September 1, 2023

Are men and women naturally good? The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau thought so, though he admits that we began in a state of “savagery” in which moral terms such as good and bad simply didn’t apply. From there, however, the human race graduated to a more positive stage, mid-way between “the stupidity of brutes” and what Rousseau saw as the disaster of civilisation. With the birth of civilised society, a state of peace, innocence and compassion gave way to one of war, law, government and the unequal distribution of property.

Government, for Rousseau, is a largely fraudulent contract imposed by the rich on the poor, and the founder of civil society was simply the first man to say “This is mine” of a piece of land and found people credulous enough to believe him. How much crime, war, murder, misery and horror, he reflects, could have been avoided if someone had pointed out that the fruits of the earth belong to everyone, and the earth itself to nobody at all? Progress is an illusion, and science the ruin of humanity. Civilisation has made us neither happier nor more virtuous. Yet once we had been expelled from the happy garden, there was no way back.


Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email

Already registered? Sign in


Some may see this view as a trifle one-sided. What’s surely more convincing is the suggestion that civilisation has made us both better and worse. If it holds the solution to some of our troubles, it also creates problems all of its own. It tempers and restrains our more anti-social impulses, but in doing so brings with it forms of devastation beyond the scope of “primitive” humanity. If their problem was weakness, ours is power. “To be able to overpower the monstrous progeny of our own intelligence,” writes the art historian Malcolm Bull, “has always been the condition of human survival.” Humanity is constantly in danger of overreaching itself and bringing itself to nothing. Its abiding defect is hubris. The monstrous progeny of our own intelligence is now known as AI.

For a certain strain of conservatism, human nature is mostly degenerate and has always been that way. “It is not that our age is particularly corrupt,” remarks the Anglo-Catholic Tory T.S. Eliot. “All ages are corrupt.” This isn’t to say you can’t squeeze something valuable out of people, but to do so you need order and discipline, sometimes of a draconian kind. Goodness exists, but only the incurably bright-eyed see it as spontaneous.

Classical liberalism takes the opposite view. People fare best when they are left alone to develop their talents. Repressing them will simply stunt their growth, whereas spiritual laissez-faire will allow them to flourish. Human beings may abuse their freedom, but they are not truly human without it. If they are to go right, you have to allow for the possibility of their going wrong. Romanticism is a particularly affirmative instance of this creed. Men and women have certain creative capacities which demand fulfilment, and most of the world’s evils stem from the fact that these powers are being obstructed. The names of the obstructers are legion: the state, religion, colonialism, patriarchy, capitalism, ethnic supremacism, the dominant class and so on. Revolution is the moment when energies which have been suppressed burst triumphantly through these barriers and come into their own.

There are a number of things wrong with this theory. Are all human capacities to be realised? What about my ability to assassinate the Pope, along with my burning desire to do so? Some of our powers are clearly noxious, but how do we distinguish these from the more life-affirming ones? And what if some of our capabilities are at war with others? As for repression, there are those like Freud who claim that a certain amount of it is necessary for our functioning. Repression can be good for you, even if too much of it is likely to make you ill. It will also be good for the Pope if I manage to stifle my urge to topple him from the balcony of the Vatican.

And if all we need is for expression to break through repression, why doesn’t it happen more often? One answer is because the Law is already present within desire, disciplining and restraining it. Patriarchy, colonialism and the like aren’t just external powers; it’s because they persuade us to internalise them that they can thrive so vigorously. The aim of the Law is that we should love it, not simply obey it. By identifying our own desires with those of authority, a trespass against authority feels like a violation of ourselves. It’s partly because this identification can never be perfect — because we hate the Law of the Father as well as loving it — that states, empires and sovereignties are brought low from time to time.

Radicals agree with conservatives that liberals are too sanguine about human nature. But they also agree with liberals that conservatives downplay its positive potential. One can see the argument in religious terms. There are happy-clappy Christians who bash tambourines, play down sin, ooze moral smugness and rejoice in their own salvation. For these rather weird types, faith is mostly a matter of grinning. There are also gloomy Christians for whom human nature is entirely corrupt, and for whom we would be heading towards hell-fire were it not for the arbitrary fact that Christ has redeemed us. The general sense is that Christ succumbed to a moment of liberal sentimentalism in rescuing us from the Devil, and may well have been better advised to let us fall into his clutches.

Both of these cases are deviations from mainstream Christianity, for which human beings have the potential to be virtuous but need radical self-transformation in order to be so. Goodness is neither spontaneous nor non-existent; instead, it requires a degree of hard labour. It doesn’t come automatically, but when it does come, we recognise it as a fulfilment of the creatures we are. So the bad news is that we won’t do as we are right now; the good news, however, is that virtue requires a transformation that we have the potential to achieve, which rules out the idea that we are utterly degenerate.

For Enlightenment liberals, moral and material progress go hand in hand. Nobody believes this any longer, if you take it to mean that the more washing machines you have, the more merciful and compassionate you become. Even so, there is a kernel of truth in this mythical shell, which is that material scarcity breeds violence and exploitation. People who aren’t afflicted by famine and disease are more likely to be altruistic than those who have to fight over a crust of bread. They are too busy staying alive to bother fishing you out of the river. For some conservatives, by contrast, moral progress is in inverse proportion to the growth of prosperity. The more civilisation advances, the more greedy, selfish and heartless it becomes. The radical sees this as true of our present form of social life, but not as a judgement on civilisation as such.

The so-called state of nature which preceded our Fall into war and private property was a blessed time for Rousseau but a nightmare for Thomas Hobbes. In Hobbes’s view, it is a condition of unending conflict in which every individual’s hand is raised against every other; and only by collectively agreeing to become subject to unlimited government, in the so-called social contract, will peace ever be established. (There is a logical problem about how people can come to make such a contract without having the concepts of contract, law, authority, obedience and so on in the first place, in which case they would seem to be already in a state of civilisation.)

Despite being a genial fellow who enjoyed a drink and liked a good laugh, Hobbes is commonly seen as the most pessimistic of English philosophers, though the contemporary thinker John Gray runs him a close second. His latest book, The New Leviathans, argues that we have returned to Hobbes’s state of nature in artificial form. Liberalism is finished, and the practice of tolerance has passed into history. (He seems to have wokeness in mind here, which is to ascribe world-historical status to a passing phenomenon.)

It is good, however, that liberal individualism is washed up, since as Hobbes would agree, unfettered self-determination is a fantasy. In luridly apocalyptic language, Gray speaks of “a spectacle of self-immolation, at once tragic and farcical”, taking place in the West. Hobbes was mistaken to believe that there was any deliverance from the brutal state of nature, since “the war of all against all begins in every human bring, and it never ends”. The book ends with a lame concession that human beings can “act in the service of life”, a proposition it has spent some time trying to demolish.

Pessimism isn’t popular with governments, since disillusion can lead to disaffection. So this won’t be Rishi Sunak’s book of the year, not least because it pushes pessimism unnervingly close to nihilism. All the same, it confronts the truth that no politician dares utter: that things are very bad with a world in which, in Gray’s words, either market forces are directed by the state or the state has been captured by corporate power.

The myth of a benevolent state of nature was shattered a long time ago. More recently, a version of it known as childhood innocence was challenged by the psychoanalysts. Infantile sexuality had been known about for some time, not least by infants. But we had not been prepared for the work of Freud’s disciple, Melanie Klein, who writes of the baby’s murderous fantasies of pounding the mother’s breast to pieces.

Yet even if infants are indeed mini-murderers, at least in potential, this is not all there is to say. They are also able to recognise and respond to the love of their carers, a love without which they will fail to flourish. They experience a gratitude for it which in Freud’s view plants the seeds of human morality. Later on, this instinct will need to be educated into conscious moral awareness, a highly precarious enterprise. If we are not complete villains, it is because what greets us upon entering a violent world is something which points beyond it.