Last night, in discussion with friends, I found myself defending my own skepticism. The topic was whether there is an objective human good, or even a genuine human nature that determines how humans should live if they want to have happy lives. I’m willing to admit that, as a matter of empirical fact, a great many people across time and culture find a certain set of things valuable: free time, friends and family, work, a sense of belonging to a larger purpose, and so on. And finding these things valuable probably has something to do with humans as a species: we’re not armadillos, after all, and evolution has made us into a certain kind of species that delights in some things over others.
I hesitate, though, in calling this a “human nature” because in my mind a nature brings with it a certain kind of necessity, which I reject. I think it is perfectly possible for there to be someone who is a member of our biological species and just doesn’t go for the usual things. Maybe they rather like sitting alone in dark rooms feeling spiteful, like Dostoyevsky’s underground man, or maybe (like a great many intelligent human beings) they can’t enjoy the simple pleasures of life without finding themselves feeling guilty, inauthentic, or idiotic. I don’t think there’s anything wrong, let alone “inhuman,” about such miserable folk. And I don’t think their attitudes are simply side-effects of a modern industrial landscape that alienates humans from their own nature. There have always been Kierkegaards and Kafkas, I suspect, or humans that just refuse to be happy with what pleases a great many of us.
I went a bit further in the discussion, maybe beyond where a skeptic should stop. The general kinds of things most humans like (free time, friends and family, etc) feel like the makings of a “meaningful” life only when those humans manage to forget the boundary conditions of human existence. As I’ve said before, life is utterly meaningless. (I’m not much of a skeptic about this.) I think people can still feel happiness and take delight in many things – or refuse to take delight in them – but neither the delights nor the refusal are at all meaningful. Nothing is. If it does turn out to be a fact of our species that we can’t fully delight in anything unless we regard something as meaningful (and I don’t think it is a fact, but anyway) – then it is also a fact that human delight requires some form of delusion, or at least forgetfulness. Nothing new here; many philosophers have made this claim.
But the main topic of our conversation was politics, and I was asked what sort of political participation follows from my skepticism about there being any kind of genuine human nature or objective human good. I’m not sure what to say here that isn’t obvious. Obviously, some people like some things, and others like other things. Political participation is a struggle to bring about more of the things you happen to like. If what you like isn’t consistent with what other people like – so there’s no way to go separate ways and be happy about it – then you roll up your sleeves and get dirty. So, for example, I happen to like everyone having food, shelter, basic medical attention, etc. Other people don’t really care about it, or don’t see it as a problem government should address. I think government is probably the best way of making it happen (it’s at least an important component), so I need to wrestle with these people and try to have my way over them. It’s not that they’re mistaken about human nature or objective human goods. (What do I know about human nature and the objective human good?) It’s that I want something to happen and they are in my way. Obviously, they feel the same way. Thus politics.
Now in our political contests, they or I might make any number of appeals to human values, human nature, God, the ends of life, etc. That’s just effective rhetoric. In politics, if it works, it’s legit. I’ll even go so far as to say that, in all likelihood, the things I like are more likely to come about if people don’t think the way I do and instead believe the rhetoric and delude themselves with visions of meaningfulness.
Come to think of it, writing this little essay is not such a great idea. You know what? Forget it. I was wrong. There is a genuine human nature, and an objective human good, and it requires some form of democratic socialism and a radical redistribution of wealth. I’ll get you the details later.
A wise old Sage once serenaded me with a lovely song:
“I know it’s tough to be a Good Boy, son,
perfectly Formed like a triangle,
Pythagorean in hand and foot and head
and Morals too!
Oh it’s tough, but can be done!”
But this old fogey couldn’t hold a tune.
He fancied himself the Light of Wisdom,
But round he was like an oval
And his own voice croaked without harmony.
And whose voice is perfect, I ask?
Life for humans is a Bermuda triangle
of weakness, fault, and death.
Nobody is above their circumstances.
So it’s enough to try to avoid truly wicked
and atrocious evils of this world.
Other than that, be what you will –
that’s good enough politics for me.
I don’t need any Pythagorean triangles
But if I happen to come across one, old Sage, you’ll be the first to know!
– Simonides 542
(A crappy translation of the lyric skewered by Socrates, Protagoras 338b)
The Bermuda triangle of weakness and fault and death – inspired translation there!
Simonides visited Puerto Rico once or twice. Had rice and beans. Says so on Wikipedia. (At least it does now.)
I see your Diogenes plucking a chicken, and raise you Dostoevsky beating a horse. When people watch the news and see it all falling apart, they say, “Well, that’s human nature,” a phrase that defines the absence of morality, not the presence. It’s a lamenting catch-all folk saying that explains all the things people wish weren’t true. We might say human nature is the cognizance of some universal state of doom, and it’s a fallacy to begin prematurely squawking like birds about “natural pleasures and the good life” since none of that has ever had anything to do with our species outside the wistful dreams of rich utopians.
Maybe there’s no tripartite soul or teleological purpose or happiness principle embedded in the stuff of human beings. In fact, it’s our nature to be confused, wretched, miserable, unhappy and impossible. And quite smelly. When the great artist with the gifted nose, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, attempts to distill the scent of humans in order to make a perfume, it turns out to have three ingredients: vinegar, spoiled cheese and cat shit. He descends down into a cave on a mountain to escape the universal stink of human nature. (Suskind’s novel Perfume is an olfactory play on Zarathustra.)
When it comes to politics, it’s negative theology. We can’t proscribe what things should be like in a perfect world; that begs the premise that human planning and understanding by nature is flawed. Plan on iniquity and go from there, I’d say!
*prescribe! See! Proof! Human nature is all spelling errors!
Well, if I have to go with a human nature, I’ll go with the one you’ve described. (Though I’d back it off a little. Spoiled cheese *and* cat shit?! Too far! I’d say a well-intentioned old poet who has gas and hasn’t bathed in while, but with a pocketful of nickels to hand out to clever children. And occasionally abuses them sexually. Nope, now I’ve gone too far again!)
Nonsense. I know you’re a fan, and Bob Dylan was an iconic figure, but hardly the image of human nature itself.
But I think we’re wrong about all this pessimism. What we call the Catshit Postulation couldn’t possibly be true. Infants are fantastic little gibbering piles of cosmic wonder, innocence, and divinity (and admittedly a bit of feces and a horrid scream or two). Something happens to people in the world to turn them into diddling nickelflippers; they don’t diddle by nature. Ah, but the great philosopher Monsieur Poe would disagree: to diddle is human.
“A crow thieves; a fox cheats; a weasel outwits; a man diddles. To diddle is his destiny. ‘Man was made to mourn,’ says the poet. But not so: — he was made to diddle. This is his aim — his object — his end. And for this reason when a man’s diddled we say he’s “done.”
Maybe the terms of the debate can be switched from an objective human good and genuine human nature to the self vs others and their ontological status. That merely requires that others are as real as me and have a similar nature whatever that nature may happen to be.
Of course no arguments are brand new, but it’s one response to your assertion.
“I’m with you.”
All right now.
As I read your post, I was reminded of this passage from an interview with Harold Bloom that I read several years ago. Would you agree with Bloom that, pragmatically speaking, it doesn’t make much difference whether one believes in a dearth of meaning or a plenitude of meaning? (Forgive me for quoting this at length; it is an interesting discussion):
Interviewer: You mentioned Deconstructionism a moment ago. In an essay of yours, “The Breaking of Form,” you once made an interesting comparison: “Language, in relation to poetry, can be conceived in two valid ways, as I have learned, slowly and reluctantly. Either one can believe in a magical theory of all language, as the Kabbalists, many poets, and Walter Benjamin did, or else one must yield to a thoroughgoing linguistic nihilism, which in its most refined form is the mode now called Deconstruction.”
Bloom: Oh, yes, I remember. In those years, Paul [de Man] and I were always debating one another in public. In private, we would take long walks together, or he would sit where you are sitting now and argue this, drinking a Belgian beer.
Interviewer: What struck me most was your next sentence: “But these two ways turn into one another at their outward limits.”
Bloom: Yes. I know the passage you are citing. I remember saying to Paul that I did not care whether one taught what he and Jacques [Derrida] were teaching—which was the absolute dearth of meaning, the permanent wandering about of language—or whether one had a linguistic theory that taught an absolute plenitude of meaning, as with Kabbalists such as my great mentor Gershom Scholem and my friend Moshe Idel. All that I cared about was the Absolute, as it were. Because in the end, the two turned into one another.
Interviewer: This is fascinating, but how would you explain the seeming paradox in what you’re saying?
Bloom: To me, it doesn’t seem paradoxical at all. Isn’t that strange? Essentially, what Kabbalah is always saying is that the Torah, and indeed any single Hebrew letter, contains within itself the total plenitude, which is what the Spanish Kabbalists called the Ein Sof, the “without an end,” the divinity, God.
Interviewer: That seems to contradict one of the central tenets of Deconstructionism. Derrida and others said that language is always being deferred along a chain of meaning, referring itself to one signifier after another. Is the Absolute you’re talking about the “transcendental signified” they said didn’t exist?
Bloom: No, I don’t think so. It transcends any notion of what you can signify! The Ein Sof can’t be called the transcendental signified because it’s not a signified. It’s not a sign among other signs at all.
And in the same way, even if you say meaning is always wandering, always in exile, always going from one apparent signifier to another, pragmatically, as William James put it, only a difference that makes a difference really is a difference. And pragmatically, there seems to me no difference between teaching an absolute dearth of meaning and an absolute plenitude.
Interviewer: When I read that line of yours about the two ways turning into one another, I thought of Dante’s Divine Comedy—how the outer edge of paradise spins so quickly that it’s standing still.
Bloom: Yes, yes, that’s right. It comes to the same mode of paradox in the end.
That is a fascinating conversation! That appeal to William James I think is really important. In the end, I’m not sure it makes a real difference whether one sees meaning everywhere, or just goes about doing the meaningless stuff they happen like; they still end up leading the same life (as judged from high altitude). The only place a difference emerges is in a seminar room – or better yet, in a bar, discussing these matters over fine Belgian beers. Or am I wrong about this?
I agree with the sophist Protagoras: “Concerning the gods I am unable to know either that they are or that they are not, or what their appearance is like. For many are the things that hinder knowledge: the obscurity of the matter and the shortness of human life.” Reluctantly, I think the same can be said of an objective human good: I am unable to know whether or not it exists or what it looks like if it does. As Alex pointed out, the triangle of weakness, fault, and death obscures my vision. Blindly I stumble on.
But again, precisely because of my limitations, I cannot deny an objective human good any more than I can affirm one. To make a strong assertion either way seems brash, particularly considering, as the Greek tragedians so clearly saw, that the moment of self-assertion is often the moment of self-destruction.
As Wittgenstein put it, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” I’m increasingly skeptical that I can speak intelligently of just about anything, given that “nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself.”
What do you think?
Thanks for the comment, Dan. I certainly agree that some things seem good/valuable/important, and I sum that observation up by saying “I like them.” And I guess there *could* be an objective human good beyond this, though I don’t really know how. On your larger, Wittgensteinian point, and our capacity for self-deceit, I also agree. The cheap skeptic’s trick is just to put “it seems to me” in front of everything – for surely we can’t be wrong about what seems? (Or?) But the larger job is to try to ferret out our self-deceits – ala Nietzsche, or Freud, or House – and at least provide a diagnosis of ourselves as engines of belief. The happy news is that in discussing “whereof we cannot speak,” we can’t expect ourselves to deliver oracular knowledge, but that shouldn’t stop us from talking. Philosophical discussion, even without conclusions, is an objective human good – er, I mean, I like it!
I’d say that Protagoras hit the nail on the head, but — where’s the nail?