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Aristotle's Ethical Theory (2nd edn)

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V The Nature of Man

  • Published: January 1980
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According to the EN, the ‘good one is seeking’ when trying to define happiness as students of political science, is the ‘human good’, the good for man. For Aristotle, human virtue is the virtue ‘not of the body but of the soul’, and happiness has been defined as an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue. Man is ‘composite’ and the elements in the composition are body and soul. At the beginning of the De Anima , Aristotle finds fault with earlier psychologists for confining their attention to the human soul. Soul is a genus of which the souls of plants, non-human animals, and men are species, and each of these kinds of soul has its own definition.

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Human Nature

Talk of human nature is a common feature of moral and political discourse among people on the street and among philosophers, political scientists and sociologists. This is largely due to the widespread assumption that true descriptive or explanatory claims making use of the concept of human nature have, or would have, considerable normative significance. Some think that human nature excludes the possibility of certain forms of social organisation—for example, that it excludes any broadly egalitarian society. Others make the stronger claim that a true normative ethical theory has to be built on prior knowledge of human nature. Still others believe that there are specific moral prohibitions concerning the alteration of, or interference in, the set of properties that make up human nature. Finally, there are those who argue that the normative significance derives from the fact that merely deploying the concept is typically, or even necessarily, pernicious.

Alongside such varying and frequently conflicting normative uses of the expression “human nature”, there are serious disagreements concerning the concept’s content and explanatory significance—the starkest being whether the expression “human nature” refers to anything at all. Some reasons given for saying there is no human nature are anthropological, grounded in views concerning the relationship between natural and cultural features of human life. Other reasons given are biological, deriving from the character of the human species as, like other species, an essentially historical product of evolution. Whether these reasons justify the claim that there is no human nature depends, at least in part, on what it is exactly that the expression is supposed to be picking out. Many contemporary proposals differ significantly in their answers to this question.

Understanding the debates around the philosophical use of the expression “human nature” requires clarity on the reasons both for (1) adopting specific adequacy conditions for the term’s use and for (2) accepting particular substantial claims made within the framework thus adopted. One obstacle to such clarity is historical: we have inherited from the beginnings of Western philosophy, via its Medieval reception, the idea that talk of human nature brings into play a number of different, but related claims. One such set of claims derives from different meanings of the Greek equivalents of the term “nature”. This bundle of claims, which can be labelled the traditional package , is a set of adequacy conditions for any substantial claim that uses the expression “human nature”. The beginnings of Western philosophy have also handed down to us a number of such substantial claims . Examples are that humans are “rational animals” or “political animals”. We can call these claims the traditional slogans . The traditional package is a set of specifications of how claims along the lines of the traditional slogans are to be understood, i.e., what it means to claim that it is “human nature” to be, for example, a rational animal.

Various developments in Western thought have cast doubt both on the coherence of the traditional package and on the possibility that the adequacy conditions for the individual claims can be fulfilled. Foremost among these developments are the Enlightenment rejection of teleological metaphysics, the Historicist emphasis on the significance of culture for understanding human action and the Darwinian introduction of history into biological kinds. This entry aims to help clarify the adequacy conditions for claims about human nature, the satisfiability of such conditions and the reasons why the truth of claims with the relevant conditions might seem important. It proceeds in five steps. Section 1 unpacks the traditional package, paying particular attention to the importance of Aristotelian themes and to the distinction between the scientific and participant perspectives from which human nature claims can be raised. Section 2 explains why evolutionary biology raises serious problems both for the coherence of this package and for the truth of its individual component claims. Sections 3 and 4 then focus on attempts to secure scientific conceptions of human nature in the face of the challenge from evolutionary biology. The entry concludes with a discussion of accounts of human nature developed from a participant perspective, in particular accounts that, in spite of the evolutionary challenge, are taken to have normative consequences.

1.1 “Humans”

1.2 unpacking the traditional package, 1.3 essentialisms, 1.4 on the status of the traditional slogan, 2.1 the nature of the species taxon, 2.2 the nature of species specimens as species specimens, 2.3 responding to the evolutionary verdict on classificatory essences, 3.1 privileging properties, 3.2 statistical normality or robust causality, 4.1 genetically based psychological adaptations, 4.2 abandoning intrinsicality, 4.3 secondary altriciality as a game-changer, 5.1. human nature from a participant perspective, 5.2.1. sidestepping the darwinian challenge, 5.2.2. human flourishing, 5.3. reason as the unique structural property, other internet resources, related entries, 1. “humans”, slogans and the traditional package.

Before we begin unpacking, it should be noted that the adjective “human” is polysemous, a fact that often goes unnoticed in discussions of human nature, but makes a big difference to both the methodological tractability and truth of claims that employ the expression. The natural assumption may appear to be that we are talking about specimens of the biological species Homo sapiens , that is, organisms belonging to the taxon that split from the rest of the hominin lineage an estimated 150,000 years ago. However, certain claims seem to be best understood as at least potentially referring to organisms belonging to various older species within the subtribe Homo , with whom specimens of Homo sapiens share properties that have often been deemed significant (Sterelny 2018: 114).

On the other hand, the “nature” that is of interest often appears to be that of organisms belonging to a more restricted group. There may have been a significant time lag between the speciation of anatomically modern humans ( Homo sapiens ) and the evolution of behaviourally modern humans, i.e., human populations whose life forms involved symbol use, complex tool making, coordinated hunting and increased geographic range. Behavioural modernity’s development is often believed only to have been completed by 50,000 years ago. If, as is sometimes claimed, behavioural modernity requires psychological capacities for planning, abstract thought, innovativeness and symbolism (McBrearty & Brooks 2000: 492) and if these were not yet widely or sufficiently present for several tens of thousands of years after speciation, then it may well be behaviourally, rather than anatomically modern humans whose “nature” is of interest to many theories. Perhaps the restriction might be drawn even tighter to include only contemporary humans, that is, those specimens of the species who, since the introduction of agriculture around 12,000 years ago, evolved the skills and capacities necessary for life in large sedentary, impersonal and hierarchical groups (Kappeler, Fichtel, & van Schaik 2019: 68).

It was, after all, a Greek living less than two and a half millennia ago within such a sedentary, hierarchically organised population structure, who could have had no conception of the prehistory of the beings he called anthrôpoi , whose thoughts on their “nature” have been decisive for the history of philosophical reflection on the subject. It seems highly likely that, without the influence of Aristotle, discussions of “human nature” would not be structured as they are until today.

We can usefully distinguish four types of claim that have been traditionally made using the expression “human nature”. As a result of a particular feature of Aristotle’s philosophy, to which we will come in a moment, these four claims are associated with five different uses of the expression. Uses of the first type seem to have their origin in Plato; uses of the second, third and fourth type are Aristotelian; and, although uses of the fifth type have historically been associated with Aristotle, this association seems to derive from a misreading in the context of the religiously motivated Mediaeval reception of his philosophy.

A first , thin, contrastive use of the expression “human nature” is provided by the application of a thin, generic concept of nature to humans. In this minimal variant, nature is understood in purely contrastive or negative terms. Phusis is contrasted in Plato and Aristotle with technē , where the latter is the product of intention and a corresponding intervention of agency. If the entire cosmos is taken to be the product of divine agency, then, as Plato argued (Nadaf 2005: 1ff.), conceptualisations of the cosmos as natural in this sense are mistaken. Absent divine agency, the types of agents whose intentions are relevant for the status of anything as natural are human agents. Applied to humans, then, this concept of nature picks out human features that are not the results of human intentional action. Thus understood, human nature is the set of human features or processes that remain after subtraction of those picked out by concepts of the non-natural, concepts such as “culture”, “nurture”, or “socialisation”.

A second component in the package supplies the thin concept with substantial content that confers on it explanatory power. According to Aristotle, natural entities are those that contain in themselves the principle of their own production or development, in the way that acorns contain a blueprint for their own realisation as oak trees ( Physics 192b; Metaphysics 1014b). The “nature” of natural entities thus conceptualised is a subset of the features that make up their nature in the first sense. The human specification of this explanatory concept of nature aims to pick out human features that similarly function as blueprints for something like a fully realised form. According to Aristotle, for all animals that blueprint is “the soul”, that is, the integrated functional capacities that characterise the fully developed entity. The blueprint is realised when matter, i.e., the body, has attained the level of organisation required to instantiate the animal’s living functions (Charles 2000: 320ff.; Lennox 2009: 356).

A terminological complication is introduced here by the fact that the fully developed form of an entity is itself also frequently designated as its “nature” (Aristotle, Physics 193b; Politics 1252b). In Aristotle’s teleological metaphysics, this is the entity’s end, “that for the sake of which a thing is” ( Metaphysics 1050a; Charles 2000: 259). Thus, a human’s “nature”, like that of any other being, may be either the features in virtue of which it is disposed to develop to a certain mature form or, thirdly , the form to which it is disposed to develop.

Importantly, the particularly prominent focus on the idea of a fully developed form in Aristotle’s discussions of humans derives from its dual role. It is not only the form to the realisation of which human neonates are disposed; it is also the form that mature members of the species ought to realise ( Politics 1253a). This normative specification is the fourth component of the traditional package. The second, third and fourth uses of “nature” are all in the original package firmly anchored in a teleological metaphysics. One question for systematic claims about human nature is whether any of these components remain plausible if we reject a teleology firmly anchored in theology (Sedley 2010: 5ff.).

A fifth and last component of the package that has traditionally been taken to have been handed down from antiquity is classificatory. Here, the property or set of properties named by the expression “human nature” is that property or property set in virtue of the possession of which particular organisms belong to a particular biological taxon: what we now identify as the species taxon Homo sapiens . This is human nature typologically understood.

This, then, is the traditional package:

The sort of properties that have traditionally been taken to support the classificatory practices relevant to TP5 are intrinsic to the individual organisms in question. Moreover, they have been taken to be able to fulfil this role in virtue of being necessary and sufficient for the organism’s membership of the species, i.e., “essential” in one meaning of the term. This view of species membership, and the associated view of species themselves, has been influentially dubbed “typological thinking” (Mayr 1959 [1976: 27f.]; cf. Mayr 1982: 260) and “essentialism” (Hull 1965: 314ff.; cf. Mayr 1968 [1976: 428f.]). The former characterisation involves an epistemological focus on the classificatory procedure, the latter a metaphysical focus on the properties thus singled out. Ernst Mayr claimed that the classificatory approach originates in Plato’s theory of forms, and, as a result, involves the further assumption that the properties are unchanging. According to David Hull, its root cause is the attempt to fit the ontology of species taxa to an Aristotelian theory of definition.

The theory of definition developed in Aristotle’s logical works assigns entities to a genus and distinguishes them from other members of the genus, i.e., from other “species”, by their differentiae ( Topics 103b). The procedure is descended from the “method of division” of Plato, who provides a crude example as applied to humans, when he has the Eleatic Stranger in the Statesman characterise them as featherless bipeds (266e). Hull and many scholars in his wake (Dupré 2001: 102f.) have claimed that this simple schema for picking out essential conditions for species membership had a seriously deleterious effect on biological taxonomy until Darwin (cf. Winsor 2006).

However, there is now widespread agreement that Aristotle was no taxonomic essentialist (Balme 1980: 5ff.; Mayr 1982: 150ff.; Balme 1987: 72ff.; Ereshefsky 2001: 20f; Richards 2010: 21ff.; Wilkins 2018: 9ff.). First, the distinction between genus and differentiae was for Aristotle relative to the task at hand, so that a “species” picked out in this manner could then count as the genus for further differentiation. Second, the Latin term “species”, a translation of the Greek eidos , was a logical category with no privileged relationship to biological entities; a prime example in the Topics is the species justice, distinguished within the genus virtue (143a). Third, in a key methodological passage, Parts of Animals , I.2–3 (642b–644b), Aristotle explicitly rejects the method of “dichotomous division”, which assigns entities to a genus and then seeks a single differentia, as inappropriate to the individuation of animal kinds. Instead, he claims, a multiplicity of differentiae should be brought to bear. He emphasises this point in relation to humans (644a).

According to Pierre Pellegrin and David Balme, Aristotle did not seek to establish a taxonomic system in his biological works (Pellegrin 1982 [1986: 113ff.]; Balme 1987, 72). Rather, he simply accepted the everyday common sense partitioning of the animal world (Pellegrin 1982 [1986: 120]; Richards 2010: 24; but cf. Charles 2000: 343ff.). If this is correct, Aristotle didn’t even ask after the conditions for belonging to the species Homo sapiens . So he wasn’t proposing any particular answer, and specifically not the “essentialist” answer advanced by TP5. In as far as such an answer has been employed in biological taxonomy (cf. Winsor 2003), its roots appear to lie in Neoplatonic, Catholic misinterpretations of Aristotle (Richards 2010: 34ff.; Wilkins 2018: 22ff.). Be that as it may, the fifth use of “human nature” transported by tradition—to pick out essential conditions for an organism’s belonging to the species—is of eminent interest. The systematic concern behind Mayr and Hull’s historical claims is that accounts of the form of TP5 are incompatible with evolutionary theory. We shall look at this concern in section 2 of this entry.

Because the term “essentialism” recurs with different meanings in discussions of human nature and because some of the theoretical claims thus summarised are assumed to be Aristotelian in origin, it is worth spending a moment here to register what claims can be singled out by the expression. The first , purely classificatory conception just discussed should be distinguished from a second view that is also frequently labelled “essentialist” and which goes back to Locke’s concept of “real essence” (1689: III, iii, 15). According to essentialism thus understood, an essence is the intrinsic feature or features of an entity that fulfils or fulfil a dual role: firstly, of being that in virtue of which something belongs to a kind and, secondly, of explaining why things of that kind typically have a particular set of observable features. Thus conceived, “essence” has both a classificatory and an explanatory function and is the core of a highly influential, “essentialist” theory of natural kinds, developed in the wake of Kripke’s and Putnam’s theories of reference.

An account of human nature that is essentialist in this sense would take the nature of the human natural kind to be a set of microstructural properties that have two roles: first, they constitute an organism’s membership of the species Homo sapiens . Second, they are causally responsible for the organism manifesting morphological and behavioural properties typical of species members. Paradigms of entities with such natures or essences are chemical elements. An example is the element with the atomic number 79, the microstructural feature that accounts for surface properties of gold such as yellowness. Applied to organisms, it seems that the relevant explanatory relationship will be developmental, the microstructures providing something like a blueprint for the properties of the mature individual. Kripke assumed that some such blueprint is the “internal structure” responsible for the typical development of tigers as striped, carnivorous quadrupeds (Kripke 1972 [1980: 120f.]).

As the first, pseudo-Aristotelian version of essentialism illustrates, the classificatory and explanatory components of what we might call “Kripkean essentialism” can be taken apart. Thus, “human nature” can also be understood in exclusively explanatory terms, viz. as the set of microstructural properties responsible for typical human morphological and behavioural features. In such an account, the ability to pick out the relevant organisms is simply presupposed. As we shall see in section 4 of this entry, accounts of this kind have been popular in the contemporary debate. The subtraction of the classificatory function of the properties in these conceptions has generally seemed to warrant withholding from them the label “essentialist”. However, because some authors have still seen the term as applicable (Dupré 2001: 162), we might think of such accounts as constituting a third , weak or deflationary variant of essentialism.

Such purely explanatory accounts are descendants of the second use of “human nature” in the traditional package, the difference being that they don’t usually presuppose some notion of the fully developed human form. However, where some such presupposition is made, there are stronger grounds for talking of an “essentialist” account. Elliott Sober has argued that the key to essentialism is not classification in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions, but the postulation of some “privileged state”, to the realisation of which specimens of a species tend, as long as no extrinsic factors “interfere” (Sober 1980: 358ff.). Such a dispositional-teleological conception, dissociated from classificatory ambitions, would be a fourth form of essentialism. Sober rightly associates such an account with Aristotle, citing Aristotle’s claims in his zoological writings that interfering forces are responsible for deviations, i.e., morphological differences, both within and between species. A contemporary account of human nature with this structure will be discussed in section 4 .

A fifth and final form of essentialism is even more clearly Aristotelian. Here, an explicitly normative status is conferred on the set of properties to the development of which human organisms tend. For normative essentialism, “the human essence” or “human nature” is a normative standard for the evaluation of organisms belonging to the species. Where the first, third and fourth uses of the expression have tended to be made with critical intent (for defensive exceptions, see Charles 2000: 348ff.; Walsh 2006; Devitt 2008; Boulter 2012), this fifth use is more often a self-ascription (e.g., Nussbaum 1992). It is intended to emphasise metaethical claims of a specific type. According to such claims, an organism’s belonging to the human species entails or in some way involves the applicability to the organism of moral norms that ground in the value of the fully developed human form. According to one version of this thought, humans ought be, or ought to be enabled to be, rational because rationality is a key feature of the fully developed human form. Such normative-teleological accounts of human nature will be the focus of section 5.2 .

We can summarise the variants of essentialism and their relationship to the components of the traditional package as follows:

Section 2 and section 5 of this entry deal with the purely classificatory and the normative teleological conceptions of human nature respectively, and with the associated types of essentialism. Section 3 discusses attempts to downgrade TP5, moving from essential to merely characteristic properties. Section 4 focuses on accounts of an explanatory human nature, both on attempts to provide a modernized version of the teleological blueprint model ( §4.1 ) and on explanatory conceptions with deflationary intent relative to the claims of TP2 and TP3 ( §4.2 and §4.3 ).

The traditional package specifies a set of conditions some or all of which substantial claims about “human nature” are supposed to meet. Before we turn to the systematic arguments central to contemporary debates on whether such conditions can be met, it will be helpful to spend a moment considering one highly influential substantial claim. Aristotle’s writings prominently contain two such claims that have been handed down in slogan form. The first is that the human being (more accurately: “man”) is an animal that is in some important sense social (“zoon politikon”, History of Animals 487b; Politics 1253a; Nicomachean Ethics 1169b). According to the second, “he” is a rational animal ( Politics 1253a, where Aristotle doesn’t actually use the traditionally ascribed slogan, “zoon logon echon”).

Aristotle makes both claims in very different theoretical contexts, on the one hand, in his zoological writings and, on the other, in his ethical and political works. This fact, together with the fact that Aristotle’s philosophy of nature and his practical philosophy are united by a teleological metaphysics, may make it appear obvious that the slogans are biological claims that provide a foundation for normative claims in ethics and politics. The slogans do indeed function as foundations in the Politics and the Nicomachean Ethics respectively (on the latter, see section 5 of this entry). It is, however, unclear whether they are to be understood as biological claims. Let us focus on the slogan that has traditionally dominated discussions of human nature in Western philosophy, that humans are “rational animals”.

First, if Pellegrin and Balme are right that Aristotelian zoology is uninterested in classifying species, then ascribing the capacity for “rationality” cannot have the function of naming a biological trait that distinguishes humans from other animals. This is supported by two further sets of considerations. To begin with, Aristotle’s explicit assertion that a series of differentiae would be needed to “define” humans ( Parts of Animals 644a) is cashed out in the long list of features he takes to be their distinguishing marks, such as speech, having hair on both eyelids, blinking, having hands, upright posture, breasts in front, the largest and moistest brain, fleshy legs and buttocks (Lloyd 1983: 29ff.). Furthermore, there is in Aristotle no capacity for reason that is both exclusive to, and universal among anthropoi . One part or kind of reason, “practical intelligence” ( phronesis ), is, Aristotle claims, found in both humans and other animals, being merely superior in the former ( Parts of Animals , 687a). Now, there are other forms of reasoning of which this is not true, forms whose presence are sufficient for being human: humans are the only animals capable of deliberation ( History of Animals 488b) and reasoning ( to noein ), in as far as this extends to mathematics and first philosophy. Nevertheless, these forms of reasoning are unnecessary: slaves, who Aristotle includes among humans ( Politics 1255a), are said to have no deliberative faculty ( to bouleutikon ) at all ( Politics 1260a; cf. Richter 2011: 42ff.). Presumably, they will also be without the capacities necessary for first philosophy.

Second, these Aristotelian claims raise the question as to whether the ascription of rationality is even intended as an ascription to an individual in as far as she or he belongs to a biological kind. The answer might appear to be obviously affirmative. Aristotle uses the claim that a higher level of reason is characteristic of humans to teleologically explain other morphological features, in particular upright gait and the morphology of the hands ( Parts of Animals 686a, 687a). However, the kind of reason at issue here is practical intelligence, the kind humans and animals share, not the capacity for mathematics and metaphysics, which among animals is exercised exclusively by humans. In as far as humans are able to exercise this latter capacity in contemplation, Aristotle claims that they “partake of the divine” ( Parts of Animals 656a), a claim of which he makes extensive use when grounding his ethics in human rationality ( Nicomachean Ethics 1177b–1178b). When, in a passage to which James Lennox has drawn attention (Lennox 1999), Aristotle declares that the rational part of the soul cannot be the object of natural science ( Parts of Animals 645a), it seems to be the contemplative part of the soul that is thus excluded from biological investigation, precisely the feature that is named in the influential slogan. If it is the “something divine … present in” humans that is decisively distinctive of their kind, it seems unclear whether the relevant kind is biological.

It is not the aim of this entry to decide questions of Aristotle interpretation. What is important is that the relationship of the question of “human nature” to biology is, from the beginning of the concept’s career, not as unequivocal as is often assumed (e.g., Hull 1986: 7; Richards 2010: 217f.). This is particularly true of the slogan according to which humans are rational animals. In the history of philosophy, this slogan has frequently been detached from any attempt to provide criteria for biological classification or characterisation. When Aquinas picks up the slogan, he is concerned to emphasise that human nature involves a material, corporeal aspect. This aspect is, however, not thought of in biological terms. Humans are decisively “rational substances”, i.e., persons. As such they also belong to a kind whose members also number angels and God (three times) (Eberl 2004). Similarly, Kant is primarily, indeed almost exclusively, interested in human beings as examples of “rational nature”, “human nature” being only one way in which rational nature can be instantiated (Kant 1785, 64, 76, 85). For this reason, Kant generally talks of “rational beings”, rather than of “rational animals” (1785, 45, 95).

There is, then, a perspective on humans that is plausibly present in Aristotle, stronger in Aquinas and dominant in Kant and that involves seeing them as instances of a kind other than the “human kind”, i.e., seeing the human animal “as a rational being” (Kant 1785 [1996: 45]). According to this view, the “nature” of humans that is most worthy of philosophical interest is the one they possess not insofar as they are human, but insofar as they are rational. Where this is the relevant use of the concept of human nature, being a specimen of the biological species is unnecessary for possessing the corresponding property. Specimens of other species, as well as non-biological entities may also belong to the relevant kind. It is also insufficient, as not all humans will have the properties necessary for membership in that kind.

As both a biologist and ethicist, Aristotle is at once a detached scientist and a participant in forms of interpersonal and political interaction only available to contemporary humans living in large, sedentary subpopulations. It seems plausible that a participant perspective may have suggested a different take on what it is to be human, perhaps even a different take on the sense in which humans might be rational animals, to that of biological science. We will return to this difference in section 5 of the entry.

2. The Nature of the Evolutionary Unit Homo sapiens and its Specimens

Detailing the features in virtue of which an organism is a specimen of the species Homo sapiens is a purely biological task. Whether such specification is achievable and, if so how, is controversial. It is controversial for the same reasons for which it is controversial what conditions need to be met for an organism to be a specimen of any species. These reasons derive from the theory of evolution.

A first step to understanding these reasons involves noting a further ambiguity in the use of the expression “human nature”, this time an ambiguity specific to taxonomy. The term can be used to pick out a set of properties as an answer to two different questions. The first concerns the properties of some organism which make it the case that it belongs to the species Homo sapiens . The second concerns the properties in virtue of which a population or metapopulation is the species Homo sapiens . Correspondingly, “human nature” can pick out either the properties of organisms that constitute their partaking in the species Homo sapiens or the properties of some higher-level entity that constitute it as that species. Human nature might then either be the nature of the species or the nature of species specimens as specimens of the species.

It is evolution that confers on this distinction its particular form and importance. The variation among organismic traits, without which there would be no evolution, has its decisive effects at the level of populations. These are groups of organisms that in some way cohere at a time in spite of the variation of traits among the component organisms. It is population-level groupings, taxa, not organisms, that evolve and it is taxa, such as species, that provide the organisms that belong to them with genetic resources (Ghiselin 1987: 141). The species Homo sapiens appears to be a metapopulation that coheres at least in part because of the gene flow between its component organisms brought about by interbreeding (cf. Ereshefsky 1991: 96ff.). Hence, according to evolutionary theory, Homo sapiens is plausibly a higher-level entity—a unit of evolution—consisting of the lower-level entities that are individual human beings. The two questions phrased in terms of “human nature” thus concern the conditions for individuation of the population-level entity and the conditions under which organisms are components of that entity.

The theory of evolution transforms the way we should understand the relationship between human organisms and the species to which they belong. The taxonomic assumption of TP5 was that species are individuated by means of intrinsic properties that are individually instantiated by certain organisms. Instantiating those properties is taken to be necessary and sufficient for those organisms to belong to the species. Evolutionary theory makes it clear that species, as population-level entities, cannot be individuated by means of the properties of lower-level constituents, in our case, of individual human organisms (Sober 1980: 355).

The exclusion of this possibility grounds a decisive difference from the way natural kinds are standardly construed in the wake of Locke and Kripke. Recall that, in this Kripkean construal, lumps of matter are instances of chemical kinds because of their satisfaction of intrinsic necessary and sufficient conditions, viz. their atoms possessing a certain number of protons. The same conditions also individuate the chemical kinds themselves. Chemical kinds are thus spatiotemporally unrestricted sets. This means that there are no metaphysical barriers to the chance generation of members of the kind, independently of whether the kind is instantiated at any contiguous time or place. Nitrogen could come to exist by metaphysical happenstance, should an element with the atomic number 14 somehow come into being, even in a world in which up to that point no nitrogen has existed (Hull 1978: 349; 1984: 22).

In contrast, a species can only exist at time \(t_n\) if either it or a parent species existed at \(t_{n-1}\) and there was some relationship of spatial contiguity between component individuals of the species at \(t_n\) and the individuals belonging to either the same species or the parent species at \(t_{n-1}\). This is because of the essential role of the causal relationship of heredity. Heredity generates both the coherence across a population requisite for the existence of a species and the variability of predominant traits within the population, without which a species would not evolve.

For this reason, the species Homo sapiens , like every other species taxon, must meet a historical or genealogical condition. (For pluralistic objections to even this condition, see Kitcher 1984: 320ff.; Dupré 1993: 49f.) This condition is best expressed as a segment of a population-level phylogenetic tree, where such trees represent ancestor-descendent series (Hull 1978: 349; de Queiroz 1999: 50ff.; 2005). Species, as the point is often put, are historical entities, rather than kinds or classes (Hull 1978: 338ff.; 1984: 19). The fact that species are not only temporally, but also spatially restricted has also led to the stronger claim that they are individuals (Ghiselin 1974; 1997: 14ff.; Hull 1978: 338). If this is correct, then organisms are not members, but parts of species taxa. Independently of whether this claim is true for all biological species, Homo sapiens is a good candidate for a species that belongs to the category individual . This is because the species is characterised not only by spatiotemporal continuity, but also by causal processes that account for the coherence between its component parts. These processes plausibly include not only interbreeding, but also conspecific recognition and particular forms of communication (Richards 2010: 158ff., 218).

Importantly, the genealogical condition is only a necessary condition, as genealogy unites all the segments of one lineage. The segment of the phylogenetic tree that represents some species taxon begins with a node that represents a lineage-splitting or speciation event. Determining that node requires attention to general speciation theory, which has proposed various competing criteria (Dupré 1993: 48f.; Okasha 2002: 201; Coyne & Orr 2004). In the case of Homo sapiens , it requires attention to the specifics of the human case, which are also controversial (see Crow 2003; Cela-Conde & Ayala 2017: 11ff.). The end point of the segment is marked either by some further speciation event or, as may seem likely in the case of Homo sapiens , by the destruction of the metapopulation. Only when the temporal boundaries of the segment have become determinate would it be possible to adduce sufficient conditions for the existence of such a historical entity. Hence, if “human nature” is understood to pick out the necessary and sufficient conditions that individuate the species taxon Homo sapiens , its content is not only controversial, but epistemically unavailable to us.

If we take such a view of the individuating conditions for the species Homo sapiens , what are the consequences for the question of which organisms belong to the species? It might appear that it leaves open the possibility that speciation has resulted in some intrinsic property or set of properties establishing the cohesion specific to the taxon and that such properties count as necessary and sufficient for belonging to it (cf. Devitt 2008: 17ff.). This appearance would be deceptive. To begin with, no intrinsic property can be necessary because of the sheer empirical improbability that all species specimens grouped together by the relevant lineage segment instantiate any such candidate property. For example, there are individuals who are missing legs, inner organs or the capacity for language, but who remain biologically human (Hull 1986: 5). Evolutionary theory clarifies why this is so: variability, secured by mechanisms such as mutation and recombination, is the key to evolution, so that, should some qualitative property happen to be universal among all extant species specimens immediately after the completion of speciation, that is no guarantee that it will continue to be so throughout the lifespan of the taxon (Hull 1984: 35; Ereshefsky 2008: 101). The common thought that there must be at least some genetic property common to all human organisms is also false (R. Wilson 1999a: 190; Sterelny & Griffiths 1999: 7; Okasha 2002: 196f.): phenotypical properties that are shared in a population are frequently co-instantiated as a result of the complex interaction of differing gene-regulatory networks. Conversely, the same network can under different circumstances lead to differing phenotypical consequences (Walsh 2006: 437ff.). Even if it should turn out that every human organism instantiated some property, this would be a contingent, rather than a necessary fact (Sober 1980: 354; Hull 1986: 3).

Moreover, the chances of any such universal property also being sufficient are vanishingly small, as the sharing of properties by specimens of other species can result from various mechanisms, in particular from the inheritance of common genes in related species and from parallel evolution. This doesn’t entail that there may be no intrinsic properties that are sufficient belonging to the species. There are fairly good candidates for such properties, if we compare humans with other terrestrial organisms. Language use and a self-understanding as moral agents come to mind. However, whether non-terrestrial entities might possess such properties is an open question. And decisively, they are obviously hopeless as necessary conditions (cf. Samuels 2012: 9).

This leaves only the possibility that the conditions for belonging to the species are, like the individuating conditions for the species taxon, relational. Lineage-based individuation of a taxon depends on its component organisms being spatially and temporally situated in such a way that the causal processes necessary for the inheritance of traits can take place. In the human case, the key processes are those of sexual reproduction. Therefore, being an organism that belongs to the species Homo sapiens is a matter of being connected reproductively to organisms situated unequivocally on the relevant lineage segment. In other words, the key necessary condition is having been sexually reproduced by specimens of the species (Kronfeldner 2018: 100). Hull suggests that the causal condition may be disjunctive, as it could also be fulfilled by a synthetic entity created by scientists that produces offspring with humans who have been generated in the standard manner (Hull 1978: 349). Provided that the species is not in the throes of speciation, such direct descent or integration into the reproductive community, i.e., participation in the “complex network […] of mating and reproduction” (Hull 1986: 4), will also be sufficient.

The lack of a “human essence” in the sense of intrinsic necessary and sufficient conditions for belonging to the species taxon Homo sapiens , has led a number of philosophers to deny that there is any such thing as human nature (Hull 1984: 19; 1986; Ghiselin 1997: 1; de Sousa 2000). As this negative claim concerns properties intrinsic both to relevant organisms and to the taxon, it is equally directed at the “nature” of the organisms as species specimens and at that of the species taxon itself. An alternative consists in retracting the condition that a classificatory essence must be intrinsic, a move which allows talk of a historical or relational essence and a corresponding relational conception of taxonomic human nature (Okasha 2002: 202).

Which of these ways of responding to the challenge from evolutionary theory appears best is likely to depend on how one takes it that the classificatory issues relate to the other matters at stake in the original human nature package. These concern the explanatory and normative questions raised by TP1–TP4. We turn to these in the following three sections of this article.

An exclusively genealogical conception of human nature is clearly not well placed to fulfil an explanatory role comparable to that envisaged in the traditional package. What might have an explanatory function are the properties of the entities from which the taxon or its specimens are descended. Human nature, genealogically understood, might serve as the conduit for explanations in terms of such properties, but will not itself explain anything. After all, integration in a network of sexual reproduction will be partly definitive of the specimens of all sexual species, whilst what is to be explained will vary enormously across taxa.

This lack of fit between classificatory and explanatory roles confronts us with a number of further theoretical possibilities. For example, one might see this incompatibility as strengthening the worries of eliminativists such as Ghiselin and Hull: even if the subtraction of intrinsicality were not on its own sufficient to justify abandoning talk of human nature, its conjunction with a lack of explanatory power, one might think, certainly is (Dupré 2003: 109f.; Lewens 2012: 473). Or one might argue that it is the classificatory ambitions associated with talk of human nature that should be abandoned. Once this is done, one might hope that certain sets of intrinsic properties can be distinguished that figure decisively in explanations and that can still justifiably be labelled “human nature” (Roughley 2011: 15; Godfrey-Smith 2014: 140).

Taking this second line in turn raises two questions: first, in what sense are the properties thus picked out specifically “human”, if they are neither universal among, nor unique to species specimens? Second, in what sense are the properties “natural”? Naturalness as independence from the effects of human intentional action is a key feature of the original package (TP1). Whether some such conception can be coherently applied to humans is a challenge for any non-classificatory account.

3. Characteristic Human Properties

The answer given by TP2 to the first question was in terms of the fully developed human form, where “form” does not refer solely to observable physical or behavioural characteristics, but also includes psychological features. This answer entails two claims: first, that there is one single such “form”, i.e., property or set of properties, that figures in explanations that range across individual human organisms. It also entails that there is a point in human development that counts as “full”, that is, as development’s goal or “telos”. These claims go hand in hand with the assumption that there is a distinction to be drawn between normal and abnormal adult specimens of the species. There is, common sense tells us, a sense in which normal adult humans have two legs, two eyes, one heart and two kidneys at specific locations in the body; they also have various dispositions, for instance, to feel pain and to feel emotions, and a set of capacities, such as for perception and for reasoning. And these, so it seems, may be missing, or under- or overdeveloped in abnormal specimens.

Sober has influentially described accounts that work with such teleological assumptions as adhering to an Aristotelian “Natural State Model” (Sober 1980: 353ff.). Such accounts work with a distinction that has no place in evolutionary biology, according to which variation of properties across populations is the key to evolution. Hence, no particular end states of organisms are privileged as “natural” or “normal” (Hull 1986: 7ff.). So any account that privileges particular morphological, behavioural or psychological human features has to provide good reasons that are both non-evolutionary and yet compatible with the evolutionary account of species. Because of the way that the notion of the normal is frequently employed to exclude and oppress, those reasons should be particularly good (Silvers 1998; Dupré 2003: 119ff.; Richter 2011: 43ff.; Kronfeldner 2018: 15ff.).

The kinds of reasons that may be advanced could either be internal to, or independent of the biological sciences. If the former, then various theoretical options may seem viable. The first grounds in the claim that, although species are not natural kinds and are thus unsuited to figuring in laws of nature (Hull 1987: 171), they do support descriptions with a significant degree of generality, some of which may be important (Hull 1984: 19). A theory of human nature developed on this basis should explain the kind of importance on the basis of which particular properties are emphasised. The second theoretical option is pluralism about the metaphysics of species: in spite of the fairly broad consensus that species are defined as units of evolution, the pluralist can deny the primacy of evolutionary dynamics, arguing that other epistemic aims allow the ecologist, the systematist or the ethologist to work with an equally legitimate concept of species that is not, or not exclusively genealogical (cf. Hull 1984: 36; Kitcher 1986: 320ff.; Hull 1987: 178–81; Dupré 1993: 43f.). The third option involves a relaxation of the concept of natural kinds, such that it no longer entails the instantiation of intrinsic, necessary, sufficient and spatiotemporally unrestricted properties, but is nevertheless able to support causal explanations. Such accounts aim to reunite taxonomic and explanatory criteria, thus allowing species taxa to count as natural kinds after all (Boyd 1999a; R. Wilson, Barker, & Brigandt 2007: 196ff.). Where, finally , the reasons advanced for privileging certain properties are independent of biology, these tend to concern features of humans’—“our”—self-understanding as participants in, rather than observers of, a particular form of life. These are likely to be connected to normative considerations. Here again, it seems that a special explanation will be required for why these privileged properties should be grouped under the rubric “human nature”.

The accounts to be described in the next subsection (3.2) of this entry are examples of the first strategy. Section 4 includes discussion of the relaxed natural kinds strategy. Section 5 focuses on accounts of human nature developed from a participant perspective and also notes the support that the pluralist metaphysical strategy might be taken to provide.

Begin, then, with the idea that to provide an account of “human nature” is to circumscribe a set of generalisations concerning humans. An approach of this sort sees the properties thus itemised as specifically “human” in as far as they are common among species specimens. So the privilege accorded to these properties is purely statistical and “normal” means statistically normal. Note that taking the set of statistically normal properties of humans as a non-teleological replacement for the fully developed human form retains from the original package the possibility of labelling as “human nature” either those properties themselves (TP3) or their developmental cause (TP2). Either approach avoids the classificatory worries dealt with in section 2 : it presupposes that those organisms whose properties are relevant are already distinguished as such specimens. What is to be explained is, then, the ways humans generally, though not universally, are. And among these ways are ways they may share with most specimens of some other species, in particular those that belong to the same order (primates) and the same class (mammals).

One should be clear what follows from this interpretation of “human”. The organisms among whom statistical frequency is sought range over those generated after speciation around 150,000 years ago to those that will exist immediately prior to the species’ extinction. On the one hand, because of the variability intrinsic to species, we are in the dark as to the properties that may or may not characterise those organisms that will turn out to be the last of the taxon. On the other hand, the time lag of around 100,000 years between the first anatomically modern humans and the general onset of behavioural modernity around the beginning of the Upper Palaeolithic means that there are likely to be many widespread psychological properties of contemporary humans that were not possessed by the majority of the species’ specimens during two thirds of the species’ history. This is true even if the practices seen as the signatures of behavioural modernity (see §1.1 ) developed sporadically, disappeared and reappeared at far removed points of time and space over tens of thousands of years before 50,000 ka (McBrearty & Brooks 2000; Sterelny 2011).

According to several authors (Machery 2008; 2018; Samuels 2012; Ramsey 2013), the expression “human nature” should be used to group properties that are the focus of much current behavioural, psychological and social science. However, as the cognitive and psychological sciences are generally interested in present-day humans, there is a mismatch between scientific focus and a grouping criterion that takes in all the properties generally or typically instantiated by specimens of the entire taxon. For this reason, the expression “human nature” is likely to refer to properties of an even more temporally restricted set of organisms belonging to the species. That restriction can be thought of in indexical terms, i.e., as a restriction to contemporary humans. However, some authors claim explicitly that their accounts entail that human nature can change (Ramsey 2013: 992; Machery 2018: 20). Human nature would then be the object of temporally indexed investigations, as is, for example, the weight of individual humans in everyday contexts. (Without temporal specification, there is no determinate answer to a question such as “How much did David Hume weigh?”) An example of Machery’s is dark skin colour. This characteristic, he claims, ceased to be a feature of human nature thus understood 7,000 years ago, if that was when skin pigmentation became polymorphic. The example indicates that the temporal range may be extremely narrow from an evolutionary point of view.

Such accounts are both compatible with evolutionary theory and coherent. However, in as far as they are mere summary or list conceptions, it is unclear what their epistemic value might be. They will tend to accord with everyday common sense, for which “human nature” may in a fairly low-key sense simply be the properties that (contemporary) humans generally tend to manifest (Roughley 2011: 16). They will also conform to one level of the expression’s use in Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature (1739–40), which, in an attempt to provide a human “mental geography” (1748 [1970: 13]), lists a whole series of features, such as prejudice (1739–40, I,iii,13), selfishness (III,ii,5), a tendency to temporal discounting (III,ii,7) and an addiction to general rules (III,ii,9).

Accounts of this kind have been seen as similar in content to field guides for other animals (Machery 2008: 323; Godfrey-Smith 2014: 139). As Hull points out, within a restricted ecological context and a short period of evolutionary time, the ascription of readily observable morphological or behavioural characteristics to species specimens is a straightforward and unproblematic enterprise (Hull 1987: 175). However, the analogy is fairly unhelpful, as the primary function of assertions in field guides is to provide a heuristics for amateur classification. In contrast, a list conception of the statistically normal properties of contemporary humans presupposes identification of the organisms in question as humans. Moreover, such accounts certainly do not entail easy epistemic access to the properties in question, which may only be experimentally discovered. Nevertheless, there remains something correct about the analogy, as such accounts are a collection of assertions linked only by the fact that they are about the same group of organisms (Sterelny 2018: 123).

More sophisticated nature documentaries may summarise causal features of the lives of animals belonging to specific species. An analogous conception of human nature has also been proposed, according to which human nature is a set of pervasive and robust causal nexuses amongst humans. The list that picks out this set would specify causal connections between antecedent properties, such as having been exposed to benzene or subject to abuse as a child, and consequent properties, such as developing cancer or being aggressive towards one’s own children (Ramsey 2013: 988ff.). Human nature thus understood would have an explanatory component, a component internal to each item on the list. Human nature itself would, however, not be explanatory, but rather the label for a list of highly diverse causal connections.

An alternative way to integrate an explanatory component in a statistical normality account involves picking out that set of statistically common properties that have a purely evolutionary explanation (Machery 2008; 2018). This reinterpretation of the concept of naturalness that featured in the original package (TP1) involves a contrast with social learning. Processes grouped together under this latter description are taken to be alternative explanations to those provided by evolution. However, learning plays a central role, not only in the development of individual humans, but also in the iterated interaction of entire populations with environments structured and restructured through such interaction (Stotz 2010: 488ff.; Sterelny 2012: 23ff.). Hence, the proposal raises serious epistemic questions as to how the distinction is precisely to be drawn and operationalised. (For discussion, see Prinz 2012; Lewens 2012: 464ff.; Ramsey 2013: 985; Machery 2018: 15ff.; Sterelny 2018: 116; Kronfeldner 2018: 147ff.).

4. Explanatory Human Properties

The replacement of the concept of a fully developed form with a statistical notion yields a deflationary account of human nature with, at most, restricted explanatory import. The correlative, explanatory notion in the original package, that of the fully developed form’s blueprint (TP2), has to some authors seemed worth reframing in terms made possible by advances in modern biology, particularly in genetics.

Clearly, there must be explanations of why humans generally walk on two legs, speak and plan many of their actions in advance. Genealogical, or what have been called “ultimate” (Mayr) or “historical” (Kitcher) explanations can advert to the accumulation of coherence among entrenched, stable properties along a lineage. These may well have resulted from selection pressures shared by the relevant organisms (cf. Wimsatt 2003; Lewens 2009). The fact that there are exceptions to any generalisations concerning contemporary humans does not entail that there is no need for explanations of such exception-allowing generalisations. Plausibly, these general, though not universal truths will have “structural explanations”, that is, explanations in terms of underlying structures or mechanisms (Kitcher 1986: 320; Devitt 2008: 353). These structures, so seems, might to a significant degree be inscribed in humans’ DNA.

The precise details of rapidly developing empirical science will improve our understanding of the extent to which there is a determinate relationship between contemporary humans’ genome and their physical, psychological and behavioural properties. There is, however, little plausibility that the blueprint metaphor might be applicable to the way DNA is transcribed, translated and interacts with its cellular environment. Such interaction is itself subject to influence by the organism’s external environment, including its social environment (Dupré 2001: 29ff.; 2003: 111ff.; Griffiths 2011: 326; Prinz 2012: 17ff.; Griffiths & Tabery 2013: 71ff.; Griffiths & Stotz 2013: 98ff., 143ff.). For example, the feature of contemporary human life for which there must according to Aristotle be some kind of blueprint, viz. rational agency, is, as Sterelny has argued, so strongly dependent on social scaffolding that any claim to the effect that human rationality is somehow genetically programmed ignores the causal contributions of manifestly indispensable environmental factors (Sterelny 2018: 120).

Nevertheless, humans do generally develop a specific set of physiological features, such as two lungs, one stomach, one pancreas and two eyes. Moreover, having such a bodily architecture is, according to the evidence from genetics, to a significant extent the result of developmental programmes that ground in gene regulatory networks (GRNs). These are stretches of non-coding DNA that regulate gene transcription. GRNs are modular, more or less strongly entrenched structures. The most highly conserved of these tend to be the phylogenetically most archaic (Carroll 2000; Walsh 2006: 436ff.; Willmore 2012: 227ff.). The GRNs responsible for basic physiological features may be taken, in a fairly innocuous sense, to belong to an evolved human nature.

Importantly, purely morphological features have generally not been the explananda of accounts that have gone under the rubric “human nature”. What has frequently motivated explanatory accounts thus labelled is the search for underlying structures responsible for generally shared psychological features. “Evolutionary Psychologists” have built a research programme around the claim that humans share a psychological architecture that parallels that of their physiology. This, they believe, consists of a structured set of psychological “organs” or modules (Tooby & Cosmides 1990: 29f.; 1992: 38, 113). This architecture is, they claim, in turn the product of developmental programmes inscribed in humans’ DNA (1992: 45). Such generally distributed developmental programmes they label “human nature” (1990: 23).

This conception raises the question of how analogous the characteristic physical and psychological “architectures” are. For one thing, the physical properties that tend to appear in such lists are far more coarse-grained than the candidates for shared psychological properties (D. Wilson 1994: 224ff.): the claim is not just that humans tend to have perceptual, desiderative, doxastic and emotional capacities, but that the mental states that realise these capacities tend to have contents of specific types. Perhaps an architecture of the former kind—of a formal psychology—is a plausible, if relatively unexciting candidate for the mental side of what an evolved human nature should explain. Either way, any such conception needs to adduce criteria for the individuation of such “mental organs” (D. Wilson 1994: 233). Relatedly, if the most strongly entrenched developmental programmes are the most archaic, it follows that, although these will be species-typical, they will not be species-specific. Programmes for the development of body parts have been identified for higher taxa, rather than for species.

A further issue that dogs any such attempts to explicate the “human” dimension of human nature in terms of developmental programmes inscribed in human DNA concerns Evolutionary Psychologists’ assertion that the programmes are the same in every specimen of the species. This assertion goes hand in hand with the claim that what is explained by such programmes is a deep psychological structure that is common to almost all humans and underlies the surface diversity of behavioural and psychological phenomena (Tooby & Cosmides 1990: 23f.). For Evolutionary Psychologists, the (near-)universality of both developmental programmes and deep psychological structure has an ultimate explanation in evolutionary processes that mark their products as natural in the sense of TP1. Both, they claim, are adaptations. These are features that were selected for because their possession in the past conferred a fitness advantage on their possessors. Evolutionary Psychologists conceive that advantage as conferred by the fulfilment of some specific function. They summarise selection for that function as “design”, which they take to have operated equally on all species specimens since the Pleistocene. This move reintroduces the teleological idea of a fully developed form beyond mere statistical normality (TP3).

This move has been extensively criticised. First, selection pressures operate at the level of groups and hence need not lead to the same structures in all a group’s members (D. Wilson 1994: 227ff.; Griffiths 2011: 325; Sterelny 2018: 120). Second, other evolutionary mechanisms than natural selection might be explanatorily decisive. Genetic drift or mutation and recombination might, for example, also confer “naturalness” in the sense of evolutionary genesis (Buller 2000: 436). Third, as we have every reason to assume that the evolution of human psychology is ongoing, evolutionary biology provides little support for the claim that particular programmes and associated traits evolved to fixity in the Pleistocene (Buller 2000: 477ff.; Downes 2010).

Perhaps, however, there might turn out to be gene control networks that do generally structure certain features of the psychological development of contemporary humans (Walsh 2006: 440ff.). The quest for such GNRs can, then, count as the search for an explanatory nature of contemporary humans, where the explanatory function thus sought is divorced from any classificatory role.

There has, however, been a move in general philosophy of science that, if acceptable, would transform the relationship between the taxonomic and explanatory features of species. This move was influentially initiated by Richard Boyd (1999a). It begins with the claim that the attempt to define natural kinds in terms of spatiotemporally unrestricted, intrinsic, necessary and sufficient conditions is a hangover from empiricism that should be abandoned by realist metaphysics. Instead, natural kinds should be understood as kinds that support induction and explanation, where generalisations at work in such processes need not be exceptionless. Thus understood, essences of natural kinds, i.e., their “natures”, need be neither intrinsic nor be possessed by all and only members of the kinds. Instead, essences consist of property clusters integrated by stabilising mechanisms (“homeostatic property clusters”, HPCs). These are networks of causal relations such that the presence of certain properties tends to generate or uphold others and the workings of underlying mechanisms contribute to the same effect. Boyd names storms, galaxies and capitalism as plausible examples (Boyd 1999b: 82ff.). However, he takes species to be the paradigmatic HPC kinds. According to this view, the genealogical character of a species’ nature does not undermine its causal role. Rather, it helps to explain the specific way in which the properties cohere that make up the taxon’s essence. Moreover, these can include extrinsic properties, for example, properties of constructed niches (Boyd 1991: 142, 1999a: 164ff.; Griffiths 1999: 219ff.; R. Wilson et al. 2007: 202ff.).

Whether such an account can indeed adequately explain taxonomic practice for species taxa is a question that can be left open here (see Ereshefsky & Matthen 2005: 16ff.). By its own lights the account does not identify conditions for belonging to a species such as Homo sapiens (Samuels 2012: 25f.). Whether it enables the identification of factors that play the explanatory roles that the term “human nature” might be supposed to pick out is perhaps the most interesting question. Two ways in which an account of human nature might be developed from such a starting point have been sketched.

According to Richard Samuels’ proposal, human nature should be understood as the empirically discoverable proximal mechanisms responsible for psychological development and for the manifestation of psychological capacities. These will include physiological mechanisms, such as the development of the neural tube, as well as environmentally scaffolded learning procedures; they will also include the various modular systems distinguished by cognitive science, such as visual processing and memory systems (Samuels 2012: 22ff.). Like mere list conceptions (cf. §3.2 ), such an account has a precedent in Hume, for whom human nature also includes causal “principles” that structure operations of the human mind (1739–40, Intro.), for example, the mechanisms of sympathy (III,iii,1; II,ii,6). Hume, however, thought of the relevant causal principles as intrinsic.

A second proposal, advanced by Paul Griffiths and Karola Stotz, explicitly suggests taking explanandum and explanans to be picked out by different uses of the expression "human nature". In both cases, the “nature” in question is that of the taxon, not of individual organisms. The former use simply refers to “what human beings are like”, where “human beings” means all species specimens. Importantly, this characterisation does not aim at shared characteristics, but is open for polymorphisms both across a population and across life stages of individual organisms. The causal conception of human nature, what explains this spectrum of similarity and difference in life histories, is equated by Griffiths and Stotz with the organism-environment system that supports human development. It thus includes all the genetic, epigenetic and environmental resources responsible for varying human life cycles (Griffiths 2011: 319; Stotz & Griffiths 2018, 66f.). It follows that explanatory human nature at one point in time can be radically different from human nature at some other point in time.

Griffiths and Stotz are clear that this account diverges significantly from traditional accounts, as it rejects assumptions that human development has a goal, that human nature is possessed by all and only specimens of the species and that it consists of intrinsic properties. They see these assumptions as features of the folk biology of human nature that is as scientifically relevant as are folk conceptions of heat for its scientific understanding (Stotz 2010: 488; Griffiths 2011: 319ff.; Stotz & Griffiths 2018: 60ff.). This raises the question as to whether such a developmental systems account should not simply advocate abandoning the term, as is suggested by Sterelny (2018) on the basis of closely related considerations. A reason for not doing so might lie in the fact that, as talk of “human nature” is often practised with normative intent or at least with normative consequences (Stotz & Griffiths 2018: 71f.), use of the term to pick out the real, complex explanatory factors at work might help to counter those normative uses that employ false, folk biological assumptions.

Explanatory accounts that emphasise developmental plasticity in the products of human DNA, in the neural architecture of the brain and in the human mind tend to reject the assumption that explanations of what humans are like should focus on intrinsic features. It should, however, be noted that such accounts can be interpreted as assigning the feature of heightened plasticity the key role in such explanations (cf. Montagu 1956: 79). Accounts that make plasticity causally central also raise the question as to whether there are not biological features that in turn explain it and should therefore be assigned a more central status in a theory of explanatory human nature.

A prime candidate for this role is what the zoologist Adolf Portmann labelled human “secondary altriciality”, a unique constellation of features of the human neonate relative to other primates: human neonates are, in their helplessness and possession of a relatively undeveloped brain, neurologically and behaviourally altricial, that is, in need of care. However they are also born with open and fully functioning sense organs, otherwise a mark of precocial species, in which neonates are able to fend for themselves (Portmann 1951: 44ff.). The facts that the human neonate brain is less than 30% of the size of the adult brain and that brain development after birth continues at the fetal rate for the first year (Walker & Ruff 1993, 227) led the anthropologist Ashley Montagu to talk of “exterogestation” (Montagu 1961: 156). With these features in mind, Portmann characterised the care structures required by prolonged infant helplessness as the “social uterus” (Portmann 1967: 330). Finally, the fact that the rapid development of the infant brain takes place during a time in which the infant’s sense organs are open and functioning places an adaptive premium on learning that is unparalleled among organisms (Gould 1977: 401; cf. Stotz & Griffiths 2018: 70).

Of course, these features are themselves contingent products of evolution that could be outlived by the species. Gould sees them as components of a general retardation of development that has characterised human evolution (Gould 1977: 365ff.), where “human” should be seen as referring to the clade—all the descendants of a common ancestor—rather than to the species. Anthropologists estimate that secondary altriciality characterised the lineage as from Homo erectus 1.5 million years ago (Rosenberg & Trevathan 1995: 167). We are, then, dealing with a set of deeply entrenched features, features that were in place long before behavioural modernity.

It is conceivable that the advent of secondary altriciality was a key transformation in generating the radical plasticity of human development beginning with early hominins. However, as Sterelny points out, there are serious difficulties with isolating any particular game changer. Secondary altriciality, or the plasticity that may in part be explained by it, would thus seem to fall victim to the same verdict as the game changers named by the traditional human nature slogans. However, maybe it is more plausible to think in terms of a matrix of traits: perhaps a game-changing constellation of properties present in the population after the split from pan can be shown to have generated forms of niche construction that fed back into and modified the original traits. These modifications may in turn have had further psychological and behavioural consequences in steps that plausibly brought selective advantages (Sterelny 2018: 115).

5. Human Nature, the Participant Perspective and Morality

In such a culture-mind coevolutionary account, there may be a place for the referents of some of the traditional philosophical slogans intended to pin down “the human essence“ or “human nature”—reason, linguistic capacity ( “ the speaking animal”, Herder 1772 [2008: 97]), a more general symbolic capacity ( animal symbolicum , Cassirer 1944: 44), freedom of the will (Pico della Mirandola 1486 [1965: 5]; Sartre 1946 [2007: 29, 47]), a specific, “political” form of sociality, or a unique type of moral motivation (Hutcheson 1730: §15). These are likely, at best, to be the (still evolving) products in contemporary humans of processes set in motion by a trait constellation that includes proto-versions of (some of) these capacities. Such a view may also be compatible with an account of “what contemporary humans are like” that abstracts from the evolutionary time scale of eons and focuses instead on the present (cf. Dupré 1993: 43), whilst neither merely cataloguing widely distributed traits ( §3.2 ) nor attempting explanations in terms of the human genome ( §4.1 ). The traditional slogans appear to be attempts to summarise some such accounts. It seems clear, though, that their aims are significantly different from those of the biologically, or otherwise scientifically orientated positions thus far surveyed.

Two features of such accounts are worth emphasising, both of which we already encountered in Aristotle’s contribution to the original package. The first involves a shift in perspective from that of the scientific observer to that of a participant in a contemporary human life form. Whereas the human—or non-human—biologist may ask what modern humans are like, just as they may ask what bonobos are like, the question that traditional philosophical accounts of human nature are plausibly attempting to answer is what it is like to live one’s life as a contemporary human. This question is likely to provoke the counter-question as to whether there is anything that it is like to live simply as a contemporary human, rather than as a human-in-a-specific-historical-and-cultural context (Habermas 1958: 32; Geertz 1973: 52f.; Dupré 2003: 110f.). For the traditional sloganeers, the answer is clearly affirmative. The second feature of such accounts is that they tend to take it that reference to the capacities named in the traditional slogans is in some sense normatively , in particular, ethically significant .

The first claim of such accounts, then, is that there is some property of contemporary humans that is in some way descriptively or causally central to participating in their form of life. The second is that such participation involves subjection to normative standards rooted in the possession of some such property. Importantly, there is a step from the first to the second form of significance, and justification of the step requires argument. Even from a participant perspective, there is no automatic move from explanatory to normative significance.

According to an “internal”, participant account of human nature, certain capacities of contemporary, perhaps modern humans unavoidably structure the way they (we) live their (our) lives. Talk of “structuring” refers to three kinds of contributions to the matrix of capacities and dispositions that both enable and constrain the ways humans live their lives. These are contributions, first, to the specific shape other features of humans lives have and, second, to the way other such features hang together (Midgley 2000: 56ff.; Roughley 2011: 16ff.). Relatedly, they also make possible a whole new set of practices. All three relations are explanatory, although their explanatory role appears not necessarily to correspond to the role corresponding features, or earlier versions of the features, might have played in the evolutionary genealogy of contemporary human psychology. Having linguistic capacities is a prime candidate for the role of such a structural property: human perception, emotion, action planning and thought are all plausibly transformed in linguistic creatures, as are the connections between perception and belief, and the myriad relationships between thought and behaviour, connections exploited and deepened in a rich set of practices unavailable to non-linguistic animals. Similar things could be claimed for other properties named by the traditional slogans.

In contrast to the ways in which such capacities have frequently been referred to in the slogan mode, particularly to the pathos that has tended to accompany it, it seems highly implausible that any one such property will stand alone as structurally significant. It is more likely that we should be picking out a constellation of properties, a constellation that may well include properties variants of which are possessed by other animals. Other properties, including capacities that may be specific to contemporary humans, such as humour, may be less plausible candidates for a structural role.

Note that the fact that such accounts aim to answer a question asked from the participant perspective does not rule out that the features in question may be illuminated in their role for human self-understanding by data from empirical science. On the contrary, it seems highly likely that disciplines such as developmental and comparative psychology, and neuroscience will contribute significantly to an understanding of the possibilities and constraints inherent in the relevant capacities and in the way they interact.

5.2. Human Nature and the Human ergon

The paradigmatic strategy for deriving ethical consequences from claims about structural features of the human life form is the Platonic and Aristotelian ergon or function argument. The first premise of Aristotle’s version ( Nicomachean Ethics 1097b–1098a) connects function and goodness: if the characteristic function of an entity of a type X is to φ, then a good entity of type X is one that φs well. Aristotle confers plausibility on the claim by using examples such as social roles and bodily organs. If the function of an eye as an exemplar of its kind is to enable seeing, then a good eye is one that enables its bearer to see well. The second premise of the argument is a claim we encountered in section 1.4 of this entry, a claim we can now see as predicating a structural property of human life, the exercise of reason. According to this claim, the function or end of individual humans as humans is, depending on interpretation (Nussbaum 1995: 113ff.), either the exercise of reason or life according to reason. If this is correct, it follows that a good human being is one whose life centrally involves the exercise of, or life in accordance with, reason.

In the light of the discussion so far, it ought to be clear that, as it stands, the second premise of this argument is incompatible with the evolutionary biology of species. It asserts that the exercise of reason is not only the key structural property of human life, but also the realization of the fully developed human form. No sense can be made of this latter notion in evolutionary terms. Nevertheless, a series of prominent contemporary ethicists—Alasdair MacIntyre (1999), Rosalind Hursthouse (1999), Philippa Foot (2001) and Martha Nussbaum (2006)—have all made variants of the ergon argument central to their ethical theories. As each of these authors advance some version of the second premise, it is instructive to examine the ways in which they aim to avoid the challenge from evolutionary biology.

Before doing so, it is first worth noting that any ethical theory or theory of value is engaged in an enterprise that has no clear place in an evolutionary analysis. If we want to know what goodness is or what “good” means, evolutionary theory is not the obvious place to look. This is particularly clear in view of the fact that evolutionary theory operates at the level of populations (Sober 1980: 370; Walsh 2006: 434), whereas ethical theory operates, at least primarily, at the level of individual agents. However, the specific conflict between evolutionary biology and neo-Aristotelian ethics results from the latter’s constructive use of the concept of species and, in particular, of a teleological conception of a fully developed form of individual members of the species “ qua members of [the] species” (MacIntyre 1999: 64, 71; cf. Thompson 2008: 29; Foot 2001: 27). The characterisation of achieving that form as fulfilling a “function”, which helps the analogy with bodily organs and social roles, is frequently replaced in contemporary discussions by talk of “flourishing” (Aristotle’s eudaimonia ). Such talk more naturally suggests comparisons with the lives of other organisms (although Aristotle himself excludes other animals from eudaimonia ; cf. Nicomachean Ethics 1009b). The concept of flourishing in turn picks out biological—etymologically: botanical—processes, but again not of a sort that play a role in evolutionary theory. It also seems primarily predicated of individual organisms. It may play a role in ecology; it is, however, most clearly at home in practical applications of biological knowledge, as in horticulture. In this respect, it is comparable to the concept of health.

Neo-Aristotelians claim that to describe an organism, whether a plant or a non-human or human animal, as flourishing is to measure it against a standard that is specific to the species to which it belongs. To do so is to evaluate it as a more or less good “specimen of its species (or sub-species)” (Hursthouse 1999: 198). The key move is then to claim that moral evaluation is, “quite seriously” (Foot 2001: 16), evaluation of the same sort: just as a non-defective animal or plant exemplifies flourishing within the relevant species’ life form, someone who is morally good is someone who exemplifies human flourishing, i.e., the fully developed form of the species. This metaethical claim has provoked the worry as to whether such attributions to other organisms are really anything more than classifications, or at most evaluations of “stretched and deflated” kinds that are missing the key feature of authority that we require for genuine normativity (Lenman 2005: 46ff.).

Independently of questions concerning their theory of value, ethical Neo-Aristotelians need to respond to the question of how reference to a fully developed form of the species can survive the challenge from evolutionary theory. Three kinds of response may appear promising.

The first adverts to the plurality of forms of biological science, claiming that there are life sciences, such as physiology, botany, zoology and ethology in the context of which such evaluations have a place (Hursthouse 1999: 202; 2012: 172; MacIntyre 1999: 65). And if ethology can legitimately attribute not only characteristic features, but also defects or flourishing to species members, in spite of species not being natural kinds, then there is little reason why ethics shouldn’t do so too. This strategy might ground in one of the moves sketched in section 3.1 of this entry. It might be argued, with Kitcher and Dupré, that such attributions are legitimate in other branches of biological science because there is a plurality of species concepts, indeed of kinds of species, where these are relative to epistemic interests. Or the claim might simply rest on a difference in what is taken to be the relevant time frame, where temporal relevance is indexed relative to the present. In ethics we are, it might be claimed, interested in humans as they are “at the moment and for a few millennia back and for maybe not much longer in the future” (Hursthouse 2012: 171).

This move amounts to the concession that talk of “the human species” is not to be understood literally. Whether this concession undermines the ethical theories that use the term is perhaps unclear. It leaves open the possibility that, as human nature may change significantly, there may be significant changes in what it means for humans to flourish and therefore in what is ethically required. This might be seen as a virtue, rather than a vice of the view.

A second response to the challenge from evolutionary biology aims to draw metaphysical consequences from epistemic or semantic claims. Michael Thompson has argued that what he calls alternatively “the human life form” and “the human species” is an a priori category. Thompson substantiates this claim by examining forms of discourse touched on in section 3.2 , forms of discourse that are generally taken to be of mere heuristic importance for amateur practices of identification, viz. field guides or animal documentaries. Statements such as “The domestic cat has four legs, two eyes, two ears and guts in its belly”, are, Thompson claims, instances of an important kind of predication that is neither tensed nor quantifiable. He calls these “natural historical descriptions” or “Aristotelian categoricals” (Thompson 2008: 64ff.). Such generic claims are not, he argues, made false where what is predicated is less than universal, or even statistically rare. Decisively, according to Thompson, our access to the notion of the human life form is non-empirical. It is, he claims, a presupposition of understanding ourselves from the first-person perspective as breathing, eating or feeling pain (Thompson 2004: 66ff.). Thus understood, the concept is independent of biology and therefore, if coherent, immune to problems raised by the Darwinian challenge.

Like Foot and Hursthouse, Thompson thinks that his Aristotelian categoricals allow inferences to specific judgments that members of species are defective (Thompson 2004: 54ff.; 2008: 80). He admits that such judgments in the case of the human life form are likely to be fraught with difficulties, but nevertheless believes that judgments of (non-)defective realization of a life form are the model for ethical evaluation (Thompson 2004: 30, 81f.). It may seem unclear how this might be the case in view of the fact that access to the human life form is supposed to be given as a presupposition of using the concept of “I”. Another worry is that the everyday understanding on which Thompson draws may be nothing other than a branch of folk biology. The folk tendency to ascribe teleological essences to species, as to “races” and genders, is no indication of the reality of such essences (Lewens 2012: 469f.; Stotz & Griffiths 2018: 60ff.; cf. Pellegrin 1982 [1986: 16ff., 120] and Charles 2000: 343ff., 368, on Aristotle’s own orientation to the usage of “the people”).

A final response to evolutionary biologists’ worries aims equally to distinguish the Neo-Aristotelian account of human nature from that of the sciences. However, it does so not by introducing a special metaphysics of “life forms”, but by explicitly constructing an ethical concept of human nature. Martha Nussbaum argues that the notion of human nature in play in what she calls “Aristotelian essentialism” is, as she puts it, “internal and evaluative”. It is a hermeneutic product of “human” self-understanding, constructed from within our best ethical outlook: “an ethical theory of human nature”, she claims,

should force us to answer for ourselves, on the basis of our very own ethical judgment, the question which beings are fully human ones. (Nussbaum 1995: 121f.; cf. Nussbaum 1992: 212ff.; 2006: 181ff.; McDowell 1980 [1998: 18ff.]; Hursthouse 1999: 229; 2012: 174f.)

There can be no question here of moving from a biological “is” to an ethical “ought”; rather, which features are taken to belong to human nature is itself seen as the result of ethical deliberation. Such a conception maintains the claim that the key ethical standard is that of human flourishing. However, it is clear that what counts as flourishing can only be specified on the basis of ethical deliberation, understood as striving for reflective equilibrium (Nussbaum 2006: 352ff.). In view of such a methodological proposal, there is a serious question as to what work is precisely done by the concept of human nature.

Neo-Aristotelians vary in the extent to which they flesh out a conception of species-specific flourishing. Nussbaum draws up a comprehensive, open-ended catalogue of what she calls “the central human capacities”. These are in part picked out because of their vulnerability to undermining or support by political measures. They include both basic bodily needs and more specifically human capacities, such as for humour, play, autonomy and practical reason (Nussbaum 1992: 216ff.; 2006: 76ff.). Such a catalogue allows the setting of three thresholds, below which a human organism would not count as living a human life at all (anencephalic children, for instance), as living a fully human life or as living a good human life (Nussbaum 2006: 181). Nussbaum explicitly argues that being of human parents is insufficient for crossing the first, evaluatively set threshold. Her conception is partly intended to provide guidelines as to how societies should conceive disability and as to when it is appropriate to take political measures in order to enable agents with nonstandard physical or mental conditions to cross the second and third thresholds.

Nussbaum has been careful to insist that enabling independence, rather than providing care, should be the prime aim. Nevertheless, the structure of an account that insists on a “species norm”, below which humans lacking certain capacities count as less than fully flourishing, has prompted accusations of illiberality. According to the complaint, it disrespects the right of members of, for example, deaf communities to set the standards for their own forms of life (Glackin 2016: 320ff.).

Other accounts of species-specific flourishing have been considerably more abstract. According to Hursthouse, plants flourish when their parts and operations are well suited to the ends of individual survival and continuance of the species. In social animals, flourishing also tends to involve characteristic pleasure and freedom from pain, and a contribution to appropriate functioning of relevant social groups (Hursthouse 1999: 197ff.). The good of human character traits conducive to pursuit of these four ends is transformed, Hursthouse claims, by the addition of “rationality”. As a result, humans flourish when they do what they correctly take themselves to have reason to do—under the constraint that they do not thereby cease to foster the four ends set for other social animals (Hursthouse 1999: 222ff.). Impersonal benevolence is, for example, because of this constraint, unlikely to be a virtue. In such an ethical outlook, what particular agents have reason to do is the primary standard; it just seems to be applied under particular constraints. A key question is thus whether the content of this primary standard is really determined by the notion of species-specific flourishing.

Where Hursthouse’s account builds up to, and attempts to provide a “natural” framework for, the traditional Aristotelian ergon of reason, MacIntyre builds his account around the claim that flourishing specific to the human “species” is essentially a matter of becoming an “independent practical reasoner” (MacIntyre 1999: 67ff.). It is because of the central importance of reasoning that, although human flourishing shares certain preconditions with the flourishing, say, of dolphins, it is also vulnerable in specific ways. MacIntyre argues that particular kinds of social practices enable the development of human reasoning capacities and that, because independent practical reasoning is, paradoxically, at core cooperatively developed and structured, the general aim of human flourishing is attained by participation in networks in local communities (MacIntyre 1999: 108). “Independent practical reasoners” are “dependent rational animals”. MacIntyre’s account thus makes room on an explanatory level for the evolutionary insight that humans can only become rational in a socio-cultural context which provides scaffolding for the development and exercise of rationality ( §4 ). Normatively, however, this point is subordinated to the claim that, from the point of view of participation in the contemporary human life form, flourishing corresponds to the traditional slogan.

MacIntyre, Hursthouse and Nussbaum (Nussbaum 2006: 159f.) all aim to locate the human capacity for reasoning within a framework that encompasses other animals. Each argues that, although the capacities to recognise reasons as reasons and for deliberation on their basis transform the needs and abilities humans share with other animals, the reasons in question remain in some way dependent on humans’ embodied and social form of life. This emphasis is intended to distinguish an Aristotelian approach from other approaches for which the capacity to evaluate reasons for action as reasons and to distance oneself from ones desires is also the “central difference” between humans and other animals (Korsgaard 2006: 104; 2018: 38ff.; cf. MacIntyre 1999: 71ff.). According to Korsgaard’s Kantian interpretation of Aristotle’s ergon argument, humans cannot act without taking a normative stand on whether their desires provide them with reasons to act. This she takes to be the key structural feature of their life, which brings with it “a whole new way of functioning well or badly” (Korsgaard 2018: 48; cf. 1996: 93). In such an account, “human nature” is monistically understood as this one structural feature which is so transformative that the concept of life applicable to organisms that instantiate it is no longer that applicable to organisms that don’t. Only “humans” live their lives, because only they possess the type of intentional control over their bodily movements that grounds in evaluation of their actions and self-evaluation as agents (Korsgaard 2006: 118; 2008: 141ff.; cf. Plessner 1928 [1975: 309f.]).

We have arrived at an interpretation of the traditional slogan that cuts it off from a metaphysics with any claims to be “naturalistic”. The claim now is that the structural effect of the capacity for reasoning transforms those features of humans that they share with other animals so thoroughly that those features pale into insignificance. What is “natural” about the capacity for reasoning for humans here is its unavoidability for contemporary members of the species, at least for those without serious mental disabilities. Such assertions also tend to shade into normative claims that discount the normative status of “animal” needs in view of the normative authority of human reasoning (cf. McDowell 1996 [1998: 172f.]).

The most radical version of this thought leads to the claim encountered towards the end of section 1.4 : that talk of “human nature” involves no essential reference at all to the species Homo sapiens or to the hominin lineage. According to this view, the kind to which contemporary humans belong is a kind to which entities could also belong who have no genealogical relationship to humans. That kind is the kind of entities that act and believe in accordance with the reasons they take themselves to have. Aliens, synthetically created agents and angels are further candidates for membership in the kind, which would, unlike biological taxa, be spatiotemporally unrestricted. The traditional term for the kind, as employed by Aquinas and Kant, is “person” (cf. Hull 1986: 9).

Roger Scruton has recently taken this line, arguing that persons can only be adequately understood in terms of a web of concepts inapplicable to other animals, concepts whose applicability grounds in an essential moral dimension of the personal life form. The concepts pick out components of a life form that is permeated by relationships of responsibility, as expressed in reactive attitudes such as indignation, guilt and gratitude. Such emotions he takes to involve a demand for accountability, and as such to be exclusive to the personal life form, not variants of animal emotions (Scruton 2017: 52). As a result, he claims, they situate their bearers in some sense “outside the natural order” (Scruton 2017: 26). According to such an account, we should embrace a methodological dualism with respect to humans: as animals, they are subject to the same kinds of biological explanations as all other organisms, but as persons, they are subject to explanations that are radically different in kind. These are explanations in terms of reasons and meanings, that is, exercises in “Verstehen”, whose applicability Scruton takes to be independent of causal explanation (Scruton 2017: 30ff., 46).

Such an account demonstrates with admirable clarity that there is no necessary connection between a theory of “human nature” and metaphysical naturalism. It also reinforces the fact, emphasised throughout this entry, that discussions of “human nature” require both serious conceptual spadework and explicit justification of the use of any one such concept rather than another.

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Aquinas, Thomas | Aristotle, General Topics: biology | Aristotle, General Topics: ethics | ethics: virtue | evolution | Kant, Immanuel | Locke, John: on real essence | naturalism: moral | natural kinds | psychology: evolutionary | species

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank Michelle Hooge, Maria Kronfeldner, Nick Laskowski and Hichem Naar for their comments on earlier drafts.

Copyright © 2021 by Neil Roughley < neil . roughley @ uni-due . de >

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Israel W Charny Ph.D.

Environment

The nature of man: is man by nature good, or basically bad, it's tough to face the truth, but it can help us cope with life's challenges..

Posted March 27, 2018 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch

The world divides into two camps on this question.

The "goodies" turn to all that is beautiful, intelligent, creative, progressive, kind, decent and loving in human beings—and there really is an enormous presence of these wonderful characteristics. "Darker" types turn to the adage that man is born to sin and go on to cite the endless evils and destruction we indeed wreak on one another, disastrously and shamefully, in almost all areas of life.

Man Is Good

If you go to read a standard psychology book to answer the question, you're unlikely to suffer an upsetting experience. The politically correct psychology of our time generally tells us, or at least implies, that, if free of abnormality, human beings are humane and constructive, fun, and safe to be with.

If dark thoughts and doubts nonetheless intrude on you and you have questions about the pain and misery you see all around you, our happy and optimistic psychologists are likely to say that aside from bad fate which we largely can’t control, many people succumb unnecessarily to stress —so go read about psychopathology to understand the bad errors in living to which people succumb, and then go read about “positive psychology” that will make you better equipped to deal with stress and make you feel good.

Standard psychology texts imply that to be normal is to feel happy and to lead an untroubled good life—until uncontrollable lightning may strike, but this is unlikely. In their essence, life and people are good.

To which we say: Hah! That is not what we see all around us.

Man Is Fundamentally Both Very Good and Very Bad

The obviously correct answer to the question "Is man good or bad?" is that both are very true. Man indeed is wonderfully good, caring, and creative: Our species is an incredible leap forward on the evolutionary scale. Yet simultaneously man is one rotten manipulator, exploiter, abuser, and killer.

A good psychology book should prepare one to face one’s own possible disasters, as well as how we ourselves may be the ones who bring harm and destroy either ourselves and/or others. We need to prepare to cope with assaults, injustice, natural disasters, serious health problems, terrifying turns in history, and all sorts of bad luck; and we need to confront our own potential destructiveness, to ourselves and to others.

Like it or not, we will be wiser and better prepared to cope in life if we prepare ourselves in advance for the possibility—and ultimately the likelihood—of a certain degree of hurt, injustice, betrayal, and destructive acts directed against us, even from people and organizations close to us like a spouse, a child, a friend, our employer, or a movement or organization in which we have invested our finest hopes and beliefs. The examples are endless.

I remember one very nice neighbor who was so proud of his long-term employment by a well-known national company that he happily displayed its logo on his shirt and as a flag on his home. The company then let him go, only months before his retirement package at age 65 would come into effect. Beyond the reality of his economic stress, he was distraught and broken by the betrayal itself. His health literally deteriorated in response.

Again, like it or not, we will be better prepared to cope with life if we prepare ourselves for the possibility—the likelihood—of a certain degree of harm and destructiveness that we will do to others in our lives, including people to whom we are genuinely close and in fact care for and love. Again the examples are endless—a husband or wife who in the understandable and delectable heat of excitement spurred by another beautiful person is unfaithful; a parent with teen children who simply can’t turn down the best job offer and moves their family to a new location, destroying the vulnerable child's social network beyond his or her ability to repair; a professional who achieves great success, becoming, say, a nationally-known writer or an admired TV personality , and then, in bursts of hubris, becomes patronizing and discards old friends who have become too "unimportant."

And the above do not cover our relationships to larger medical, environmental, economic and historical events that descend on us—a home whose value disappears because of flooding or because the land on which the house is built or sits near is sold or otherwise appropriated by a municipality; a stock market crash or a bank that goes bankrupt; serious illness or calamitous falls and/or incompetent treatment; nonsensical but deadly shootings in school or elsewhere; deadly transportation accidents or failures; riots, prejudice , and acts of hatred against defined groups, fascist government persecution, wars, ethnic cleansing, mass murder , genocide, and more.

the nature of man summary essay

Is it better not to think of all of these and deal with them only if they occur, or is it better to prepare and plan how we can handle evils and disasters that may befall us? And if we move from the personal level to the larger picture of what can befall society as a whole, is it wise to make awareness of impending disasters a focus of creative research and political initiatives that may help us fight off those horrors?

I believe that the best therapy goes beyond knowing and understanding to taking corrective and constructive action. On an individual level, one might ask what are the things you can do to protect your health and enrich your life, or what you can do for others to protect their right to life and quality of life. There are endless variations: What do you do for others that gives them joy in their lives? Are you helping anyone personally to get along in life? Do you give a meaningful amount to people in need, charities, and community institutions? Do you belong to any group that seeks actively to improve human life and protect human rights?

In his book, The Psychology of Genocide [1], psychologist Steven Baum cites an old Cherokee tale that tells of a grandfather teaching life principles to his grandson:

“A fight is going on inside me,” he says to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger , envy , sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt , resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity , truth, compassion and faith.

"The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed."

[1] Steven K. Baum, The Psychology of Genocide: Perpetrators, Bystanders, and Rescuers (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008, quotation on p. 237)

Israel W Charny Ph.D.

Israel W. Charny, Ph.D., is a psychologist and the author of two recent books, A Democratic Mind and Psychotherapy for a Democratic Mind . He is also co-founder of the International Association of Genocide Scholars.

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Interesting Literature

A Summary and Analysis of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s ‘Self-Reliance’

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

‘Self-Reliance’ is an influential 1841 essay by the American writer and thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82). In this essay, Emerson argues that we should get to know our true selves rather than looking to other people to fashion our individual thoughts and ideas for us. Among other things, Emerson’s essay is a powerful rallying cry against the lure of conformity and groupthink.

You can read ‘Self-Reliance’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of Emerson’s essay below.

‘Self-Reliance’: summary

Emerson prefaces his essay with several epigraphs, the first of which is a Latin phrase which translates as: ‘Do not seek yourself outside yourself.’ This axiom summarises the thrust of Emerson’s argument, which concerns the cultivation of one’s own opinions and thoughts, even if they are at odds with those of the people around us (including family members).

This explains the title of his essay: ‘Self-Reliance’ is about relying on one’s own sense of oneself, and having confidence in one’s ideas and opinions. In a famous quotation, Emerson asserts: ‘In every work of genius we recognise our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.’

But if we reject those thoughts when they come to us, we must suffer the pangs of envy of seeing the same thoughts we had (or began to have) in works of art produced by the greatest minds. This is a bit like the phenomenon known as ‘I wish I’d thought of that!’, only, Emerson argues, we did think of it, or something similar. But we never followed through on those thoughts because we weren’t interested in examining or developing our own ideas that we have all the time.

In ‘Self-Reliance’, then, Emerson wants us to cultivate our own minds rather than looking to others to dictate our minds for us. ‘Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind,’ he argues. For Emerson, our own minds are even more worthy of respect than actual religion.

Knowing our own minds is far more valuable and important than simply letting our minds be swayed or influenced by other people. ‘It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion’, Emerson argues, and ‘it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.’

In other words, most people are weak and think they know themselves, but can easily abandon all of their principles and beliefs and be swept up by the ideas of the mob. But the great man is the one who can hold to his own principles and ideas even when he is the one in the minority .

Emerson continues to explore this theme of conformity:

A man must consider what a blindman’s-buff is this game of conformity. If I know your sect, I anticipate your argument. I hear a preacher announce for his text and topic the expediency of one of the institutions of his church. Do I not know beforehand that not possibly can he say a new and spontaneous word? Do I not know that, with all this ostentation of examining the grounds of the institution, he will do no such thing? Do I not know that he is pledged to himself not to look but at one side, – the permitted side, not as a man, but as a parish minister?

He goes on:

This conformity makes them not false in a few particulars, authors of a few lies, but false in all particulars. Their every truth is not quite true. Their two is not the real two, their four not the real four; so that every word they say chagrins us, and we know not where to begin to set them right.

Emerson then argues that consistency for its own sake is a foolish idea. He declares, in a famous quotation, ‘A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.’

Instead, great men change and refine their opinions from one day to the next, as new evidence or new ideas come to light. Although this inconsistency may lead us to be misunderstood, Emerson thinks there are worse things to be. After all, great thinkers such as Pythagoras, Socrates, and even Jesus were all misunderstood by some people.

Emerson also argues that, just because we belong to the same social group as other people, this doesn’t mean we have to follow the same opinions. In a memorable image, he asserts that he likes ‘the silent church before the service begins, better than any preaching’: that moment when everyone can have their own individual thoughts, before they are brought together by the priest and are told to believe the same thing.

Similarly, just because we share blood with our relatives, that doesn’t mean we have to believe what other family members believe. Rather than following their ‘customs’, ‘petulance’, or ‘folly’, we must be ourselves first and foremost.

The same is true of travel. We may say that ‘travel broadens the mind’, but for Emerson, if we do not have a sense of ourselves before he pack our bags and head off to new places, we will still be the same foolish person when we arrive at our destination:

Travelling is a fool’s paradise. Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places. At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. I seek the Vatican, and the palaces. I affect to be intoxicated with sights and suggestions, but I am not intoxicated. My giant goes with me wherever I go.

Emerson concludes ‘Self-Reliance’ by urging his readers, ‘Insist on yourself; never imitate.’ If you borrow ‘the adopted talent’ of someone else, you will only ever be in ‘half possession’ of it, whereas you will be able to wield your own ‘gift’ if you take the time and effort to cultivate and develop it.

‘Self-Reliance’: analysis

Although some aspects of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s argument in ‘Self-Reliance’ may strike us as self-evident or mere common sense, he does take issue with several established views on the self in the course of his essay. For example, although it is often argued that travel broadens the mind, to Emerson our travels mean nothing if we have not prepared our own minds to respond appropriately to what we see.

And although many people might argue that consistency is important in one’s thoughts and opinions, Emerson argues the opposite, asserting that it is right and proper to change our opinions from one day to the next, if that is what our hearts and minds dictate.

Similarly, Emerson also implies, at one point in ‘Self-Reliance’, that listening to one’s own thoughts should take precedence over listening to the preacher in church.

It is not that he did not believe Christian teachings to be valuable, but that such preachments would have less impact on us if we do not take the effort to know our own minds first. We need to locate who we truly are inside ourselves first, before we can adequately respond to the world around us.

In these and several other respects, ‘Self-Reliance’ remains as relevant to our own age as it was to Emerson’s original readers in the 1840s. Indeed, perhaps it is even more so in the age of social media, in which young people take selfies of their travels but have little sense of what those places and landmarks really mean to them.

Similarly, Emerson’s argument against conformity may strike us as eerily pertinent to the era of social media, with its echo chambers and cultivation of a hive mind or herd mentality.

In the last analysis, ‘Self-Reliance’ comes down to trust in oneself as much as it does reliance on oneself. Emerson thinks we should trust the authority of our own thoughts, opinions, and beliefs over the beliefs of the herd.

Of course, one can counter such a statement by pointing out that Emerson is not pig-headedly defending the right of the individual to be loudly and volubly wrong. We should still seek out the opinions of others in order to sharpen and test our own. But it is important that we are first capable of having our own thoughts. Before we go out into the world we must know ourselves , and our own minds. The two-word axiom which was written at the site of the Delphic Oracle in ancient Greece had it right: ‘Know Thyself.’

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Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Beauty About The Nature

To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me. But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars. The rays that come from those heavenly worlds, will separate between him and what he touches. One might think the atmosphere was made transparent with this design, to give man, in the heavenly bodies, the perpetual presence of the sublime. Seen in the streets of cities, how great they are! If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty and light the universe with their admonishing smile.

The Stars Awaken a Certain Reverence, Because Though Always Present, They Are Inaccessible;

but all natural objects make a kindred impression when the mind is open to their influence. Nature never wears a mean appearance. Neither does the wisest man extort her secret, and lose his curiosity by finding out all her perfection. Nature never became a toy to a wise spirit. The flowers, the animals, the mountains, reflected the wisdom of his best hour, as much as they had delighted the simplicity of his childhood. When we speak of nature in this manner, we have a distinct but most poetical sense in the mind. We mean the integrity of impression made by manifold natural objects. It is this which distinguishes the stick of timber of the wood-cutter, from the tree of the poet . The charming landscape which I saw this morning, is indubitably made up of some twenty or thirty farms. Miller owns this field, Locke that, and Manning the woodland beyond. But none of them owns the landscape. There is a property in the horizon which no man has but he whose eye can integrate all the parts, that is, the poet . This is the best part of these men's farms, yet to this, their warranty deeds give no title. To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man but shines into the eye and the heart of the child.

The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other;

who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood. His intercourse with heaven and earth becomes part of his daily food. In the presence of nature, a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows. Nature says, — he is my creature, and maugre all his impertinent griefs, he shall be glad with me. Not the sun or the summer alone, but every hour and season yields its tribute of delight; for every hour and change corresponds to and authorizes a different state of the mind, from breathless noon to grimmest midnight.

Nature is a setting that fits equally well a comic or a mourning piece. In good health, the air is a cordial of incredible virtue. Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear. In the woods too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life, is always a child. In the woods, is perpetual youth. Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years. In the woods, we return to reason and faith.

There I feel that nothing can befall me in life,

— no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances, — master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance. I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty. In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature.

The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister, is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable.

I am not alone and unacknowledged. They nod to me, and I to them. The waving of the boughs in the storm is new to me and old. It takes me by surprise, and yet is not unknown. Its effect is like that of a higher thought or a better emotion coming over me, when I deemed I was thinking justly or doing right.

Yet it is certain that the power to produce this delight, does not reside in nature, but in man, or in a harmony of both. It is necessary to use these pleasures with great temperance. For, nature is not always tricked in holiday attire, but the same scene which yesterday breathed perfume and glittered as for the frolic of the nymphs, is overspread with melancholy today. Nature always wears the colors of the spirit. To a man laboring under calamity, the heat of his own fire hath sadness in it. Then, there is a kind of contempt of the landscape felt by him who has just lost by death a dear friend. The sky is less grand as it shuts down over less worth in the population.

Nature always wears the colors of the spirit.

Chapter I from Nature , published as part of Nature; Addresses and Lectures

What Is The Meaning Behind Nature, The Poem?

Emerson often referred to nature as the "Universal Being" in his many lectures. It was Emerson who deeply believed there was a spiritual sense of the natural world which felt was all around him.

Going deeper still in this discussion of the "Universal Being", Emerson writes, "The aspect of nature is devout. Like the figure of Jesus, she stands with bended head, and hands folded upon the breast. The happiest man is he who learns from nature the lesson of worship."

It's common sense that "nature" is everything you see that is NOT man-made, or changed by man (trees, foliage, mountains, etc.), but Emerson reminds us that nature was set forth to serve man. This is the essence of human will, for man to harness nature. Every object in nature has its own beauty. Therefore, Emerson advocates to view nature as a reality by building your own world and surrounding yourself with natural beauty.

  • The purpose of science is to find the theory of nature.
  • Nature wears the colors of the Spirit.
  • A man is fed, not to fill his belly, but so he may work.
  • Each natural action is graceful.

"Material objects are necessarily kinds of scoriae of the substantial thoughts of the Creator, which must always preserve an exact relation to their first origin; in other words, visible nature must have a spiritual and moral side."

This quote is cited in numerous works and it is attributed to a "French philosopher." However, no name can be found in association with this quote.

What is the main point of Nature, by Emerson?

The central theme of Emerson's famous essay "Nature" is the harmony that exists between the natural world and human beings. In "Nature," Ralph Waldo Emerson contends that man should rid himself of material cares and instead of being burdened by unneeded stress, he can enjoy an original relation with the universe and experience what Emerson calls "the sublime."

What is the central idea of the essay Nature, by Emerson?

For Emerson, nature is not literally God but the body of God’s soul. ”Nature,” he writes, is “mind precipitated.” Emerson feels that to realize one’s role in this respect fully is to be in paradise (similar to heaven itself).

What is Emerson's view of the Nature of humans?

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Ralph Waldo Emerson left the ministry to pursue a career in writing and public speaking. Emerson became one of America's best known and best-loved 19th-century figures. More About Emerson

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The Answer Man

By Stephen Greenblatt

Lucretius anticipated the core scientific vision of modernity.

When I was a student, I used to go at the end of the school year to the Yale Co-op to see what I could find to read over the summer. I had very little pocket money, but the bookstore would routinely sell its unwanted titles for ridiculously small sums. They were jumbled together in bins through which I would rummage until something caught my eye. On one of my forays, I was struck by an extremely odd paperback cover, a detail from a painting by the Surrealist Max Ernst. Under a crescent moon, high above the earth, two pairs of legs—the bodies were missing—were engaged in what appeared to be an act of celestial coition. The book, a prose translation of Lucretius’ two-thousand-year-old poem “On the Nature of Things” (“De Rerum Natura”), was marked down to ten cents, and I bought it as much for the cover as for the classical account of the material universe.

Ancient physics is not a particularly promising subject for vacation reading, but sometime over the summer I idly picked up the book. The Roman poet begins his work (in Martin Ferguson Smith’s careful rendering) with an ardent hymn to Venus:

First, goddess, the birds of the air, pierced to the heart with your powerful shafts, signal your entry. Next wild creatures and cattle bound over rich pastures and swim rushing rivers: so surely are they all captivated by your charm and eagerly follow your lead. Then you inject seductive love into the heart of every creature that lives in the seas and mountains and river torrents and bird-haunted thickets, implanting in it the passionate urge to reproduce its kind.

Startled by the intensity, I continued, past a prayer for peace, a tribute to the wisdom of the philosopher Epicurus, a resolute condemnation of superstitious fears, and into a lengthy exposition of philosophical first principles. I found the book thrilling.

Lucretius, who was born about a century before Christ, was emphatically not our contemporary. He thought that worms were spontaneously generated from wet soil, that earthquakes were the result of winds caught in underground caverns, that the sun circled the earth. But, at its heart, “On the Nature of Things” persuasively laid out what seemed to be a strikingly modern understanding of the world. Every page reflected a core scientific vision—a vision of atoms randomly moving in an infinite universe—imbued with a poet’s sense of wonder. Wonder did not depend on the dream of an afterlife; in Lucretius it welled up out of a recognition that we are made of the same matter as the stars and the oceans and all things else. And this recognition was the basis for the way he thought we should live—not in fear of the gods but in pursuit of pleasure, in avoidance of pain.

As it turned out, there was a line from this work to modernity, though not a direct one: nothing is ever so simple. There were innumerable forgettings, disappearances, recoveries, and dismissals. The poem was lost, apparently irrevocably, and then found. This retrieval, after many centuries, is something one is tempted to call a miracle. But the author of the poem in question did not believe in miracles. He thought that nothing could violate the laws of nature. He posited instead what he called a “swerve”—Lucretius’ principal word for it was clinamen —an unexpected, unpredictable movement of matter.

The poem’s rediscovery prompted such a swerve. The cultural shift of the Renaissance is notoriously difficult to define, but it was characterized, in part, by a decidedly Lucretian pursuit of beauty and pleasure. The pursuit shaped the dress and the etiquette of courtiers, the language of the liturgy, the design and decoration of everyday objects. It suffused Leonardo da Vinci’s scientific and technological explorations, Galileo’s vivid dialogues on astronomy, Francis Bacon’s ambitious research projects, and Richard Hooker’s theology. Even works that were seemingly unrelated to any aesthetic ambition—Machiavelli’s analysis of political strategy, Walter Raleigh’s description of Guiana, Robert Burton’s encyclopedic account of mental illness—were crafted in such a way as to produce pleasure. And this pursuit, with its denial of Christian asceticism, enabled people to turn away from a preoccupation with angels and demons and to focus instead on things in this world: to conduct experiments without worrying about infringing on God’s jealously guarded secrets, to question authorities and challenge received doctrines, to contemplate without terror the death of the soul.

The recovery of “On the Nature of Things” is a story of how the world swerved in a new direction. The agent of change was not a revolution, an implacable army at the gates, or landfall on an unknown continent. When it occurred, nearly six hundred years ago, the key event was muffled and almost invisible, tucked away behind walls in a remote place. A short, genial, cannily alert man in his late thirties reached out one day, took a very old manuscript off a shelf, and saw with excitement what he had discovered. That was all; but it was enough.

By that time, Lucretius’ ideas had been out of circulation for centuries. In the Roman Empire, the literacy rate was never high, and after the Sack of Rome, in 410 C.E., it began to plummet. It is possible for a whole culture to turn away from reading and writing. As the empire crumbled and Christianity became ascendant, as cities decayed, trade declined, and an anxious populace scanned the horizon for barbarian armies, the ancient system of education fell apart. What began as downsizing went on to wholesale abandonment. Schools closed, libraries and academies shut their doors, professional grammarians and teachers of rhetoric found themselves out of work, scribes were no longer given manuscripts to copy. There were more important things to worry about than the fate of books. Lucretius’ poem, so incompatible with any cult of the gods, was attacked, ridiculed, burned, or ignored, and, like Lucretius himself, eventually forgotten.

The idea of pleasure and beauty that the work advanced was forgotten with it. Theology provided an explanation for the chaos of the Dark Ages: human beings were by nature corrupt. Inheritors of the sin of Adam and Eve, they richly deserved every miserable catastrophe that befell them. God cared about human beings, just as a father cared about his wayward children, and the sign of that care was anger. It was only through pain and punishment that a small number could find the narrow gate to salvation. A hatred of pleasure-seeking, a vision of God’s providential rage, and an obsession with the afterlife: these were death knells of everything Lucretius represented.

By chance, copies of “On the Nature of Things” somehow made it into a few monastery libraries, places that had buried, seemingly forever, the principled pursuit of pleasure. By chance, a monk laboring in a scriptorium somewhere or other in the ninth century copied the poem before it moldered away. And, by chance, this copy escaped fire and flood and the teeth of time for some five hundred years until, one day in 1417, it came into the hands of a man who proudly called himself Poggius Florentinus, Poggio the Florentine.

Poggio was, among other things, famous for the elegance of his script and for writing the best-known jokebook of its age, a chronicle of cynical tricksters, bawdy friars, unfaithful wives, and foolish husbands. He had served a succession of Roman Pontiffs as a scriptor—that is, a writer of official documents in the Papal bureaucracy—and, through adroitness and cunning, he had risen to the coveted position of Apostolic Secretary. He had access, as the very word “secretary” suggests, to the Pope’s secrets. But above all he was a book hunter, perhaps the greatest of his kind.

Italians had been obsessed with book hunting ever since the poet and scholar Petrarch brought glory on himself around 1330 by piecing together Livy’s monumental “History of Rome” and finding forgotten masterpieces by Cicero and Propertius. Petrarch’s achievement had inspired others to seek out lost classics that had been lying unread, often for centuries. The recovered texts were copied, edited, commented upon, and eagerly exchanged, conferring distinction on those who had found them and forming the basis for what became known as the “study of the humanities.” The “humanists,” as those who were devoted to this study were called, knew from carefully poring over the texts that had survived from classical Rome that many once famous books or parts of books were still missing.

As a humanist, Poggio had quite a few accomplishments. He uncovered an epic poem on the struggle between Rome and Carthage; the works of an ancient literary critic who had flourished during Nero’s reign and had written notes and glosses on classical authors; another critic who quoted extensively from lost epics written in imitation of Homer; a grammarian who wrote a treatise on spelling; a large fragment of a hitherto unknown history of the Roman Empire written by a high-ranking officer in the imperial Army, Ammianus Marcellinus. His salvaging of the complete text of the rhetorician Quintilian changed the curriculum of law schools and universities throughout Europe, and his discovery of Vitruvius’ treatise on architecture transformed the way buildings were designed. But it was in January, 1417, when Poggio found himself in a monastery library, that he made his greatest discovery. He put his hands on a long poem whose author he may have recalled seeing mentioned in other ancient works: “ T. LUCRETI CARI DE RERUM NATURA .”

“On the Nature of Things,” by Titus Lucretius Carus, is not an easy read. Totalling seventy-four hundred lines, it is written in hexameters, the standard unrhymed six-beat lines in which Latin poets like Virgil and Ovid, imitating Homer’s Greek, cast their epic poetry. Divided into six untitled books, the poem yokes together moments of intense lyrical beauty; philosophical meditations on religion, pleasure, and death; and scientific theories of the physical world, the evolution of human societies, the perils and joys of sex, and the nature of disease. The language is often knotty and difficult, the syntax complex, and the over-all intellectual ambition astoundingly high.

The stuff of the universe, Lucretius proposed, is an infinite number of atoms moving randomly through space, like dust motes in a sunbeam, colliding, hooking together, forming complex structures, breaking apart again, in a ceaseless process of creation and destruction. There is no escape from this process. When we look up at the night sky and marvel at the numberless stars, we are not seeing the handiwork of the gods or a crystalline sphere. We are seeing the same material world of which we are a part and from whose elements we are made. There is no master plan, no divine architect, no intelligent design. Nature restlessly experiments, and we are simply one among the innumerable results: “We are all sprung from celestial seed; all have that same father, from whom our fostering mother earth receives liquid drops of water, and then teeming brings forth bright corn and luxuriant trees and the race of mankind, brings forth all the generations of wild beasts, providing food with which all nourish their bodies and lead a sweet life and beget their offspring.”

All things, including the species to which we belong, have evolved over vast stretches of time. The evolution is random, though in the case of living organisms it involves a principle of natural selection. That is, species that are suited to survive and to reproduce successfully endure, at least for a time; those which are not so well suited die off quickly. Other species existed and vanished before we came onto the scene; our kind, too, will vanish one day. Nothing—from our own species to the sun—lasts forever. Only the atoms are immortal.

In a universe so constituted, Lucretius argued, it is absurd to think that the earth and its inhabitants occupy a central place, or that the world was purpose-built to accommodate human beings: “The child, like a sailor cast forth by the cruel waves, lies naked upon the ground, speechless, in need of every kind of vital support, as soon as nature has spilt him forth with throes from his mother’s womb into the regions of light.” There is no reason to set humans apart from other animals, no hope of bribing or appeasing the gods, no place for religious fanaticism, no call for ascetic self-denial, no justification for dreams of limitless power or perfect security, no rationale for wars of conquest or self-aggrandizement, no possibility of triumphing over nature. Instead, he wrote, human beings should conquer their fears, accept the fact that they themselves and all the things they encounter are transitory, and embrace the beauty and the pleasure of the world.

Almost nothing is known about the poem’s author, except for a brief biographical sketch by St. Jerome, the great fourth-century Church Father. In the entry for 94 B.C.E., Jerome noted: “Titus Lucretius, poet, is born. After a love-philtre had turned him mad, and he had written, in the intervals of his insanity, several books which Cicero revised, he killed himself by his own hand in the forty-fourth year of his age.” These lurid details have shaped all subsequent representations of Lucretius, including a celebrated Victorian poem in which Tennyson imagined the voice of the mad, suicidal philosopher tormented by erotic fantasies.

Modern scholarship suggests that Jerome’s biographical claims, written more than four centuries after the poet’s death, should be regarded with skepticism. Lucretius’ personal life remains a mystery that no one at this distance is likely to solve. It is possible, however, to know something about his intellectual biography. “On the Nature of Things” is clearly the work of a disciple who is transmitting ideas that had been developed in Greece centuries earlier. Epicurus was Lucretius’ philosophical messiah, and his vision may be traced to a single incandescent idea: that everything that has ever existed and everything that will ever exist is put together out of what the Roman poet called “the seeds of things,” indestructible building blocks, irreducibly small in size, unimaginably vast in number. The Greeks had a word for these invisible building blocks, things that, as they conceived them, could not be divided any further: atoms.

The notion of atoms was only a dazzling speculation; there was no way to get any empirical proof and wouldn’t be for more than two thousand years. But Epicurus used this conjecture to argue that there are no supercategories of matter, no hierarchy of elements. Heavenly bodies are not divine beings, nor do they move through the void under the guidance of gods. And, though the natural order is unimaginably vast and complex, it is nonetheless possible to understand something of its basic constitutive elements and its universal laws. Indeed, such understanding is one of life’s deepest pleasures.

Pleasure is perhaps the key to comprehending the powerful impact of Epicurus’ philosophy. Epicurus’ enemies—and the Church especially—seized upon his celebration of pleasure and invented malicious stories about his supposed debauchery, taking note of his unusual inclusion of women as well as men among his followers. He “vomited twice a day from overindulgence,” in one account, and spent a fortune on feasting. In reality, he seems to have lived a conspicuously simple and frugal life. “Send me a little pot of cheese,” he once wrote to a friend, “that, when I like, I may fare sumptuously.” It is impossible to live pleasurably, one of his disciples wrote, “without living prudently and honorably and justly, and also without living courageously and temperately and magnanimously, and without making friends, and without being philanthropic.”

“Ill be there as soon as I finish with the Internet.”

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This philosophy of pleasure, at once passionate, scientific, and visionary, radiated from almost every line of Lucretius’ poetry. Even a quick glance at the first few pages of the manuscript would have convinced Poggio that he had discovered something remarkable. What he could not have grasped, without carefully reading through the work, was that he was unleashing something that threatened the whole structure of his intellectual universe. Had he understood this threat, he might have said, as Freud supposedly said to Jung, when they sailed into New York Harbor, “Don’t they know we are bringing them the plague?”

There are moments, rare and powerful, in which a writer, long vanished, seems to stand in your presence and speak to you directly, as if he bore a message meant for you above all others. When I first read “On the Nature of Things,” it struck such a chord within me. The core of Lucretius’ poem is a profound, therapeutic meditation on the fear of death, and that fear dominated my childhood. It was not fear of my own death that so troubled me; I had the usual child’s intimation of immortality. It was, rather, my mother’s absolute certainty that she was destined for an early death.

My mother was not afraid of the afterlife: like most Jews, she had only a hazy sense of what might lie beyond the grave, and she gave it very little thought. It was death itself—simply ceasing to be—that terrified her. As far back as I can remember, she brooded obsessively on the imminence of her end, invoking it again and again, especially at moments of parting. My life was full of extended, operatic scenes of farewell. When she went with my father from Boston to New York for the weekend, when I went off to summer camp, and even—when things were especially hard for her—when I simply left the house for school, she clung tightly to me, speaking of her fragility and of the distinct possibility that I would never see her again. If we walked somewhere together, she would frequently come to a halt, as if she were about to keel over. Sometimes she would show me a vein pulsing in her neck and, taking my finger, make me feel it for myself, the sign of her heart dangerously racing.

She must have been in her late thirties when my own memories of her fears begin, and those fears evidently went back much further in time. They seem to have taken root about a decade before my birth, when her younger sister, only sixteen years old, died of strep throat. This event—one all too familiar before the introduction of penicillin—was still an open wound: my mother spoke of it constantly, weeping quietly, and making me read and reread the poignant letters that her sister had written through the course of her fatal illness.

I understood early on that my mother’s “heart”—the palpitations that brought her and everyone around her to a halt—was a life strategy. It was a way to express both anger (“You see how upset you have made me”) and love (“You see how I am still doing everything for you, even though my heart is about to break”). It was an acting out, a rehearsal, of the extinction that she feared. It was, above all, a way to compel attention from my father, my brother, and me, and to demand our love. But this understanding did not make its effect upon my childhood significantly less intense: I loved my mother and dreaded losing her. I was hardly equipped to untangle psychological strategy from dangerous symptom. (I don’t imagine that she was, either.) And, as a child, I had no means to gauge the weirdness of this constant harping on impending death and this freighting of every farewell with finality.

As it turned out, my mother lived to a month shy of her ninetieth birthday. She was still in her fifties when I encountered “On the Nature of Things.” By then my dread of her dying had become entwined with a painful perception that she had blighted much of her life—and cast a shadow on my own—in the service of her obsessive fear. Lucretius’ words therefore rang out with a terrible clarity: “Death is nothing to us.” His lines (here in a translation by the seventeenth-century poet John Dryden) went right to the heart of her anxiety and my own:

So, when our mortal frame shall be disjoin’d, The lifeless lump uncoupled from the mind, From sense of grief and pain we shall be free; We shall not feel, because we shall not be. Though earth in seas, and seas in heaven were lost, We should not move, we only should be toss’d. Nay, e’en suppose when we have suffer’d fate The soul should feel in her divided state, What’s that to us? for we are only we, While souls and bodies in one frame agree. Nay, though our atoms should revolve by chance, And matter leap into the former dance; Though time our life and motion could restore, And make our bodies what they were before, What gain to us would all this bustle bring? The new-made man would be another thing.

To spend your existence in the grip of anxiety about death, Lucretius wrote, is folly. It is a sure way to let your life slip from you incomplete and unenjoyed. And, in so arguing, he gave voice to a thought I had not yet quite allowed myself to articulate: to inflict this anxiety on others is manipulative and cruel.

When Lucretius’ poem returned to circulation in 1417, it seems to have struck some early readers with the same personal intensity—the sense of direct address across an abyss—that I experienced. But, of course, the issues were vastly different. To people haunted by images of the bleeding Christ, gripped by a terror of Hell, and obsessed with escaping the purgatorial fires of the afterlife, Lucretius offered a vision of divine indifference. There was no afterlife, no system of rewards and punishments meted out from on high. Gods, by virtue of being gods, could not possibly be concerned with the doings of human beings. One simple name for the plague that Lucretius brought, and a charge frequently levelled against him then and since, is atheism.

Some six or seven decades after Poggio returned the poem to circulation, atomism was viewed as a serious threat to Christianity. Atomist books were burned; the clergy in Florence prohibited the reading of Lucretius in schools. The sense of threat intensified when Protestants mounted their assault on Catholic doctrine. That assault did not depend on atomism—Luther and Zwingli and Calvin were scarcely Epicureans—but for the militant, embattled forces of the Counter-Reformation it was as if the resurgence of ancient materialism had opened a dangerous second front. Indeed, atomism seemed to offer the Reformers access to an intellectual weapon of mass destruction. The Church was fiercely determined not to allow anyone to lay hands on this weapon, and its ideological arm, the Inquisition, was alerted to detect the telltale signs of proliferation.

Poems are difficult to silence. At the time that the Church was attempting to suppress the text, a young Florentine was copying out for himself the whole of “On the Nature of Things.” He was too cunning to mention the work directly in the famous books he went on to write. But the handwriting was conclusively identified in 1961: the copy was made by Niccolò Machiavelli. Thomas More engaged with Epicureanism more openly in his most famous work, “Utopia,” in which the inhabitants of his imaginary land are convinced that “either the whole or the most part of human happiness” lies in the pursuit of pleasure. His use of the philosophy for the population of this alien island showed that the ideas recovered by the humanists seemed compellingly vital and at the same time still utterly weird. Reinjected into the intellectual bloodstream of Europe after long centuries, they were, in effect, voices from another world, a world as different as Vespucci’s Brazil was from England.

But the poem spread, and, as it did, its ideas filtered into popular culture. On the London stage in the mid-fifteen-nineties, Mercutio teased Romeo with this fantastical description of Queen Mab:

She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes In shape no bigger than an agate stone On the forefinger of an alderman, Drawn with a team of little atomi Athwart men’s noses as they lie asleep.

“A team of little atomi”: Shakespeare expected that his audience would immediately understand what Mercutio was comically conjuring. That is interesting in itself, and still more interesting in the context of a tragedy that broods upon the compulsive power of desire in a world whose main characters conspicuously abjure any prospect of life after death:

Here, here will I remain With worms that are thy chambermaids. O, here Will I set up my everlasting rest.

The author of “Romeo and Juliet” shared his interest in Lucretian materialism with Spenser, Donne, Bacon, and others. He could have discussed it with his fellow-playwright Ben Jonson, whose own signed copy of “On the Nature of Things” has survived and is today in the Houghton Library, at Harvard. And he certainly would have encountered Lucretius in one of his favorite books: Montaigne’s “Essays.”

The “Essays,” first published in 1580, contain almost a hundred direct quotations from “On the Nature of Things.” But, beyond any particular passage, there is a profound affinity between Lucretius and Montaigne. Montaigne shared Lucretius’ contempt for a morality enforced by nightmares of the afterlife; he clung to the importance of his own senses and the evidence of the material world; he intensely disliked ascetic self-punishment and violence against the flesh; he treasured inward freedom and contentment. In grappling with the fear of death, in particular, he was influenced by Lucretian materialism. He once saw a man die, he recalled, who complained bitterly in his last moments that destiny was preventing him from finishing the book he was writing. The absurdity of the regret, in Montaigne’s view, is best conveyed by lines from Lucretius: “But this they fail to add: that after you expire / Not one of all these things will fill you with desire.” As for himself, Montaigne wrote, “I want death to find me planting my cabbages, but careless of death, and still more of my unfinished garden.”

By the seventeenth century, the lure of the poem was too great to contain. The brilliant French astronomer, philosopher, and priest Pierre Gassendi devoted himself to an ambitious attempt to reconcile Epicureanism and Christianity, and one of his most remarkable students, the playwright Molière, undertook to produce a verse translation of “De Rerum Natura” (which does not, unfortunately, survive). In England, the wealthy diarist John Evelyn translated the first book of Lucretius’ poem, and Isaac Newton declared himself an atomist. By the following century, Thomas Jefferson owned at least five Latin editions of “De Rerum Natura,” along with translations of the poem into English, Italian, and French. To a correspondent who wanted to know his philosophy of life, Jefferson wrote, “I too am an Epicurean.”

What lay beyond the horizon were the astonishing empirical observations and experimental proofs of the intuitions of ancient atomism. In the nineteenth century, when Charles Darwin set out to solve the mystery of the origin of species, he did not have to draw on Lucretius’ vision of an entirely natural, unplanned process of creation and destruction, renewed by sexual reproduction. That vision had directly influenced the evolutionary theories of Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus Darwin, but Charles could base his arguments on his own work in the Galápagos and elsewhere. So, too, when Einstein wrote of atoms, his thought rested on experimental and mathematical science, not upon ancient philosophical speculation. But that speculation, as Einstein acknowledged, had led the way to the proofs upon which modern atomism depends. That the ancient poem can now be safely left unread, that the drama of its loss and recovery can fade into oblivion—these are the greatest signs of Lucretius’ absorption into modern thought.

The manuscript that Poggio found in 1417 has itself been lost to time—its letters perhaps scraped away and the parchment recycled for a more pious purpose. The crucial conduit through which the ancient poem, all but dormant for a thousand years before the humanist encountered it, returned to circulation was an elegant copy prepared by Poggio’s wealthy bibliophile friend Niccolò Niccoli. Niccoli bequeathed his valuable collection to Florence, and today his Lucretius manuscript is preserved in the cool gray-and-white Laurentian Library that Michelangelo designed for the Medici. Labelled “Codex Laurentianus 35.30,” it is a modest volume, bound in fading, tattered red leather inlaid with metal, a chain attached to the bottom of the back cover. There is little to distinguish it physically from many other manuscripts in the collection, apart from the fact that a reader is given latex gloves to wear when it is delivered to the desk.

My gloved hands trembled with excitement recently when I held it and looked at its elegant lines. Many years have passed since I picked up the ten-cent paperback from the bin in New Haven. My mother has been gone for more than a decade, cruelly weaned of her fear of death by the slow asphyxiation of congestive heart failure. My father, blessed with a quicker parting, is long dead as well, along with the whole crowded generation of aunts and uncles who seemed at one point to be arrayed as a formidable bulwark against my own extinction. Of necessity, I have taken in the significance of one of the celebrated aphorisms of Lucretius’ master, Epicurus: “Against other things it is possible to obtain security, but when it comes to death we human beings all live in an unwalled city.”

I have taken in, as well, much that pulls against Lucretius’ account of the nature of things. In a secular, skeptical culture, it is not a sizable consolation to know that there is no afterlife. There may be some reassurance in realizing that the dead cannot possibly miss the living, but, as I’ve learned, that realization does not free the living from missing the dead. Did the ancient poet not experience this pain or think it worth addressing? Anyone who thought, as Lucretius did, that it was a particular pleasure to gaze from shore at a ship foundering in wild seas or to stand on a height and behold armies clashing on a plain—“not because any man’s troubles are a delectable joy, but because to perceive what ills you are free from yourself is pleasant”—is not someone I can find an entirely companionable soul. I am, rather, with Shakespeare’s Miranda, who, harrowed by the vision of a shipwreck, cries, “O, I have suffered / With those I saw suffer!” There is something disturbingly cold in Lucretius’ account of pleasure, an account that leads him to advise those who are suffering from the pangs of intense love to reduce their anguish by taking many lovers.

All the same, in the great Laurentian Library, surrounded by the achievements of Renaissance Florence, I felt the full force of what this ancient Roman poet had bequeathed to the world, a tortuous trail that led from the celebration of Venus, past broken columns, high-domed churches, and inquisitorial fires, toward Jefferson, Darwin, and Einstein. And I registered, too, what Lucretius had given to me personally: the means to elude the suffocating grasp of my mother’s fears and the encouragement to take deep pleasure in my brief time on the shores of light. ♦

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A Clue to the Nature of Man: the Symbol

June 16, 2021 | yalepress | Philosophy

Ernst Cassirer—

In the human world we find a new characteristic which appears to be the distinctive mark of human life. The functional circle of man is not only quantitively enlarged; it has also undergone a qualitative change. Man has, as it were, discovered a new method of adapting himself to his environment. Between the receptor system and the effector system, which are to be found in all animal species, we find in man a third link which we may describe as the  symbolic system . This new acquisition transforms the whole of human life. As compared with the other animals man lives not merely in a broader reality; he lives, so to speak, in a new  dimension of reality. There is an unmistakable difference between organic reactions and human responses. In the first case a direct and immediate answer is given to an outward stimulus; in the second case the answer is delayed. It is interrupted and retarded by a slow and complicated process of thought. At first sight such a delay may appear to be a very questionable gain. Many philosophers have warned man against this pretended progress. “L’homme qui medite,” says Rousseau, “est un animal deprave”: it is not an improvement but a deterioration of human nature to exceed the boundaries of organic life.

Yet there is no remedy against this reversal of the natural order. Man cannot escape from his own achievement. He cannot but adopt the conditions of his own life. No longer in a merely physical universe, man lives in a symbolic universe. Language, myth, art, and religion are parts of this universe. They are the varied threads which weave the symbolic net, the tangled web of human experience. All human progress in thought and experience refines upon and strengthens this net. No longer can man confront reality immediately; he cannot see it, as it were, face to face. Physical reality seems to recede in proportion as man’s symbolic activity advances. Instead of dealing with the things themselves man is in a sense constantly conversing with himself. He has so enveloped himself in linguistic forms, in artistic images, in mythical symbols or religious rites that he cannot see or know anything except by the interposition of this artificial medium. His situation is the same in the theoretical as in the practical sphere. Even here man does not live in a world of hard facts, or according to his immediate needs and desires. He lives rather in the midst of imaginary emotions, in hopes and fears, in illusions and disillusions, in his fantasies and dreams. “What disturbs and alarms man,” said Epictetus, “are not the things, but his opinions and fancies about the things.”

From the point of view at which we have just arrived we may correct and enlarge the classical definition of man. In spite of all the efforts of modern irrationalism this definition of man as an animal rationale has not lost its force. Rationality is indeed an inherent feature of all human activities. Mythology itself is not simply a crude mass of superstitions or gross delusions. It is not merely chaotic, for it possesses a systematic or conceptual form.  But, on the other hand, it would be impossible to characterize the structure of myth as rational. Language has often been identified with reason, or with the very source of reason. But it is easy to see that this definition fails to cover the whole field. It is a  pars pro toto ; it offers us a part for the whole. For side by side with conceptual language there is an emotional language; side by side with logical or scientific language there is a language of poetic imagination. Primarily language does not express thoughts or ideas, but feelings and affections. And even a religion “within the limits of pure reason” as conceived and worked out by Kant is no more than a mere abstraction. It conveys only the ideal shape, only the shadow, of what a genuine and concrete religious life is. The great thinkers who have defined man as an animal rationale were not empiricists, nor did they ever intend to give an empirical account of human nature. By this definition they were expressing rather a fundamental moral imperative. Reason is a very inadequate term with which to comprehend the forms of man’s cultural life in all their richness and variety. But all these forms are symbolic forms. Hence, instead of defining man as an  animal rationale , we should define him as an  animal symbolicum . By so doing we can designate his specific difference, and we can understand the new way open to man—the way to civilization.

From An Essay on Man by Ernst Cassirer. Published by Yale University Press in 2021. Reproduced with permission.

Ernst Cassirer (1874–1945) was the most prominent Neo-Kantian philosopher of the twentieth century. Peter E. Gordon is the Amabel B. James Professor of History and Faculty Affiliate in the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures and in the Department of Philosophy at Harvard University.

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the nature of man summary essay

  • My Preferences
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  • Emerson's Essays

Ralph Waldo Emerson

  • Literature Notes
  • About Nature
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson Biography
  • Summary and Analysis of Nature
  • Introduction
  • Summary and Analysis of The American Scholar
  • About The American Scholar
  • Paragraphs 1-7
  • Paragraphs 8-9
  • Paragraphs 10-20
  • Paragraphs 21-30
  • Paragraphs 31-45
  • Summary and Analysis of The Over-Soul
  • About The Over-Soul
  • Paragraphs 1-3
  • Paragraphs 4-10
  • Paragraphs 11-15
  • Paragraphs 16-21
  • Paragraphs 22-30
  • Summary and Analysis of Self-Reliance
  • About Self-Reliance
  • Paragraphs 1-17
  • Paragraphs 18-32
  • Paragraphs 33-50
  • Summary and Analysis of The Transcendentalist
  • About The Transcendentalist
  • Paragraphs 1-5
  • Paragraphs 6-14
  • Paragraphs 15-30
  • Summary and Analysis of The Poet
  • About The Poet
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  • Paragraphs 19-29
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  • Critical Essays
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Summary and Analysis of Nature About Nature

Emerson's earliest reference to an essay on nature occurs in his journal for 1833. Three years later, in 1836, he anonymously published his now-famous Nature . It was his first major work, and it continues to be his best known. The essay met with good critical reception but with little support from the reading public. He reprinted it in his 1849 edition of Nature; Addresses, and Lectures .

The essay's epigraphs will vary according to which edition of Nature is anthologized. In the 1836 edition, for example, Emerson introduced the essay with a quotation from the Roman philosopher Plotinus, but when he reprinted the essay in 1849, he omitted Plotinus' poetic line and inserted one of his own poems. Some of today's literary anthologies do not include either epigraph; others include both.

The 1836 epigraph from Plotinus reads: "Nature is but an image or imitation of wisdom, the last thing of the soul; Nature being a thing which doth only do, but not know." This poetic line emphasizes a theme that runs throughout the essay: Nature does not have a personality of its own. When we say, for instance, that nature is upset because a storm is violently raging outside, we are projecting a human emotion onto nature that it itself does not possess.

Emerson's six-line poem that he uses as the epigraph for the 1849 edition asserts the interconnectedness of all things:

A subtle chain of countless rings The next unto the farthest brings; The eye reads omens where it goes, And speaks all languages the rose; And, striving to be man, the worm Mounts through all the spires of form.

Nature, in the images of a rose and a worm, speaks directly to individuals. Within these six lines, Emerson introduces various themes found in the essay, including the theme of the chain that binds together all of nature. Often referred to as the Great Chain of Being, this concept outlines the theory of evolution — another theme of his — that would shock the world when Darwin published his Origin of Species in 1859. Note that the worm in Emerson's poem strives to become a perfect form, a human being.

Unlike many of Emerson's essays, Nature is extremely long and is divided into an introduction and eight chapters, or sections. Readers should number each paragraph in pencil for easy reference throughout these Notes and in the classroom.

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Summary: “nature”.

“Nature” is an 1836 essay by the American philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson . Philosophical in scope, it lays out the tenets of Emerson’s ideas about Transcendentalism, a movement that promoted the virtues of the natural world and the individual and regarded society and organized religion as corrupting forces.

In the Introduction, Emerson complains that his age is “retrospective” in its reverence for the teaching and philosophy of the past (15). His generation ought to have “an original relation to the universe” because this point in history is as good a time as any for gaining insight into the wonders of God’s creation (15). Organized religion, he argues, has done little to further man’s understanding of the truth behind creation. When a “true theory” emerges, it will not need to be mediated through a sacred text or pastor; rather, “it will be its own evidence” (15).

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Emerson considers that the universe is composed of nature and the soul. He defines nature as “essences unchanged by man” (16), such as space and trees, which render the works of man insignificant by comparison.

In Chapter 1, “Nature,” Emerson argues that to find true solitude , man must go outdoors and contemplate the vastness of nature until he is awestruck. Nature is egalitarian, as it does not discriminate based on education or riches. The landscape belongs to no one, regardless of people’s property rights. The variety found in nature corresponds to the shifting moods of man, and nature is therefore his fitting companion in good and inclement weather alike.

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Man can be restored to a greater sense of self through a contemplation of nature and can even get closer to God. In this state of transcendence, “all mean egotism vanishes” as man becomes “a transparent eye-ball” who is nothing and yet sees all (18).

In Chapter 2, “Commodity,” Emerson explains that commodity is one of the uses of nature. Nature is man’s “provision,” being “at once his floor, his work-yard, his play-ground, his garden, and his bed” (20). Emerson observes how in his lifetime, which overlapped with the Industrial Revolution, man has harnessed nature to achieve unparalleled technological advancement.

In Chapter 3, “Beauty,” Emerson draws attention to the fact that in ancient Greek, the word for the world— cosmos —is synonymous with beauty. Beauty is thus “the constitution of all things” (22), and all natural things “give us a delight in and for themselves; a pleasure arising from outline, color, motion, and grouping” (22). However, the presence of “a spiritual element” is necessary to avoid lapsing into sensualism, as Emerson considers beauty the external “mark God sets upon virtue” (24). Another application of beauty is the intellect, which “searches out the absolute order of things as they stand in the mind of God, and without the colors of affectation” (26). He argues that this process leads to the making of art, as “the beauty of nature reforms itself in the mind […] for new creation” (26).

In Chapter 4, “Language,” Emerson regards words as “signs of natural facts” and that “every word which is used to express a moral or intellectual fact, if traced to its root, is found to be borrowed from some material appearance” (28). For example, the word “ wrong means twisted ,” while “ supercilious ” suggests “the raising of the eyebrow ” (28). On a further level, “every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact” as “every appearance in nature corresponds to some state of mind” (28). Emerson places man, the maker of language, “in the center of beings” because he is responsible for making meaning (29). Crucially, man and other natural beings have an interdependent relationship, as neither can be understood without the other.

Emerson argues that corruption in men is closely followed by corruption in language, as “secondary desires” such as those for riches or pleasure get in the way of truth, and “old words are perverted to stand for things which are not” (30). He considers that rural poets are less likely to lose the truth of their relationship to nature than those in cities, who stand to be corrupted by crowds and politicians. He thinks that living in harmony with nature, and the subsequent love of truth and virtue, will enable man to better understand the origins of creation (33).

In Chapter 5, “Discipline,” Emerson considers that nature is a discipline, and through it, man can gain a sense of order or hierarchy, as nature is full of examples of how “things are not huddled and lumped, but sundered and individual” (35). Nature can be a moral influence on man because it teaches him truths about the limits and substance of things. A wise individual is as discerning as nature in their judgment of the relative merits of things.

There is a unity in the variety of nature, as harmonies and motifs are repeated in its different elements. Man is the most ordered being in all of Creation; however, every human specimen evinces some flaw or injury. Actions are more capable than words of communicating the “central Unity” of things; they are “the perfection and publication of thought,” while words “break, chop, and impoverish” (39).

In Chapter 6, “Idealism,” Emerson addresses the notion put forth by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato that the perceptual world of nature is a mere shadow of the eternal truthful realm of God and ideas. Emerson concludes that this line of questioning is immaterial: As humans are powerless to test the accuracy of their senses, nature, “be what it may, is ideal to me” (41). However, while man exists entirely within natural laws, “the question of the absolute existence of nature still remains open” (41).

Human reason helps to give the material of nature expression and meaning. Poets can utilize natural motifs to express their thoughts as ideas, as their work becomes “the use which Reason makes of the material world” (43). Arguably, the poet only differs from the philosopher in that he seeks beauty before truth, as both subordinate “the apparent order and relations of things to the empire of thought” and seek constants within the shifting scenes of human experience (45). This search for truth behind the shifting scenes of reality enables men to live without the fear of worldly misfortune, as all worldly problems begin to appear transient to him.

While children begin their lives centered in nature and the truth of the perceptual world, as their reason grows, they stand to live more for the mind and the eternal states within it. For Emerson idealism sees the universe as a unified “picture, which God paints on the instant eternity, for the contemplation of the soul” (48). The universal soul can transcend disputes of mankind, especially ecclesiastical ones.

In Chapter 7, “Spirit,” Emerson contends that all the functions of nature can be grouped in the category of spirit, which speaks of God and origins. Spirit is a “perpetual effect,” like “a great shadow pointing always to the sun behind us” (50). Without this religious element, idealism “leaves God out of me. It leaves me in the splendid labyrinth of my perceptions, to wander without end” (50).

Rather than building nature around humanity, God “puts it forth through us, as the life of the tree puts forth new branches and leaves through the pores of the old” (51). A man can rely on God just as a plant can rely upon the earth. Through nature, man has access to the mind of the creator and so can become a miniature version of a creator himself.

Man can measure his virtue or degeneration according to how harmoniously he lives with nature, as “we are as much strangers in nature as we are aliens from God” (52). This is because every landscape bears evidence of God and his creative power.

In Chapter 8, “Prospects,” Emerson laments that the empirical sciences are so concerned with the observation and mastery of particular aspects of nature that they lose sight of the whole picture. Instead, the optimal naturalist would see that empiricism is limited, and that the truth of his relationship to the world “is not to be learned by any addition or subtraction or other comparison of known quantities, but is arrived at by untaught sallies of the spirit, by a continual self-recovery, and by entire humility” (53). The optimal naturalist focuses on wholes over parts, and spirit over matter.

Emerson quotes Plato when he says that “poetry,” with its contemplation of wholes and universals, “comes nearer to vital truth than history” (55), which studies mankind piecemeal. Emerson considers that man’s present relationship to nature, which is mainly utilitarian, is an impoverished one.

A “redemption of the soul” (57), and a restoration of man’s wholeness, will enable him to perceive a complete vision of nature and himself reflected in it. Importantly, “he cannot be a naturalist, until he satisfies all the demands of the spirit” (57). Then all the natural commonplaces that man takes for granted will be restored to him as wonders, as he looks “at the world with new eyes” (57). Emerson ends with a long quotation from the man he calls his Orphic poet—this was Amos Bronson Alcott, a fellow Transcendentalist and friend of Emerson’s—that posits that “nature is not fixed but fluid” and subject to the alterations and molding of spirit (58).

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Summary: the True Nature of Man

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the nature of man summary essay

Self-Reliance

Ralph waldo emerson, everything you need for every book you read..

Emerson opens his essay with three epigraphs that preview the theme of self-reliance in the essay. He then begins the essay by reflecting on how often an individual has some great insight, only to dismiss it because it came from their own imagination. According to Emerson, we should prize these flashes of individual insight even more than those of famous writers and philosophers; it is the mature thinker who eventually realizes that originality of thought, rather than imitation of what everyone else believes, is the way to greatness.

Emerson then argues that the most important realization any individual can have is that they should trust themselves above all others. Babies, children, and even animals are intuitively aware of this fact, according to Emerson, and so are worthy of imitation. Emerson sees self-reliance as a characteristic of boys, too, with their independent attitudes, lack of respect for authority, and willingness to pass judgment on everything they encounter.

Emerson then shifts to a discussion of the relationship between the individual and society by noting that when we are alone, we can be like babies or children, but when we get out into the world, that little voice inside that carries our truth slips away. Emerson argues that people must embrace nonconformity to recover their self-reliance, even if doing so requires the individual to reject what most people believe is goodness. Emerson believes that there is a better kind of virtue than the opinions of respected people or demands for charity for the needy. This goodness comes from the individual’s own intuition, and not what is visible to society.

Besides, states Emerson, living according to the world’s notion of goodness seems easy, and living according to one’s own notions of goodness is easy in solitude, but it takes a truly brave person to live out one’s own notions of goodness in the face of pressure from society. Although it might seem easier to just go along with the demands of society, it is harder because it scatters one’s force. Aware that being a nonconformist is easier argued than lived, Emerson warns that the individual should be prepared for disapproval from people high and low once he or she finally refuses to conform to society’s dictates. It will be easy to brush off the polite disapproval of cultivated people, but the loud and rough disapproval of common people, the mob, will require all of the individual’s inner resources to face down.

The other thing Emerson sees as a roadblock to the would-be nonconformist is the world’s obsession with consistency. Really though, he argues, why should you be bound at all by your past actions or fear contradicting yourself? Emerson notes that society has made inconsistency into a devil, and the result is small-mindedness. He uses historical and religious examples to point out that every great person we have ever known refused to be bound by the past. If you want to be great, he says, embrace being misunderstood just like them. Emerson argues that the individual should have faith that inconsistency is an appearance only, since every action always reflects an underlying harmony that is rooted in one’s own individuality. So long as the individual is true to themselves, their actions will be authentic and good.

Given his arguments in the first part of the essay, Emerson hopes by now that everyone realizes how ridiculous conformity is and the negative impact it is having on American culture. He describes American culture of the day as one of mediocrity that can only be overcome with the recognition that in each individual is a little bit of the universe, of God, and that wherever the individual lives authentically, God is to be found. Emerson believes people tap into that truth, into justice, and into wisdom by sitting still and letting the underlying reality that grounds us and all creation speak through us in the form of intuition. Everything else—time, space, even the past—appears as something apart from the underlying reality only because of our habits of thinking. Emerson counsels that people can escape that way of thinking by living in the present like plants do, and, like everything in nature , expressing one’s self against all comers.

Emerson laments that his society has lost all sense of what it means to be self-reliant individuals. He describes his historical moment as a weak one that has birthed no great people, and city boys seeking professions quit as soon as they are confronted with an initial failure. Emerson admires the country boy who tries thing after thing, not at all concerned about any failure or conforming to society; these are the kinds of people Emerson believes will make America’s history. If the individual wants to achieve true virtue, Emerson argues, they must go to war against anything that oppresses their sense of individuality, even if people accuse them of gross immorality as a result. Taking care to meet their idea of their duties to loved ones or even to themselves will vindicate them and maybe even bring people around to their way of seeing. Ultimately, Emerson believes that living in this state of war against society is actually true virtue.

Emerson closes his essay by applying the abstract concept of self-reliance to specifics. He believes that self-reliance can revolutionize every part of society if we let it: We should quit praying for something outside of ourselves to save us and instead act. We should quit subordinating our experiences to religions and philosophies and instead listen to our intuition. Emerson argues that Americans especially should stop traveling abroad to become cultured and instead create their own arts, literature, and culture using the materials we find right here at home. Emerson believes that progress is beside the point: we should quit pushing for it because it only saps our strength; society does not progress in a straight line. Emerson argues that people should stop locating their identities in property and instead understand that the most valuable part of a man is inside of him. Self-reliance can even be applied to politics: Emerson argues that we should quit governing ourselves by political parties and instead have each man govern himself by intuition. Emerson concludes by noting that self-reliance is the true path to peace.

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EU AI Act: first regulation on artificial intelligence

The use of artificial intelligence in the EU will be regulated by the AI Act, the world’s first comprehensive AI law. Find out how it will protect you.

A man faces a computer generated figure with programming language in the background

As part of its digital strategy , the EU wants to regulate artificial intelligence (AI) to ensure better conditions for the development and use of this innovative technology. AI can create many benefits , such as better healthcare; safer and cleaner transport; more efficient manufacturing; and cheaper and more sustainable energy.

In April 2021, the European Commission proposed the first EU regulatory framework for AI. It says that AI systems that can be used in different applications are analysed and classified according to the risk they pose to users. The different risk levels will mean more or less regulation. Once approved, these will be the world’s first rules on AI.

Learn more about what artificial intelligence is and how it is used

What Parliament wants in AI legislation

Parliament’s priority is to make sure that AI systems used in the EU are safe, transparent, traceable, non-discriminatory and environmentally friendly. AI systems should be overseen by people, rather than by automation, to prevent harmful outcomes.

Parliament also wants to establish a technology-neutral, uniform definition for AI that could be applied to future AI systems.

Learn more about Parliament’s work on AI and its vision for AI’s future

AI Act: different rules for different risk levels

The new rules establish obligations for providers and users depending on the level of risk from artificial intelligence. While many AI systems pose minimal risk, they need to be assessed.

Unacceptable risk

Unacceptable risk AI systems are systems considered a threat to people and will be banned. They include:

  • Cognitive behavioural manipulation of people or specific vulnerable groups: for example voice-activated toys that encourage dangerous behaviour in children
  • Social scoring: classifying people based on behaviour, socio-economic status or personal characteristics
  • Biometric identification and categorisation of people
  • Real-time and remote biometric identification systems, such as facial recognition

Some exceptions may be allowed for law enforcement purposes. “Real-time” remote biometric identification systems will be allowed in a limited number of serious cases, while “post” remote biometric identification systems, where identification occurs after a significant delay, will be allowed to prosecute serious crimes and only after court approval.

AI systems that negatively affect safety or fundamental rights will be considered high risk and will be divided into two categories:

1) AI systems that are used in products falling under the EU’s product safety legislation . This includes toys, aviation, cars, medical devices and lifts.

2) AI systems falling into specific areas that will have to be registered in an EU database:

  • Management and operation of critical infrastructure
  • Education and vocational training
  • Employment, worker management and access to self-employment
  • Access to and enjoyment of essential private services and public services and benefits
  • Law enforcement
  • Migration, asylum and border control management
  • Assistance in legal interpretation and application of the law.

All high-risk AI systems will be assessed before being put on the market and also throughout their lifecycle.

General purpose and generative AI

Generative AI, like ChatGPT, would have to comply with transparency requirements:

  • Disclosing that the content was generated by AI
  • Designing the model to prevent it from generating illegal content
  • Publishing summaries of copyrighted data used for training

High-impact general-purpose AI models that might pose systemic risk, such as the more advanced AI model GPT-4, would have to undergo thorough evaluations and any serious incidents would have to be reported to the European Commission.

Limited risk

Limited risk AI systems should comply with minimal transparency requirements that would allow users to make informed decisions. After interacting with the applications, the user can then decide whether they want to continue using it. Users should be made aware when they are interacting with AI. This includes AI systems that generate or manipulate image, audio or video content, for example deepfakes.

On December 9 2023, Parliament reached a provisional agreement with the Council on the AI act . The agreed text will now have to be formally adopted by both Parliament and Council to become EU law. Before all MEPs have their say on the agreement, Parliament’s internal market and civil liberties committees will vote on it.

More on the EU’s digital measures

  • Cryptocurrency dangers and the benefits of EU legislation
  • Fighting cybercrime: new EU cybersecurity laws explained
  • Boosting data sharing in the EU: what are the benefits?
  • EU Digital Markets Act and Digital Services Act
  • Five ways the European Parliament wants to protect online gamers
  • Artificial Intelligence Act

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On the Dignity of Man – Summary

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Giovanni Pico della Mirandola’s ‘ Oration on the Dignity of Man ‘ from where ‘On the Dignity of Man’ is drawn, suggests that man is free to shape himself using his free will, magic and intellect; an idea that went against the orthodox views of the dominant Roman Catholic Church.

The dignity of man was a popular philosophical theme, especially among Renaissance humanists, who differed on philosophical or theological issues, but were concerned with the educational objectives of humanism. The glorification of man was also a point of dispute among them. was the first to differ from his predecessors in attributing a special and changeable nature to man in the universal chain, which enhanced the liberty and ability of humans in the true spirit of Renaissance humanism.

In Christianity and Renaissance humanism, man is often represented as the supreme creation of God. In Dignity of Man, Pico begins his argument by quoting his predecessors from the Middle Ages, namely the Arabs or the Saracens, and Hermes Trismegistus from Greek mythology, to say that man is the most wonderful of all creatures and is a great miracle. Though Pico agrees with his predecessors about the greatness of man, he is dissatisfied with the arguments presented by them to support this statement. Pico says their arguments are premised on the belief that man is an intermediary between higher and lower beings, and interprets the world through his senses, curiosity, reason, and intelligence. The Persians have argued that man is the “nuptial bond” of the world. He also borrows from David (described as the king of the United Monarchy of Israel and Judah with references in both Old and New Testament) to say that man is just a “little lower than the angels.”

As a Renaissance humanist, Pico believes in the greatness of man but challenges the above argument by saying that if angels are the best, then why should one appreciate man? He affirms that man has a special place in the universal chain, which is to be envied both by the beasts and the higher beings (angels). This is precisely why he is the greatest miracle.

Pico elaborates on man’s special place in the universal chain. He says that God made the world as “the most sacred temple of his divinity.” He describes the place of God’s other creations; the heavens that are occupied by the intelligences, the celestial sphere with the immortals/ eternal soul, and the lowest part of the world, inhabited by all kinds of animals. When God finished housing all these worlds, then God, as the artisan, wanted to create someone to admire the beauty and the magnitude of the world. Hence, God began considering the creation of man.

From among the places that He had already created, God could not find an appropriate space for man, who was to be the “contemplator of the universe,” as all the highest, middle, and lowest orders were full by this time. Not willing to place man in an undeserving place, owing to his eternal creative power and beneficent love, and as the last act of creation, God created man and accorded a special place in the universal chain to him.

God decided that man could not have anything solely to himself. He would have to share the attributes and qualities of all other creatures. Hence, God placed man in the middle of the universe and Pico now quotes God, in dialogue with Adam, and advances his argument by saying that He has reserved nothing specifically or exclusively for man. So, man is free to possess whatever form and function he might desire, based on his own wishes and judgment.

The nature of all other creatures has been carefully specified and restricted to specific domains and qualities, but man possesses the free will to take on any form and quality that he chooses. As the contemplator, man is placed at the center of the world, to make it easy for him to survey and look, explore and choose for himself, from whatever exists in the world. Man, Pico says, is neither heavenly nor earthly, neither mortal nor immortal. Therefore, man is the maker and molder of himself and can fashion himself to either descend to the lower world and be like the lower beings or use his own judgment to become like the higher divine beings. The ability to shape his destiny, self-fashioning, and man’s free will were the major concerns of Renaissance humanism. These ideas stood in opposition to the Roman Catholic Church, which was under constant criticism during Renaissance.

According to Pico, God has reserved a special place for man, where he is free to exercise his will, as he is not confined in his nature, unlike other forms or creatures. This is what makes man the greatest miracle, by the generosity of God, the Father. Both the lower and higher beings are confined to one nature only, for all eternity. However, when man came into existence God gave him the seeds or germs of all ways of life; allowing him the freedom to choose whatever seeds he chooses to grow in himself.

Pico says that if seeds for sedentary and vegetative qualities are sown, then, man will become like a plant. If he develops his rational faculty, he will become like a heavenly creature, and if he develops his intellect, he will become like the angels and the son of God (Christ). If man is not content with any of these qualities, he can choose to unite his spirit with God, becoming like Him in the process. In fact, Craig Truglia in the essay, “Al-Ghazali and Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola on the Question of Human Freedom and the Chain of Being,” differentiating Pico from his early predecessors, says that;

[Pico] positively emphasizes the changing nature of man/ instead of merely making an allegorical and theological point concerning eschatology or the brutishness of humanity… he extols human beings as worthy of worship, based on their divine qualities in the present life. (p.12)

Discussing the nature and attributes of other creations, Pico endorses the established hierarchy where the faculties of reason and judgment are the higher ideals, taking man closer to the divine beings whereas baser passions are accorded to the lower beings, who inhabit the lower orders. Pico, like other Renaissance humanists, believes that qualities of reason, judgment, and intellect should be man’s aspirational ideals. However, man’s ultimate goal should be “oneness with God.”

Lastly, Pico says that it is because of this unspecified, unconfined, and changeable nature that man becomes the greatest miracle of God’s creation. The section ends with a reference to Prometheus, to symbolize man’s ability to change.

Although, the Oration was written as a defensive speech in response to a trial, the work has remained central to Renaissance philosophy. Most scholars believe that “even if his stance on human freedom was not modern, Pico’s doctrine of man was significant as the systematic and speculative development of a vague idea which had dominated humanist thought for generations.” Pico’s aim was the unification of man with God. The emphasis on free will, and man as ‘the moulder and maker” of his self, proves Pico is a true Renaissance humanist. In fact, free will in “The Oration” is necessary to aspire for divinity. The “Oration on the Dignity of Man” is not a mere work of learned rhetoric or a defensive attempt. It is, in the humanist tradition, a systematic attempt to provide a “positive method” to acquire human dignity.

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