Not long ago I gave a friend a copy of Oscar Wilde’s The Soul of Man Under Socialism. After reading it she started asking the kinds of questions I was hoping the essay would encourage. However, almost inevitably, these questions had to contend with the usual assumptions and arguments that often surround alternative ideas for society. By assumptions I mean speculation on ‘human nature’. By arguments I mean the tunes that are composed within such speculative scales. Here’s an example of how it generally goes:
- Socialism (of a Wilde kind) cannot work because authoritative hierarchies are inevitable
- Inevitable because people desire power, often in a greedy, wretched way
- Thus such socialism goes against human nature and cannot work
This waltz has many variations, some simple, others more complex, some more convincing because they’re recited by authorities, others more alluring because they’re put to a groovy beat. Some people just can’t perform. Whatever the quality, I’ve always found these ‘human nature’ arguments interesting.
In spite of this interest, I have learnt to avoid allowing speculations on human nature (whatever that means) into tutorial discussions. This is because it often warps the conversation into an abomination in which egos go to war beneath a sky of blanket statements. I mean, what else is there to do when you’re discussing hypotheticals that go for everybody everywhere always? This is made worse when the countless idiosyncrasies that make up day to day life are rendered irrelevant to such a grand agenda:
‘Most family units usually get on quite well without greed or power plays’ – ‘yeah but, that’s peoples families’
‘I know an abstinent pacifist who grows his own vegies’ – ‘yeah but he wouldn’t have had the opportunity to make that choice if the safeguards against the uglier sides of human nature weren’t already in place’
‘Where does lining up in centrelink fit into human nature?’ – ‘Now you’re just being stupid’
Of course, some times it can’t be helped. If you want to discuss macro theories, such as those associated with Marx, then you have to objectify human action as a macro ‘thing’ that has certain tendencies. These tendencies then become ‘innate’ parts of our collective character that hide behind the scenes of our agency: the way you’d ‘really’ behave if things were only slightly different, try to deny it as you might. The sharp edges of this necessity can be smoothed by replacing the word ‘humanity’ with ‘society’, which can then become the more responsible ‘societies’, which can then be studied in the humanities – but the hard object of our nature remains.
Now, I admit that none of this should be taken too seriously. But, at the same time (look leftright), I feel that it is often not taken seriously enough. The result is that the human nature card gets played in conversations, but is rarely reflected on. This means that (what I believe to be) worthwhile, exciting, and stimulating ideas (such as in Oscar Wilde’s essay) get rejected as fantastical before they are given a chance by arguments that are obviously troubled if only given a bit of thought.
But, for the rest of this break, let’s play with the idea that there is something of a human nature. Hell! Let’s even play with the idea that there are two!
- Human beings are born noble and corrupted by society
- Human beings are born wicked and tamed by society
I like this dichotomy for a few reasons, not least because it’s romantic.
- This idea bodes well for the soul of man. Rather than being greedy by nature, maybe the society we live in somehow encourages the desire for a false sense of security by way of having a whole bunch of things. Maybe, this society has corrupted us so much that we find it hard to find any alternative realistic. So we implicitly elect to live in isolated units, selling the only life we’ll ever have day by day, living under the massive pressure to perform based on perverted measurements of success, wealth, fame, and the need to complete the unending tide of forms and bills that we never asked for and hate. We know there’s something wrong with this, but the corruption occupies our consciousness to the point that we’d sooner scoff at such social critiques as being ‘ungrateful’, ‘against our nature’, or ‘outside of the real world’, or better yet, accept that ‘life’s like that’. But, in spite of this thick oppressive cement of the current state of things, our nobility grows out through the cracks, and we pursue knowledge, and kindness, and love. We create things without incentives and reject many of the incentives offered to us out of care for decency. Unfortunately, however, a broken system all too often breaks the spirit.
- Humans have had all of history to prove that we’re naturally decent. Nevertheless, no civilisation in any part of the world has ever succeeded in this proof. People are very quick to point out that whatever small culture has done fine without money, or misogyny, or whatever suits their agenda, but if you listen closely you’ll notice that they’ll never say a culture has made it without bloodshed, domination, and at least some kind of cruelty. This is because wherever there are people, given enough time, wickedness will pop up. To deny this is to deny the suffering of every victim of human hands there ever was (which would be very insensitive and a tad selfish too). In fact, I’m willing to bet that, if you knew you wouldn’t get in trouble for it, you probably would have hurt someone by now, you almost certainly would have been hurt – assuming, of course, that such things haven’t already happened, rules and all! Thus, to live in relative security, we have to give up a bit of our freedom (ie: become tame): ‘I’ll give up my right to steal, rape, hurt, etc, if you (the state, king, whatever) force others to do the same (by way of punishment, indoctrination, etc.)’.
Of course, it remains (like the elegant sheet of music after my hideous recital) that there have been others out there that have articulated something resembling these ideas so well that they suddenly seem immediately evident. Maybe such authorities on the subject would regret that there are people such as me to filter their ideas through such vulgar dichotomies. After all, as always, there are nuances to consider. For instance, just because some people are cruel, it doesn’t mean humanity as a whole is cruel – that said, a room of 9 noble people can still be slaughtered by 1 wicked person, so the Hobbesian contract only needs a few bad eggs to seem like a good idea, and thus doesn’t really need to speak of human nature (though this doesn’t stop enthusiastic lay-Hobbesians).
What do you think about the role of these dichotomies? Do you encourage people to think about the nature of the nature we all love to hate.
For now I’ll leave these musings open, though I recommend a quick google of Wilde’s essay, if only to mow over what’s been said here whilst treating yourself to an excellent piece of human reckonings.