Nature is perhaps considered by a number of philosophers and scientists as the true reflection of reality. Perhaps if one wishes to know the truth and meaning of reality, one must understand nature. For social scientists, the question pertains to whether we can truly understand human nature and thus understand the human condition in order to infer certain truths about social phenomena. By deciphering social phenomena, we can then infer certain trends pertaining to the trajectory of human history and thus assimilate ourselves to what is to come.
Understanding human history also entails the employment of one or the other major philosophical traditions in the Western world, namely, the realist and idealist traditions of Western philosophy. The most prevalent philosophical tradition or school of thought in the modern era that explains human nature is perhaps the realist tradition of Western philosophy. Although it distinguishes itself from the idealist school of thought stemming from Plato and Aristotle, the realist tradition does take into account certain points made about nature and reality by pre-Socratic philosophers like Heraclitus, who considered everything – including human nature – to be in a constant state of flux.
Machiavelli solidified the realist tradition during the early Renaissance period by virtue of his grim view of human nature, and contemporary realist philosophy is perhaps the birth-child of Machiavelli’s teachings. Thomas Hobbes – who is worthy of being credited for carrying on the torch after Machiavelli in the realist tradition – lowered the standards of what is to be expected from states and societies. Whereas the idealists from the Ancient Greek milieu thought of ideals and virtue as being attainable, Machiavelli and later Hobbes propounded the idea that the focus of leaders, states, and societies should be relegated to basic needs such as security and self-preservation due to man’s inclination towards social strife and war.
Through the advent of modern philosophy, Sir Francis Bacon continued the repudiation of idealist philosophy and the idealist worldview through his suggestion that human beings were essentially shaped by both hedonistic and survivalist tendencies, not reason and virtue. David Hume’s rebuttal of the idealist tradition came with his own observations of human nature, which were not very different from Bacon’s observations in the sense that Hume thought men were governed by passions and sensations rather than reason and virtue as the idealists had claimed. Hume argued that reason was the “slave” of the passions.
From a political standpoint, Locke and Montesquieu would prompt a break from absolute monarchism and in turn influence how European societies would govern over competing passions and interests. Locke and Montesquieu’s influences are lasting ones, especially as it is reflected in the American system of governance. The rationale for checks and balances between competing interests and thus the separation of powers are a legacy of Locke and Montesquieu for the most part.
Finally, from a psychological and thus a deeper angle, Freud capped off the realist tradition by suggesting that all human strivings are aimed at sublimating Eros, which ends in futility because Eros is the most powerful force within the human psyche and it cannot be sublimated by moralistic and repressive trappings constructed around the depths of the human psyche. Thus, in our collective efforts towards shaping a political and social order either domestically or globally, we must ask ourselves: is human nature governed by pleasure-seeking and self-interest? Or is human nature governed by reason and virtue? Can we balance pleasure-seeking and self-interest with reason and virtue?
In her reflections on the psychological aspect of human life, Hannah Arendt is perhaps one of the first philosophers in the Western tradition to revive the “manic-depressive” cycle that stems from the Greek “tragicomedy” which in turn governs everyday life and thus human history, given that history is the accumulative body of daily occurrences, by stating:
“In inner experience, the only thing to hold onto, to distinguish something at least resembling reality from the incessantly passing moods of our psyche, is persistent repetition. In extreme cases repetition can become so persistent that it results in the unbroken permanence of one mood, one sensation; but this invariably indicates a grave disorder of the psyche, the euphoria of the maniac or the depression of the melancholic.”
But as sentient and thinking beings who are nevertheless bound to a physical and sensory world, it is the act of thinking which distinguishes the human being from any other creature, and as Arendt wrote, it is the act of thinking which “permits the mind to withdraw from the world without ever being able to leave it or transcend it.” Man is essentially “thought made flesh, the always mysterious, never fully elucidated incarnation of the thinking ability.”
By acknowledging man’s ability to think, Arendt gives a nod to the idealists, despite the ubiquity of realist thought. Arendt added that while scientific knowledge seeks the irrefutable “truth” about the world and the universe, thinking amounts to the pursuit of “meaning.” However, “meaning” cannot be deciphered through common sense, reason, scientific inquiry, or the senses. As Plato argued, “meaning” can only be understood through either intuition or a vision. Thinking is perhaps a “professional act” and only a select few are cut out for the job. As a result, the vast majority of people are vexed by illusory “appearances” and “semblances” that conceal both meaning and truth. Thus, most of us are living a lie.
But if science equates to the pursuit of truth, then perhaps the truth is attainable. Yet, the quest for meaning never ends because thinking itself never comes to a standstill. Ultimately, it is the search for meaning which drives all human behavior and thought and is thus the vehicle for human history. Science is nevertheless a byproduct of thinking, and a great deal of scientific knowledge stems from mere thinking as evinced by Archimenides when he discovered the principle of buoyancy while sitting in a bathtub.
The question at the heart of our inquiry at this point and thus our forthcoming scientific pursuits is whether economic, scientific, and technological progress is endless and infinite, which can perhaps be answered in the negative despite the noble intentions behind such scientific and technological endeavors. In modern times, the economist Ray Dalio has shown that there is an economic corollary to the cyclical shifts of the human psyche as characterized by the “manic-depressive” cycle that Arendt elucidated. Dalio suggests that despite the frequent economic peaks and downturns resulting from both short-term and long-term debt cycles, productivity – and thus economic growth – is continuous and linear for an indefinite period of time.
But even if economic and technological progress is endless, it might only benefit a select few, which in turn necessitates an equitable distribution of wealth in order to mitigate the political and social effects of income and wealth inequality. Economic progress might be endless if wealth can be created out of thin air. But as certain economists like Danny Dorling of Oxford University have argued, wealth can only be distributed, not created. Any economist who has yet to lose their bearings can show that creating wealth out of thin air has inflationary effects which exacerbate political and social turmoil. Printing money must be balanced with spending cuts on costly items such as defense and global expansionism in order to avoid hyperinflation.
In a deeper sense, the modern worldview which prompts the Western belief in endless economic and scientific progress stems from the notion of reality as being “capable of becoming a man-made reality” which is perhaps a questionable enterprise given that man’s notion of reality is bound to “limitations of patterns he himself created” to borrow from Hannah Arendt. Reality is thus something that cannot be encompassed by human comprehension and thought.
Moreover, the question of whether history is linear and complemented with the occasional ups and downs stemming from the manic-depressive cycle or if history is parabolic is perhaps the sole differentiator between Western and Eastern thought. What is important to internalize is the possibility that history can move in either one of these directions at this particular juncture in time. But in the end, “meaning” transcends economics, science, technology, and illusory senses, and it is our struggle to detach from everything that is worldly and material in order to decipher “meaning,” which in turn becomes the source of our anxiety and emotional tumult.