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Human Nature and World Peace

ISSUE:  Summer 1944

Writers and philosophers of all ages, from Homer to Thomas Hobbes, have from time to time espoused and passed on to succeeding generations the ancient dogma that war has its roots in the ineradicable qualities of human nature. This dogma has not only confirmed in the minds of most men the conviction that war is inevitable, and has thus served through the centuries to discourage all efforts to prevent it, but it has also made the recurrence of war doubly sure by giving it a naturalistic sanction.

Hobbes, like Plato of ancient times, based his doctrine of the state upon what he considered to be the fundamental facts of human nature. He starts out, for instance, in his “De Cive” with the assumption that man is naturally a self-seeking, egoistic creature, who can only care for others according as they minister to his own satisfaction. All men naturally desire the same things. Man’s inherent selfishness induces him to raise his hand against his neighbor and to encroach upon the rights of others whenever it suits his purposes to do so. Being driven by continual fear and danger of violent death, man has been compelled, says Hobbes, to do what is wholly against his nature to do, namely, to set up some sort of society and government, based not upon benevolent motives in man’s nature, for there are none such in his make-up, but upon enlightened self-interest. The essence of human nature, according to Hobbes, is expressed in the phrase bellum omnium contra omnes. Man, said he, is a wolf to his fellow man. Questions of rights, obligations, or duties can arise only when there is a power outside of man himself which is capable of imposing laws upon him. “Covenants without the sword,” said he, “are but words, and of no strength to secure a man at all.”

A picture of human nature as conceived by the minds of those responsible for the first World War can be found in the writings of Treitschke, Nietzsche, and Bernhardi. That the concept of human nature which dominates the minds of German leaders of ’ day is not different from that which ruled their thinking in the previous World War is obvious enough. Oswald Spengler, whose commentaries concerning western civilizations are familiar to American readers, has expressed this point of view in no uncertain terms. Writing in the American Mercury in February, 1934, he said, “man is a beast of prey. I shall say it again and again . . . Conflict is the original fact of life, is life itself, and not the most pitiful pacifist is able entirely to uproot the pleasure it gives his inmost soul.” The question which we raise here is whether Spengler and all those whose philosophy of life he voices were born that way, or whether their education was the prime factor in making them what they are. We can at any rate say as to Spengler that he was educated in Munich and Berlin, and that his doctorate at the University of Berlin had to do with the philosophy of Hera-clitus, whose apotheosis of conflict Spengler echoes in almost the identical words of the master himself.

Our ancient dogma has not lacked champions in this country. Several years ago, in speaking before an American Legion convention, the late Dr. Charles W. Mayo reiterated it with all the prestige of his professional authority and eminence as a famous physician and surgeon. It was in his opinion absurd to imagine that it would ever be possible to abolish war. War, he said, is part of our human inheritance, and hence lies beyond our control.

This point of view has a particularly strong appeal to the conservative type of mind. It is easy for conservative thinkers to believe that all institutions in human society are the outgrowth of the fundamental and unchangeable characteristics of human nature. The educational fundamentalists show us what the doctrine looks like when applied to the problem of human learning. They argue that there are two great constants to be dealt with in this realm: human nature on the one hand, and the great body of recorded knowledge or absolute truths on the other. The task of education, they say, is to bring these two constants together.

That there is some truth in the contention that social institutions are the outward expression of the fundamental characteristics of human nature, one can well afford to admit. Before any meaning can be ascribed to this admission, however, it becomes necessary to face the crucial question as to what human nature really is. The glib dogmatism of home-made psychologists concerning this question stands in sharp contrast with the humility of the physical scientists when they face the question of the ultimate composition of matter. It is, of course, merely an error of knowledge to have a false idea as to what manner of creature man is. It is a social catastrophe to permit our attitudes toward institutions, whether old or new, to be based upon false ideas. Here it is the false ideas about human nature, rather than human nature itself, that affect the course of history.

Those who wish seriously to inquire about human nature should be careful to differentiate between two radically different sources of ideas. There is, on the one hand, that mass of ideas, more or less inarticulate and confused, which constitutes the great body of traditional, common-sense thinking on the subject. Unfortunately, it is this sort of thinking that is most often made vocal in law-making, government-building bodies.

There is, on the other hand, a less accessible body of knowledge derived from scientific inquiry carried on for generations by men trained in the procedures of scientific investigation. This kind of knowledge has not as yet gained such wide currency as the other sort, and hence has not been as effective in shaping legislation respecting international policies. Furthermore, the conclusions of the specialists in the field of the social sciences do not, unfortunately, carry the weight of authority accorded to findings of the physical scientists. On a proposal, the success of which would depend upon the soundness of certain scientific principles known to be involved, the American Congress would refuse to act until it had the benefit of technical advice, provided the matter in question lay within the field of inquiry of the physical sciences. When it comes to dealing with crucial questions in which the human equation is involved, one congressman’s opinion is worth as much as another’s. And it is all too often the case that the opinion of neither is worth the cost of printing in the Record, however fateful may be the issues that hinge upon their correctness.

The ancient behest of Socrates about knowing ourselves and the dictum of Pope about what constitutes the proper study of mankind seem to have gone unheeded through the ages, for not only among the unlearned but even among the otherwise learned there are to be found notions about the nature of man which, in their crudeness and deceptive inaccuracies, are not far in advance of those held by Plato. And the pity of it is that these are the history-making notions.

At the time when the pronouncement by Dr. Mayo concerning our human inheritance in respect to war was being broadcast throughout the nation without challenge, I concluded to call upon American psychologists to express their opinion concerning his dictum. It was assumed that the question as to the make-up of what we call human nature is a question that lies squarely within the domain of their inquiries, although they had never been called upon, nor had they volunteered to give the nation the benefit of their opinions. I formulated in the language of common sense, the history-making language, a simple question concerning the supposed inheritance by human beings of prepotent psychophysiological determinants of war. The question was framed as follows: Do yon as a psychologist hold that there are present in human nature ineradicable, instinctive factors that make war between nations forever inevitable? With this question I circularized the membership of the American Psychological Association, doubtless the largest body of scientific psychologists in the world. Replies were received from seventy per cent of the members of this organization. These replies justified the following conclusion: Without raising the issue as to the continual recurrence of conflicting claims and rival interests between nations, American psychologists of that time were practically unanimous in agreeing that the traditional dogma that ineradicable instincts predetermine the mode of adjustment of these conflicts through war and war alone is without scientific warrant. There is no ground for believing that the opinions of psychologists with respect to this question have changed or will change.

Now, if these scientists have any right whatever to speak concerning a problem which lies squarely within their own field of inquiry, it would seem that the fatalistic apologists of war should in the future be compelled to seek other than scientific grounds for their fatalism. The war-provoking cave man within the bosom of us all turns out on close inspection to be as factitious and as innocent of guilt for our sins as was the scapegoat of the ancient Hebrews.

One of the great fallacies to which human thinking has always been subject is the assumption that everything in the universe, including human nature itself, is reducible to some sort of basic substance, of which all specific qualities are but modifications. Ancient philosophers reduced the physical universe, now to one basic substance, now to another, in their groping attempts to understand and to explain its real meaning. A similar leaning toward monistic explanations is found among those who undertake to explain the complexities of human nature. From Plato to John Locke man’s rationality was the source of all things human. From John Locke to Sigmund Freud emphasis was laid upon sense experience as the source of man’s psychic life. With Freud came the anti-intellectualistic interpretation of man’s nature and a stress upon his animal instincts and passions as the real source of his being. When it comes to the social, political, and economic relationships among men, the key to their explanation seems in all ages to have been found in man’s inherent and ineradicable pugnacity, whether such pugnacity is found to express itself in war, in competitive business, or in political and professional rivalries. A society based upon any other sort of conception of human nature, we are told, is impracticable and unrealistic.

In order to get rid of the fallacy of such a monistic interpretation of human nature it is not necessary to deny the fact that man is a fighting animal. To be sure he is a fighting animal. It is, however, highly important to deny the very different claim that man is a fighting animal and nothing more. Not to deny this latter fallacy is to fall victim to the most dangerous of all truths, namely, a half-truth.

The real truth about man’s nature seems to be that it is statable only in terms of potentialities. These potentialities may and do manifest themselves in opposite ways according to the circumstances. Man can hate; he can also love. Man can kill his fellow man; he can with equally authoritative sanction of his nature risk life to save him. Hobbes saw only the wolf, never the Good Samaritan, in human nature, and so his disciples have always done, whether or not they have been aware of their discipleship.

What then is man? Is he beast or saint? Is he dust or deity? The answer must be that he is not predestined by nature to be either one or the other. Whether he turns out to be the one or the other will depend upon the influences to which he is exposed during the process of his development. The history of the world leaves no doubt upon this point, for we have had human saints and human brutes in all ages of the world’s history. We have them today. And yet no one seems to have offered the theory that man has an instinct for sainthood. That characteristic seems, inconsistently enough, to be regarded as being made up of imported elements not to be found among the materials of human nature.

The most confusing notion in popular thinking about man today is the notion of instincts. For this confusion psychologists are somewhat to blame. Modern psychologists especially are inclined to avoid the use of the term “instinct” in their treatment of the motivations of human and animal behavior. In popular thinking anything that all people have a natural tendency to do is at once classified as an instinct. Several hundred different meanings of the term have been collected, some of which are mutually inconsistent. There is, therefore, some justification for the fact that psychologists prefer to throw the very word out of court. Such a policy, however, involves certain social hazards, since the public in general and the legislators in particular, not the psychologists, are responsible for framing our foreign policies, and since both are subject to the fateful fallacies of their own linguistic usages and of their own thinking about ineradicable human instincts.

It docs seem possible to make clear once and for all that if we say that anything that all men do must ipso facto be classified as instinctive, then reasoning must be so classified, for reasoning, as well as fighting, is universal among men. If the meaning of the term is made so general as this, it at once loses its definitive value and becomes useless. Even the man on the street will tell you that reason and instinct are fundamentally different, though he may not be able to tell you precisely in what respects they differ. If the term “instinct” is to be retained in psychology at all, and if the dangerous confusions about it in the public mind are to be cleared up, it seems necessary to accept it as implying a form of behavior in which nature, or heredity, prescribes not only the motivation, but also the pattern of behavior.

This interpretation would at once rule it out as an explanatory principle as far as human behavior is concerned. All men have an urge to think under certain circumstances, but nature does not tell them how to solve their problems. Likewise all men have an urge to fight under certain circumstances, but nature does not dictate that they shall do their fighting in any particular way. The truth is that the methods of modern warfare are far removed from the primordial sources of animal instincts. If the methods or weapons of fighting are optional with men, then there is no reason, so far as human nature is concerned, why courts of law may not be substituted for battlefields, as they have been in many civilized countries of the world when it comes to settling conflicts between individuals.

So much from a psychological point of view. Perhaps if someone were to circularize American zoologists for their opinions concerning man’s instinct for war, they would be found to agree in good measure with the American psychologists. At least, this could be counted upon if Alfred E. Emerson of Chicago University is representative. While admitting that competitive struggle has played an important part in evolution, he sees ground to hope that the discovery of behavior mechanisms involved in social organization and co-operation will enable mankind to evolve beyond the present phase of society with its inefficiency and its misery.

Anthropology can also furnish its quota of evidence on this question. Margaret Mead has edited a study of primitive peoples with the same question in view. The Kwakiutl Indians of British Columbia exemplify a society characterized by extreme emphasis on competitive relationships and by a corresponding absence of interest in co-operative undertakings of any sort. In contrast with this tribe, the Zuni Indians of New Mexico were found to be noted for their spirit of co-operation and for their lack of aggressive rivalries. Human nature must have been operative in each of these two contrasted societies. Their marked differences in social attitudes must therefore be explained on some other ground than that of our ancient dogma concerning man’s ineradicably pugnacious nature.

Once the dogma itself has been shown to be untenable, its equally stubborn corollary, which states that human nature is the same in all ages, also becomes untenable. In dealing with this issue psychologists have in recent years laid increased emphasis upon the importance of the influence of environment upon human behavior. Formerly this relationship was considered to be an additive one. Even the language of experts once contained such phrases as “heredity plus environment,” “nature versus nurture,” et cetera, as if the two elements in man’s nature were separable entities. Today man’s nature is regarded as the product, not the sum, of these two elements. The relationship between man and his environment is regarded as a factorial relationship, not an additive one. This new viewpoint has served to increase the importance ascribed to the environmental factors in man’s make-up. The radically different cultures of the two Indian tribes mentioned above are cases in point. Furthermore, since the elements in man’s nature are thus found to be factorially, not additively related to each other, it becomes obvious that to reduce either element to zero and to endeavor to account for man’s destiny in terms of the other is to reduce man himself to zero. To disregard man’s environment and to attempt to account for his behavior wholly in terms of the hereditary factors in his constitution is to commit this absurdity.

World peace may be impossible, but it will not be impossible for reasons alleged throughout the ages by biological determinists. If it turns out to be impossible it will, in my opinion, be because we have permitted, under the spell of an ancient fatalistic dogma, important environmental factors in the way of traditions, customs, institutions, fixed ideas, and vested interests to get out of hand. War has been perpetuated and still is perpetuated more as a result of man’s social inheritance than as a product of his biological inheritance. If we examine the implications of the factorial relation of man’s environment to his behavior patterns, it becomes difficult to estimate the consequences of the enormous increases in our environmental contacts brought about by the expanded geography into which we have in recent years been catapulted by war with its incidental discoveries and inventions. What a different world our founding fathers lived in a century or so ago!

Charles Morris is of the opinion that contemporary psychology, psychiatry, and social science have shown human nature to be “enormously plastic.” “We cannot,” he goes on to point out, “say what human nature is, but only what it has shown itself to be under specific conditions.” A physical substance, such as a lump of coal, he remarks, also presents certain familiar characteristics under familiar environing conditions. If subjected to different conditions, such as increased pressure, radically different aspects of its nature at once present themselves. In order therefore to declare what the characteristics of so simple a phenomenon as coal are, it is first necessary to specify the environing conditions to which it is being exposed at the time of describing it. How much more obligatory is it to do this when passing judgment upon so complex a phenomenon as human nature! What human nature would look like after several generations of living under the four freedoms we can scarcely imagine, for there has been no time in the past history of man’s existence on earth when even one of these freedoms has been guaranteed to him.

It is to be borne in mind that pugnacity is not the only latent aspect of human nature that is called out under the circumstance of war, even though it may be the one which most conspicuously meets the eye. It must be admitted that war brings out the primitive elements in human nature. In war fraud and deception have no more moral significance than they had in the prehistoric life of the jungle. Man can not only slaughter other human beings without mercy, but he can do so with a veritable frenzy of satisfaction. These primitive qualities he presents only to his enemies. To his friends, his comrades in arms, and to the common cause to which he has been called to dedicate his life, he manifests the wholly different characteristics of idealism, loyalty, sympathetic consideration for others, and a self-sacrificing devotion to the common good.

These two contrary and seemingly incompatible aspects of human nature manifest themselves not only under the stress of war conditions, but they are to be found in minor forms in times of peace as well. In peace as in war, man’s behavior patterns are, as previously noted, factorially related to the circumstances of his environment. Sir James Barrie, in his famous rectorial address at the University of St. Andrews just after the first World War, gives a case in point. He said to the youth before him that the cause of that great disaster was the fact that hoary-headed diplomats had been shaping the course of history and in doing so had brought upon the world a war which they (the youth) had been compelled to fight. If they or their children should be compelled to fight another war a generation later, it would be because they had let things slide in times of peace.

While there is a refreshing absence of biological fatalism in Sir James Barrie’s diagnosis of the malady of war, it does not seem possible to conclude that the one simple remedy is to get senile diplomacy out of the way and put world affairs in the hands of youth. To be sure, diplomats with precedent-filled, tradition-ridden minds should never again be permitted to play their accustomed role in international affairs. On the other hand, it should not be forgotten that the youth movement of Germany was an important factor in that country’s rearmament, and that the distorted, fanatical minds of teen-age youth in Germany today contribute much toward its war-mindedness. Roth old age and youth are the products of their teaching and of the spirit of their times.


The chief reason why one war has always followed another throughout history seems to me to be in large measure due to the fact that the self-sacrificing idealism, without which battles cannot even be fought, much less won, and with which youth is so generously endowed, is featured in times of war and discounted in times of peace. When youth are faced with the necessity to undergo hardships, sufferings, and death in order to save their countries from disaster, they are implored to become idealists. Even the most crass-minded realist knows that no other philosophy can sustain men’s minds in moments of crisis. Once the crisis is over, the order of the day to youth is that they all put away their idealism as they do their outmoded weapons of combat. He who sacrifices his personal interest in the cause of the common good in war is called a hero. He who imagines that such principles of behavior should be put into practice in times of peace is apt to be thought of as an unrealistic, starry-eyed idealist. The one has a crown as the reward of his labors, the other a cross.

The world into which youth are invited to return from war, unlike the world from which they have emerged, is, they are told, a world in which individual enterprise and personal gain are the only workable motives for citizenship. A veritable barrage of opposition against anything remotely to the contrary has been and is now being laid down with increasing energy, with Congress taking the lead in its subserviency to self-seeking pressure groups.

The generation of youth that followed the first World War has been called the lost generation. Youth is always lost if it is robbed of its idealism. A war correspondent in Paris during the first World War, who watched the American soldiers march through the streets of that city said that there was the light of a great inspiration on their faces. What it was, whether it was God or Woodrow Wilson, he could not say. We can well imagine that that look of high idealism on their faces had something to do with their achievements on the battlefields later. In striking contrast with this appealing scene, and in illustration of what was meant after the war by the back-to-normalcy movement, one may recall another very different scene of President Harding standing on the deck of the flagship Pennsylvania at Norfolk, Virginia, on April 29, 1921, and saying that we of the United States do not want anything not “righteously our own,” but that “by the eternal, we mean to have that.”

Thus America, after urging her youth to the very heights of lofty idealism, and after persuading the statesmanship of other allied nations to join in a movement to bring lasting peace to the world, repudiated the cause for which her own youth had been inspired to give their lives, ridiculed the very idea of making the world safe for democracy, and announced under the threatening guns of a battleship the much less lofty purpose of seeing to it that she gets what is coming to her. It is not so much the damage that may have been done to world peace by this moral slump, but rather the unrecorded damage that was done to the minds of American youth. If we are to have another lost generation after the present war, the responsibility for it should be placed where it belongs. It belongs with those who, in their uncritical acceptance of the dogma of biological determinism and in their ignorance of the basic facts of human psychology, have failed to differentiate between the raw materials and the manufactured products of human nature.

The potentialities of human nature, like the hidden energies of the atom, afford a challenging field of discovery. The really fateful race is between discovery and catastrophe, for to put the terrible energies of the atom into the hands of man while he is still clinging to ancient superstitions concerning the essentials of human nature and governing his actions accordingly, could not but bring disaster to mankind.


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