globalization.

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