"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, April 11, 2016

Whistlin’ Dixie–Progressive Idealism And The Belief In Positive Change

A colleague of mine recently went to the fiftieth reunion of his country day school, and thought it a good chance to relive a bit of his childhood, visit the Old Homestead, and to reconnect with friends he had made when he was twelve.

“What will they be like?”, he asked himself, a question that most of us ask before going to a first high school or college reunion after many years.  Certainly they had changed.  After all, adulthood is no bed of roses, and marriage, profession, children, and community quickly and unremittingly take their toll.   On the other hand my colleague didn’t feel that he had changed all that much.  He had mellowed over the years, but that was a function of age rather than his hectoring first wife, a transient professional career, or absent children.  He was still as intellectually ambitious, catty, and impatient as he was as a young man.

He was right on both counts.  The bully was still a bully; the hottie was even more sexually attractive and alluring; the dummy was just as innocently but sweetly unaware as he had been at Birchfield; and the top of the class was still executive and in her prime.  Only the early adolescent edges had been smoothed.  Each of his classmates was immediately and easily recognizable. 

“I now know why I liked Herbie Morris”, he said.  Herbie had never moved much off the mark, still lived in New Brighton and had married locally, and so was perhaps a bad subject for testing my friend’s hypothesis about change; but it was remarkable how everything about him hadn’t changed an iota.  He had been a bit morose as boy, but had a peculiar humor about tiptoeing around his depressive mother and his chipper, hail-fellow-well-met father.  Fifty years later he toed the social line  like his old man and was given to bouts of gloom like his mother, but still found peculiarity – classmate Betty Blakely’s dark cleavage or the  cockatiel rouged cheeks of Mrs. Thrace, his old English teacher – funny.

“No one changes”, my colleague said after his reunion.  Hardwired at birth,  loose connections soldered by parents, finishing touches in kindergarten and final retouches by second grade,  we all are as transparent and predictable as sunrise.

Scientists and philosophers have long debated the issue of change; and their conception of  human nature was always the foundation of their ideas.  Human nature was fundamental to Marx, for example.
However, in the sixth Thesis on Feuerbach (1845), Marx criticizes the traditional conception of "human nature" as "species" which incarnates itself in each individual, on behalf of a conception of human nature as formed by the totality of "social relations". Thus, the whole of human nature is not understood, as in classical idealist philosophy, as permanent and universal: the species-being is always determined in a specific social and historical formation… (Wikipedia)

Sartre and the Existentialists agreed with Marx on the lack of any innate human nature:
Famous for saying that there is no human nature, no human essence—existence precedes essence. (So Sartre would think that you can be without being something.) There is no human nature because we are at root free—which seems to mean unconstrained to Sartre. Freedom has a negative tone for Sartre—it is a great danger (www.carroll.edu)

Plato and Aristotle thought there was indeed such a thing as human nature, and it could be best describes as rational – reason is what defines us.

Darwin understood human nature as generically animal – both men and beasts acted in the same genetically programmed way.  Christians believe that Man was given a free will by God, and that there are no Darwinian brakes on our ability to evolve spiritually.  Descartes described human beings as ‘thinking spirits’, and that whatever human nature might be, our ability to think superseded its constraints.

Nihilists like Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Schopenhauer were uninterested in human nature but the randomness of existence human, social, or historical.  Nietzsche postulated that the only validation of life in a meaningless, random world was the expression of will.  Nineteenth century socialists and their inheritors today hew to Marist philosophy.  There is no such thing as a Darwinian animal essence in Man, and he through collective action can affect the  environmental forces that shape him and society.


History and common sense are on the side of the Darwin and Nietzsche.  Shakespeare’s Histories, for example, chronicle the lives and times of England’s kings which are very little different one from the other.  The details and expressions of rule might vary, but all monarchs, courtiers, and pretenders all displayed the same aggressive, self-interested, territorial, protective behavior.  A more objective review of world events since pre-history shows that the behavior of family, tribe, nation, and empire is remarkably similar if not identical.  What else but an innate, hardwired, immutable human nature could be responsible?

Any parent paying attention will admit that their children have not changed as adults.  Whether creative, disciplined, risk-taking, compassionate, social, hermetic, or enthusiastic, these characteristics persist. 

If human nature is in fact absolute and immutable, if significant change in perspective, outlook, or behavior is impossible; and if all societies regardless of expressed intent all behave in the same ways, then are we all doomed to a dismal fatalism?

Not at all.  The wisest observer will conclude that  all people and nations act on the same principles of self-interest, survival, territorialism, and acquisitiveness; but that equally predictable and pre-determined is the conflict between differing ambitions.  Every social group configures their ambitions differently – i.e. thinks that their way is the best way – and that political, economic, and military conflict will always result.  Rather than judging ambitions in terms of right and wrong or good and evil, the sanest approach is to accept conflict as a natural expression of human nature, to recognize the natural tendency of groups to define and consolidate a political philosophy, and ultimately to defend it.

In today’s American political context, there is no absolute value in diversity.  The fight for civil, gender, racial, and ethnic rights is not a moral one, but a natural desire for an equal share of the pie.  It is quite normal for blacks and whites to be at odds just as it is for atheists and believers, homo- and heterosexuals, Latinos and Anglos, rich and poor.  Marx was right in his belief in dialectic – thesis, antithesis, and synthesis – and especially right (although he did not intend it) when applied to the dynamics of change.  There is no such thing as a higher moral value.  Interest groups at all levels of society simply contest those who stand in their way.

Shakespeare understood that an aggressive, self-serving  nature underlies all human activity; but that the infinite variety of individual expressions of it make good drama.


Looked at with enough perspective, we are clowns and trapeze artists  in a circus act – tumbling, twisting, and capable of great acrobatics but whose purpose is meaningless except to entertain.  The more one zooms in, the more individual ambitious look more serious and determined. 

Ironically, given the energy that most people expend to make sense of this multi-level life, the Buddhist Middle Way has been around for millennia.  Nothing really matters, nor has important, nor has particular value; and the only purpose in life is to navigate it.  A journey without a port can still be significant.

Such is life.  Each of us, like my colleague’s friends, acts according to a stamped, hardwired motherboard fixed in us at birth; but without the more fundamental, essential structure of primitive human nature, we wouldn’t work.  We would spark and hiss, misfire, and founder.

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