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CHAPTER 14: “The Nature of Man”: What Are We After? * - Paul Heyne, “Are Economists Basically Immoral?” and Other Essays on Economics, Ethics, and Religion 
“Are Economists Basically Immoral?” and Other Essays on Economics, Ethics, and Religion, edited and with an Introduction by Geoffrey Brennan and A.M.C. Waterman (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2008).
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“The Nature of Man”: What Are We After?*
A university is a place where all knowledge is divided into equal segments, each offering three hours of credit. These segments are controlled and dispensed by autonomous divisions within the university known as departments. Departments are dominated by scholars, a term used to describe people who have spent long years and arduous effort acquiring a certificate of competence in one or two of these segments and the privilege of requiring students to attend their lectures. Students are people usually between the ages of seventeen and twenty-two for whom the university is said to exist. It is the duty of a typical student at a typical university to apply himself, over a four-year period, to about forty of these segments. At the end of this time, assuming reasonably faithful application, the student is rewarded with a diploma. The scholars are rewarded with prestige, income and long summer vacations. Departments are rewarded with research funds, additional secretaries and larger offices.
The course upon which you have now embarked, “The Nature of Man,” is the product of many factors and many people, but chiefly of a widespread dissatisfaction with the state of affairs caricatured in the preceding paragraph. The old ideal of a liberal education has retreated steadily in the twentieth century under the onslaught of specialized sciences, vocationalism, the democratic belief that everyone is entitled to an education, and the bureaucratic pressures of a highly organized society. The retreat has at times become a rout.
“The Nature of Man” course is part of a counterattack. One of its aims is to make a beginning at the task of unifying knowledge once more, in keeping with the vision enshrined in the very name university. Another aim is revealed in the formal title of the course, Liberal Studies 1303 and 1304. Liberal studies are studies which liberate, which free the mind from the shackles that ignorance imposes.
Does all this sound just a bit utopian? Do you begin to suspect that there may be more hope than substance in the course? If not, then take another look at that title: “The Nature of Man.” The whole of human nature, in just two of those three-credit segments, suitably distilled for freshmen, is a fairly ambitious goal. If dissatisfaction was the seed-bed in which this course sprouted, naive optimism may well have been the sun and rain that brought it to its present stage.
The course-ridden, artificially segmented, and departmentalized system of education which rules the modern university has at least this to commend it: its courses deal for the most part with well-defined, manageable subject areas, and are taught by people trained to competence in that area. But “the nature of man” is not a manageable topic; the subject area cannot even be adequately defined in two semesters; and there is probably no one on this or any other campus who is really competent to teach a course with that title.
Critics of the course have suggested that “The Nature of Man” has not only failed to achieve a unification of knowledge; it has degenerated at times into a hopeless hodgepodge of disconnected truths, half-truths, and trivia. Others have protested that it has not liberated the mind of the student so much as it has substituted new prejudices for old. Are these criticisms valid?
Let us pass that question and instead ask another. Do these criticisms have to be valid? Is “The Nature of Man” course an attainable ideal? The answer might depend upon you.
You are beginning a year-long exploration of a vast and bewildering terrain. “The problem of human nature,” Hannah Arendt once wrote,
seems unanswerable in both its individual psychological sense and its general philosophical sense. It is highly unlikely that we, who can know, determine, and define the natural essences of all things surrounding us, which we are not, should ever be able to do the same for ourselves—this would be like jumping over our own shadows.1
But “jumping over our own shadows” is exactly what we shall try to do. We shall try to understand the nature of a being who tries to understand his own nature. It is a “troublesome prospect,” in the words of Michael Polanyi; for we shall “have to go on reflecting ever again on our last reflections, in an endless and futile endeavor to comprise completely the works of man.”2
But if the terrain is bewildering, it has at least been charted by many hands. Man has always been interested in his own nature, and we are the heirs of centuries of investigation and speculation. The wealth of sources, however, may be more of an embarrassment than a blessing. In his Essay on Man, Ernst Cassirer writes:
No former age was ever in such a favorable position with regard to the sources of our knowledge of human nature. Psychology, ethnology, anthropology, and history have amassed an astoundingly rich and constantly increasing body of facts. Our technical instruments for observation and experimentation have been immensely improved, and our analyses have become sharper and more penetrating. We appear, nevertheless, not yet to have found a method for the mastery and organization of this material. When compared with our own abundance the past seems very poor. But our wealth of facts is not necessarily a wealth of thoughts. Unless we succeed in finding a clue of Ariadne to lead us out of this labyrinth, we can have no real insight into the general character of human culture; we shall remain lost in a mass of disconnected and disintegrated data which seem to lack all conceptual unity.3
Do we have such a clue, such a leading thread? Without some principle of organization we shall certainly be guilty on the first count mentioned above, guilty of introducing more confusion than unity into the student’s reflections upon human nature. But there is an equal and opposite danger. Every principle of organization is necessarily exclusive. As Robert Oppenheimer observed shortly before his death, “Every science sees its ideas and order with a sharpness and depth that comes from choice, from exclusion, from its special eyes.” Why should we choose one pair of eyes rather than another? Is there any single perspective on man that does not conceal more of importance than it manages to reveal? So the second count of the above indictment also hangs over us: we do not want to substitute one set of prejudices for another, but rather to liberate the mind of the student from the shackles of ignorance.
An excellent illustration of our dilemma is provided by a problem which has plagued a large number of the students who have passed this way before you. The nature of man is a question to which religion addressed itself centuries before science came into existence. In the Judaic-Christian tradition, man stands at the pinnacle of God’s creation. According to the book of Genesis, God formed man from the dust of the ground, breathed life into him, and thereby called him into being “in the image of God.” Here is a view of man’s origin, nature, and destiny that has infused and vitalized whole civilizations for thousands of years. And still today it provides for many the most authoritative and definitive introduction to the nature of man. Any theory of man that calls this foundation into question is automatically condemned by some as an assault upon the foundations of belief and an attempt to destroy the essential dignity of man.
When the careful and patient observations of biologists began to provide, in the nineteenth century, a massive accumulation of evidence that all life was linked in a developmental chain, and that man himself had evolved slowly over millions of years from less complex forms of life, many protagonists of religion attacked their work as an impious fraud. A monumental battle erupted between “science” and “religion,” a battle that raged undiminished into the twentieth century and continues to reverberate in many quarters today. It is a battle that may even be fought in your own mind as this semester proceeds. And the danger that it raises is the danger of a premature perspective.
The scientific evidence for biological evolution is enormous. The logic and the observations upon which the theory rests conform to the highest standards of scientific method. It would be most inconsistent for anyone living in this culture, so heavily informed by and dependent upon the accomplishments of science, simply to dismiss the theory of evolution out of hand. No one of us can provide you, of course, with a criterion for absolute truth. You will always be free to accept or reject any set of presuppositions. And knowledge of any kind does rest ultimately upon presuppositions.
But there is more to the matter than that. Presuppositions provide the foundation for understanding and the integration of knowledge; but they are also capable of blinding us to larger visions, more inclusive perspectives, to ways of viewing the world that might be more adequate because they take new as well as old truths into account.
A liberal education liberates. But liberty is often a fearful prospect. Sometimes what men call faith is not so much a confidence born of conviction as it is a shelter behind which to hide. We are trespassing here on a profound and mysterious domain. But is it not true that faith must inform and not conceal? That it must unlock the universe and not spirit it away from view? That the God of Genesis has not really been accepted as the Creator if He has been confined within arbitrary categories of human thought?
Many would reply that this is all beside the point. But here is the crux: in a university nothing may be rejected in advance as beside the point. All perspectives must be admitted. A university is true to its essence when it is committed to but one principle: That there is more to be seen than has yet been seen. We try to hold truth in the little buckets of our understanding. But it keeps flowing over. A university is committed to that ceaseless overflowing, to the endless task of fashioning new and ever more adequate containers for the comprehension of that which is ultimately beyond comprehension.
But all of this may tend to give the impression that “The Nature of Man” is throughout an impartial quest after truth, without any limiting horizons of its own. That is hardly the case. Important things have been said about the nature of man by philosophers, poets, psychologists, and a host of others all viewing the question from different and sometimes radically different perspectives. In this course they will not all be given an equal opportunity to state their case and convince us of what they have seen. Some additional points of view will be entertained in the second semester; but in the first semester, as you will soon discover, only those will be heard from who call themselves scientists.
Does that mean, however, that we are not engaged in an impartial search for the truth? Is science not committed to the quest for truth, let the chips fall where they may?
“Science is a sacred cow,” as Anthony Standen has remarked, and it is difficult to point out its limitations without being accused of intellectual impiety. Yet it needs to be said that particular sciences, while they may well be committed to the search for truth, all operate within their own limiting perspectives. Each has its own way of approaching problems and its own peculiar set of questions to be asked. And scientists in one field are sometimes quite intolerant of the suggestion that other perspectives might have equal validity.
Alfred North Whitehead, who has reflected with extraordinary wisdom and perception upon the role of science in the modern world, once wrote:
Science has never shaken off the impress of its origin in the historical revolt of the late Renaissance. It has remained predominantly an anti-rationalistic movement, founded upon a naive faith. What reasoning it has wanted, has been borrowed from mathematics. . . . Science repudiates philosophy. In other words, it has never cared to justify its faith or to explain its meanings; and has remained blandly indifferent to its refutation by Hume.4
Whitehead was in no sense anti-scientific. The paragraph immediately succeeding the one just quoted defends the necessity of the scientific revolt against the excessive and suffocating rationalism of the High Middle Ages. Against the power of abstract reason science erected the criterion of empiricism, of careful observation and the repeatable experiment. The fruits of its revolt are all about us, in such diverse and comfortable forms as antibiotics, central air-conditioning, and the jet airplane. But empiricism always presupposes some very particular way of looking at things. It takes a lot for granted.
It may be correct to say that the criterion of truth in science is observation. In order to be able to apply this criterion widely, however, science strives to divide phenomena into separable parts: to dissect, reduce, simplify. Make no mistake about it; knowledge has been acquired in this fashion, knowledge that is power, the power to predict and control. But this kind of knowledge has no claim to be the final truth. And in the study of man, are we willing to assert that the power to predict and control is identical with the knowledge of man’s nature? Can science even explain to us why it is that man engages in science?
The anthropologist Loren Eiseley used to search for the secret of life in autumn strolls through the fields. He once wrote:
It is really a matter, I suppose, of the kind of questions one asks oneself. Some day we may be able to say with assurance, “We came from such and such a protein particle, possessing the powers of organizing in a manner leading under certain circumstances to that complex entity known as the cell, and from the cell by various steps onward, to multiple cell formation.” I mean we may be able to say all this with great surety and elaboration of detail, but it is not the answer to the grasshopper’s leg, brown and black and saw-toothed here in my hand, nor to this field, nor to the subtle essences of memory, delight, and wistfulness moving among the thin wires of my brain.5
It is a matter of the kind of questions one asks. And there are many questions that science has no interest in asking. But that does not always stop it from proposing answers. So once again we must be on guard against the temptation of a premature perspective.
One of the authors whom you will be reading late in the semester speaks of the scientist as someone “under tremendous temptation to practice the art of caricature,” especially when man is the object of his study:
Like anyone else, the scientist prefers victory to defeat. He wants to work with facts that can be controlled, with determinants that can be determined, with outcomes that can be predicted and measured. He wants to arrive at general concepts and general relationships, searching out the lawfulness beneath the multitude of surface events. In consequence of this bias, the scientist is inevitably disposed to deal selectively with human nature.6
The philosopher Paul Weiss has aptly summarized the dangers:
We must be on guard against the error of unwarranted subtraction. . . . The attempt to show that men are subject to the same laws that govern other beings, combined with the claim that the scope of natural science is universal and its mastery complete, has inclined modern thinkers to subtract from men their characteristic life, desires, hopes, feelings, values, and mind. As a result they have viewed men as little more than inanimate physical things. Having sacrificed man at the altar of an arbitrary theory, such a view can hardly shed light on human needs, goals, concerns. A philosophy which speaks of the human as though it were dead or subhuman can but provide an excuse for ignoring the problems of men.7
Those who were responsible for designing this course are aware of these dangers. But that is no guarantee that we have always avoided them, much less that the perspectives urged in this course as an aid to the understanding of man are adequate. Reflect for a moment upon the theme chosen for the first semester, adaptation. It is certainly a useful theme, for it offers an approach to the phenomenon of man that opens up new avenues of understanding and brings novel insights into high relief. But while it reveals it also distorts. Consider the contrasting opinion of Lecomte du Noüy:
Whereas adaptation blindly tries to attain an equilibrium which will bring about its end, evolution can only continue through unstable systems or organisms. It only progresses from instability to instability and would perish if it only encountered perfectly adapted, stable systems.8
But enough has been said on the subject. Our aim has not been to uproot your faith, but to encourage an attitude without which this course must necessarily fail. If knowledge is to be unified or brought together into a coherent and meaningful whole, we must acquire perspective. But every perspective is a potential tyranny. When a discipline comes to maturity, Paul Weiss has warned, “it begins almost at once to become traditional and soon or late itself presents an obstacle in the way of truth. . . . The chains of today were forged by free men yesterday.”9
The attitude which we are urging is a mixture: a passion for integration, order, coherence, without which the course can become trivial and meaningless, but conjoined with an openness of mind and temperament that might best be described as continual amazement.
Whitehead has said it far better:
There remains the final reflection, how shallow, puny, and imperfect are efforts to sound the depths in the nature of things. In philosophical discussion, the merest hint of dogmatic certainty as to finality of statement is an exhibition of folly.10
[* ] Unpublished typescript of an introductory lecture for a Southern Methodist University course, The Nature of Man, September 1968. Reprinted by permission of Mrs. Juliana Heyne.
[1. ] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition.
[2. ] Michael Polanyi, The Study of Man (London: Routledge and Paul, 1959), 11.
[3. ] Ernst Cassirer, An Essay on Man, 40-41.
[4. ] Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 17.
[5. ] Loren Eiseley, The Immense Journey (New York: Random House, 1957), 207.
[6. ] Robert W. White, Lives in Progress, 23-24.
[7. ] Paul Weiss, Nature and Man, xv-xvi.
[8. ] Pierre Lecomte du Noüy, Human Destiny (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1947), 70.
[9. ] Weiss, Nature and Man, xi.
[10. ] Alfred North Whitehead, x.