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Human Nature

Man cannot change his nature or the weather. Since the former is predictable, unlike the latter, man can craft his institutions by adding discipline in a way to protect himself from the weaknesses of his nature. This weakness is reflected in every life and documented by history. It is characterized by its preference for the insatiable intoxications of body, money, and power over the satiable intoxications of knowledge and the spirit. The effect of human nature on government is detailed in The Discourses by Niccolo Machiavelli (circa 1517), the Federalist Papers written mostly by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison (1787-88), Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville (1835, 1840), Liberalism by Ludwig von Mises (1928), and the Constitution of Liberty by F.A. Hayek (1960). Yet, the subject is summarized most concisely by Professor Sidney Hook, who, in The Hero in History (1945), said:


So long as they are permitted to grumble, most people are gratefully relieved to find someone to do their chores, whether they are household chores or political chores. Politics is a messy business, and life is short. We put up with a great many evils in order to avoid the trouble of abolishing them.


Yet it is an old story that when we refuse to upset our “normal life” by plunging into the maelstrom, and entrust power to others, we awake someday to find that those to whom we entrusted it are well on their way to destroying “the normal life” we feared to interrupt. This is not only an old story but an ever-recurrent one. It will repeat itself until it is widely realized that political decisions must be made in any event; that responsibilities cannot be avoided by inaction or escape, for these have consequences; and that, considered even in its lowest terms, political effort and its attendant risks and troubles are a form of social insurance.


We observe in human nature today a sentiment that rejects the past, not with a defined future but with an attitude that rights are greater than responsibilities. This sentiment is undisciplined by any morality, a submission to some regulating principle, or consciousness of service or obligation. This sentiment is vulnerable to leaders with charisma and demagoguery because without education it is uninformed. It assigns undeserved trust to the media, which is itself as weak and vulnerable as any individual person.


Professor Paul Woodruff provides a clear analysis of the meaning of human nature.  He shows that there is a line between nature and custom that is not always easy to define.  When we are born, we have a common nature, a need to survive and an ability to flourish (reason) within the customs established in the place of our birth.  Since customs vary, they are not part of human nature.  Further, what is part of human nature are the ramifications of our common potential, i.e. the ability to learn languages, to communicate, to live in communities, to participate in politics, and to contribute to citizen wisdom.  In First Democracy, Woodruff says:


Any government is government by ignorance.  No one knows what the future will bring; no one knows whether a war we might wage will make us safer or put us more in danger.  No one knows, but, luckily, knowledge is not everything.  Even without knowledge we can use methods of decision making that are likely to lead to a good result.  The ability to make good decisions without knowledge was called “euboulia” by the ancient Greeks – good judgment.


Good judgment is what we need when we don’t have knowledge.  Good judgment involves many things.  Of these the most important are being able to evaluate shaky arguments when shaky arguments are all we have, being open to adversary debate, and being willing to heed the wisdom of ordinary people.


Citizen wisdom is what we exercise, as ordinary educated citizens, when we judge a contest of experts.  It is not the same as “folk wisdom.”  Folk wisdom has many virtues, and it is the root of citizen wisdom.  But it needs to be seasoned by education if it is to be open to new ideas.  Citizen wisdom is capable of learning from experts, when it recognizes them.  Citizen wisdom is what the citizens in a well-run democracy ought to have.  It builds on common human abilities to perceive, reason, and judge, but it requires also healthy traditions and good education for all.


In other words, Woodruff says, human nature must not be so thin as to accommodate only a goal of survival nor so thick as to include values proposed by others.  Rather, it has to be thick enough to include values that flow from citizen wisdom but not so thick as to include values proposed by experts.


A good system of government reminds us of the importance of what there is about human nature that is greater than the goal of survival.  The goal of survival is the basis of many pernicious values including greed, dishonesty, and many of those acts forbidden by the Ten Commandments. Professor Woodruff says democracy properly understood “takes human imperfections into account better than any other ideal of government.”  He adds, “Democracy was born out of a reverent awareness of human folly, and it was designed to prevent its leaders from having the unchecked power that could lead even the wisest of them from arrogance to foolishness.”


The aspect of human nature that lifts us out of the survival layer is documented by history.  The history of formal thought, consciously or not, describes the human condition with recognition that there is something in it not of this world. We can define “not of this world” in many ways but at its core there is a piece of divinity in all of us expressing itself as morality, religion, philosophy, natural law, or some other vital force of undefined inevitability.  Yet, by any definition, life is shrouded with uncertainties, and efforts to undo them and provide certainties can have no effect other than to doom the human spirit.


Imbued with a nature so influenced, no amount of physical beauty or fitness, no amount of wealth or influence can bring a lasting smile.  One can never get enough of these.  Rather, concentration on what is unknown or what reminds us of what is unknown generates the intrigue that gives life meaning and happiness.  Have you not noticed that those who study and search for knowledge or lose themselves in music bear a smile? 


In the context of managing our daily lives with each other, a process we call government, there are those who define the uncertainties of life as freedom and others who define them in terms of risks to be avoided.  Both definitions are grounded in a duality that pits an individual against the challenges of a universe of awe.  And, in the competition between the two, the spirit of man, continuously recharged by an uncertain divinity, will always prevail and run parallel to those noble but failing efforts to satiate the individual with an unsatisfying largesse, which in the end are outdone by pain and misery.