We humans are both altruistic and selfish
Ever since I was old enough to read books on civilization, history, and philosophy, I have been intrigued by what people like to say on the “nature of man.” For years, philosophers have debated for whether man is “primarily good or primarily evil,” and also whether he is primarily altruistic or selfish, cooperative or combative, gregarious, or self-centred, whether he enjoys free will or whether everything is predetermined.
As far back as the Socratic dialogues in Plato, and even before that, man has been baffled about himself. He knows he is capable of great and noble deeds, but then he is also oppressed by the evidence of great wrongdoing.
And then, a small question: Does man ever stop wondering? I don’t presume to be able to resolve the contradictions. In fact, I don’t think we have to. It seems to me that the debate over good and evil in man, over free will and determinism, and over all the other contradictions -- it seems to me that this debate is a futile one.
Perhaps, because man is a creature of dualism. He is both good and evil, both altruistic and selfish. He enjoys free will to the extent that he can make decisions in life, but he can’t change his chemistry or his relatives or his physical endowments -- all of which were determined for him (or her) at birth.
And rather than speculate over which side of him is dominant, he might do well to consider what the contradictions and circumstances are that tend to bring out the good or evil, that enable him to be a nobler and responsible member of the human race.
And so far as free will and determinism are concerned, something I heard in India on a long ago visit, might be worth passing along. Free will and determinism, I was told, are like a game of cards. The hand that is dealt you represents determinism. The way you play your hand, simply represents free will.
Now where does all this leave us? It seems to me that we ought to attempt to bring about and safeguard those conditions that tend to develop the best in man. We know, for example, that the existence of fear and man’s inability to cope with fear bring about the worst in him. We know that what is true of man on a small scale can be true of society on a large scale. And today the conditions of fear in the world are, I’m afraid, affecting men everywhere.
More than 2,300 years ago, the Greek world, which had attained tremendous heights of creative intelligence and achievement, disintegrated under the pressure of fear. Believe this to be a fact.
Today as well. If we read the signs correctly, there is fear everywhere. There is fear that the human race has exhausted its margin for error, and that we are sliding into another great conflict that will cancel out thousands of years of human progress. And people are fearful because they don’t want to lose the things that are more important than peace itself -- moral, democratic, and spiritual values.
The problem confronting us today is far more serious than the destiny of any political system or even of any nation. The problem is the destiny of man: First, whether we can make this planet safe for man; second, whether we can make it fit for man. This I believe -- that man today has all the resources to shatter his fears and go on to the greatest golden age in history, an age which will provide the conditions for human growth and for the development of the good that resides within man, whether in his individual or his collective being.
And he has only to mobilize his rational intelligence and his conscience to put these resources to work.
Again, I also believe that duplicity is stress and distress. It is fracture and schism and dis-integration. And it is in this context of “two centuries of nihilism” that the pressure and urgency for a new integration, a new mutation of consciousness, finds its justification.
It is no luxury of idle minds, but arises from a deep inner impulse, and it likewise takes many forms, some of which are aberrant and defective responses -- authoritarianism or totalitarianism. And the temptations towards this kind of response are likely to get worse. It would, of course, be the logical endgame and recourse of an era and a consciousness structure that has finally collapsed and disintegrated completely.
Certainly, the pessimism of the intellectuals about the future of mind during and after the period 1914-1945, which found expression in any number of dystopian novels (Huxley, Wells, Orwell), was a final disillusionment, when the Enlightenment enthusiasm for “the infinite perfectibility of man” foundered on the shoals of “human nature.” But “human nature” is not an insurmountable problem. The struggle for a new integration, a new “universal history” in the face of the discrediting and “deconstruction” of the old “grand narrative,” is simultaneously a task of self-overcoming and of transcending “human nature” as it has been hitherto understood.
This pressure and stress and need calls upon as yet unused or underutilized resources and faculties of the soul that will be, and must be, made increasingly more explicit and manifest, even if it requires passing through the crucible of havoc and hell.
Let me end this piece by suggesting that “duplicity” is the currency of the day. Pope Francis recently has reportedly stated this. It is quite true. The Late Modern Mind is schizophrenic, and that is manifestly the case in so many ways, inclusive of the strange “double-movement” of our times.
Nazarul Islam is an educator based in Chicago.