Like other living things, human beings have a distinct nature as beings of a particular kind. We have conditions we try to bring about, conditions that help us thrive, and characteristic ways of acting, responding to events, and dealing with others. All these points are obvious.
Nonetheless, if you mention human nature in public discussion today you’ll face resistance. People will say you’re engaging in stereotypical thinking that stands in the way of Hope and Change. They’ll want you to prove every detail of every assertion, no proof will be good enough, and your arguments won’t stick. The next time the issue comes up you’ll have to go through everything all over again.
That’s a problem for Catholics and others who are concerned with the realities of human life, including the reality of how we should live. People seem to think we can make those realities what we want, so views that treat them as stable and enduring make no sense. If you say that there are two sexes that naturally connect to each other, and we need to get the connection right so people can lead happy and productive lives, they’ll say you’re a narrow-minded bigot. The accusations will become all the louder if you add that man is a rational animal, and it is important how he understands his situation, so if he is married it is important for him to recognize the natural function of the institution and his role in it.
One result of this rejection of natural patterns of life is a radically libertarian understanding that makes connections between the sexes unstable and nonfunctional, and marriage a luxury good for the successful rather than a basic structural aid that can make anyone’s life better. A further result is a great many miserable people. We won’t be able to do much about those and other results of the current refusal to accept basic human realities until people once again recognize human nature as a guide for how to live.
But how will that happen? To answer the question we need to understand why the idea of human nature has been rejected and how an understanding of it that’s stable and detailed enough to be usable becomes established.
A basic reason people today don’t accept nature as a guide is that they see it as essentially mindless. It’s atoms bouncing off each other in the void, or some updated version of that, and it’s impossible to accept such a situation as a guide to life. On such a view nature seems a blind, oppressive force that only tells us what we have to overcome if we want to be free. Rather than a guide, it should be treated as something to dominate through technology. That line of thought leads to the insane view, which is now entirely mainstream, that we can advance the human good by destroying all substantive concepts of what people naturally are. So teachers shouldn’t use terms like “boy” and “girl” because they prejudice the question of how young people should think about themselves and connect to others.
One requirement for a return to nature, then, is to persuade people that modern physics is not a total description of reality, and the world has important features that can’t be reduced to combinations of elementary particles in space. As a rational matter that shouldn’t be difficult. In order to account for reality modern physics has to say and mean something, but descriptions of particles in space don’t explain meaning. So physics itself can’t be explained in a purely physical way.
If that’s true of physics it’s all the more true of the study of human things. To understand ourselves and our actions we need a richer understanding of the world that includes meaning as a genuine feature of reality. We also need to be able to talk about human things by reference to the functions of living systems and their implicit goals. Even modern natural scientists find it necessary to do so, as when they talk about the function of the eye or circulatory system. Human beings and societies are complex. They involve meanings and other aspects of reality that transcend the purely physical, together with biological functions and their implicit goals. It follows that making sense of them requires us to see them as systems that integrate the two.
The concept of human nature lets us do so. It tells us that people naturally act in certain ways toward certain goals, and their good as human beings involves accepting those tendencies and bringing them into a harmonious system that carries meanings they can understand and approve. Natural marriage, for example, integrates biological functioning and the sexual impulse with various emotional, social, and spiritual goods. Without accepting such arrangements as part of human nature, it becomes impossible to make sense of human life as a whole, and man seems a jumble of inharmonious pieces.
It is difficult to get agreement on that point today. One reason is that people don’t know where to go with it, since the concept of human nature is abstract and becomes vague where we need to make it specific. It evidently includes family ties, differences between the sexes, and distinctions between young and old, but what exactly are those things, how should they be understood, and what should we do about them? Such matters must be brought down to earth and made concrete if they are to guide us, and that can be difficult.
Human nature isn’t like the mass of an oxygen atom, which can be determined exactly based on clear experimental evidence. It requires interpretation, and interpretations differ. Many specifics of how we understand it and where it seems to lead have a cultural aspect. Eating and nutrition are natural, but whether a lobster or a piece of a horse qualifies as dinner depends on where you’re from. Something similar can be said of principles of conduct that transcend desire. It’s natural to recognize them, and they’re similar everywhere in many ways, but details vary widely. Human nature may tell us that sexual restraint is good and necessary, but does that mean polygamy or divorce and remarriage should always be avoided? The difficulty of coming to stable agreed conclusions on such questions is one reason the doctrine of infallibility has been found necessary.
The normal way such things are determined is through social, moral, and religious tradition. Tradition is not a complete answer, but it’s a necessary part of dealing with these matters. We all live as members of communities ordered by common understandings. The usefulness and solidity of those understandings rests largely on tradition, which allows successful accidents, fleeting insights, half-understood implications, and a huge variety of experiences to accumulate and take concrete form in symbols, practices, and beliefs that put the patterns found in life into usable form. For that reason, a restoration of human nature as a guide, and the possibility of a way of life that makes more sense than the one put forward by today’s therapeutic pop culture, will—among other things—require people to have a stronger sense of particular faith, culture, and community than is common in today’s global, bureaucratic, commercial, and media-ridden world. Only so can the concrete standards of a particular tradition become a living force.
How to bring that about is a deep question. The rebirth of a more integrally Christian system of life among Christians would provide much of the answer, but how that would happen and what else would be needed is a complex matter the details of which would have to be worked out in making the attempt. It is evident though that part of what would be needed would be a somewhat more self-contained system of daily life, together with a different kind of education designed to transmit a particular tradition of how to live that develops what we naturally are instead of remanufacturing us as units of production and consumption for post-industrial global society.
The effort would involve much else, of course. In view of the importance of the matter for family life, and for Christian life generally, our pastors might consider discussing the issue when the Synod on the Family reconvenes next year.
Editor’s note: This essay first appeared November 6, 2014 in Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission. The image above is a detail from “Aristotle with a Bust of Homer” painted by Rembrandt in 1653.