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The Twentieth Century Looks at Human Nature

ISSUE:  Summer 1934

To the ancient riddle, “What is man?” each age

returns its own reply. Could we but determine, in

all its rich implications, the answer that this age will give to the eternal riddle, we would have in our hands a thread to guide us through the labyrinth of contemporary culture. Perhaps we may find that no small part of the apparent incoherence of things is the result of our effort to believe and apply certain great secular dogmas—those of democracy, capitalism, or socialism, for instance—when we no longer accept the views of human nature that go with them.

What is the western world’s conception of human nature? Dig down deep enough and at bottom it is Christian. There will not be found in it, for instance, the Hindu species of soul which flits from life to life toward an extinction of personality. The Christian individual human life is a unique thing with eternal values attaching to it. Upon this deep Christian foundation two swirling torrents of thought, of the age of Rousseau and of the age of Darwin, have laid down their successive strata. The human nature of the age of Rousseau operated under laws of absolute morality and reason between the poles of good and evil, truth and falsehood. The human nature of the age of Darwin was only a special kind of cause in a universe of change and movement whereof each moment was linked to the next in an iron chain of cause and effect, so that man operated between the poles of success and failure as an economic automaton in the world of production or as a mammal in the world of nature. Down in those cultural strata, in the writings of the eighteenth-century philosophes or the nineteenth-century economists, these views of human nature are to be found worked into designs of marvelous beauty and intricacy. In the age of Rousseau there was the dogma of democracy and the cult of humanity, in the age of Darwin the dogma of socialism and the cult of nationalism. These were indeed great creations. To know them is to admire them. But are they living beings in the contemporary world, or only fossil forms?

If, after making due allowance for the fact that cultural eras are not sharply cut off from each other, and that they are always much greater and more complex than any name we can give them, it is permissible to speak of an Age of Rousseau in the eighteenth century and an Age of Darwin in the nineteenth, then with somewhat less assurance we can perceive in the twentieth century an Age of Freud. It could not be claimed that Freud’s personal contribution to learning is so great that it towers over all else, but it is certain that he has been both typical and influential, like Rousseau. He typifies the widespread effort to look more deeply into the inner processes of human behaviour. This effort is a cultural fact as far reaching and conclusive for this generation as the political philosophy that preceded the French Revolution or the Victorian constellation of economic and scientific ideas were for their respective times. The vogue of Freud and of the intelligence test has been an illustrative episode in a great adventure in the understanding of human nature. The other episodes are taking place on a wide front that stretches from the economics of advertising to the politics of the Nazis, from the new prose to the New Deal.

The effective thought of the day is now willing to proceed on the hypothesis that reason is not the master of human conduct but a petty valet coming afterward to tidy up, explain, and justify. Our generation is willing to admit that the distinction between “good” and “bad” in people may be a superficial distinction, if in the depths of the psyche these qualities are ambivalent: the vice crusader and the libertine are drawing their energies from the same deep spring. Whereas the economists taught that man is a being who buys in the cheapest market and sells in the dearest, we have come to realize that in the presence of choices that most profoundly determine his fate—the choice, for instance, between war and peace—he will sell in the cheapest market, and buy in the dearest. We insist that all the biographies be rewritten in new terms, and all the old human situations be described anew, not because of a mere passing fad for psychological novelties, but because the older expositions are no longer convincing.


How does a particular conception of human nature, be it the eighteenth-century moral-rational, the nineteenth-century mechanical-causal, or the twentieth-century psychological, permeate the intellectual and practical problems of its time? The process can be illustrated from eighteenth-century experience. There was then no universal agreement that mankind was good, nor that reason was the key to truth. These were the questions upon which disputants took sides. The agreement was only the implied and unexpressed consensus that the important thing about humanity was its goodness or badness, its ability or inability to know truth through reason. The debate over these issues formed the intellectual lines behind which the great vested interests of the day entrenched themselves for the battle of the French Revolution. The Church held that man was naturally bad, and in need of the sacraments for his salvation. The theologians argued that reason could not know the truth without the aid of revelation. The philosophes replied that man was naturally virtuous unless corrupted by society, that his mind was open to the persuasions of reason, and that reason would light him all the way to eternal truth.

The prevailing conceptions of human nature determined many of the speculative preoccupations of the most exalted intellects. The theologians, believing in God and sin and distrusting unaided reason, faced certain characteristic metaphysical entanglements: how could a good and omnipotent God permit the existence of evil in the world? This was the Problem of Evil. It was sometimes solved by the assertion that the world was as good as possible, “the best of all possible worlds.” Another question: how could mere man force the hand of God and by his own efforts compel God to accord him salvation? This was called the Problem of Free Will and Grace. The philosophers had other difficulties, chief among which was the one they called the Problem of Knowledge. How could man know the truth through the agency of reason if the objects of knowledge lay in the realm of things while reason itself dealt only in ideas? These problems fed the minds of thinkers from John Locke to Im-manuel Kant, and from the Jansenists of Port Royal to Voltaire.

In practical application the philosophers’ view of human nature became the dogma of democracy. Man’s competence to govern himself was a corollary of his natural virtue and endowment of reason. The law of nature therefore indicated the people as their own natural sovereign; any other authority over them was either unnecessary or evil. Since the people were both good and wise, to thwart them would be wickedness and folly. Rousseau’s “citizen” was a romantic idealization of man, whose actions accorded always with reason, whose desires were directed constantly toward the general good. For such citizens the device of an election was a means of discovering the general good, of pooling the total intelligence of the community; it was not intended to be a war of hostile interests waged with paper weapons. The leaders of that day dared to write freedom of speech and press boldly in the program of democracy because they were confident that truth would conquer error in a free contest before the tribunal of reason. Even those who opposed the democratic dogma merely reversed the postulates, arguing that virtue and reason were a monopoly of the few rather than the heritage of all.

The prestige of reason contributed to the practice of formulating all political attitudes in terms of jurisprudence. Political controversialists concerned themselves more with the principles of government than with its mechanics, more with legislation than with administration, When Napoleon set up his operations in terms of administrative mechanics, the transition to nineteenth-century practical politics began. Soon afterwards the Continent learned with some surprise the mechanical secret of British “liberty,” namely the neat device by which a ministry would automatically go out of office when it ceased to command a majority of votes in Parliament. The objective of the revolutions of 1830 was not so much democracy or popular sovereignty as the introduction on the Continent of the English cabinet system. Jeremy Bentham began to write constitutions for young Latin-American states, convinced that if the political machine were correctly set up it would run perfectly. Then came the Second Empire in France, making a mockery of the democratic dogma by setting up a popular dictatorship, a tyranny with the consent of the people. Those who still clung to the eighteenth-century conceptions were compelled to explain away the Second Empire by closing their eyes to the fact that Napoleon III was endorsed by the overwhelming majority of his nation. In the same way the twentieth-century dictatorships are sometimes explained away by people who try to believe that the great masses of Germans do not “really” approve of Hitler, and that the overwhelming majority of Italians do not “willingly” follow Mussolini.


In the nineteenth century, even while democratic institutions were making great conquests, the intellectual atmosphere became inhospitable to those assumptions regarding human nature in which the dogma of democracy had been born. The reaction against the eighteenth century took place on a wide front. Experimental science captured the prestige that had once belonged to philosophy, mechanical invention changed man’s material environment, and the idea of evolution came to govern thinking as the conception of reason had once dominated it. The great social dogmas established in this age were those of capitalism, socialism, and nationalism. These dogmas still carry with them the odor of the nineteenth century wherever they go.

Science, invention, evolution appeared at the threshold of the century as isolated elements of culture, but by the middle of the century they had been synthesized. Hegel, the great philosopher of the eighteen-twenties, developed a universal metaphysic of evolution, but he was not a scientist. The first inventions that had such a profound effect upon economic life were not the products of the scientific laboratory but of the artisan’s workshop. And science itself, in the year 1800, was not drawn together in a great system, but consisted rather of a number of almost unrelated studies of natural phenomena.

But in the middle of the century the physical sciences drew together their fifty years’ cumulation of experimental data in a great mechanical synthesis, and Darwin came forward with a scientific rather than metaphysical application of the principle of evolution, offering a mechanical explanation of the development and course of life itself. At the same time the scientists began to be useful; in chemistry and electricity they contributed to the world of mechanical invention. The prestige of facts increased at the expense of ideas and principles; the patterns of mechanics overshadowed those of pure logic. Social thinkers shared the prevailing prejudice in favor of tangible realities. John Stuart Mill wrote an inductive logic; Karl Marx presented a materialistic interpretation of history. The beautiful mechanics of the free market and the gold standard charmed every observer of economic life. Society seemed to be a machine equipped with automatic eontrols. The high objectives of eighteenth-century philosophy were dismissed by Herbert Spencer, philosopher of evolution, into the limbo of the unknowable. The “natural law” of the nineteenth century (unlike its predecessor of the eighteenth century) became something purely mechanical, quite unrelated to human jurisprudence.

What kind of humanity inhabited this mechanical cosmos? Instead of the citizen of Rousseau’s politics there appeared the “individual” of economic doctrine; in the place of the sovereign people of the French Revolution, the proletarian masses of Marx. It was a new human race, occupying a new universe.

Virtue in nineteenth-century man appeared as an incidental or accidental quality. Success and survival were the essentials. The economic individual was primarily productive or unproductive, and only incidentally good or bad. Self-interest rather than virtue furnished the motive force of the economic machine. This was a view accepted alike by capitalists and socialist theorists. Capitalist economics looked upon the individual entrepreneur, socialist economics upon the embattled class, as the decisive agency in economic action. Both doctrines agreed in their vision of an underlying compulsion, either by the pressure of the immutable laws of competition upon the individual business man, or by the opposition of irreconcilable classes in unavoidable conflict. The Darwinian theory of struggle for existence confirmed what the pre-Darwinian economists had already outlined.

When the pattern of Darwinism was applied to the situation of international relations an even more complete repudiation of moral principle took place. Survival of the fittest was a doctrine of anarchy which made stable international life impossible. Neither Thrasymachus nor Machiavelli had possessed such potent doctrinal weapons for the defense of political immorality. And morality itself was worn down by the sociologists and anthropologists until it appeared as a mere cultural accident, valid for its time and place but for no more. Not hypocrisy, but a stupendous power of intellectual digestion, made it possible for the age to accept all this and still believe in God.

Symptomatic of the nineteenth-century view of human nature was the metaphysical problem of Free Will and Mechanical Determinism, which began to compel attention when the problem of Free Will and Grace had dropped out of sight. This metaphysical dilemma has left deep traces in contemporary socialist dogma. In the dialectics of Marxism it has always been difficult to hold the balance between the two sides of a theory that proclaims at once the inevitable coming of the revolution and the duty of leadership and agitation. It was precisely upon this issue that Lenin took his stand in the decisive programmatic document “What Is to be Done?” which marked the beginning of his leadership. It is in terms of this dilemma that Trotsky has just analyzed the November Revolution. Economic issues in the capitalist thought-world clothe themselves in similar guise, for they take form as assertions and denials of the possibility of effective intervention to control the economic machine.

The nineteenth century did not succeed in reconciling the experience of individual freedom with the dogmas of mechanistic science. How could man exercise freedom in a universe knit through and through by complete relationships of cause and effect? Was the criminal to be blamed for his crime if the crime is the product of heredity and environment? How could leadership intervene to deflect, retard, or accelerate a process moving inevitably by its own momentum?

As the tantalizing dilemma of Free Will and Natural Causation, in all its personal and social implications, worked its way through popular thought until it found a place even in the armory of the village atheist, it became apparent that the century that had tried to make its whole political and economic system a tabernacle of freedom had ended by doubting whether freedom was possible at all.


The twentieth century turned to psychology from the pressure of necessity. The Order of Nature so copiously illustrated and exhibited in nineteenth-century thought was no longer offering adequately comprehensive and significant certainties. Cumulative specialization among the scientists broke into fragments that marvelous mid-Victorian synthesis, and ended the real popularization of authentic science, Not since the days of Herbert Spencer, Clerk Maxwell, Lord Kelvin, and the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britan-nica has it seemed feasible for scientists to take the cultivated layman fully into their confidence. Fewer and fewer have become the proclaimed truths of science that can be made evident to the ordinary intelligent man by demonstrations that touch his sense of fact. And among the scientists themselves the sector of the horizon of knowledge that lies within the field of vision of any one of them becomes pitifully smaller with the passing of each decade. As the science of the nineteenth century took on more and more the aspect of a fragmentary and inconclusive faith, the time came to seek elsewhere for unity and synthesis. Perhaps it could be found in the depths and mystery of human personality!

The psychologists participated in this change of front, although they had not brought it about. In general they kept step with their time. In the eighteenth century they had been philosophical; in the nineteenth century they tried to be scientific. They began the century with phrenology and association of ideas, and ended it with laboratory measurement of sensations. The urge to go more deeply into the study of personality was felt in literature before it touched the professors of psychology. And when Freud and James stepped with Henri Bergson across the threshold of the nineteen-hundreds they were accompanied by two strange guests from other centuries, St. Thomas Aquinas and Immanuel Kant. These champions of thought undertook, each in his own way, to restore a man-centered rather than to enlarge a thingcentered universe. The revolt against materialistic science was under way. It was under these circumstances that the vogue of the new psychology began.

Before long it became apparent that the world of the nineteenth century was dead. Its monstrous tangibilities had been dissolved. A new physics and a modern art re-defined space to suit a new fancy. The additive simplicities of inductive logic were superseded by the logic of probability. The crudities of historical materialism yielded to more mystical creations such as those of Spengler. In the economic world the corporations replaced the individual as owner, functions replaced commodities as the principal objects of value, paper securities succeeded to tangible property as the most common form of wealth, bank credit assumed the duties once performed by hard coin and visible paper currency, and of the arts of the market place those which, like market analysis and advertising, lie in the field of applied psychology became pre-eminent. In politics the propaganda of the World War era revealed the range and importance of political techniques that were not nineteenth-century blood and iron, nor yet eighteenth-century jurisprudence. To these techniques post-war nationalism and communism have given further development, sound film and radio further equipment. In the new politics myths supersede facts; they become a necessity. Symbol and ritual, black shirt and red flag, song and color—these and not the ballot are the vehicles of political activity. The historians are scurrying to study public opinion in past politics, the social scientists are undertaking research in pressure groups and propaganda, and it becomes increasingly evident that contemporary culture demands of the educated man some familiarity with the postulates of psychology.

How can such a thing as the Nazi movement be understood without psychiatric knowledge? To appraise the movement by judging that Hitler or his followers are good or bad people, or even by estimating how far they succeed or fail in obtaining a German national interest, is to misstate the whole problem. To subject their race doctrine to objective analysis for truth or falsity is like calling in an interior decorator to decide whether red, white, and blue are the colors that go together in the national flag. The evidence on the Reichstag fire may be ambiguous, but what of it? The Nazi account of the fire has been elevated to a State myth and is no longer subject to the canons of historical evidence as a mere historical event. The Nazi movement must be understood in terms of psychology or not at all.

Not only in understanding the great social movements of the day do we resort to these forms of thought. We require them and make use of them in understanding our fellow men. We can no longer make much use of the assumption that these creatures are created equal in the eighteenth-century sense, endowed with a common heritage of reason, and engaged equally in the pursuit of happiness. This was good enough as a canon of jurisprudence, but it is useless as a principle of vocational guidance. Differences rather than equalities in endowment and sensitivity, in aptitude and character, now seem to be a better starting point for social policies. The fiction of equality is useless when the concrete problem is that of adjustment of individuals to society. Moreover, we are dissatisfied with the nineteenth-century generalization that man sinks all his qualities in a dominating urge to acquire and survive. Time was when we expected nothing else of our neighbors and demanded nothing more of ourselves. According to our fortunes in this common activity we became rich or poor, bourgeois or proletarian. But when the authors of “Middletown” made a first-hand analysis of the stratification of the people, they drew the line not between rich and poor but between the business class and the working class, even though some of the working class were better off than some of the business class. The difference they found was one of outlook—in other words, it was psychological. And there are many more of these significant classifications with which we become familiar. We classify ourselves as introverts or extraverts. We belong to the “sensual,” “heroic,” or “contemplative” types. In the learned tomes of Kretschmer, Spranger, Adler, and Jung, in the practice of personnel departments and vocational guidance bureaus, in the revised attitudes toward marriage situations that are taught in the colleges, it is evident that the twentieth century hypothesizes in human nature complexities that the nineteenth century ignored.

In the nineteen-twenties psychology aroused great public interest as a new popular science. Freud and Watson reigned over a million tea tables. The liberation of women from the restraints of certain conventions took place in an atmosphere that reeked with the language of psychology, as the atmosphere of the French Revolution reeked with the language of Reason and Natural Laws. This interest has in some measure abated, but the steady encroachment of the psychological techniques in practical life goes on. The magazines carry few articles on Freud—but look at their advertising columns. Compare the soap advertisement of the eighteen-eighties—a child and a Newfoundland dog on a rocky shore with a bar of soap and a life buoy—with the provocative theme of the contemporary appeal. There is now less popular writing on psychology than there was in the ‘twenties but there is more fundamental research. The women’s clubs turn from Freud to politics, but the institutes of human relations, of child guidance, of euthenics go right on.


As the psychological conception of human nature develops before our eyes we can see rising over the horizon the great issues that will define themselves in its terms. These oncoming problems arise in the marriage and family system, in the control of culture by society, and in the relation of different cultures to each other.

The family, as the sociologists have been preaching, is now shorn of so many of its older functions—religious, economic, protective, educational—that its chief remaining service is to the human need for affection and personal response. This is a psychological need. The spread of contraception has increased the incidence of the psychological element in marriage at the expense of the biological. The modern state cannot avoid the issues raised by the social control of culture. The Fascists, Communists, and Nazis undertake to monopolize the entire life and soul of the people. Capitalist society seeks to bring its production and distribution fully into mesh and then has before it the problem of leisure. Where there is bread enough to feed all of man that Darwin could explain, the time comes to nourish the much more complex man that psychology depicts. The state that abandons liberal principles of government sets up a ministry of propaganda. The state that tries to retain liberal institutions in the presence of modern propaganda techniques faces the difficult problem of preventing the irresponsible manipulation of public opinion without sacrificing freedom of thought. These are some of the internal aspects of the problem of culture control. Externally there are the questions involved in the contact and interpenetration of the great old civilizations, Indian and Chinese, with the Western, and in the relations of communist, nationalist, and liberal societies among themselves.

The contact of Western with Eastern cultures has hitherto been confined to superficial borrowings. Now it is going deeper. Nineteenth-century Europe with its naive sense of superiority was no nearer than Marco Polo to an understanding of China and India. Missionary and trader went out; traveler’s tale and objet d’art came back. This was the level of cultural contact so far as the West was concerned. The impact upon the East was greater. India received a ruling class; China obtained in the course of foreign trade opium, Asiatic cholera, manufactured goods, and finally railways and factories. The disturbance created by this contact is now propagating itself as a great cultural crisis throughout the East. The twentieth century must decide whether a syncretism of these cultures with Occidental civilization is to take place, and if so, upon what terms.

It is not impossible that the tables may be turned upon the West. The technological pre-eminence of the Western nations may be lost in the next half century, as that of the British Isles was lost in the last, through the mere dispersion of machinery throughout the world. The differences of culture will then stand out nakedly at the level of social psychology; they will be differences in what men are, not in what they have. If it should happen that passive resistance should succeed as a tactic in India, and Bismarckian methods fail in Manchuria, the postulates of Occidental politics will stand discredited by Asiatic experience. If there should then come about a crumbling of Western self-confidence, a loss of morale in the presence of a culture exhibiting superiorities at the psychological level, the time will have arrived to balance the books of civilization by subjecting the West in its turn to revolutionary internal pressures arising out of contacts with the East. That will be a crisis to challenge our understanding of human personality I

If the century should keep free from tensions arising out of the contact of East and West, it will still be confronted with the more recent nationalist and communist-capitalist schisms in the West itself. The divisions cut through Western culture by the nationalisms that culminated in the nineteenth century were trivial compared with those of today. Those differences were largely matters of language, literature and history; these are of world-outlook. A communist can easily surmount the language barrier separating him from a fellow communist, but his mind cannot meet in any language the mind of the fascist or liberal. The theme of the last free editorial of the doomed Frankfurter Zeitung, organ of German liberalism, before it was crushed by the Nazis, was not the brown-shirt atrocities nor the rape of the constitution, but the greater tragedy: “It has come at last to this, that Germans no longer understand one another.”

The twentieth century faces the possibility that this may become true of the world in general. The improvement in means of communication (and hence of propaganda) may result, not in closing the cultural chasms between groups of men, but in digging them deeper, till the age meets the ironic fate that its ability to communicate has resulted in an inability to understand. This is on the plane of social psychology. In individual psychology there may be equivalent ironies in store for us. The knowledge of human nature that psychology brings into the relationship of marriage and family life may introduce there more difficulties than it disposes of. But it is now too late to draw back; we are rehearsing once more the fable of the Garden of Eden, and have bitten into the apple from the fatal tree.


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