Aaron Stalnaker, Augustine, autobiography, chastened intellectualism, conservatism, democracy, John Locke, Leo Strauss, Mencius, pedagogy, Republican Party, Stonehill College, Thomas Hobbes, Winston Churchill, Xunzi
For the sorts of reasons I discussed last week, I have been strongly leaning for the past couple years toward Xunzi‘s negative dark view of human nature – or so I have thought. I observe my own tendencies and see just how hard it is to be good even when I really want to. Augustine, whose similarities to Xunzi run deep (as Aaron Stalnaker has noted), points to the behaviour he observes in babies: creatures not only of desire and greed, but even of jealousy and anger. It’s as we grow up that we learn to be good. And then, of course, there’s the history of human violence and bloodshed. I often find myself a little bewildered by the 20th-century philosophies that say philosophy must be entirely different after the Holocaust; the Holocaust would not have surprised Augustine. He knew what evil lurks in our minds.
One of the more common objections to such a dark view of human nature is that it leads to tyranny: if people can’t be trusted, they need an iron ruler to rule them. Such a view is most famously associated with Thomas Hobbes, and it seems that Xunzi held something like it, but I’ve tended to find it a bit puzzling. If we can’t trust people to rule themselves, how on earth could we trust an arbitrary sovereign to rule them? A dim view of human nature seems perfectly compatible with Winston Churchill’s endorsement of democracy: that it’s the worst form of government except for all the others. We need a strong system of checks and balances to hold down the dark tendencies of our leaders.
And yet. With reflection I have realized that I cannot endorse a view like Xunzi’s and Augustine’s, even modified in the latter way. The point came alive in the classes I taught at Stonehill College a couple years ago. My students there were a relatively homogeneous group; the vast majority of them were white, middle-class New Englanders, and more importantly I think it would be safe to say that the majority of them were products of the American Catholic elementary- and high-school systems.
And what systems these are. I had the good fortune of speaking to a Stonehill student who went to a Catholic high school after attending a radical experimental elementary school. She told me of the strictness her Catholic high school required: when she dropped a pencil and stood up to pick it up, her teacher ordered her back to her seat before she could do so. Students were not allowed to bring water into their classes, even if they were running track events that day – on suspicion that it might be vodka. And this – the strict authority of teacher over student, parent over child – seems a direct consequence of Augustine’s and Xunzi’s views. If humans naturally tend to evil, then surely for children at least, strict and uncompromising control is required.
And indeed, in the US at least, Catholic schools, with such strict codes of discipline, seem to thrive in the neighbourhoods that otherwise bring out the worst in human beings. In the sort of low-income neighbourhoods where students typically bring knives or guns to school, Catholic schools’ discipline seems to help tame humans’ darker tendencies.
But that was not the background of my middle-class students. What they needed was not more discipline – but less. They asked my permission to miss lectures when I had already told them I didn’t care about their doing so. They were often very shy about speaking in class – even simple questions were often greeted with silence – and once they did start disagreeing with each other, they were anxious to end the debate and come to a quick agreement, rather than engage the terms of debate critically.
There are positives to all this. For one, Stonehill students are satisfied. A recent Princeton Review survey ranked the Stonehill student body the seventh happiest in the United States. While this ranking was based on self-report, and such a method has a basic flaw, it’s hard to imagine there isn’t some correlation between reported happiness and actual happiness. That seems like a good thing.
What my students typically didn’t have, though, was the ability or readiness to question, to think hard, to seek truth. With a few memorable exceptions, their Augustinian education had left them unprepared for creative and critical inquiry. And as I grew more accustomed to those students, I came to take it as my job every day to challenge them out of the rut they had been placed in – to take their thought out of the fixed boundaries, the discipline, that they had learned in life so far.
But if I really believed in a chastened intellectualist view, I think, my approach would have been quite inappropriate. For on such an understanding, the very idea of teaching students to think critically, to question and come to their own views, is dangerous. People need to be constrained by an understanding larger than their own, of whatever kind. A chastened intellectualist view is likely to be tied to a strong form of literal conservatism: the societal structures that we have in place are necessary to constrain people’s bad natures, and we should not encourage them to “think outside the box”, as the cliché goes. For it’s when they do so that new and terrible revolutionary changes happen, that they start Reichs and Crusades and Year Zeroes.
I doubt that many of my readers are sympathetic to such a point of view, but it is a widespread one. At the intellectual level, something like it is widely associated with the thought of Leo Strauss and the Straussians who follow him. At a popular level, the Texas Republican Party recently gained some notoriety for an item in its platform declaring “We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.” The Texas Republicans would clearly have preferred the education my Stonehill students got in high school to the education they got from me – and this preference follows naturally from a chastened intellectualist view. But this is a result I decidedly oppose. It does not seem that I can consistently hold that human nature is bad to the extent that Augustine and Xunzi do.
So have I now come to believe human nature is basically good? No – though my reasons for denying this may need a post of their own. Human nature is neither fundamentally good, nor fundamentally bad, nor the infinitely malleable tabula rasa envisioned by John Locke and others. Rather, we are born with many different and conflicting preexisting tendencies, including both Augustine’s infantile jealousy and Mencius’s sprout of compassion for a child falling down a well. Our environment has a strong effect on the way those tendencies turn out – though in meandering and complex ways that a tabula rasa theory could never predict.
My own strong sympathy for chastened intellectualism, I think, came from the peculiarities of my own situation. My own parents set me free to think and do as I pleased about as much as they possibly could allow, and as an adult I have a lot of trouble getting my impulses under control. Moreover, I live in a culture where a view of human beings as good is often taken for granted. (Several of my Stonehill students were themselves shocked by Augustine’s characterization of babies as sinful.) As is so often the case, there is significant truth on both sides. The truth in the chastened intellectualist view deserves more attention than it typically gets in liberal society – but that is all.