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The Constant Nature of Man, Changing Self-Understanding, and Autobiography

The Constant Nature Of Man, Changing Self-Understanding, And Autobiography

The title of these lectures is “The Drama Of Humanity.” They are not about man but about our humanity. Now why? We are accustomed, for instance, to talk about the nature of man, and then you usually have the great fights between adherents of classical philosophy, who will tell you that the nature of man is a constant, and the apocalyptically excited intellectuals, who will tell you that the nature of man changes and that it will change ever more in the future, that all our expectations for the future and for a new realm on this earth depend on changes in the nature of man.

Now obviously, here again we have a logical problem, because if by the nature of anything you mean the constant features, the constant features cannot change, because then they would not be constant. That is logically impossible: By definition a nature can’t change. But there is a real problem nevertheless, and that real problem is present already at the time when the conception of the nature of man is formed in antiquity, in classical philosophy. That is where it is formed, and there arises the conception that man has a nature in the sense of a form like any object of sense perception—like a table that is developed according to a plan or like a plant that obviously has an organism’s plan in its growth, and so on.

That is the decisive point; you see we are still very close—even in our English empiricism since the eighteenth century—to the Aristotelian conception that a metaphysics of man has to be formulated in terms of form and matter. So either the artifact or the organism is the model on which you philosophize, but it isn’t really man. If you transfer the model of a form, and matter organized by that form, to human persons, or to society, you run into difficulties because society isn’t an artifact or an organism, but something entirely different. It is engaged in some sort of process which is not the same as that of the model of an artifact or organism. Therefore, you run into the problem that there is a process of change in conflict with the assumed form.

One can only solve that problem by admitting that there is a difficulty here, and run the risk. There are obviously enough stable features in man to recognize him as a human being and, obviously, enough of process in him in order to recognize that there is a process going on in him, not only on the organic level, as an animal, but also on the mental, intellectual, and spiritual levels. Such a process of the human soul (or whatever you wish to call it where this process takes place, because it doesn’t take place in the organism, but it is a mental or spiritual process) has produced its own adequate form of symbolization that is called autobiography.

Wherever there is a consciousness of man in process, the problem of autobiography begins to develop as an interesting subject matter. Otherwise you would simply have only a solid type, which never changes. But when you become aware of this change, of the importance of change, then autobiographical problems begin to present themselves. Also in antiquity, that is where autobiography begins. We always have the problem that, on the one hand, there are stable features in man, on the other, there is a process going on, especially the process of discovering that man has stable features. Because man as a subject matter to be defined in any terms at all is not omnipresent in history, but arises in Greek civilization with specific definitions of man as, for instance, the animal rationale, the zoon noun echon —in Greek an animal that has mind or nous or reason—and such a definition itself is an event in the history of mankind.

Now one characteristic of this event, as it happened in Greek philosophy, however, is that there results a formulation of the nature of man in stable terms. Such a definition as “man is a rational animal,” animal rationale, is the result; but not included in this observation is the fact that the observation itself is a new event in history. Therewith, you have a peculiar structure of all classic philosophy of order. You have insight into the personal structure of man as a stable structure in a given situation of the late polis. That is for instance the typical content of Aristotelian ethics: the structure of man and the structure of his behavior, through behavior according to his nature in society and the world.

Or you can expand the picture of man as the perfect stable structure into a perfect stable structure of society as it ought to be. That is the content of the paradigm, or best constitution, in Aristotelian politics or in Platonic politics. But nowhere in the series of Ethics and Politics, which are after all the two volumes of a philosophy of order, is a third volume that would have to be called Historics, where one would go into the problem: that such stable features as described in Ethics and Politics are discovered at a certain point in history, in Plato and Aristotle, and why, and what, went before, and what could possibly come after. The event-character itself does not become thematic, only the result. If unfolded, this reflective element—which is the process-element in the nature of man—would contain the problem that the nature of man, at any given time, though it has stable features, also contains a specific self-understanding of man in his relations to all other sectors of reality:  the world,  God,  and society. . . .


This excerpt is from The Drama of Humanity and Other Miscellaneous Papers: 1939-1985 (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2004)

Eric VoegelinEric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin (1901-85) was a German-born American Political Philosopher. He was born in Cologne and educated in Political Science at the University of Vienna, at which he became Associate Professor of Political Science. In 1938 he and his wife fled from the Nazi forces which had entered Vienna and emigrated to the United States, where they became citizens in 1944. He spent most of his academic career at the University of Notre Dame, Louisiana State University, the University of Munich and the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. More information about him can be found under the Eric Voegelin tab on this website.

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