An Analysis of Human Nature

Good or Bad Medium

Two prominent English philosophers, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and John Locke (1632-1704), made profound contributions to modern political science, philosophy, and psychology. Social psychology, which is the study of an individual as a social being, can even trace its roots all the way back to Hobbes and his first political science theories (Leahy, 2013, pg. 403). They were two of the greatest political theorists of their time (The Enlightenment Era). Hobbes and Locke were two great philosophers whose political views were influenced by their respective experiences.

Both created great philosophical texts that helped to portray the role of government in a man’s life, as well as their vision of man’s state of nature and their theory of the human mind. However, they had very dissimilar views on where power lies in a society. Both discussed in great detail the fundamental nature of human reality along with the problems associated with human nature and the perspective of the human self. Both men gained popularity primarily for their philosophies regarding how a society should function within a governmental system.

Thomas Hobbes

Hobbes’s belief in the nature of the human mind was that the mind could be understood, and should be described, through the precision of mathematics (Leahy, 2013, pg. 150). Hobbes, like Clark Leonard Hull, believed that one should conceive of cognitive powers such as learning, thinking, and reasoning as being mechanical in nature. Hobbes’s philosophy was strongly influenced by his accidental exposure at the age of 40 to the proofs of the ancient Greek mathematician Euclid who was known as the “Father of Geometry.” Hobbes’s interest in geometry as a way of explaining the mind, strongly influenced future psychologist Clark Leonard Hull (1884-1952) who would use Hobbes’s ideas to come to his own conclusion that psychology was a pure and “true natural science” (Leahy, 2013, pg. 376).

Hobbes’s proclamation that humans are just sophisticated animal machines was an important aspect of his philosophy on the mind, but it also was a sharp opposite to the romantics who sought the secret essence of humanity in feelings instead of intellect like Hobbes did (Leahy, 2013, pg. 405). According to Hobbes, human beings had to accept this reality as sophisticated animal machines for human salvation and to engineer a perfect future. Hobbes’s mechanistic view of the mind was also influenced by his belief that all knowledge came from sense perception. He was a nominalist in the sense that he denied the existence of universal entities or objects. He dismissed arguments over metaphysics as being pointless rambling over meaningless concepts.

Hobbes completely dismissed any other forms of knowledge except for sense perception. In his great work “Leviathan,” Hobbes wrote that “Understanding is nothing more than conception caused by speech” (Leahy, 2013, pg. 150). He believed that speech was learned through sense perception as a young child and that “children are not endowed with reason at all, till they have attained the use of speech” (Leahy, 2013, pg. 150). With knowledge through sense perception, children could not come to learn reasoning skills until they were able to speak, or so Hobbes believed. He was one of the first in a long line of philosophers who equated speech with knowledge.

Hobbes was also one of the earliest modern philosophers to hold a materialistic worldview. He believed that only matter existed. The actions of people to Hobbes were never fully determined by spiritual causes, and instead the actions of people were only fully determined by material (i.e. matter). He even went as far as to say that humans are so mechanical in nature that any spiritual substance was a meaningless idea. Hobbes rigidly separated philosophy from religion because the latter he felt was irrational and meaningless while the former was rational and meaningful (Leahy, 2013, pg. 150).

However, his greatest importance to history lies in his thinking about the relationship between human nature and human society. He believed that persons are generally created equally in terms of physical and mental powers, and although some men may be physically or intellectually stronger than others, these differences would not produce any sort of natural hierarchy in society that would cause difficulties. However, Hobbes felt that that the fundamental nature of people, and the self, was that human beings were innately wicked, selfish, and cruel (Leahy, 2013, pg. 150).

Hobbes felt that humans would almost always act on behalf of their own best interests (i.e. every man for themselves). Hobbes expanded on his view of the self in his classic piece “Leviathan” where he wrote that “There is always war of everyone against every one” and that “The life of man is solitary, nasty, brutish, and short” (Leahy, 2013, pg. 150). This exemplifies that Hobbes had a very negative view of the self and of human nature in general where human beings in general could not be trusted.

Without the external control of government, Hobbes felt that every man would seek his or her own best self-interest against the best interest of others and of society as a whole. His solution was for the people to recognize their “brutish” nature and for them to realize that their best interest lies in the hands of a regulated state that would provide, amongst others, security and the fruits of industry. He felt that government and society needed to be constructed around this negativistic view of human nature. Society as a whole would be better off in Hobbes’s view once people abandoned the idea that governments existed to enforce God’s laws and adopt a more scientific view of humankind (Leahy, 2013, pg. 150).

Through all of this Hobbes constructed his own Laws of Nature. He felt that each person should willingly give up their liberty and equal rights to all things that breed war (Leahy, 2013, pg. 150). It would have been interesting to find out which rights Hobbes was referring to specifically. However, Hobbes went on to state that after each person gives up their equal rights and liberties, it is up to whoever the society has contracted to protect their rights (i.e. whether it be a king or a parliament) to rule and protect them and to unite their many wills into one. For Hobbes, this totalitarian state would then establish the peaceful conditions within which people could freely do what they like as long as it did not harm others.

In short, Hobbes believed that no people could be trusted to govern themselves. The citizenry would have to relinquish their rights to the monarch in return for protection from their own barbaric nature. This was known as the social contract. An absolute monarch would then demand obedience to maintain law and order. Hobbes also believed that because people had no say in their government, they could do nothing if the monarch became abusive. This as we will later see is the exact opposite of what a more positive thinker John Locke believed in.

Even though Hobbes’s ideas do seem quite pessimistic and harsh, we should take Hobbes’s philosophies into context. Hobbes was writing at a time of civil war, a time when fear of violent death was prevalent throughout society, and a time where the government was uncertain. Thus, his view could have been said to have been influenced by the chaos he was experiencing in his lifetime. One way to analyze this is to say that Hobbes’s firsthand experience gave him greater insight into the realities of the state and of human nature. Another way to view this is to say that his experiences skewed his argument to a negativistic position. Needless to say, it is difficult to not contextualize Hobbes’s philosophy one way or the other due to his experiences.

John Locke

Hobbes’s contemporary, John Locke, was fortunate enough to be writing after those events, and having not experienced the realities of the chaos, he reached a much more positive position on the state of nature and the essence of man. Locke examined the nature of the self, of the human mind, and of human nature in general. He concluded that no human opinion was free from the possibility of error, and that the world itself was open to doubt.

Locke was a friend to individuals such as Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle. Thus, his theories came with an empirical bend to them. Just like Rene Descartes, Locke wanted to know how the human mind worked and how knowledge was gained. Locke came to believe that ideas were mental representations of objects. These objects however were different from Plato’s “Forms” or “Essences” because the mind in Locke’s view did not hold anything but its own ideas. There were no “perfect forms” in Locke’s viewpoint such as in Plato’s “Forms”.

The next logical question is to ask, where do ideas then come from in a Lockean perspective? Where does knowledge in general come from? Locke was quoted saying that he believed that knowledge was founded and derived from one thing and one thing only, one’s own experiences (Leahy, 2013, pg. 161). Locke could then be called an empiricist because of his view that experience and experience alone formed knowledge.

There were two “Fountains of Knowledge” or forms of experience that Locke believed ideas came from. These two fountains were sensation and reflection (Leahy, 2013, pg. 161). Sensations included observing any of our own experiences from pain to pleasure, while reflection was the observation of our own mental processes. In other words, Locke proposed that while sensations were the observations of our own experiences, the human self can also observe its own mental processes to gain knowledge (reflection).

To Locke, the mind was not simply an empty room in which experience furnishes it. Instead, it was a complex information processing device in which simple experiences are then converted into complex ideas from which knowledge is formed (Leahy, 2013, pg. 162). Here, we find a similarity to Thomas Hobbes; both men viewed the mind as a complex machine. Thus, knowledge comes from the inspection of our own ideas and the conversion of these ideas into more complex ideas through the mind.

Locke is most famous for his idea of the “tabula rasa” (Latin for “blank slate”). Tabula Rasa was basically an idea that all humans are born with a mind that is like a blank sheet of paper. As we go through life, we have experiences and that everything we know or think of is a product of these experiences. Locke was also known for his advancement of the social contract theory, but he disagreed with Hobbes’ support of the absolute monarchy perspective. This is where the two individuals split in their perspectives the most.

Both individuals, however, believed in the social contract theory of government. Both believed in a form of empiricism, with Hobbes simply stating that knowledge was gained from sense perception instead of experience. However, one could argue that Hobbes’s sense perception is very much the same idea as Locke’s theory of knowledge emanating from experience alone. Both theories had a scientific slant to them. Both of them examined the nature of the self, of the human mind, and of human nature in general. Both of them opposed innate moral principles.

Locke was actually widely denounced as a dangerous atheist due to his opposition to the more dogmatic belief in innate moral truths. Locke believed that innate moral principles were not the pillars of science, but instead the pillars of dogmatism. Locke emphasized that students and individuals alike follow the discovery principle in which they keep open minds and discover truth through experience and following their own talents.

However, their most popular differences came into being when they discussed the nature of human beings and the role of government in a society. Locke’s state of human nature is a far more pleasant and positive viewpoint than Hobbes’.   As for the role of government, Locke felt that the government should be working for the interest of the citizens (Leahy, 2013, pg. 162). Locke believed that people were by nature good, and that they could learn from their experiences.

Unlike Hobbes, in Locke’s perspective people could be trusted to govern themselves, and that if provided with the right information the people would make the right decisions for themselves. He believed that the purpose of the government was to protect individual liberties and rights, and that the people had the right to revolt against an abusive government (unlike Hobbes). In short, Hobbes believed that human beings could not be trusted and that government was there to save them from their own destruction. Locke was practically the complete opposite of this.

Locke believed that all individuals are created inherently good and could be trusted. He believed that the government was not there to save human beings from themselves, but to simply protect their liberties and rights. The only aspect of the social contract theory that the two individuals agreed on was that the society does in fact create a contract with a government (king, parliament etc…) to protect their rights. From that point on the two philosophical giants differed greatly in their perspectives about human nature and the specific role of government in a society.

Analysis

Whether or not you agree with the shared viewpoints by both Locke and Hobbes that the mind is simply nothing more than a machine, it is feasible to understand how this mechanistic view of the mind and ultimately of our thoughts and behaviors strongly influenced the ideas that would come later from influential psychologists such as Albert Ellis, B.F. Skinner, and Aaron Beck. This mechanical view of our mind is somewhat comparable to the behaviorist way of perceiving human thoughts and behavior. The theories of mind posited by Hobbes and Locke were definitely expanded upon in the fields of cognitive and behavioral therapy in the 20th century, but the relationship between the two 17th century philosophers and many 20th century psychologists is clearly evident.

In my personal opinion, the viewpoints of John Locke on the nature of human beings are more along the lines of where my perspective lies. Theorizing individuals from a starting perspective that they are “solitary, nasty, brutish, and short” is simply too negative for me. Does a baby start off as being nasty and brutish? That is what Hobbes is basically saying here, that human beings start off, as babies, as being inherently bad. While there is of course bad in this world, I have yet to find a single baby that I immediately look at and feel that he or she is innately bad. Annoying? Yes sometimes, but never inherently bad.

Viewing human nature through the lens of John Locke’s tabula rasa is more agreeable to me. There may be too many faulty misperceptions and poor outlooks when one views general human nature as being quite negative and needing a controlling government to protect them. Locke believed that if provided with the right information, the people would make the right decisions for themselves. This is more goal oriented and positive outlook on human beings that lends itself to a more hopeful and motivating future, and without hope and motivation individuals are hard pressed to ever make anything of themselves in this world. Unlike the beliefs of Hobbes, individuals, in my opinion, should be trusted to make the right decisions if they are also given the tools do so. Of course we will never always make the right decisions, but if we cannot trust ourselves then how could we possibly trust someone else? Especially how could we possibly trust the government?

Nonetheless, it is obvious that these two men had similarities, yet in many respects were diametric opposites. Their ideas and theories were groundbreaking and helpful for many fields including those of political science and psychology. These two men epitomized the debate about whether or not human beings are inherently good or bad. This is a starting point for many people who want to feel better. If you feel that everyone around you sucks and is out to hurt you because as Hobbes said human nature is inherently “solitary, nasty, brutish, and short” then what do you think you are going to get out of life? Could you possibly expect anything else except nastiness?

On the other end, if you view society and human nature as being inherently good and that people are actually willing and wanting to be there for you and help you, then that’s what you will expect out of life and that’s what you will get. Numerous researchers out there today has proposed that what we think and what we feel can literally create the way we experience life.  We can literally choose to think and feel either good or bad thoughts and then experience good or bad experiences.  Let’s start off by viewing the world through the Lockean perspective that all human beings are inherently good.  That is the first step towards conquering feelings of hopelessness, depression, anxiety, stress, loneliness, angst, apprehension, despair, and unhappiness.

When you change the way you look at things

The things you look at will change

Namaste. God bless.

Please post below your feelings regarding this debate, and of course if you found this post helpful or interesting.

-Greek Guru Guy

References

Leahey, Thomas Hardy. A History of Psychology: From Antiquity to Modernity. 7th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2013. Print.

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