Human Nature according to the Western Tradition To keep in mind as you read: Human Nature

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PKU4 HUMAN NATURE The Western Tradition
Human Nature according to the Western Tradition
To keep in mind as you read: Human Nature has long drawn more attention from Western thinkers than from Chinese. Why should that be?
Selfhood is a key element in Western ideas about human nature. In Western civilization human nature traditionally implies in-born characteristics that come to humans by the very fact of their being born human. The ancient Greeks, having conceived of matter as purely physical and subject to the laws of nature, created an enduring separation in Western ideas of human nature between material and non-material aspects, between bodies and intangible elements evoked by the word selfhood [link: traditional ideas of selfhood]. Physical things could be perceived by the senses. Immaterial things were no less real but instead of being perceptible, they were intelligible, that is, able to be understood by the mind. Selfhood was one of the ways you and those around you could know who you were.

Even among the ancient Greeks there was no stable consensus about how to understand the intangible components in human nature. Different conceptions have continued to surface over time even to this day [link: modern ideas of selfhood E3.2]. In all cases, however, the impulse to fraction human nature into component parts is itself a characteristic of Western mentalities [link: Western thinking in categories]. Also characteristic are the disagreements about how to define the parts and to understand how they relate to each other [link: agon]. Below appear several of the most influential of the traditional concepts about the immaterial aspects of human selves

1 Psychĕ (Ancient Greek) [pronounced psee-chay]

Plato (427?-347 BCE) identified the non-physical, the psychĕ, as having three subdivisions (Republic, Book IV): reason (intellect or mind), spirit, and appetite. Appetite (Greek: epithumetikon), which is tied to the senses, is the lowest, most animal-like faculty of the three. Spirit (Greek: thumos) is higher, the locus of courage and will power that translates plans into action. Reason (Greek: logistikon) is the highest human faculty for Plato because by way of reason one can understand logos [link: logos], the fundamental organizing principle of the cosmos (everything that exists). For Plato, the logos resided in transcendental Eternal Forms of which all things on earth are merely flawed imitations [link: cave allegory]. Because the logistikon part of the psychĕ could grasp the idea of these timeless forms, that part of the psychĕ, thought Plato, could be in touch with immortality.

Aristotle (384-322 BCE), Plato’s student and later rival, focused more tangibly on living beings. Psychĕ for him was a word for what animated living beings, but he categorized three levels of being based on progressively higher forms of animation. The lowest form of life (plants) exhibit nutritive powers implying growth and reproduction; the next higher forms (animals) also have sensitive powers implying sense perception and movement; the highest forms (humans) add rational powers because they are capable of thought by means of their reason (mind or intellect). The presence of psychĕ is what makes any individual plant, animal, or person alive for as long as it is alive (Latin: anima). Aristotle further subdivided the rational psychĕ into five faculties, the highest of which, active intellect, had potential for immortality.

Note that modern English usage of psyche [pronounced sigh-key] differs greatly [link: Sigmund Freud E3.2].

2 Mind

Both Plato and Aristotle give high place to the rational faculties of humans – the intellectual reasoning power that they saw as the highest aspects of psychĕ. But these thinkers also admit the existence of the irrational, particularly in the form of madness. Aristotle spells out two types of madness: one divinely inspired as in prophecies, the other resulting from disease. Plato shares approximately the same view [link: Plato]. To these highly rational philosophers, the irrational could include religious sentiments, particularly if they were intensely emotional. In short, it would be misleading to refer to these dominant Greek thinkers using the modern English word soul, because the latter carries strong Christian connotations of personal immortality after the death of the body.

3 Soul (Christian)
081012 blake the soul hovering over the body from au

The Soul hovering over the Body reluctantly parting with Life

William Blake (1757-1827), 1808

The Christian tradition adapted Greek ideas into a new idea of soul that suited its religious concerns. When the New Testament Bible says one should love God “with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind” [Matthew 22: 37, New Revised Standard Version], soul refers to the eternal aspect of the individual human, the part presumed to live on after death. Mind in this tradition, as among the Greeks, focuses on reason or the intellect that allows the person to think logically and rationally. Heart in this context refers, as usual in Western contexts, to an emotional or feeling commitment, though long ago the heart was also sometimes thought of as the locus of understanding.

A related word in this semantic field, spirit, is in religious contexts a rather vague and general term for the non-physical part of humans, typically encompassing heart, soul, and mind. Spirit often points diffusely to the spiritual, that is, the religious capacities of humans.

4 Will

Another aspect of personhood that is especially important in the Christian tradition is the notion of will, that is, of a person’s faculty for deciding what actions to perform. Will seems separate from mind, because mind can determine what one should do, but the will decides what one actually does. Christian moral accountability depends on the notion of free will – the idea that individuals are free to choose what actions they perform [link: Western morality E6.1]. Therefore, if they choose bad actions (sin) over good, the responsibility and the fault is theirs, and punishment is appropriate, whether through human laws or divine justice. St. Augustine (354-430) is one of the first great theorists of free will [link: text]. Christian thinkers like him asked why humans perversely choose to perform actions they know to be sinful and hence harmful to their souls. Augustine concluded that the “original sin” of Adam and Eve meant that their descendants would all suffer from a fallen human nature.


All the above notions presume a distinction between the physical person (body) and the inner person (mind or spirit). In all cases these Western traditions differ markedly from the Chinese way, in which head-and-heart, thoughts-and-emotions, are closely bound together in the notion of xin (, heart-and-mind) [link: xin]. In Encounter 3.2 we will trace the more recent evolution of Western ideas about human nature [link: modern ideas of selfhood].

Throughout these alternative distinctions among ways of conceiving the immaterial part of human beings, there is one consistency: the sharp distinction between the physical matter of human bodies and the impalpable nature of the meta-physical components. To dramatize this distinction, here is a startling painting by René Magritte (Belgian, 1898-1967).
081011 magritte02

Decalcomania (1966)

This surrealist painting confirms visually the two aspects of human nature

as understood in the Western tradition
Westerners today, depending on their individual orientation, may actively believe in any or all of the above concepts. The religiously inclined continue to emphasize their free will to perform good actions or bad; ultimate divine judgment of an eternal soul is traditionally part of this belief. The more secularly inclined are more likely to emphasize how social conditions or childhood experiences affect adult behavior. Still others profess loyalty to one or another political doctrine, claiming that the world’s problems would come to an end if only everyone shared their particular commitments.

Thus Western civilization continues to live with diverse understandings rather than a consistent view of what makes human beings human and how they should live. The concepts individuals rely on for understanding themselves and others depend on how they were raised and what principles their later experience has led them to find credible. As in many aspects of Western civilization, there is no one authoritative vocabulary that everyone uses or feels they ought to use [link: postmodern appendix].
Study Questions:

1. What difference does it make to put so much emphasis on reason over other aspects of thinking/feeling? Is such a distinction consistently useful or could it have negative effects? Why or why not?

2. Why has the West given such prominence to Nature if there is such widespread disagreement about the nature of human nature?
Excerpt from Western Civilization with Chinese Comparisons, 3rd ed. (Shanghai: Fudan University Press, 2010), pp 205-08.

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