Human nature and European civilisation

Relativism has left us in an impasse. The ancient study of human nature offers a route out.

The Parthenon, Athens, Greece.
The Parthenon, Athens, Greece. Credit: Lambros Kazanas / Alamy Stock Photo

It is said that European philosophy either embraces Aristotle or Nietzsche. The former postulates an ontology that we can term natural law; to be discussed below. The latter doubts everything, to the point of emptiness – nihilism – alles ist jenseits von gut und böse.

This nihilism is common in Europe today – or perhaps we should say, an extreme relativism in matters ethical as well as even factual. Does a child have a right to live with his biological parents if possible? The answer is by now subject to opinion – some think children should be procured through various forms of insemination and egg donation, hence there is no possibility of the child being raised by its biological parents. Are there two sexes? Many say no, gender is subjective and there are endless genders, depending on how you feel about it. Changing from man to woman and vice versa is now possible based on subjective feeling, by filling in a form. The use of so-called ‘gender neutral’ pronouns is advocated by many, to the point of not raising one’s children as girls or boys.

These examples show that human nature as we have always known it to be – as a main rule consisting of two sexes (some are born without clear sex), childrens’ parents being their biological parents, and so forth – is negated by powerful societal and political forces. There is a redefinition of parenthood and thereby the family, a negation of the importance of biology, and a claim that nature’s given facts can be redefined or changed by subjective feeling or ‘identity’. This is radical indeed, and forms the basis of identity politics in its various forms.

The main issue is not the political manifestations of this movement but the ontological claims made and the concomitant epistemological implications thereof. The claim is that there is no authority in objective facts or knowledge, such as the biological proof that a woman is a woman or that a child has a two parents, necessarily of the opposite sex. Instead it is up to each and every individual to determine what sex is, what parenthood is, etc. The same relativism/subjectivism is evident regarding other issues as well, but I mention the most astonishing ones because they illustrate how far Western Europe has moved from its own scientific basis.

Perhaps the best way to approach the problem at hand – nihilism and subjectivism – is to look at the cultural wars raging in Europe today, basically between East and West. In East Central Europe people want Christianity, family life, and nation. Hungary and Poland are the foremost examples. Christianity means to preserve the European Christian heritage as the Leitkultur of the country and a rejection of multiculturalism as a model if that means subjectivist ontology – that culture is defined according to one’s personal views. This is in stark contrast to the Central European and traditional understanding of national culture as something permanent, definable, and stable. In the West, nations and cultures are not definable by anyone outside the said culture or nation; and subjectivism reigns. In the East, a Serb is a Serb, a Catholic a Catholic, a Jew a Jew. Multiculturalism here means the co-existence of several nations and religions next to one another, and because they are different, there are rules for this co-existence.

The Habsburg empire was truly multicultural, multi-national, and multi-religious. Religious tolerance was instituted as early as 1645 in Transylvania, borderland territory against Russia, Ottomans, and other invaders. Rules for religious observance were defined, i.e. rights for the various religions, and multiculturalism was so well instituted in the North of the empire, in today’s Slovakia, that the Germans there (the Zipser) were allowed tax breaks, to speak German as the primary language, and various other privileges. There were seven Zipser towns which remained German in the middle of a Hungarian culture; their Lutheran ministers went to Germany to be educated and German culture dominated.

I mention this in order to underline how different Europe’s Central East and West are today. Why is this so?

When the East speaks about nation, it is a natural, cultural, stable and objective concept, and it is defined and explained in terms of the nation’s history. When the term nation is invoked in Western Europe, it is almost always a negative term, retrograde, conservative, even called ‘national-conservative’, and references to the nation’s history are dismissed.

When I talk to my Hungarian relatives and friends, they know their national history, national literature, and the history of other nations and states, of Europe as such. History matters. In Western Europe, however, especially in the younger generation, history does not count at all. It is not read, people are extremely ignorant of it, and they are not interested. The same goes for European and national literature: the frame of reference that we used to expect from a well-educated person is no longer there. The classics are not known, the notion of a canon is rejected, and the concept of the nation is treated as ironic at best.

Identity politics has triumphed. What is a nation? What is the Norwegian nation? Anything you say it is. Recent debates about defining a national ‘canon’ in my native Norway ended in the usual irony: there is nothing objective that defines Norway; everything is totally in the eye of the beholder. Your opinion is a good as mine. To say that a thousand years of Christianity defines the Norwegian nation would be a non-starter indeed. To define a list of books as the national canon likewise. Old-fashioned, essentialist, unmodern, stuffy stuff…

Andrew Michta describes the problem thus:

The real trouble for the West… is what has been happening within our societies… the real problem is… the progressive civilisational fracturing and decomposition, fed by the growing disconnect between political and cultural elites and the publics. Alongside this is an even more insidious trend of fragmenting national cultures and the concomitant debasement of the idea of citizenship, the latter being defined almost exclusively in terms of rights… the larger national identity, which was historically tied to the overarching Western heritage, has been subsumed under ethnic and religious group identities.

Francis Fukyama’s recent book Identity: the demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment provides a profound analysis of the political implications of group rights and subjectivism. He points to the rise of democracy as a system whereby elites were replaced by inherently equal people. He also recounts how feminism and the civil rights movement were struggles for equality, not for difference. The turn came when ‘the left began to embrace multiculturalism’ because it was hard to fight changes to the liberal market-economic paradigm.

He finds that this new tribalism has now pervaded democratic politics and threatens it: ‘The left’s identity politics poses a threat to free speech and to the kind of rational discourse needed to sustain a democracy… the fact that an assertion is offensive to someone’s sense of self-worth is often seen as grounds for silencing… the individual who made it.’ This he calls ‘political correctness’, and attributes the left with promoting it.

Thus citizenship is ‘deconstructed’ into tribal groups that claim rights for themselves. The anthropological basis for the very notion of citizenship is challenged by subjectivism and group identities, thereby further eroding democracy, he argues. In this setting a different version of multiculturalism takes root: the left’s criticism of Europe as being colonial, oppressive, guilt-ridden occurs along with large non-Western migration into Western Europe. Added to that is secularisation and disintegration of family life due to the ever-expanding ‘sexual revolution’. Kinder, Kirche, Küche is gone from Western Europe, and this has happened in a generation.

Let me now turn to the argument that human nature exists and can be known through rational analysis. This is a vital issue for two reasons – one, to become greater human beings we need to know what greatness is and how to improve in virtue. Character formation, and this classical programme, rests on ancient and Christian philosophy. Second, in order to save democracy we need to reassert the equality of men in law and politics, i.e. to restore citizenship itself.

If men have no common substance, no common nature, there is nothing to learn from historical greatness and therefore no need to read the classics. How can I grow in virtue? What can I learn from Socrates? From the Stoics? Indeed, from Jesus himself? Christians read the New Testament in order to become better men, learning from the examples of the Master. The texts penetrate the heart with their clarity and their demands. We learn by reading and contemplating.

The rejection of a common human nature explains why so many contemporaries take no interest in the past. If I do not recognise the struggles of Marcus Aurelius or SenecaDante or St Augustine, then why read them? Traditionally the education of a young person would include the classical curriculum, the canon of literature, the subjects that form a person – the liberal arts education (Artes liberales).

Logos is the Greek word for reason, in Latin ratio. To be rational is, surprisingly enough, equivalent to being human: the definition in the classical Aristotelian and Platonic philosophic tradition is that the human being is a ‘rational and social animal’, a zoon politikon.

Rationality is the ability to offer arguments and justifications for something. Unlike animals, which also have language and can communicate with each other, the human being is the only entity that can reason. Animals fight, procreate, hunt, eat, play and live a communal existence by instinct, but only humans can reason about all these natural activities.

Moreover, ratio defines the human being itself. Without reasoning he simply would not be a human being. The ability to reason is inborn in every human being, but it can be destroyed – such as in illness, and it can be corrupted, such as when people refuse to discern right from wrong. Having the ability to reason is not equivalent to using that ability.

All things concerning ethics can therefore be discerned by what is often referred to as ‘right reason’, that is, uncorrupted reason. Natural law, which is the term St Thomas Aquinas uses for the ethics of man’s life in the city, of political life, is entirely accessible to the human mind.

St Thomas took his knowledge and inspiration directly from Aristotle. If we look at the Aristotelian notion of man, we find the word ousia which means ‘substrate’, something which is in and of itself; underlying all things that change. In Latin, this term is rendered substantia, substance. Essentia, essence, is another expression of this. Genus and other characteristics are accidents, accidental, but the human is essence, primary and universal.

The definition of the human being’s nature is therefore that it is an entity that is not derived from anything else; it is the most primary substance, along with other natural creatures such as animals. Aristotle is an empiricist in the sense that he proceeds by observation and classification based on this: he therefore observes that both men and animals are social beings, but that only man is a rational being even if animals also have language, as stated above. It follows from this that man’s nature is essential. Not whether the person is male or female, black or white, young or old, slave or free, etc. – although ancient Greece by no means had equality of citizenship. It is Christianity that teaches equality of all souls, a radical departure from Greek and Roman thinking.

This classical postulate, the definition of the human being by his rational faculty, was adopted by philosophers and theologians in the early Middle Ages and later rediscovered by St Thomas. For instance, Boethius in the 6th century states that man is ‘rationalis naturae individua substantia‘ (‘an individual substance of a rational nature’) and the Stoics of the later Stoa in Rome all postulated the rational ability of man in ethical matters as the important characteristic of man.

The ability to discern and to do the right things was termed ‘virtue’, the Latin for manly, strong, derived as it is from the word for man, vir. The cardinal virtues were known and practised throughout antiquity, from Socrates’ quest for justice in the Platonic dialogues to Marcus Aurelius’ commentaries on how to practice fortitude and temperance in the governing of the Roman empire.

The human being, then, is created with rationality, and indeed this quality is what distinguishes him from animals. The virtues are the characteristics of human nature that allow men to develop; and the corresponding vices are the ways to become less human, to dehumanize oneself. In Aristotelian ontology all beings have a purpose, a telos, and the purpose of the human being is to perfect the virtues and combat the vices. This is so crucial that it is intrinsic to him in the sense that being itself is ‘more or less’ according to how virtuous a person is. A vile person has less reality or being than a virtuous man, and we recognise a remnant of this in the expression ‘dehumanization’ which we use for someone who is really vile. To the relativist this language cannot logically make sense, as virtue and vice are but subjective preferences. Yet people still realize what dehumanization means; someone who is ‘less than’ human.

Ratio enables man to reason about fact as well as value: one can discern truth and falsehood in a factual statement, such as ‘the house is red’. Unless one is colour-blind, one is able to tell whether this is a true statement or not if one knows the word for ‘red’ and ‘house’. But the same logical ability is present in ethical or moral judgments: an uncorrupted human being can arrive at the conclusion that is it wrong to steal or to kill. The criticism by David Hume much later simply misses the point, because the Aristotelian definition of the human being and his rationality entails ethical ability: reasoning about ethics is as natural and inborn, and as rational as is reasoning about empirically observable facts. Animals will most probably steal each others’ prey if they have the chance, whereas humans may do the same and indeed often do, but they nonetheless know that this is wrong. At least they do not believe that it is right.

The classical definition of human nature and the programme of character formation were upheld as the essence of European Bildung for many centuries. In the words of Italian philosophy professor Enrico Berti:

It remained the basis of global culture, not only Christian but also Jewish and Muslim, both ancient, mediaeval, and modern, that is of the entire culture which Aristotelian tradition has influenced; indeed, we find variations in Augustine, John Damascene, Richard of St Victor, Thomas Aquinas, Leibnitz, Rosmini, Maritain and several other thinkers.

From the time of John Locke, however, we see that his notion of the person cannot yield to natural law although he writes in the natural law tradition. For Locke, the human being cannot be known or defined because it cannot be arrived at through direct sense experience. The human being is something else than mere sensation, Locke thinks, but because he cannot sense it or observe it, it must remain unknown. This line of thought is developed further by Berkeley who argues that ‘being is perception’ (‘esse est percipi‘) and reaches its high point (or low point, as it were) in the empiricism of David Hume.

Hume does away with metaphysics altogether, but he also does away with physics. His scepticism is such that not even observations of causation count as causation. If we see a ball hitting another ball, all that we observe are two sequential occurrences – and that observation does not allow us to infer that the first ball caused the other to roll when hitting it. Hume argues that since we have seen this before, we expect the first ball to make the other roll, but this is simply a habit of ours. Since we can never observe the concept of cause, we can never know anything about it.

On this ontology, there is no ontology, even less human nature that can be known. All that exists is a series of sense experiences. Since we cannot observe ourselves, only notice our own behaviour, we have no substance. All that we can know about ourselves is a series of disconnected sense experiences. In justice to Hume I should mention that he found his own philosophy entirely unsatisfactory, but declared that science could not help.

At this point we are faced with the delineation of science and also rationality to natural science alone. Only that which can be empirically observed, is real and scientific. While this is true for natural science, it has, however, never been true for the human sciences. The reductionism of science to natural science leaves metaphysics dead and philosophy ill; now condemned to dealing with lesser questions than ontology and epistemology. It no longer makes sense to study the major questions of ethics when one cannot deal with the premises of ethics by meaningfully asking what human nature is and what the meaning of life is.

Immanuel Kant tries to rescue objective human nature by postulating it a priori, like an axiom of mathematics. The human being is a rational being, endowed with dignity, he postulates, and therefore should not be treated as an object, a means, but as an end in itself. Praiseworthy as this may be; Kant’s postulation remains but a postulation since nothing about human nature can be known to him and us. The ethics, or moral imperative, is necessary because otherwise men would become utilitarian beasts.

Later, in the 19th century, Hegel and Fichte destroyed the notion of metaphysics further, denying that essences can exist and be known: all is idea, nothing is real. And after that we find that the concept of ‘cultural product’ replaces human nature: the person is a ‘product’ of culture and society in both Marxism and modern anthropology. Relativism has become the very premise.

The impossibility of objective reality – sometimes dubbed essentialism – is further developed by analytical language philosophy which argues that reality cannot exist apart from language itself and it is in fact constituted by language. This school of thought is today present in the pervasive approach called constructivism in the social and human sciences: political reality, especially norms, are socially constructed. Likewise, the positivist turn in legal philosophy which underlies most European legal thought denies that there is any reality to the concept of justice: the law is what is written in law books. This position undermines the very concept of human rights, but few seem to ponder this momentous implication.

However, the picture is not entirely bleak: some turn back to metaphysics. In the Oxford and Cambridge schools of ordinary language philosophy there is a return to the classical concept of the person. The American philosopher W.O. Quine argues, in his famous book Word and Object (1960) that language must refer to objects that in turn give meaning to language – i.e. it is the objects that exist independently and language describes them, not the other way round, as constructivism and analytic language philosophy would have it. Also in the continental tradition we find very significant objections to the death of metaphysics in personalism and hermeneutics. Personalist philosophers like Jonas, Mounier, Ricoeur, and the late Pope John Paul II have emphasised that the experience of the other provides the basis for knowledge of human nature and ethics. Mounier himself states that the classical concept of person ‘is the best candidate to sustain legal, political, economic and social battles in defence of human rights’.

The reason for this is entirely simple and logical: if equality is the central notion of law and politics, then this implies that there is something knowable about the human person that is the same everywhere and always. Human rights are premised on natural law – they demand and presuppose one common human nature in terms of the same dignity and the same equality.

The telos of man is eudemonia, happiness, say the ancient Greeks. This is not pleasure and indulgence, but self-discipline, justice, prudence, and temperance. Only the person who fully masters himself is happy, according to the ancient precept. It is said that emperor Marcus Aurelius lived an ascetic and frugal life, a Spartan existence, in order to conquer his passions – among which sexual passion is probably the least important. The ingredients in ethical living were known very precisely: the virtues were all interconnected; parameters whereby one would navigate in everyday life; and vices could only combatted through strength, i.e. virtue. In the Stoic universe detachment from life’s vicissitudes and temptations played a key role, as did the practice of being ready for death. Not fearing death gave strength, perspective on life, and the ability to appreciate the here and now in real terms.

When we look at Christian teaching, we rediscover the same elements, this time with an addition of supernatural virtue – faith, hope, and charity. In Christianity the ancient programme of character formation continues: one must acquire natural virtues before one can aspire to attain the super-natural ones. In the famous dictum of St Thomas, ‘faith builds on nature and perfects it’. There is no point in trying to be a good Christian unless one is prepared to be a good human being; it is simply an impossibility, for divine virtue cannot be attained by a vile person. Forgiveness can of course be dispensed at the discretion of the Lord, but virtue is like an edifice built stone on stone.

Reason is inborn in man, but can be and is often corrupted. This is the ancient Aristotelian position where virtue and vice are in constant contestation. Justice is one of the four cardinal virtues and the one proper to politics in the writings of classical political philosophy.

Both human rights and democracy are upheld by relativists as ethically right and good, thus making for the paradox that the West proclaims relativism in all things ethical but not in the area of political governance. The contradiction in terms that is evident in the area of human rights is clear: human rights cannot exist as a concept, even less as a reality, if they are based on a relativist position.

So far we have merely shown that the Western philosophical tradition for many centuries upheld the classical notion of human nature as ‘rational and social’, and that metaphysics was sidelined by first, British empiricism which equated the human and the natural sciences, and later by increasingly sceptical strands of thought. However, much of the problem with this evolution in the history of philosophy had to do with the immense progress in empirical and natural science and the deplorable lack of such in the human sciences.

None of this has disproved Aristotle. The argument remains that the human being can reason about ethics as he can reason about facts. The Humean criticism misses the point when it faults Aristotle with confusing ‘fact and value’, for the classical concept postulates that the person is both ‘fact and value’ in its very essence – being rational means being ethical.

Is Aristotle right?

In an interesting paper Per Landgren records an imaginary incident. Two persons rescue people from a burning house. They are subsequently interviewed for a newspaper, and the journalist asks why they risked their own life to do this. One says that he did not think about that question at all; he simply acted. But the other says that he thought that he would become rich from getting a prize for valour, that he could get famous, etc. The journalist is puzzled over this answer. Something seems very wrong, undignified, unnatural about it.

This example illustrates the argument that natural law makes. A natural reaction is to try to save life, even if one is afraid. An unnatural reaction is to do it to make money. One may even say that the latter reaction is evil, bad, wrong – thus, there is a natural ability in us to discern right from wrong. Further, saving life – one’s own and that of others – seems to be a basic value, whereas the need to make money can be many things, and varies between being a vital and good thing when one must provide for one’s family, and being a bad thing when a lifesaver saves life in order to make money, as in the example above. Thus, ethics makes sense only in a context of telos, as Aristotle argues.

Landgren makes the point that there are some basic values that are universally recognised as such: to live rather than to die, to be respected, to learn, to cherish truth rather than lies, etc. The opposite of these values are morbid and unnatural, most people would immediately agree. These basic values are called intrinsic, GrundwerteRechtsguter. The point about these values is that they are inborn, intrinsic,constitutive – they define what a human being is, just like Aristotle’s definition. This is so because we cannot derive them from any principles or logical arguments; they are simply what human beings, grosso modo, are like.

Thus, when we read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we see that the rights therein are largely such basic principles that are commonsensical to all reasonable persons. Reasonable means, we recall, that one is upright and human; not corrupted and evil. And the author of this human nature, creator or not, does not have to be mentioned, but the rights form a whole that reflect a view of human nature that is knowable through common sense and reason. But if the concept of human nature is denied, there is no basis for these human rights – they become mere ideological and political devices. Human nature remains an axiom, as it was also to Aristotle, an essence and prime mover, as he would have called it.

It remains fully possible to discern what human dignity and therefore human rights are about through the faculty of reason, deductive as well as inductive. The sharpness of the rational mind is a function of its ascetic and logical training, both in terms of consistent argument – ‘if all men are equal, one man cannot be discriminated against’ – and ethics: ‘if stealing is wrong, I must refrain from it lest my ethical sense be dulled’. The problem, I think, lies not so much in lack of reason as in lack of virtue. It is rather easy to know what is right and wrong, but rather arduous and unpleasant to do what is right. As a Catholic dictum puts it, tongue-in-cheek: ‘A little virtue does not hurt you, but vice is nice.’ Furthermore, and very importantly, citizenship is based on the idea of one common human nature.

The European tradition is based on the ethical ability for anyone to do the right thing – what we call conscience – and that conscience must be formed, hence the character formation programme that has persisted from antiquity to the present. The relativist position is untenable and the rationalist position is possible. Yet it remains a very tall order indeed to restore rationality to Western politics.

This essay by Janne Haaland Matlary was first published in Past and Present, 2020, Axess Publishing


Janne Haaland Matláry