For the Waterloo/Cedar Falls Supper Club
Tuesday, August 24th, 2010
Are Humans Fit for Civilization?
By Thomas H. Thompson
I begin tonight with an explanation and an apology, followed by an abstract of the remainder of this address.
My university education was conducted in an atmosphere suspicious of metaphysics, redolent of logical positivism and dedicated to small-scale analysis—analysis which foreswore speculative imagination.
In an Oedipal way I am currently in rebellion against these strictures. This paper is an example of my attraction to highly speculative questions about the human condition and its future. I must apologize for the lack of hard facts and the presence of a certain amount of vagueness in the conceptual basis of my speculative journey. I also must warn you that in treating my source materials, I have not striven for completeness or even for total accuracy. Instead, I have harvested what I need for my purposes from certain celebrated authors.
This paper asks the question whether humans are by their very nature adaptable to the demands of civilized life. My account is inspired by Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, but I will leave mention of Freud to the end. I begin by assessing Christianity’s relation to civilization, then move on to Hobbes’ Leviathan, to Locke’s Second Treatise, to Marx’s Manifesto, then on to Freud. But the conclusions I draw, admittedly inspired by the examples cited, will be mine alone.
And, before proceeding, I will specify what I mean by “civilization.” Before humans were civilized, they lived in migratory groups, hunting and gathering. With the coming of the Neolithic Revolution, agriculture introduced a division of labor that made food production the task of farmers and permitted city life with a leisured class of rulers and priests, private property, and the origins of art and culture. Such developed civilizations eventually resulted in the Greek city states, the Hellenistic world and Rome. But my use of “civilization” will contain a normative component. I propose to commit to the full meaning of “civilization” only when that social grouping is rational. What I intend by “rational” will be developed as I go along.
From the viewpoint of one major Christian tradition, man is fallen, tainted with original sin and quite incapable of ridding himself of this terrible moral disease by his own efforts. The only route to salvation is through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross, and, subsequently, the faith of the tainted human in Christ as savior. The result is everlasting life for the faithful or possibly a second coming and the arrival of the Kingdom of God. In any event, this ordinary world is transcended, left behind in its sorry and bloody state to fend for itself. I conclude that Christianity, whatever its promise for the community of faith, has no basis for dealing with my question of the fitness of humans to civilization. Except, I suppose, to say that my question is irrelevant to the more important question of the ultimate and eternal destination of the faithful human.
Now I skip to mid-17th century and look at Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. Hobbes’ point of view was influenced by the experience of the English civil wars, leading him to believe that anything less than an absolute government with no chance of rebellion was the only way to ensure a peaceful human existence.
Famously, then, Hobbes asks us to contemplate the life of humans in a state of nature—a condition, that is, with humans living without government. Given the nature of untrammeled human desires interacting, such a state must be a state of war—a war of all against all. And the “life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
The result is that humans will submit themselves to some form of absolute political power to escape the ruinous and dangerous implications of the state of nature. Any deviation from absolutism threatens a resumption of civil war which is worse than the dictates of any absolute political authority.
Now, to depart from Hobbes for a moment, consider that is it plausibly contended that absolute power corrupts absolutely. And is it all that clear that humans, in a state of nature, are psychological egoists—lashing out uncontrollably with selfish desires?
Locke’s Second Treatise
Moving now to the latter part of the 17th century, we encounter a view of the state of nature vastly different from Hobbes. John Locke, inspired by the Glorious Revolution that brought William and Mary to the English throne, sees humans in a state of nature living quite peacefully in the absence of government. Instead of those selfish Hobbsians, Locke’s humans are rational and they are acquainted with a law of nature. However, the state of nature has certain “inconveniences.” When humans must judge in their own case, they are likely to misapply the law of nature and thus injustices can occur. So, in order to take care of those inconveniences, humans contract to establish a common judge, a government. That government rests on the consent of the governed. Locke’s notion of representative government was a strong influence on both the French and the American revolutions.
Government also exists to protect private property. One might think that private property introduces unjust inequalities, but Locke determines that property is made private by mixing one’s labor with the land. And, since he believes there is as much and as good common property left to be entitled, there is no inequality. Locke saw America as a vast territory, practically uninhabited, open for exploitation. (The world nowadays is somewhat different.) If government oversteps its authority, the people have the right to revolt and dissolve the tyranny. Some of you will remember that Thomas Jefferson copied Locke in this respect.
Karl Marx, Manifesto
You will recall that Marx started out by turning Hegel on his head and adopting materialism as the basis of society. Believing in a labor theory of value, Marx declared that the bourgeoisie relentlessly exploited the proletariat. For the workers created all the value in a product, while the owners simply paid sustenance and stole the rest as profit. Once the local markets were exhausted, the greed of the bourgeosie drove them to expand their search for ever more profit to the whole world. Hence, the Communist International. With the help of an elite of intellectuals, a revolution finally displaces the oppressors and a dictatorship of the proletariat is established. Its purpose is to destroy the last remnants of middle class oppression. Once that happens, the state withers away and a classless society, free of all oppression emerges. History comes to a stop; all contradictions have been resolved.
Note that Marx is a thorough-going Enlightenment fundamentalist. Humans are perfectly rational once freed. In this he agrees with Locke—though he never mention’s Locke’s “inconveniences.” Marx’s end-point is a purified Lockean state of nature. A kind of utopia realized.
Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents
Freud, as it were, takes something from Locke and Marx and something from Hobbes and blends these incompatible motives.
Eros and Thanatos are in competition within us. They merge. They interact. Take, for example, the closeness between soldiers, brothers-in-arms, fighting to kill and bonded to each other by affection. The Spartan warriors had homosexual connections which, presumably, made them really excellent warriors. (Hmm—Don’t ask and don’t tell?)
One can speculate that aggression and bonding are carried in our DNA. We are, after all, the product of eons of evolution in which the merger of aggression and cooperation made for survival.
On the dark side of our nature, I ask you to recall the myth of Aryan superiority that good Germans believed and which eventuated in the Holocaust. But “Aryan” is not a race; it’s a language. And the myth of so-called Aryan superiority is sufficiently dispelled by the examples of Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein, both very superior, both Jewish.
So, finally, I accept Freud’s description of the motives at war within us. A war which leaves us with the problem of adapting imperfect humans to the demands of civilization.
I propose a scheme of global governance for that adaptation.
Global Governance for the 21st century
The world is a far different place than it was in 1815 when the Congress of Vienna produced the dominance of the nation-state. In Tom Friedman’s words, the world is hot, flat and crowded. Civilization must be based on a global polity wherein the influence of the nation-state has been superceded as the following examples will illustrate:
• Nation states will become states within a world civilization, similar to the position of states within the United States.
• The constitution of the United States of the World will be adapted from the U. S. constitution, based on the principles of the 18th century Enlightenment.
• National standing armies are dissolved as the shift to global governance takes place.
• The Supreme Court of the World is empowered to make decisions on disputes within states and to enforce those decisions as necessary.
• Problems not solvable by nation-states, will be addressed by global governance: E. g., cap-and trade and the end of dependence on fossil fuels, which, in turn, will address the problem of climate change. Global governance will enforce zero nuclear and biological weaponry. Global governance will have a policy to deal with water scarcity and disputes over access.
• Relations between nation-states breed war, seemingly unceasingly. Testosterone-driven male rulers have made a sorry mess of statecraft. Global governance will set a goal of fifty percent of government leaders to be composed of women.
• Global democracy will be carried out by voting utilizing the most advanced information technology. The franchise will be restricted to those world citizens who qualify as politically literate.
While global governance will help to make humans more fit for civilization, it will not achieve perfection. Aggression will have to be repressed; the unhappiness and frustration that is the result has to be endured. Perhaps, as William James proposed, we can find some better substitutes for war.
Thus, my answer to the question posed by this address is: Yes, humans are fit for civilization, but the fit is not perfect. Global governance will have before it the task of continually adjusting its domain to the skittish personality of the human being.