The questions of whether there truly are fixed characteristics, what these natural characteristics are, and what causes them are among the oldest and most important questions in philosophy and science. The concept of human nature is traditionally contrasted not only with unusual human characteristics, but also with characteristics which are derived from specific cultures, and upbringings. The "nature versus nurture" debate is a well-known modern discussion about human nature in the natural sciences.
These questions have particularly important implications in ethics, politics, and theology. This is partly because human nature can be regarded as both a source of norms of conduct or ways of life, as well as presenting obstacles or constraints on living a good life. The complex implications of such questions are also dealt with in art and literature, the question of what it is to be human.
The concept of nature as a standard by which to make judgments is traditionally said to have begun in Greek philosophy, at least as regards the Western and Middle Eastern languages and perspectives which are heavily influenced by it.
The teleological approach of Aristotle came to be dominant by late classical and medieval times. By this account, human nature really causes humans to become what they become, and so it exists somehow independently of individual humans. This in turn has been understood as also showing a special connection between human nature and divinity. This approach understands human nature in terms of final and formal causes. In other words, nature itself (or a nature-creating divinity) has intentions and goals, similar somehow to human intentions and goals, and one of those goals is humanity living naturally. Such understandings of human nature see this nature as an "idea", or "form" of a human.
However, the existence of this invariable and metaphysical human nature is a subject of much historical debate, continuing into modern times. Against this idea of a fixed human nature, the relative malleability of man has been argued especially strongly in recent centuries—firstly by early modernists such as Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In Rousseau's Emile, or On Education, Rousseau wrote: "We do not know what our nature permits us to be". Since the early 19th century, thinkers such as Hegel, Marx, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, structuralists, and postmodernists have also sometimes argued against a fixed or innate human nature.
Charles Darwin's theory of evolution has changed the nature of the discussion, confirming the fact that mankind's ancestors were not like mankind today. Still more recent scientific perspectives—such as behaviorism, determinism, and the chemical model within modern psychiatry and psychology—claim to be neutral regarding human nature. (As in much of modern science, such disciplines seek to explain with little or no recourse to metaphysical causation.) They can be offered to explain human nature's origins and underlying mechanisms, or to demonstrate capacities for change and diversity which would arguably violate the concept of a fixed human nature.
Classical Greek philosophy
Philosophy in classical Greece is the ultimate origin of the western conception of the nature of a thing. According to Aristotle, the philosophical study of human nature itself originated with Socrates, who turned philosophy from study of the heavens to study of the human things. Socrates is said to have studied the question of how a person should best live, but he left no written works. It is clear from the works of his students Plato and Xenophon, and also by what was said about him by Aristotle (Plato's student), that Socrates was a rationalist and believed that the best life and the life most suited to human nature involved reasoning. The Socratic school was the dominant surviving influence in philosophical discussion in the Middle Ages, amongst Islamic, Christian, and Jewish philosophers.
The human soul in the works of Plato and Aristotle has a divided nature, divided in a specifically human way. One part is specifically human and rational, and divided into a part which is rational on its own, and a spirited part which can understand reason. Other parts of the soul are home to desires or passions similar to those found in animals. In both Aristotle and Plato, spiritedness (thumos) is distinguished from the other passions (epithumiai). The proper function of the "rational" was to rule the other parts of the soul, helped by spiritedness. By this account, using one's reason is the best way to live, and philosophers are the highest types of humans.
Aristotle—Plato's most famous student—made some of the most famous and influential statements about human nature. In his works, apart from using a similar scheme of a divided human soul, some clear statements about human nature are made:
- Man is a conjugal animal, meaning an animal which is born to couple when an adult, thus building a household (oikos) and, in more successful cases, a clan or small village still run upon patriarchal lines.
- Man is a political animal, meaning an animal with an innate propensity to develop more complex communities the size of a city or town, with a division of labor and law-making. This type of community is different in kind from a large family, and requires the special use of human reason.
- Man is a mimetic animal. Man loves to use his imagination (and not only to make laws and run town councils). He says "we enjoy looking at accurate likenesses of things which are themselves painful to see, obscene beasts, for instance, and corpses." And the "reason why we enjoy seeing likenesses is that, as we look, we learn and infer what each is, for instance, 'that is so and so.'"
For Aristotle, reason is not only what is most special about humanity compared to other animals, but it is also what we were meant to achieve at our best. Much of Aristotle's description of human nature is still influential today. However, the particular teleological idea that humans are "meant" or intended to be something has become much less popular in modern times.
For the Socratics, human nature, and all natures, are metaphysical concepts. Aristotle developed the standard presentation of this approach with his theory of four causes. Every living thing exhibits four aspects or "causes": matter, form, effect, and end. For example, an oak tree is made of plant cells (matter), grew from an acorn (effect), exhibits the nature of oak trees (form), and grows into a fully mature oak tree (end). Human nature is an example of a formal cause, according to Aristotle. Likewise, to become a fully actualized human being (including fully actualizing the mind) is our end. Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics, Book X) suggests that the human intellect (νούς) is "smallest in bulk" but the most significant part of the human psyche, and should be cultivated above all else. The cultivation of learning and intellectual growth of the philosopher, which is thereby also the happiest and least painful life.
In Christian theology, there are two ways of "conceiving human nature". The first is "spiritual, Biblical, and theistic", whereas the second is "natural, cosmical, and anti-theistic." The focus in this section is on the former. As William James put it in his study of human nature from a religious perspective, "religion" has a "department of human nature."
- "Humankind has its origin in God, its creator."
- "Humans bear the 'image of God'."
- Humans are "to rule the rest of creation."
The Biblecontains no single "doctrine of human nature." Rather, it provides material for more philosophical descriptions of human nature. For example, Creation as found in the Book of Genesis provides a theory on human nature.
Created human nature
As originally created, the Bible describes "two elements" in human nature: "the body and the breath or spirit of life breathed into it by God." By this was created a "living soul," that is, a "living person." According to Genesis 1:27, this living person was made in the "image of God." From the biblical perspective, "to be human is to bear the image of God."
Genesis does not elaborate the meaning of "the image of God," but scholars find suggestions. One is that being created in the image of God distinguishes human nature from that of the beasts. Another is that as God is "able to make decisions and rule" so humans made in God's image are "able to make decisions and rule." A third is that mankind possesses an inherent ability "to set goals" and move toward them. That God denoted creation as "good" suggests that Adam was "created in the image of God, in righteousness."
Adam was created with ability to make "right choices," but also with the ability to choose sin, by which he fell from righteousness into a state of "sin and depravity." Thus, according to the Bible, "humankind is not as God created it."
Fallen human nature
By Adam's fall into sin, "human nature" became "corrupt", although it retains the image of God. Both the Old Testament and the New Testament teach that "sin is universal." For example, Psalm 51:5 reads: "For behold I was conceived in iniquities; and in sins did my mother conceive me." Jesus taught that everyone is a "sinner naturally" because it is mankind's "nature and disposition to sin." Paul, in Romans 7:18, speaks of his "sinful nature."
Such a "recognition that there is something wrong with the moral nature of man is found in all religions" Augustine of Hippo coined a term for the assessment that all humans are born sinful: original sin. Original sin is "the tendency to sin innate in all human beings." The doctrine of original sin is held by the Catholic Church and most mainstream Protestant denominations, but rejected by the Eastern Orthodox Church, which holds the similar doctrine of ancestral fault.
"The corruption of original sin extends to every aspect of human nature": to "reason and will" as well as to "appetites and impulses." This condition is sometimes called "total depravity." Total depravity does not mean that humanity is as "thoroughly depraved" as it could become. Commenting on Romans 2:14, John Calvin writes that all people have "some notions of justice and rectitude . . . which are implanted by nature" all people.
Adam embodied the "whole of human nature" so when Adam sinned "all of human nature sinned" The Old Testament does not explicitly link the "corruption of human nature" to Adam's sin. However, the "universality of sin" implies a link to Adam. In the New Testament, Paul concurs with the "universality of sin." He also makes explicit what the Old Testament implied: the link between humanity's "sinful nature" and Adam's sin In Romans 5:19, Paul writes, "through [Adam's] disobedience humanity became sinful." Paul also applied humanity's sinful nature to himself: "there is nothing good in my sinful nature."
A number of experts on human nature have described the manifestations of original (i.e., the innate tendency to) sin as empirical facts.
- Biologist Richard Dawkins in his The Selfish Gene states that "a predominant quality" in a successful surviving gene is "ruthless selfishness." Furthermore, "this gene selfishness will usually give rise to selfishness in individual behavior."
- Child psychologist Burton L. White, PhD, finds a "selfish" trait in children from birth, a trait that expresses itself in actions that are "blatantly selfish."
- Sociologist William Graham Sumner finds it a fact that "everywhere one meets "fraud, corruption, ignorance, selfishness, and all the other vices of human nature." He enumerates "the vices and passions of human nature" as "cupidity, lust, vindictiveness, ambition, and vanity." Sumner finds such human nature to be universal: in all people, in all places, and in all stations in society.
- Psychiatrist Thomas Anthony Harris, MD, on the basis of his "data at hand," observes "sin, or badness, or evil, or 'human nature', whatever we call the flaw in our species, is apparent in every person." Harris calls this condition "intrinsic badness" or "original sin."
Liberal theologians in the early 20th century described human nature as "basically good" needing only "proper training and education." But the above examples document the return to a "more realistic view" of human nature "as basically sinful and self-centered." Human nature needs "to be regenerated . . . to be able to live the unselfish life."
Regenerated human nature
According to the Bible, "Adam's disobedience corrupted human nature" but God mercifully "regenerates." "Regeneration is a radical change" that involves a "renewal of our [human] nature." Thus, to counter original sin, Christianity purposes "a complete transformation of individuals" by Christ.
The goal of Christ's coming is that fallen humanity might be "conformed to or transformed into the image of Christ who is the perfect image of God," as in 2 Corinthians 4:4. The New Testament makes clear the "universal need" for regeneration. A sampling of biblical portrayals of regenerating human nature and the behavioral results follow.
- being "transformed by the renewing of your minds" (Romans 12:2)
- being transformed from one's "old self" (or "old man") into a "new self" (or "new man") (Col.3:9-10)
- being transformed from people who "hate others" and "are hard to get along with" and who are "jealous, angry, and selfish" to people who are "loving, happy, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled" (Galatians 5:20-23)
- being transformed from looking "to your own interests" to looking "to the interests of others" (Philippians 2:4)
The goal is to raise transform human nature to a "higher level" than "before the Fall," a level in which people will no longer sin. Theology holds that this goal is not reached in this life where always "human nature is deficient." Thus, the goal cannot be reached until after one dies.
There are two views of reaching the goal in an intermediate state between earth and heaven: one Protestant, the other Roman Catholic. According to both views, the Christian goal of the transformation of sinful human nature will be met. The goal is that people will be "conformed to or transformed into the image of Christ who is the perfect image of God."
Randy Alcorn says that "In heaven there will be no evil desires or corruption." Thus, because everyone's "human nature is deficient," no one can go to heaven immediately after death. Between death and the "final destination" (a sinless "New Earth"), there is an intermediate state: a temporary "intermediate Heaven." In the resurrection from this temporary state, "human nature" will be restored to "the state of its ultimate perfection." The resurrected inhabitants of the final Heaven will be "so constituted or reconstituted" that they cannot sin because they do not want to.
Jerry L. Walls agrees with the Protestant view that sinful human nature requires a "complete transformation" before admission into heaven. Earthly "regeneration begins this transformation" but does not complete it. Thus, as with the Protestant perspective, an intermediate state between earth and heaven is required. In Catholic doctrine, the intermediate state is called Purgatory, where the souls of those who have died in a state of grace but without having yet satisfied the temporal punishment for their respective sins. Purgatory is a "process of transformation" to fit its residents for heaven. The collection of souls residing in Purgatory is known as the Church Penitent.
One of the defining changes that occurred at the end of the Middle Ages was the end of the dominance of Aristotelian philosophy, and its replacement by a new approach to the study of nature, including human nature. In this approach, all attempts at conjecture about formal and final causes were rejected as useless speculation. Also, the term "law of nature" now applied to any regular and predictable pattern in nature, not literally a law made by a divine lawmaker, and, in the same way, "human nature" became not a special metaphysical cause, but simply whatever can be said to be typical tendencies of humans.
Although this new realism applied to the study of human life from the beginning—for example, in Machiavelli's works—the definitive argument for the final rejection of Aristotle was associated especially with Francis Bacon. Bacon sometimes wrote as if he accepted the traditional four causes ("It is a correct position that "true knowledge is knowledge by causes." And causes again are not improperly distributed into four kinds: the material, the formal, the efficient, and the final") but he adapted these terms and rejected one of the three:
But of these the final cause rather corrupts than advances the sciences, except such as have to do with human action. The discovery of the formal is despaired of. The efficient and the material (as they are investigated and received, that is, as remote causes, without reference to the latent process leading to the form) are but slight and superficial, and contribute little, if anything, to true and active science.
This line of thinking continued with René Descartes, whose new approach returned philosophy or science to its pre-Socratic focus upon non-human things. Thomas Hobbes, then Giambattista Vico, and David Hume all claimed to be the first to properly use a modern Baconian scientific approach to human things.
Hobbes famously followed Descartes in describing humanity as matter in motion, just like machines. He also very influentially described man's natural state (without science and artifice) as one where life would be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." Following him, John Locke's philosophy of empiricism also saw human nature as a tabula rasa. In this view, the mind is at birth a "blank slate" without rules, so data are added, and rules for processing them are formed solely by our sensory experiences.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau pushed the approach of Hobbes to an extreme and criticized it at the same time. He was a contemporary and acquaintance of Hume, writing before the French Revolution and long before Darwin and Freud. He shocked Western civilization with his Second Discourse by proposing that humans had once been solitary animals, without reason or language or communities, and had developed these things due to accidents of pre-history. (This proposal was also less famously made by Giambattista Vico.) In other words, Rousseau argued that human nature was not only not fixed, but not even approximately fixed compared to what had been assumed before him. Humans are political, and rational, and have language now, but originally they had none of these things. This in turn implied that living under the management of human reason might not be a happy way to live at all, and perhaps there is no ideal way to live. Rousseau is also unusual in the extent to which he took the approach of Hobbes, asserting that primitive humans were not even naturally social. A civilized human is therefore not only imbalanced and unhappy because of the mismatch between civilized life and human nature, but unlike Hobbes, Rousseau also became well known for the suggestion that primitive humans had been happier, "noble savages".
Rousseau's conception of human nature has been seen as the origin of many intellectual and political developments of the 19th and 20th centuries. He was an important influence upon Kant, Hegel, and Marx, and the development of German idealism, historicism, and romanticism.
What human nature did entail, according to Rousseau and the other modernists of the 17th and 18th centuries, were animal-like passions that led humanity to develop language and reasoning, and more complex communities (or communities of any kind, according to Rousseau).
In contrast to Rousseau, David Hume was a critic of the oversimplifying and systematic approach of Hobbes, Rousseau, and some others whereby, for example, all human nature is assumed to be driven by variations of selfishness. Influenced by Hutcheson and Shaftesbury, he argued against oversimplification. On the one hand, he accepted that, for many political and economic subjects, people could be assumed to be driven by such simple selfishness, and he also wrote of some of the more social aspects of "human nature" as something which could be destroyed, for example if people did not associate in just societies. On the other hand, he rejected what he called the "paradox of the sceptics", saying that no politician could have invented words like "'honourable' and 'shameful,' 'lovely' and 'odious,' 'noble' and 'despicable,'" unless there was not some natural "original constitution of the mind."
Hume—like Rousseau—was controversial in his own time for his modernist approach, following the example of Bacon and Hobbes, of avoiding consideration of metaphysical explanations for any type of cause and effect. He was accused of being an atheist. He wrote:
We needn't push our researches so far as to ask "Why do we have humanity, i.e. a fellow-feeling with others?" It's enough that we experience this as a force in human nature. Our examination of causes must stop somewhere.
After Rousseau and Hume, the nature of philosophy and science changed, branching into different disciplines and approaches, and the study of human nature changed accordingly. Rousseau's proposal that human nature is malleable became a major influence upon international revolutionary movements of various kinds, while Hume's approach has been more typical in Anglo-Saxon countries, including the United States.
As the sciences concerned with humanity split up into more specialized branches, many of the key figures of this evolution expressed influential understandings about human nature.
Charles Darwin gave a widely accepted scientific argument for what Rousseau had already argued from a different direction, that humans and other animal species have no truly fixed nature, at least in the very long term. However, he also gave modern biology a new way of understanding how human nature does exist in a normal human time-frame, and how it is caused.
E. O. Wilson's sociobiology and closely related theory of evolutionary psychology give scientific arguments against the "tabula rasa" hypotheses of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. In his book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998), Wilson claimed that it was time for a cooperation of all the sciences to explore human nature. He defined human nature as a collection of epigenetic rules: the genetic patterns of mental development. Cultural phenomena, rituals, etc. are products, not part of human nature. For example, artworks are not part of human nature, but our appreciation of art is. This art appreciation, or our fear for snakes, or incest taboo (Westermarck effect) can be studied by the methods of reductionism. Until now, these phenomena were only part of psychological, sociological, and anthropological studies. Wilson proposes that they can be part of interdisciplinary research.
- The term is also used in everyday English. Examples of standard dictionary definitions: "the nature of humans; especially: the fundamental dispositions and traits of humans" (Merriam Webster online "Full definition" http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/human%20nature); "fundamental dispositions and traits of humans" (Online Encyclopaedia Britannica https://www.britannica.com/topic/human-nature); "the psychological and social qualities that characterize humankind, especially in contrast with other living things" (http://www.dictionary.com/browse/human-nature); "the natural ways of behaving that most people share" (http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/human-nature).
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- Psalm 51:5
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