Modern citizens of Western democracies, children of the Enlightenment, profess to be devotees of the scientific method of observation, hypothesis, empirical and repeated processes to test hypotheses, followed by more observation, and leading, so it is affirmed, to a logical conclusion. And yet, conversely, these same devotees of the scientific method insist on one empirically falsifiable notion: that with enough knowledge, technological know-how, and the scientific method, human nature is perfectable. Coupled with this belief in the perfectibility of human nature, is its obverse twin: all of human history and society are progressing to ever-more enlightenment and perfectibility. Thankfully, the ancient Greeks, and with them, all of Christian tradition, did and do not hold to such empirically false dogmas.
The evidence that human nature is both imperfect and wholly imperfectible is all around us. Murders. Theft. Adultery. Greed. Let’s simply run through the list of seven deadly vices, or log on to social media. Better yet: read a Twitter feed.
What does this say about human nature? Quite simply that it is unchanging. Humans, so long as they exist in this mortal sphere, will lie, cheat, steal, gossip, hate, eat too much, curse their fellow human beings, and so on. I am not saying that human nature is totally depraved, for it is conversely true that, bearing the divine image, humans will also engage in acts of mercy, will love, tell the truth, give to those in need, and bless one another. It is all the same human nature, however bent, unchanging since the fall.
No law, no rule, no amount of government amelioration will change the simple fact that every human on the planet will do something to denigrate and hurt themselves and one another. Indeed, we need laws, in whatever degree possible, through fear of punishment, to restrain our evil impulses. Laws do not make men good. They never have and never will. But they both teach and restrain. We need, as citizens pooling our resources together, to assist those around us. While I might emphasize the efficiency and effectiveness of private charity, it is also the case that (for me, limited) government programs also are needed to again teach and promote us to do good for one another.
But for all the iPhone X’s and all the Netflix shows and all the safety-enhanced vehicles, the medical technology, our forays into space, the overall safety of our public food and water supply, the fact remains that none of these things restrain the evil impulses all of us have. The same cellular phone in our pocket (mere science fiction a few decades ago) with which we call a loved one and express our gratitude is the same phone with which we log on to social media and berate the evil idiots who oppose our enlightened and mature views.
To believe in the inevitable progress of human nature and human society is a dangerous heresy. American society is more divided now than at any time in the previous 100 years. And over matters of far less consequence. The mere symbol of political appellation has one human being spewing hate and derision against another, with no discourse or communication, but merely the presumption of who and what that other person is and believes and does based solely on a civic tribal symbol. If we were truly to take stock that this is who we are, fallen human beings all, all subject to the same temptation to evil acts and thoughts, we might less quickly assume our own moral superiority over the Other. We might, that is to say, realize, with some humility, that we merely project on to that Other what we hate and loathe in ourselves.
To believe in the inevitable progress of human nature and human society is to simply engage in the poisonous vice of pride, leading us to look on another human being, exactly like us save in externals, and to hate what they are merely by the difference in externals. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, a Satanic dogma.
Conversely, to believe in the imperfectability, the fallenness of human nature, is to make room for something like humility. Though such a belief can at times lead to despair and self-loathing, as we look within ourselves and see that Other whom we deride and hate, among fellow human beings who recognize their own fallenness, we can at least know something of humility, and can learn to love and to care for someone. For we are all desperately sick and in need of healing. And the necessity of mercy can do much where the poison of pride corrupts.