Monday, December 5, 2011

A Cliché Most Divine

It is what it is.


The thinking behind this well-known saying is one with which I have had a long love-hate relationship. It is, of course, related to that other well-known cliché -- 'the nature of the beast.' Simple as it sounds, up until just very recently I do not think I have really even begun to understand it. I think many other people do not either. I recently heard a radio host proclaim that the use of this saying was one of her biggest pet peeves, claiming it meant absolutely nothing.

Well, perhaps, to some minds. What it is meant to mean, at least to mine, touches on some of man's deepest assumptions about the universe -- What do we mean by the nature of things? It is actually a bold assertion of a certain way of thinking -- It is what it is, and of necessity cannot be asked or expected to be anything else.

Well, can 'it?'

To Sin Against Nature

A certain argument I used to hate against the practice of homosexuality was that it was obviously wrong because it was 'unnatural.' Now, I do not necessarily support homosexual marriage or anything like that, I just really hate bad arguments about difficult subjects, especially when they appear to me to vastly oversimplify something in a deceptive way. But I have had to rethink my reaction to this argument upon deeper inspection.  Since that time I have encountered arguments that attempt to construct entire moral systems on the notion that the very definition of immorality is to treat something in a manner which violates its 'nature.'  Though I didn't necessarily agree with them at the time, I was forced to take them seriously, and they gave me something to think about.

The hangup -- naturally (I can't help it!) -- is what is meant by 'nature.' In my former thinking, I interpreted the statement against homosexual conduct to be an egregious violation of basic common sense, as well as a very basic Christian doctrine -- the notion of original sin. Evil, cruelty and brutality are very 'natural' things. Anyone who has spent any time 'in nature' and seen the nasty things animals -- including the human animal -- do to one another would know that. The 'naturalness' or 'unnaturalness' of an act would therefore seem to be an exceedingly poor metric for the evaluation of the rightness or wrongness of a behavior. Based on well documented examples of perfectly 'natural' animal behavior, it would appear at various times and circumstances to include rape, incest, and the eating of one's own offspring among acceptable actions.

Further, the doctrine of original sin would suggest plainly that since The Fall it was in man's 'nature' to engage in evil. His nature and inclinations were compromised and no longer to be trusted, and to escape evil it was up to him to adopt a nature opposed to the one he was born with -- a divine nature. Again, man's nature is a very poor metric, and since it is typically Christians making this argument, it would seem a rather obtuse thing to say.

But this, of course, is to misunderstand the meaning of 'nature' in the context of the idea being expressed. Incidentally, it is also to misunderstand several very basic points of the Christian faith, at least as I have come to understand it more recently, but that is another topic for another time. On the other hand, I'm not too sure that many people really understand what is meant by 'nature' in this context either, including many of the people who actually use it in such arguments.  Though it is obvious to me that to mean it in the way I have just described is really quite absurd, I actually do think that this is the way that most people who say it really do mean it.  But taken in its proper context, it is actually a very meaningful and insightful argument -- its just that very few people actually mean it in that way!

So, if one is to be tossing around what are really very useful words like 'nature' and 'natural' to say what would otherwise be important ideas if anyone knew what he were talking about, it might be useful to do a bit of clearing up of what  this controversial word means.

What, then, is meant by nature?

Nature and Substance

The ancient Greeks had an unusual notion of the idea of 'substance' which goes directly to the heart of what we mean today by 'nature' -- especially in the context of human nature.  I suppose this might be expected, as the Greek civilization is the birthplace of Western thought.  By 'substance,' the Greeks meant almost the exact opposite of what one might mean using the word 'substance' today, which is the beginning of a very interesting and enlightening train of thought.

A thing of substance, to the Greek mind, meant something which was necessarily eternal and unchanging. Only things of substance were worthy of serious thought, because a thing which was not of any substance could have no determinate truth known about it. It was ever changeable, so that what might be found true of it today would not necessarily apply tomorrow or to yesterday. And since all material things were subject to the physical forces of the environment, such that they weather and age, or grow and multiply, or are otherwise transformed by the mere fact of being material things, however slowly or quickly this process may in practice take place, they could by dint of their very materiality be of no substance. Thus all substantial things, if they are to exist, must of necessity be immaterial. 

The 'substance' of a man, therefore, was not to be found in his body, which would grow and change and eventually die over the course of his life, but in his soul. By this reasoning, the human soul was reckoned an eternal and unchanging thing and the seat of a man's true being. But by approaching the subject of the human sould by way of the idea of substance, several unusual ideas snuck in about what modern philosophers would call 'human nature' that seem to have been necessary for maintaining philosophical coherency than actually reflective of reality.

For example, the Greeks believed that if a traumatic or otherwise 'lifechanging' event happened to a person that dramatically altered his personality, the person himself -- his soul -- remained unchanged. Rather, the event or experience served only to bring out some aspect of the soul which had to that point remained hidden or unexpressed. The man himself could not change, through any force of circumstance or by his own will, only his body or outward appearance. A man 'was what he was.' Anything he did or could do was only a product of that.

This was one note of doctrine that got Socrates in trouble with the authorities and eventually resulted in his death. Socrates, like later Christian thinkers, disagreed, believing that a man's moral choices over the course of his life could alter the soul, 'scarring' or preserving it intact and unspoiled to the day of judgment. This heretical take on things, as well as many other of his views, put him well ahead of his time philosophically -- and at odds with the ancient Greek orthodoxy.

The Enlightened Human Nature

Fast forward a few thousand years, to the budding Enlightenment movement. A millenium of Christendom had firmly entrenched certain notions concerning the nature of God and the universe.  In particular, it was firmly held that God and His laws were things of 'substance' in the Greek sense -- they could be relied upon as constant and unchanging. This expectation gave rise to the method of logical induction -- the searching for patterns or laws in observable physical phenomena. The application of this method of inquiry produced a burgeoning of the natural sciences and investigations into the natural world, which, contrary to Greek expectations, did appear in some aspects show 'substance' after all.

But the success of the 'scientific method,' however based it was upon articles of faith intrinsic to the Christian perspective, nevertheless began to turn its methods back against its maker, so to speak. Not content with the very types of faith that had made their sucesses possible, Enlightenment thinkers began to question the merits of 'religious superstitions,' and in particular turned their attentions towards issues of religion, philosophy, politics, and human government.

With respect to the question of human nature, the old notions from classical Greek philosophy, which had either been rejected or heavily modified for centuries, were raised up from the grave, but dressed up in a new form. For thinkers of the time, to do so was simply too tempting, in light of how it contradicted those pesky religious superstitions and convenient as its assumptions were to the notions of 'scientific' inquiry. If man and his nature could be taken as constant, consistently obeying a defined set of laws, science could be put to work on him. Once again, man was viewed as having a fixed nature, and the task was undertaken to determine just what that nature was and how it might be most effectively 'governed.' Many opinions and controversies arose, of course, but behind these opinions sat this same basic assumption.

The great hope of Enlightenment Utopianism, for example, rested on this idea. If human nature were fixed, it stood to reason that the questions of political governance contained a definable and finite number of 'problems' to be 'solved.' And if science could produce answers to such problems and questions, as the 'progress' in natural sciences strongly suggested it could, over time, it was reasoned, these problems would be solved one by one. Mankind could and would march steadily and predictably towards the day that all were solved, and Utopia had been realized. Progress, as it were, was inevitable, written into the very laws of nature.

In fact, most modern social science rests on this idea, including the science of ... economics. Of course, if this view is not correct, the house of cards tumbles, my precious passtime with it. If man's nature changes as his understanding of the universe changes, or as events and experience take their course on his awarenesses, or as a million other effects have their impact, then the catalog of human problems becomes a volatile and dynamic quantity, never to be solved. Every solution produces new understanding and awareness, and a new set of problems to go with it. There is no ideal state, or even the possibility of one. The 'laws' of social science may be correct today, but must come with an endless list of caveats and be transient or of questionable permanence -- hardly the set of natural laws one was looking for.

Which Is It?

To be sure, I'm doing a little of conflating several arguments in this essay -- the issue of man as an individual, and man as a collective, as well as tossing every part and parcel of man's nature into the same basket. It is certainly possible that various aspects have their various characters, but even so, even if only in certain limited aspects of his nature, man is in fact a variable and dynamic creature, this quality of the individual must manifest itself in the whole in some form. The idea is quite a disturbing intrusion into many a political argument, especially in this day of highly polarized ideology.

The argument from fixed human nature certainly has its utility, as well as its appeal. Who could deny, for example, that possibly the very worst thing one could do for one's marriage would be to persistently question or insult the very manhood or womanhood -- the very seat of identity -- of a spouse, or to ask that person to conform to ideals in opposition to his nature? Or that the confusion and questioning of natural role and responsibility is not the most destructive thing one could do to a society?

It is impossible, however, to ignore the logic of the opposite case, and a Christian in particular would find it difficult to reconcile the case that man has a fixed and unchangeable nature with the message that his life can be transformed for the better through faith, hope, and the power of God. But once admitted, it raises a number of difficult questions. Is there a 'correct nature,' and a corresponding governance, deviation from which is the source of social evils, or are there several, possibly many, acceptable natures with matching governments, such that the source of problems is as often a matter of the regimen as the man, or a general mismatch between the two? Is the ideal of government a fixed or moving target, changing with the natures of the men over which it holds authority? If natures are variable from one man to the next, are certain natures inherently incompatible, such that a mixture of them becomes inherently ungovernable and unstable, and either one or the other must prevail or the two separated in some fashion?

Whether human nature is static or dynamic, uniform or variable, the most basic questions concerning it must be resolved to at least some degree in order to even begin approaching some of the most important questions, as was apparent to Plato and should have been down to the very present day. It is perhaps an impossible thing to state the answer, but for now I think the problem is principally to stop taking it for granted.  Too many have myopically chosen one set of assumptions to the exclusion of any other consideration, and much evil has come of that this century past.

So, are things just what they are -- men in particular -- or not?  Might they be what they are today, but perhaps weren't yesterday, and may not be again tomorrow?

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