The Recovery of Human Nature

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.

James Kalb


James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (ISI Books, 2008), and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    We need to remind ourselves what we are doing, when we use expressions like “human nature.”

    Bl John Henry Newman brings this out very well in his Grammar of Assent: “All things in the exterior world are unit and individual, and are nothing else; but the mind not only contemplates those unit realities, as they exist, but has the gift, by an act of creation, of bringing before it abstractions and generalizations, which have no existence, no counterpart, out of it. Now there are propositions, in which one or both of the terms are common nouns, as standing for what is abstract, general, and non-existing, such as “Man is an animal…” He contrasts these with “real” propositions, “Philip was the father of Alexander,”

    “the earth goes round the sun,” “the Apostles first preached to the Jews” that refer to things outside the mind.

    Hence, he insists that “Each thing has its own nature and its own history. When the nature and the history of many things are similar, we say that they have the same nature; but there is no such thing as one and the same nature; they are each of them itself, not identical, but like. A law is not a fact, but a notion.” Thus, “There is no such thing as stereotyped humanity; it must ever be a vague, bodiless idea, because the concrete units from which it is formed are independent realities. General laws are not inviolable truths; much less are they necessary causes.”

    We need to keep our notions in close touch with the concrete realities from which they are drawn.

    • I’m not sure why we should look to Newman for guidance in metaphysics. Most Catholic thinkers have rejected nominalism, and its effect on thought seems to have been negative.

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour

        One reason to take Newman seriously is that his philosophical interests, particularly in the way language works, so often seem to anticipate the Analytical Philosophy of the following century – Moore, Wittgenstein, J L Austin and Gilbert Ryle

        American and British readers will also be attracted to the way he writes within the Empirical tradition they are most likely to be familiar with.

        Perhaps, the best reason is his luminous common sense and lucidity of exposition

  • Scott W.

    Excellent as usual, however I think I’m more grim in that modern Man’s problem is one of the will not the intellect. He runs on hatred of his Christian patrimony rather than having weighed it in balance and finding it wanting intellectually. Tolkien remarked that evil has become hydra-headed and wondered if the most expectation a Christian can have is to get through life without worshipping any of the heads.

    • If we were all saints we’d have clearer heads it’s true. Still, our current situation has philosophical as well as volitional aspects and even well-intentioned people can go astray through confusion. So it makes sense to deal with that side of the situation even though it may not be the ultimate problem.

  • St JD George

    We are a peculiar and stiff necked people as a lot. I may be a bit of a simpleton, but I see the story of the emperor has no clothes a lot in society. It’s universal and timeless appeal speaks to our sin of pride and vanity. To me the true simpleton is the one who has never stopped to ponder the finiteness of their being and knowledge including the inability to rationalize time, space and matter. I also see a lot of people full of angst because they have never known true love like the peace that comes from loving Jesus Christ. I think much can be said too for not having ever been shown the way as we have shirked somewhat in our mission to spread the good news. So much more that can be said, but in conclusion, thanks Jim for yet another good article.

  • Harry

    Hello, James Kalb,

    You, intentionally I presume, use language meant to reach those who would be put off by terminology that assumed the reader was a Bible-believing Christian:

    … your arguments won’t stick. The next time the issue comes up you’ll have to go through everything all over again.

    No mention of spiritual blindness there, which is the heart of the problem.

    People seem to think we can make those realities what we want…

    But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’
    — Gen 3:4-5

    People have been convinced that we can be “like God,” that we have sufficient knowledge of good and evil to decide for ourselves what reality must be, and that “we can make those realities what we want.”

    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.

    The word of God describes the fact that the “two sexes … naturally connect” this way:

    “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner. … Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.”
    — Gen 2:18,24

    “… God created man in His image, in the image of God He created them; male and female He created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth …'”
    — Gen 1:27-28

    The above mentioned serpent, our “adversary, the devil,” still, to this day, “as a roaring lion, goeth about seeking whom he may devour” (1 Pet 5:8). His accusations do indeed “become all the louder” when we remind the spiritually blind that “man is a rational animal,” because that rationality is in the image of the God Who the serpent hates with all his being. The image of God is especially present in humanity in the love between married spouses, a love which becomes another person in their child, as the Holy Spirit proceeds from the love between the Father and the Son:

    ‘Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness’ … in the image of God He created them; male and female He created them.
    — Gen 1:26-27

    For human nature to reflect the reality of the divine nature being three distinct, equal persons of one divine substance, masculinity and femininity were required, where the love between two becomes a third of equal dignity who proceeds from the love of two equal persons. (Eve was Adam’s “partner” not his “servant.”) Marriage, instituted along with humanity itself, is an essential aspect of humanity being made in the image of God.

    We have it on good authority that the serpent is “the father of lies” and a “murderer from the start.” He hates humanity since its rationality and its free will reflect the image of the God he hates. He hates natural marriage and the natural family because they reflect the divine nature even more clearly. Not only does he hate the image of God in us, he is extremely jealous of us, as we can still obtain what he has lost:

    It was the devil’s envy that brought death into the world, as those who are his partners will discover.
    — Wisdom 2:24

    Not that any of this will reach those who aren’t Bible-believing Christians — these will, as I believe you surmised, be put off by it; but still, it should not surprise Bible-believing Christians that our modern version of child-sacrifice (abortion on demand) exists, nor does it surprise us that the serpent assaults in contemporary society divinely instituted gender, marriage and family, which reflect God’s image.

    Christ also pointed out to us that Satan is the “prince of this world.” The more society becomes secularized (the more the serpent blinds it to spiritual realities, or, the more the Church becomes worldly) the more pseudo-authority we place in this prince’s hands. Christ is the King of Kings to Whom all genuine authority has been given, but we, by the misuse of our free wills, the free use of which God always respects, give pseudo-authority to the prince of this world, to the extent that Caesar claims for himself god-like authority even to the point of pretending he can sanction the killing of innocent humanity. It is idolatry and adultery for the Bride of Christ to render unto Caesar authority that belongs to God alone. This being the case today demonstrates that there is nothing new under the sun:

    The Lord said to me: Mortal, … declare to them their abominable deeds. For they have committed adultery, and blood is on their hands; with their idols they have committed adultery; and they have even offered up to them for food the children whom they had borne to me. Moreover this they have done to me: they have defiled my sanctuary on the same day and profaned my sabbaths. For when they had slaughtered their children for their idols, on the same day they came into my sanctuary to profane it. This is what they did in my house.
    — Ezek 23:36-39

    And so, even today, those known by all to be flaming advocates of child-killing and the destruction of the divinely ordained institutions of marriage and family, present themselves in God’s sanctuary pretending to be in communion with Him. The Temple of His Body is then profaned by an idolatrous, adulterous Bride of Christ who has rendered unto Caesar that which belongs to God alone, and, adding sacrilegious insult to the injury of idolatry and adultery, allows such advocates to receive the Blessed Sacrament.

    Human nature can only be recovered with respect for the laws embedded in nature by nature’s God, which, for Catholics, begins with obedience first to the higher law of the Divine Authority. We must do this by our actions as well as our words in regard to Caesar’s usurpation of God’s authority. Paying lip service to the truth is a far cry from living according to it, and in fact, if our words aren’t backed up by our actions, teaches the flock to “say the right thing, then do what you want.”

    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      Pascal put it succinctly, when he said, “Man without faith cannot know the true good, nor justice” and he adds, “Not only do we know God by Jesus Christ alone, but we know ourselves only by Jesus Christ. We know life and death only through Jesus Christ. Apart from Jesus Christ, we do not know what is our life, nor our death, nor God, nor ourselves. Thus, without Scripture, which has only Jesus Christ for its object, we know nothing and see only obscurity and confusion in God’s nature and ours.”

      The reason is simple: “You are not in the state of your creation.”

      • Pascal started with modern thought, which imposes rigorous demands on knowledge that abolish substantive concepts of natural law. It’s possible that those demands are what he meant by “man without faith.” The world looks very different if you don’t start there, and most people don’t start there who haven’t been educated to do so.

        On the merits, I don’t think total depravity is the right doctrine. There remains a great deal of good in the world and in men that sometimes leads to some good things, including some degree of moral knowledge, as a natural human consequence. So I’d say Pascal’s “we know nothing” is too strong, if we’re speaking soberly, but his “cannot know the true good” seems right because that seems to require a comprehensive correct view.

        • Michael Paterson-Seymour

          I don’t take Pascal to be saying any more than Jacques Maritain, when he wrote, “Man is not in a state of pure nature, he is fallen and redeemed. Consequently, ethics, in the widest sense of the word, that is, in so far as it bears on all practical matters of human action, politics and economics, practical psychology, collective psychology, sociology, as well as individual morality,—ethics in so far as it takes man in his concrete state, in his existential being, is not a purely philosophic discipline. Of itself it has to do with theology, either to become integrated with or at least subalternated to theology. . . . Here is a philosophy which must of necessity be a superelevated philosophy, a philosophy subalternated to theology, if it is not to misrepresent and scientifically distort its object (An Essay on Christian Philosophy)

          Maurice Blondel is to the same effect: “one cannot think or act anywhere as if we do not all have a supernatural destiny. Because, since it concerns the human being such as he is, in concreto, in his living and total reality, not in a simple state of hypothetical nature, nothing is truly complete (boucle), even in the sheerly natural order” and that we “find only in the spirit of the gospel the supreme and decisive guarantee of justice and of the moral conditions of peace, stability, and social prosperity.”

        • R. K. Ich

          Pascal was simply echoing St Augustine’s thoughts on works done apart from the supernatural gift of faith. The Doctor of Grace explicitly denies natural good in unredeemed man is true good.

          I am with Augustine and Pascal on this assessment.

      • ColdStanding

        This can’t be a serious set of claims. We know by faith, which is a gift of the Holy Spirit, that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the Word of God, the Son of Man, the Son of David, the Second Person of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, etc. It seems to discount the action of the Holy Spirit. The Church has an ancient prayer to the Holy Spirit, Come Holy Ghost Creator Blessed which finishes with a collect that says, “O God, who did teach the hearts of Thy faithful by sending them the light of Thy Holy Spirit, grant us by the same spirit to judge all things rightly, and always to rejoice in His holy consolation.” It is the Holy Spirit that gives the grace to believe that the Word that comes to meet man is, in fact, from God and God Himself.

        Additionally, the Holy Spirit gives His seven gifts to restore fallen man, nay, elevate fallen man to a condition beyond merely the restored order of his original condition.

        Both this quote and the ones you give from Maritain and Blondel attempt to make hay over the impaired capacity of man to reason because of his fallen nature while mentioning but not taking into account the greater than natura pura capacity of the redeemed man’s ability to reason.

        While we are not in the state of our creation, granted. We are not in our fallen state either. Freedom has been won for fallen man from the slavery of sin. We can now reason in the restored and improved condition of the redemption. If man does not seek out and obtain the reviving remedy of God’s grace, we can hardly be surprised when he acts and reasons unreasonably.

        • Michael Paterson-Seymour

          But the contrast they are drawing is precisely between (fallen) Nature and Grace.

          They are protesting against what Laberthonnière had called “a false theolgical notion,” that of of a “natural order,” governed by Natural Law, consisting of truths accessible to unaided human reason, as something that can be kept separate from the supernatural truths revealed in the Gospel. This view treated the political and social order as having its own autonomy and argued that right reason can legitimately arrive at valid conclusions without recourse to supernatural revelation as their necessary source or sanction..

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  • M. J .

    ‘Untainted Purity ‘ – is most likley what human nature was created as , in Adam and Eve ;
    the messages in this Church approved apparition thus can be appealing to any who seek for the truth of how to go about same –

    In NonCatholic churches , from what has been seen on the internet , there is more discussion on things such as the spirit of Jezebel – greedy , controlling , manipulative, deceptive , seductive, vindictive , stubborn and so on , seemingly , as a result of idoltry of going after false gods of self will, pleaure, power etc: , in opposition to what is just and true .
    The Holy Spirit wisdom , to discern such , in self or others, then trustingly invoke the Mother of Untainted Puirty , to take over family lines , hearts and minds , like the gentle breath and blowing of the breeze – an alert Christian life , engaged in deliverance of self and others from the fallen traits , helping to bring back the puirty , through trust in His grace , the working out of salvation – thank God , we have been shown The Way !
    Good to have reminders , such as the one in this article , to help share that it is possible to overcome the pull of the ‘strong man ‘ who points to the wide and easy path of destruction – that we do have ample aid to be in the untainted path !