“He has a profound contempt for human nature.
Of course he is much given to introspection.”

Tallyrand

“Human nature” is an all-purpose cliché. We know you can’t change it, but we also know that it is infinitely variable. Any and all unpleasant characteristics of the species are routinely dismissed as “Only human nature.”

This sort of thing drives philosophers crazy – and also sociologists, anthropologists, human biologists, psychologists, and anyone at all who has spent more than ten minutes thinking about or studying “human nature.”

I’ll drop the quotation marks, but only because they are so annoying. In ancient times nobody thought about human nature. The Greek philosophers did, as they thought about everything. For Plato human nature was a divided thing – the intellect on the one hand and the animal appetites on the other. For Aristotle human nature had a higher purpose, which is not very clear (at least not to me).

The debate languished for about two thousand years, during which the church had a monopoly on the definition of human nature in the west. Man was a sinful, fallen creature who could only be saved by authorized agents of the church, for a price.

This brilliant scam began to fall apart in the eighteenth century. Hobbes gave us a view of human nature as inherently vile – driven by greed and fear. Rousseau offered a different view: human nature is basically good but corrupted by Society. Locke suggested a kind of rough balance, in which human beings are rationally inclined to protect themselves and their possessions, and evolve rational systems to achieve this (e.g. liberal democracy). The modern western world has followed Locke.

Since then theories about human nature have proliferated, and I don’t have the time nor the patience to chase them all down. The point is that when we talk about human nature we are always talking nonsense. Nobody has the slightest idea what it is, or whether such a thing even exists.

Yet we all have an implicit, automatic view of human nature which shines through in our lives. For some it’s all hatred and mistrust, for others it’s all love and understanding (the former group tends to get the best jobs and political positions). Everything we do gives these assumptions away. Mark Twain was profoundly cynical about people, but his humor helped the medicine go down. Hemingway was captivated by an illusion of masculinity, Virginia Woolf by an illusion of tragedy. I suppose the people and writers we like the best are those who share our particular view of human nature..

It would save us all a lot of time in the library if books could be coded according to the author’s view of human nature (“C” for cynical; “R” for romantic; “O” for optimistic; “T” for tragic, “I” for ironic, and so on). When you settle down to read in the evening it’s nice to know that you have an understanding friend for company