Human Nature and Politics in Utopian and Anti-Utopian Fiction

HomeArticlesHuman Nature and Politics in Utopian and Anti-Utopian Fiction

Anti-utopian fiction has recently gripped the American imagination. Books such as The Hunger Games and the Divergent series have sold millions of copies and the movies based on these books have also been extremely popular. In January and February of 2017, Amazon briefly ran out of copies of 1984 and the sales of A Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale, and It Can Happen Here have skyrocketed. This is amazing for a country founded on the utopian ideal of the “City on a Hill.” The reason may be that both utopian and anti-utopian fiction can be extremely helpful at explaining the political and emotional environment of a time. Such literature has, historically, been extremely successful at capturing the political hopes, dreams, and fears of people.

The political formulations of utopian and anti-utopian[i] writers are often based upon their assumptions about human nature. Such assumptions can hardly be avoided when the writer is building his or her ideal society. In providing critiques of the present societal (and political) structures and portraying the way society should be, utopias draw upon the author’s conception of what is quintessentially human. In other words, the writer asks: what are the most important traits of human beings? Why are they important? What ramifications do these traits have on the political system? To what extent should the political system take account of these traits – through either constraining or developing them? To what extent and in what ways does the current political system take these traits into account? Yet, these assumptions are rarely made explicit in utopian and anti-utopian works. Here, I examine the relationship between different conceptions of what it means to be human and the concomitant politics, thereby placing these ontological assumptions at the center of the political debate.

The goal of this book, therefore, is a dialectical engagement amongst different conceptions of human nature in utopian and anti-utopian works. First, I uncover the assumptions that utopian writers make regarding human nature. These assumptions come across most clearly in utopian books because utopian writers base their perfect societies on these assumptions. These assumptions are also the primary target of the dystopian writers who opine that, based on these assumptions, utopians create extremely restrictive societies. Therefore, I go on to define the dystopian view of human nature and how this view is an outcome of their desire for individual freedom. Finally, I end with a discussion of the dystopian tragic view of human existence – which is what makes their philosophy completely antithetical to that of the utopians.

Conceptions of Human Nature

But what does the term “human nature” mean? Is there any characteristic which all human beings have in common, which defines us as being human? How can we ever know what  “human nature” is? There are some obvious problems in dealing with the term. “Some use it in a descriptive sense to refer to what all human beings can be shown to share in common. For others it refers to what human beings are ideally capable of becoming… For some what is natural must be unchanging; others think that it can be modified within certain limits.”[ii] For some, human nature is determinative, for others, it merely inclines people in a general direction. The most obvious criticism against those who use the term is that it generalizes human diversity. In fact, Durkheim reproaches Aristotle for speaking of man in general while ignoring the vast diversity of human beings.

Yet, it is also true that:

“Every question which concerns itself with (a) what is best for man; (b) what is it that man, under given circumstances, should do; (c) which forms of human behavior are most valuable; (d) which forms of human behavior are most desirable; (e) towards which ends should man apply his means – each of these are, in essence, questions which can only be answered in relation to one’s definition of human nature.”[iii]

These questions lead to another host of questions regarding the term human nature:

“Does human nature guarantee that certain social networks or institutions will be successful and others failures? Are certain behaviors (war, adultery, bribery) inevitable consequences of human nature? (2) To what degree is human nature modifiable or changeable? Is man the blank slate that Locke, Condillac and Helvetius described? Is he as pliable as Plato or Hume would have him? Is he as fixed as Augustine or Hobbes believe?”[iv]

Can we step beyond human diversity and beyond its simplification and find something which is common to all human beings? We will see through the course of this book that this is a demanding, perhaps impossible, task. In this book, human nature refers to a set of characteristics which are common to all human beings. Some of these traits may be considered to be intrinsic to human beings while others are inculcated in them through a process of socialization or education. Thus, the term “human nature” may include everything from primal instincts to desires inculcated through socialization. However, it is important to note here that human nature differs from human behavior. Human behavior can be said to be outcomes at the intersection between human nature and socio-political strictures. In this book, what the term “human nature”  refers to changes with each author.

Conceptions of human nature have changed over time and few surveys have been done of this change.[v] The majority of books that exist on this subject focus on the post-modern age. A well-done survey of this sort by Peter Langford states that the goal of his work is to show how “philosophical opinions of human nature underwent a transformation from the God-centered views of Augustine and the scholastics to the human-centered views of Nietzsche, Freud and Sartre.”[vi] Though an excellent discussion of the views of the thinkers, this book focuses to a much greater extent on disproving the methodology that the thinker claims to use to arrive at his conclusion. As the author very candidly states, his “polemical” purpose is to “oppose the notion that the modernism of more recent writers was produced by methodological innovations” and to show that “there is always a jump in the line of argument, departing from the strict use of methodology in order to adopt unproven assumptions.”[vii] As such, this survey discusses less of the political theory and more of the thinkers’ philosophical assumptions.

Another example of a book which deals with conceptions of human nature is From Cells to Souls which is an edited volume which examines different conceptions of human nature and how these conceptions speak to scientific developments such as cloning. The book starts with Kenan Malik’s statement in Man, Beast and Zombie that “two mutually hostile camps are created, “one viewing Man from a purely naturalistic viewpoint, the other seeing him as an entirely cultural being.”[viii] The book is an attempt to analyze this statement and show that both camps are “equally one-sided and equally flawed in its attempt to understand what makes us human.”[ix] This neatly encapsulates the ancient-modern divide among the utopians. In the following pages, I will draw out two views on human nature which reflect the views of the essentialist and non-essentialist utopians sketched above.

An attempt to decipher human nature and to formulate theories of human nature has flourished in other disciplines than political theory. For instance, psychologist Abraham Maslow stated that “if we improve human nature we improve all, for we remove the principal causes of world disorder. But human improvement depends upon an understanding of human nature.”[x] Thus, Maslow accepts both the premises of utopian writers – that improving human nature improves the world and that human nature can be known and understood. Yet, ultimately, Maslow acknowledges that “man has one general nature when he is deprived of basic needs and another general nature when his needs are well taken care of, but that these natures certainly are not the same. Therefore, human nature is not constant, nor is it impervious to changes external to the person; rather, it is susceptible to change and alternation by numerous environmental conditions.”[xi] Man, according to Maslow, “has an essential, inner nature which is instinctoid, intrinsic, given, “natural,” i.e., with an appreciable hereditary determinant, and which tends strongly to persist.”[xii] This is a person’s “inner core” according to Maslow which persists through time, sometimes unconsciously.

Freud also takes the position that human beings have some intrinsic instincts prior to, and somewhat impervious to, cultural conditioning. Human beings are instinctively aggressive. Since these aggressive instincts cannot be destroyed, it is a matter of ameliorating these instincts to achieve political peace. Love and hate operate side-by-side in human beings. “If the propensity for war be due to the destructive instinct, we have always its counteragent, Eros, to our hand. All that produces ties of sentiment between man and man must serve us as war’s antidote.”[xiii] Freud concedes that cultural changes lead to a scaling down of instincts and therefore, the cultivation of Eros and a culture of peace will lead to a lessening of aggression – and probably an internalization of these instincts.

Paul Goodman summarizes the more modern theory of human nature: “you can teach people anything; you can adapt them to anything if you use the right techniques of “socializing” or “communicating.” The essence of “human nature” is to be pretty indefinitely malleable. “Man,” as C. Wright Mills suggests, is what suits a particular type of society in a particular historical sense.”[xiv] The more nuanced version of this position is taken by John Mitchell. Mitchell states that “man (as well as his culture) is malleable there can be no doubt. Whether he is malleable because he has no human nature is one question. Whether he is malleable because part of his nature is to adapt to the requirements of his environment (within limits) is another question.”[xv] Knud Haakonssen says that “traditional philosophy is supposed to have operated with the idea of a universal human nature, and especially of universal cognitive powers. Yet it is evident that every aspect of human nature, qua human, is malleable by time and circumstance. Consequently there is nothing to be said in universal terms about human nature.”[xvi]

Gardner Murphy and others have tried to reconcile the distinctions between conceptions of human nature which emphasize fixed traits and malleability. According to Murphy, there are three levels of human nature. According to Gardner, “The life of today has developed through the processes of evolution, through processes which produced a “first human nature.””[xvii] Culture produces the second human nature and the creativity of human beings produces the third level. The three levels of human nature interact each other and influence each other. Another version posits that human beings have a nature in potential. In other words:

“man is characterized by predispositions and inclinations which any given culture may either cultivate or neglect. The extent to which these predispositions and inclinations are nourished by the environment will determine the extent to which that culture corresponds with human nature; the converse is, of course also true. Man is not infinitely malleable and those aspects of his constitution which are most naturally resistant to change are possibly the core of man’s nature.”[xviii]

But the imperatives of human nature are generalized – not specific at all.

Bikhu Parekh develops Murphy’s position. Parekh asserts that “our nature is articulated on (at least) three different though interrelated levels: first, the nature that we share as members of a common species; second, the nature we derive from and share as members of a specific cultural community; and third, the nature we succeed in giving ourselves as reflective individuals.”[xix] Just as human beings are not prisoners of their nature, neither are they prisoners of their cultures. Therefore, nature, culture and self-reflection all make up human nature. To this position, Ray Hart adds that it is human will, not merely self-reflection, which creates human nature. “Every exercise of will in the actualization of possibility, for which the human subject is responsible, restricts her range of possibilities for subsequent actualization.”[xx] Thus, there is a wide variety of literature on the issue of whether or not there is such a constant as human nature and what defines it.

While these assumptions are found in all thinkers, some focus on it more than others. Pierre Manent, while discussing Locke, states that for Locke, “The question of the good is inseparable from the question of human essence and the one is just as vain as the other. The good is what is proper to man, what man is specifically capable of, what perfects and fulfills him in the best part of nature. I cannot in reality be moved by the good since in reality I do not know what I am.”[xxi] For Manent, modern political theorists starting with Montesquieu and Locke ignore the question of essence seeing it as unanswerable. They attempt to sketch a moral system without discussing essence.

Utopian writers follow a similar ancient-modern divide. It is only for utopians after the eighteenth century that “human nature does not represent the absolute imperative that it was for earlier utopians.”[xxii] Barbara Goodwin points out that “The static, mechanical quality of pre-eighteenth-century utopias must be understood in the light of the absence of concepts of progress, the ideal then being the refinement and perfection of a human life whose elements were already known.”[xxiii] While Thomas More takes essence into account in constructing his good society, William Morris does not. More takes from the ancients, Morris from the moderns. More’s “Utopian man is not natural – he has been fashioned by institutions – but the result is not unnatural since the founders of utopia utilized benign instincts and repressed harmful ones through education and the dictates of the law.”[xxiv] More starts by determining what is virtuous and what is not and which human essences contribute to or detract from these virtues. Morris changes institutions and claims that this changes human nature.

Ancient and modern utopias differ not only in their conceptions of human nature but also have different attitudes towards authoritarianism. Lewis Mumford points out that classic utopias “sought to impose a monolithic discipline upon all the varied activities and interplaying interests of human society, by creating an order too inflexible, and a system of government too centralized and absolute.”[xxv] Ultimately, “this static aspect of utopias went along with a static conception of life itself.”[xxvi] Thus, the absoluteness of ancient utopias is related to their static view of human beings and human life.

The second difference between the two kinds of utopias, for Mumford, is that the early utopias are utopias of ends while the modern utopias are utopias of means. The latter is “the place in which all that materially contributes to the good life has been perfected. The earlier utopias were concerned to establish the things which men should aim for in life. The utopias of the later Renaissance took these aims for granted and discussed how man’s scope of action might be broadened.”[xxvii] They no longer asked how we should live life but how to increase the amenities of life.

Utopias and Human Nature

Not only are there different definitions of human nature but there have been many definitions of what constitutes utopianism. For the purposes of this book, utopians are those thinkers who balance all values and achieve perfect harmony within their socio-political system. In other words, utopians claim to balance those values which are in conflict in existing societies, without creating new tensions. The resolution of values and harmony is, in some sense, final, making the resultant society vastly superior to any in existence today. Thus, as George Kateb points out, utopianism is:

“that system of values which places harmony at the center: harmony within the soul of each man, harmony of each man with all others, harmony of each man with society at large, as that system of values which would hold social life to be perfect if between appetite and satisfaction, between precept and inclination, between requirement and performance, there fell no shadow?”[xxviii]

Lyman Sargent agrees with this definition of utopias as “projections of the desire for unity and simplicity. But this is not a complete picture.”[xxix] Utopias also attempt to show how one dominant value or a set of dominant values could lead to a better society. The attraction of utopias is their holistic nature, their integration of their leading values into a concrete stable system.

Since it is unclear whether the writers of these utopias want to implement their harmonious societies, utopias can be seen as either a blueprint of a perfect society or as a dream. Yet, as Sargent points out, one man’s dream can be another man’s blueprint.[xxx] Put another way, utopias are sometimes thought of as crackpot schemes, unattainable at best and tyrannical at worst. T.E. Utley warns that the utopian state of mind “starts with day-dreams and ends with tyranny. He reminds us again that those who ignore the frailties and complexities of human nature in making their political calculations end by trying to force the human soul into a shape conformable to their own predilections.”[xxxi] Those who fear utopias generally see them as blueprints contending that there is no such thing as a perfect society and even if there were, it would be impossible to achieve with imperfect people. Thus, force will be necessary to achieve and enforce utopia. This is one of the criticisms levied against utopias by anti-utopian writers.

The second way of viewing utopias holds them to be a standard by which to judge existing practices. “Even when a utopia is designed as a realistic alternative, it is not intended to be achieved in all its detail. It is a vehicle for presenting an alternative to the present.”[xxxii] In this view, utopias offer choices and people have the freedom to accept or reject the choices presented to them. They are an expression of the human ability to dream of a better life.

Another criticism of utopias is that utopias are always apolitical:

“Politics is concerned with very intractable material – and by that I mean men. And it is not only men who have to be administered. It is also men who are engaged in permanent  debate as to how and by whom the task should be carried out. In this sense, politics is of course a struggle for power . . . Utopianism, on the other hand, signifies that one assumes as possible (and perhaps even inevitable) an ultimate condition of absolute harmony in which individual self-expression and self-cohesion, though seemingly incompatible, will be combined.”[xxxiii]

Yet, this is almost never the case. As Amitava Ray points out, the limits of our imagination are drawn by reality and the imaginary is also a possibility in the real world.[xxxiv] In this sense, the utopia created may be static but the creation itself is the product of an ongoing relationship with the political world around us. Thus, utopias are a product of the very same political environment which it aims at changing. This proves that utopias are undeniably a result of politics, no matter how much they envision a world without politics.

There is a vast amount of literature on utopianism as a genre of political thought.[xxxv] The extent of this literature is too broad to cover adequately but they can be divided into two broad categories or broad themes.

In the first group are writers who see political utopians as laying out a blueprint of a political system and contend that their attempts to achieve this system would lead to a totalitarian regime. Therefore, according to this view, all political utopias are potentially tyrannical. The most notable work in this school of thought is Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies. Popper’s attack is against utopians (those who think they know what is best for society) and historicists (those that claim that the laws of the past can help predict the present). They contend that utopians ignore the natural diversity of human desires and behaviors and therefore, their tyrannical tendencies emerge out of their unnatural constricted systems.

The second group of writers responds to the above criticisms. They are as explicitly supportive of utopias as the first group is critical of them. They examine different utopias to define “utopianism” and show how utopianism is a part of the political theory corpus. One such work is by Barbara Goodwin and Keith Taylor called The Politics of Utopia. This school of thought defends both literary and political utopias in an attempt to define and reinvigorate utopian thought. According to this group of thinkers, utopianism is what provides us with a view of the better life. It is a philosophy of hope and effort. They refute the claim that utopianism will always result in tyranny stating that these are not blueprints but visions of hope which can be changed to suit political goals and realities.

Just as the definition of utopia remains in dispute, so do the works that comprise it. This book primarily treats literary utopias though it also discusses political texts when relevant. Krishan Kumar distinguishes between utopian social theory and formal literary utopias. For instance, Rousseau’s Social Contract, for him, is the product “of the utopian temperament or the utopian propensity” rather than a true literary utopia.[xxxvi] Thus, Kumar distinguishes between literary utopias which are explicitly utopian in form from political and social theories (a.k.a. Rousseau’s Social Contract) which are results of the “utopian temperament”. Though he is sympathetic to the fact that both types of utopianism perform similar functions, he stresses the difference in the form of the two types of works which, he argues, leads to different effects on its readers. “In the abstract schemes of conventional social and political theory, we are told that the good society will follow from the application of the relevant general principles; in utopia, we are shown the good society in organization.”[xxxvii] Kumar concludes that he will “classify our material in different ways according to particular purposes.”[xxxviii]

The use of utopian and dystopian works provides many advantages in this particular project. First, utopian and dystopian works make their ontological commitments and their political commitments clear within the same text. Thus, the conceptual connection between conceptions of human nature and political commitments is easier to draw out through these works. This differs from the work of some political philosophers who either leave their ontological commitments unclear or draw them out in separate and sometimes conflicting texts. Second, these writers directly converse with and respond to each other. For example, William Morris’ News from Nowhere is a direct response to Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward. This makes it easier to examine the debate about the possible political implications behind any given ontological position. Third, these works also interact extensively with the political theories which they build upon.

Thus, William Morris’ News from Nowhere is not only a response to Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward but also an elaboration and disquisition on Marx’s theory of labor. In discussing the latter two utopias, I also discuss Karl Marx’s theory of communism, not because it is an integral part of the utopian genre, but because an understanding of this work is crucial for an understanding of the similarities and differences between the works of Bellamy and Morris. Similarly, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is a response to Plato’s Republic as well as to H.G. Wells’ utopian works. Therefore, the political implications of the ontological positions of political theorists can also be drawn out through the use of these works.

Since there are a vast number of utopian and dystopian works, picking the ones to work with was difficult. There were two primary considerations in choosing the dystopian works. For the dystopian works, I chose primarily those works which are emblematic of the dystopian corpus.[xxxix] These are works which are agreed on by writers as being dystopic.

In case of the utopian works, I chose works which exemplified the ancient-modern divide in utopian writings. Since Thomas More’s Utopia is recognized as the beginning of the utopian genre, I chose it to exemplify the ancient utopia which takes human nature as somewhat of a constraint. Choosing among the modern utopian works was more of a challenge. I chose to concentrate on Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward and William Morris’ News from Nowhere for a few reasons. It is true that these two books exemplify the modern utopia but so do many others like B.F. Skinner’s Walden Two. The advantage is that these two works are also in dialogue with each other. Not only are they in dialogue with each other about what an ideal society looks like but they are also in dialogue with each other about what Marxism means. Thus, they engage theory as well as each other. Moreover, Looking Backward is an iconic book exemplifying an era in American history.

Furthermore, given that Thomas More has been said to have been influenced by Plato’s communistic republic, all the utopias examined here have a common theme in terms of property rights. By choosing both Morris and Bellamy, I wanted to do three things: a) show that similar views of human nature could lead to very different political results; b) use the issue of socialism which is a major point of dystopian critique; c) use Bellamy and Morris against each other to show how complex Marx’s views on communism are. It made it easier because Morris wrote News from Nowhere as a specific rebuke to Bellamy. I will show, however, that in spite of these similarities, these utopias differ dramatically in their assumptions about human beings and the type of politics needed to maintain the ideal state.

Some people make the argument that one person’s utopia is another’s dystopia and, therefore, these genres cannot be separated. This book posits an alternative thesis: that dystopias are characterized by recalcitrance – in these works human beings break out of the mold and challenge the political system. Utopias, on the other hand, show human beings who are reconciled to and even happy with their political system. Thus, knowledge of a writer’s view on human nature helps us distinguish utopias from dystopias.

Scope and Aim of the Book

My work in this book is to tease out the assumptions each author makes on human nature. This book is not to lay out a grand theory of human nature – that is beyond the scope of this book. Rather, this book unearths assumptions about human nature present in these texts even if these assumptions are implicit, unacknowledged, or unintentional. This book makes the claim that it is important to lay bare these assumptions as they help us to understand and critique these works.

Common to both ancient and the modern utopian writers is the claim to know and understand human nature. It is this knowledge which, they claim, helps them to build a good society. Some of the ancient utopians, like More, believe that human beings have some negative traits (for More, this is a result of original sin) which cannot be completely obliterated through human intervention. Thus, his utopia is more restrictive than that of a more modern writer like William Morris who believed that human behavior is mostly an outcome of social and political institutions and therefore can be radically changed through changing these institutions.[xl] As we shall see, the dystopian writers are wary of claiming knowledge about human nature. Knowledge would imply the power to manipulate and this is precisely what dystopian writers seek to avoid.

This book divides theorists according to their views on human nature. In analyzing the ramifications of these views, we will also see how the aforementioned differences between ancient and modern utopias flow from their conceptions of the human. The first group of writers, the writers of ancient utopias, which I call essentialist, maintains that human beings have some intrinsic characteristics which are politically relevant but which cannot be uprooted. However, they argue that these characteristics can be molded through education. In other words, the essentialists contend that the intrinsic qualities which pose a threat to the political system have to be countered by the inculcation (through political and social education) of a separate set of human traits. On the other hand, intrinsic human traits which promote the ideal political system have to be developed and brought out by the political system. What should be stressed about this theory is that while these thinkers assume some traits to be constant in human beings over time, they also accept that human nature can be manipulated. They accept that human nature is a product of environment and education; they simply assume certain politically key characteristics to be unchanged through time.

Brian Ellis defines essentialism as a theory which holds that “things behave as they do, not because they are forced or constrained by God, or even by the laws of nature, but, rather, because of the intrinsic causal powers, capacities and propensities of their basic constituents and how they are arranged.”[xli] But, again, essentialists do not deny the possibility of change. Rather, they maintain that there are two kinds of things. “Fixed natural kinds may be contrasted with natural kinds that permit intrinsic variability, that is, natural kinds whose members have causal powers or capacities that are capable of being modified.”[xlii] The latter, Ellis calls, “variable natural kinds”. Human beings fall into the second category. This is because “our causal powers and capacities are not fixed by our genetic constitutions. We are able to adapt to new circumstances, learn new ways of behaving, and so on. But our causal powers are not only variable, they are deliberately modifiable. That is, we can deliberately take steps to increase our causal powers in some respects, change our attitudes, revise our priorities, and so on.”[xliii]

If human beings do possess a certain nature, it is also true that they have the freedom to act contrary to this nature. This is not only acknowledged by ancient utopians but by most political thinkers. In other words, human behavior may or may not reflect human nature (making it doubly difficult to determine what human nature is to begin with). Rousseau, for example, is bewildered “how man could design a society which fails to harmonize with his own nature in the first place.”[xliv] Similarly, Hobbes acknowledges that “human behavior and human nature do not necessarily harmonize. He reasoned that human nature is essentially exploitive and aggressive and before man is able to live in peaceful continuity it is imperative that he stifles his fundamental nature.”[xlv]

The second and more modern conception of human nature can be called the non-essentialist view. This view can take several forms and, in its strongest form, assumes that there is no human essence which needs to be overridden or developed. Marx, for instance, asserts that human beings are a product of their material environment.[xlvi] Historical evolution leads to different material conditions which, in turn, lead to different human relations and behavior. B.F. Skinner, on the other hand, posits not historical evolution, but psychological conditioning as the vehicle of human transformation. For him, human beings can be completely conditioned shortly after birth (man is “infinitely educable or conditionable”[xlvii]) and there is no human essence which has to be overridden.

The difference between the two positions is best illustrated by taking two examples of utopia: Thomas More’s Utopia and B.F. Skinner’s Walden Two. More’s Utopia has provisions for education but seeing that people are vulnerable to evil, More (a devout Catholic) ensures the maintenance of his utopia through strict socio-political arrangements rather than simply through education. He does not think it possible to radically transform human beings – but transforming politics perforce leads to changes in human behavior. More holds an extremely negative view of human nature but adds that human beings can be made good through governance. As More points out, the goal of punishment is “the destruction of vices and saving of men, with so using and ordering them that they cannot choose but be good.”[xlviii] Thus, limiting choices of human beings is part of good governance. Skinner, on the other hand, aims at transforming human beings.

Frazier, his mouthpiece in Walden Two, arrogantly asserts: “Give me the specifications, and I’ll give you the man!”[xlix] Thus, for Skinner, political arrangements take second place to the educational system and it is the latter which ensures that the utopia is maintained. It is important to stress that both positions (not simply the non-essentialist position) agree that human beings are adaptable. This adaptability is important because human beings have to be adaptable to the proposed ideal state – if they were not, why write a utopia in the first place?

There remains a lot of variation within each position. Essentialists do not believe that human nature cannot be changed at all and non-essentialists do not disagree that human beings have instinctual responses. These are matters of degree of belief in the malleability of human beings. However, this categorization is one used by dystopian authors and my adoption of these categories makes it easier for me to discuss the dystopian position. However, I want to emphasize that, on a personal level, I see the positions of essentialism and non-essentialism as forming two extreme ends of a continuum, rather than two diametrically opposed unique conceptions.

To understand dystopias, we need to start with the fact that they all seem to have been written in the early 1900s or later. The first of the quintessential dystopias, We, was written in 1921, followed by Brave New World in 1932 and 1984 in 1949. The primary desire of dystopian writers is to promote individual liberty and negative freedom (in Isaiah Berlin’s terms). Thus, given the time period in which they are written and their political priorities, it could be said that the dystopians provide the literature of liberalism. It is their push for individual liberty which provides dystopians with their view of human nature. Dystopians criticize the utopian idea that human nature is knowable. Knowledge yields control and this is what the dystopians fear.

They counter the utopian view of human nature with their portrayal of human beings as almost unknowable and argue that human nature has a recalcitrant streak that makes people unpredictable and therefore, difficult to control. The only predictable element about human beings is their desire for freedom. The importance of this desire is not that it cannot be suppressed – it can – but that it cannot be eliminated. Thus, people are willing to do things which are not in their self-interest, or that go against reason, when acting on this desire for freedom. In other words, this recalcitrant streak may be seen as human willfulness. Human beings do not wish to live in a supposed utopia because they are all different and all see their self-interests differently. Human beings are willful and unpredictable. Thus, dystopians have a weaker view of human nature – emphasizing human desire for freedom but not much else which is predictable about human nature.

Dystopian writers, thus, oppose both utopian conceptions of human nature. The primary political goal for dystopian writers is individual freedom. Their main criticism against utopias is their fear of the potential of tyranny stemming from utopian politics. For them, utopias inevitably violate rights. The problem for dystopian writers may be, as Pierre Manent states, that the concept of rights itself needs some ontological grounding – one cannot simply say that man is a being defined by his possession of rights.[l] Why should they be provided with rights?

“In the state of nature, where man discovers himself as an individual, he discovers that he is something prior to being a citizen or a Christian, something more fundamental than either. Before his submission to either political or religious laws, the individual is a whole, since he has in him the sufficient source of all his actions.”[li]

The dystopians would both agree and disagree with this statement. Too much ontological grounding and rights could be violated. Too little ontological grounding and you come full circle to a violation of rights.

The uniqueness of the dystopian position is their straddling of the ancient-modern divide on the question of human nature. To the question, “Can we understand human essence?” they respond that we cannot. To the question, “Need we understand human essence?” they respond (with the ancients) that we should at least try. We need to attempt to know human essence to prevent false claims about human beings. Authoritarian political systems, according to the dystopians, may be based on false theories of human essence. Utopians “set out to find the path to happiness equipped with contour maps of human desire.”[lii] Dystopian writers protest two aspects of the utopian picture of human beings. First, they argue that depicting human nature as knowable is antithetical to human freedom. In this sense, dystopian writers object to both utopian characterizations of human nature based on their common characteristic: knowledge of human nature. For the dystopians, the belief that human nature is knowable leaves people open to manipulation. Knowledge gives a great degree of power to the people in power.

Second, dystopians show that human beings are not only adaptable but also recalcitrant. Though adaptability is one of man’s primary characteristics, it resides side-by-side with a contrary characteristic: recalcitrance. In emphasizing that human beings can be both adaptable and recalcitrant, dystopians show that there is a limit to political innovation. Not learning this lesson is problematic because human recalcitrance inevitably bumps up against state power with potentially tragic consequences. Since human beings cannot adapt to all political systems (whether these systems are good or bad), it means that the more restrictive the political system, the more the individual and the state comes into conflict. For dystopian writers, a conflict between a state and an individual always results in the defeat of the individual and therefore, the recalcitrance of the individual leads ineluctably to tragedy wherever there are restrictive political systems.

It is because of the recalcitrance of human beings that dystopians also protest the idea of an ideal political system. In rejecting political idealism, they emphasize the fact that human dignity requires that people choose their own ends. Moreover, human beings are more likely to accede to ends they have chosen for themselves rather than ends prescribed for them by the political system. So, it is not only that an ideal is impossible but that it is undesirable. Dystopians value the capacity to choose. Exercising this capacity is what confers human dignity and therefore, people should be given the freedom to make these choices.

This book lays out the dystopian political goals based on their understanding of human nature. The dystopians rely on a “thinner” conception of human nature arguing that since recalcitrance and adaptability are both characteristics of the human being, an ideal state is by definition repressive. The book draws out the dystopian claim that an attenuated, watered-down view of human nature is best able to ground a politics of freedom. In place of the “assertive, disengaged self who generates distance from its background (tradition, embodiment) and foreground (external nature, other subjects) in the name of accelerating mastery of them,”[liii] dystopians posit a human being ruled by will, not reason.[liv] For dystopians, reason does not provide universal answers and therefore, it is an unreliable guide to human behavior. The only predictable human characteristic which dystopians acknowledge is the human desire for freedom. Taking a page from the essentialists, dystopians argue that “we do have a natural value of freedom of choice, which is intrinsic to our natures, and cannot be permanently suppressed. The history of liberation struggles is powerful evidence for this proposition.”[lv]

There are a few key characteristics of the dystopian view of human nature. First, dystopians do not deny that the common human instincts can be combated through social conditioning. However, dystopians also contend that these instincts cannot be completely suppressed and they break out in spite of all attempts to the contrary. Second, instincts may manifest themselves in a variety of ways but they are incalculable. In other words, this view of human nature does not see humans as completely knowable or completely controllable. The human behavior which devolves from this version of human nature is erratic in that it is expected to vary from one person to another. Thus, the version posited by the dystopians is meant to retain enough of the concept to justify the human desire for freedom but questions the broader idea of human beings as rational and in control of their destiny. It is precisely because man is not a “disengaged self” that the authoritarian political system has to be feared. In other words, the state can inflict real damage on human beings precisely because they can mold them. Third, dystopians try to present human beings as unpredictable and incalculable in order to prevent political systems from making claims about how human beings should/will act and force them to act accordingly. This means that human beings are not entirely knowable or definable. Human beings are defined by their particular circumstances, interests, passions and eccentricities and therefore, open to definition and re-definition.

One example of the dystopian view of human nature is seen in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We. The story is set in the futuristic One State where the protagonist, D-503 realizes the limitations and restrictions of the world he lives in and the ruthless way in which the state deals with rebellion. The state claims to be perfectly rational but Zamyatin wants to do away with the idea that man is essentially rational and therefore, human behavior is calculable. The essence of man is not rational – at least, it is not rational in any way that the state can calculate. At best, people construct their own ideas of what is rational for them and what is not. Zamyatin argues that rationality is limited by the threshold of knowledge and the idea of infallible and complete knowledge is a refusal to admit that there is a larger unexplored universe which restricts the operation of our knowledge. Thus, he says that, “this knowledge of yours is only cowardice . . .You’re simply trying to enclose infinity behind a wall, and you are terrified to glance outside the wall”.[lvi]

One cannot understand man fully and make him predictable. He rejects the idea that human nature is to be perfected or to be returned to some original state. Knowledge of human nature is fatuous since the meaning of the concept itself remains open to question. Thus, the dystopian view of human nature is not an entirely knowable concept and therefore, is open to re-figuration. In this sense, dystopians accept the idea that “all fundamental conceptualizations of self, other, and the world are contestable” but “nevertheless necessary.”[lvii]

Returning to the idea that man is not a “disengaged self”, it is important to note that dystopians understand the extent to which the language we use and the stories we tell constitute our very sense of being. The famous discussion in 1984 of the retelling of history and the change in language demonstrates Orwell’s contention that if a person cannot think of a concept, they cannot engage in it. This goes to the heart of the ontological “figurations of human being in terms of certain existential realities, most notably language, mortality or finitude, natality” etc.[lviii] Human nature and behavior is the sum of self-conceptions shaped by language, the sense of mortality, the process of socialization etc. In this sense, dystopias aim to show that human instincts may exist but they are not the only wellsprings of human behavior. Human behavior is also shaped by the socio-political system and the individual circumstances of a person’s life.

This dystopian view of human nature is also linked to their use of tragedy in their works. Dystopians seem to have two uses for tragedy. First, they use tragedy as an educational tool to propagate their message of freedom. Second, they have an inherently tragic view of life. Tragedy is a peculiarly effective vehicle for dystopians given the sympathy which readers have protagonists caught in acts against an oppressive state. However, more importantly, the dystopians see the universe as limiting human achievement. Unlike the utopians, they do not think that all human desires, goals and values can be harmonized. Rather, human life is about choice which also means that we have to give up some of what we want to achieve others. Not only does human life therefore require sacrifice, but it also means that in a repressive state, such choice – especially between the individual and the state – would result in the destruction of the individual. Thus, tragedy is inherent in life – defeating utopian aspirations.

I want to emphasize that this argument is not about causality. I am not arguing that certain views of human nature lead to or cause certain theories of politics. My strongest claim is that certain views on human nature – whether human nature as it exists today or the potential of human nature – logically impacts the writer’s political views including their views on freedom. In other words, any given view of human nature limits political choices and carries with it a set of political imperatives. However, there is no denying that there are many factors other than views of human nature which impact a writer’s political views.

Conclusion

While the question of “what is human nature” remains politically relevant, it also remains unsolvable. How can we know what is natural? Moreover, this concept is usually used in an ahistorical manner. It is used to denote an unchanging sameness, a set of characteristics which remain unchanged throughout time. But Parekh points out that there are some advantages to using this concept. First, “it highlights certain basic properties that all human beings come to share in common after reaching a particular stage in their evolutionary development.” Second, “it stresses the fact that despite all our diversities and differences we belong to a common species.” Finally, it shows that “none of us is so different as to be wholly unintelligible or so superior as to belong to and to feel entitled to claim the rights and privileges of an entirely different and superior species.”[lix] This concept, as long as we acknowledge the impact of culture and socialization, enables us to “approach others on the assumption that they share with us the universal constants of human existence which they articulate and respond to differently, and that therefore they are unlikely to be wholly unlike us or totally different.”[lx]

This book does not seek to answer these questions nor does it seek to make a value judgment on whether humankind is more or less free with the conception of a human nature. Rather, it seeks to demonstrate how two groups of writers – utopians and dystopians – have positioned themselves in this debate, thereby hoping to introduce one more possible answer to the question of grounding individual freedom.

 

Notes

[i] I use the terms anti-utopian and dystopian synonymously through the entire book.

[ii] Leroy S. Rouner, Is There a Human Nature? (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997) 15.

[iii] John J. Mitchell, Human Nature: Theories, Conjectures and Descriptions (Metuchen: The Scarecrow Press, Inc, 1972) 26.

[iv] Mitchell, 69

[v] Some books in this vein include Philosophy and Human Nature by Kathleen Nott (1971, New York University Press) and Louis P. Pojman, Who Are We: Theories of Human Nature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006). These works develop the ideas of human nature in a number of philosophers picked because they exemplify their era.

[vi] Peter Langford, Modern Philosophies of Human Nature: Their Emergence from Christian Thought (Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1986) 3.

[vii] Langford, 3

[viii] Malcolm Jeeves, From Cells to Souls – And Beyond: Changing Portraits of Human Nature (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004) xii.

[ix] Jeeves, xii

[x] Mitchell, 3 From Abraham Maslow’s A Philosophy of Psychology: The Need for a Mature Science of Human Nature.

[xi]Mitchell, 67

[xii] Mitchell, 303 From Toward a Psychology of Being by Abraham Maslow

[xiii] Mitchell, 364 From Why War by Sigmund Freud

[xiv] Mitchell, 17 From Growing Up Absurd by Paul Goodman

[xv] Mitchell, 73

[xvi] Rouner, 70

[xvii] Mitchell, 79 From Three Kinds of Human Nature from Human Potentialities by Gardner Murphy

[xviii] Mitchell, 117 From The Not So Blank Slate from Human Nature and the Human Condition by Joseph Wood Krutch

[xix] Rouner, 21

[xx] Rouner, 141

[xxi] Pierre Manent, The City of Man, ed. Thomas Pavel and Mark Lilla (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998) 130.

[xxii] Barbara Goodwin Taylor and Keith, The Politics of Utopia: A Study in Theory and Practice (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1983) 55.

[xxiii] Taylor and Keith, 69

[xxiv] Manuel, 75 Toward a Psychological History of Utopia. Frank E. Manuel

[xxv] Lewis Mumford, The Story of Utopias (New York: The Viking Press, 1962) 4.

[xxvi] Mumford, 4

[xxvii] Mumford, 108

[xxviii] George Kateb, Utopia and Its Enemies (London: The Free Press of Glencoe, 1963) 9.

[xxix] Lyman Tower Sargent, “Authority and Utopia: Utopianism in Political Thought,” Polity 14.4 (1982): 572,.

[xxx] Sargent, 568

[xxxi] Jacob Leib Talmon, Utopianism and Politics (London: Conservative Political Center, 1957) 6.

[xxxii] Sargent, 575

[xxxiii] Talmon, 8

[xxxiv] Amitava Ray, Political Utopianism: Some Philosophical Problems (Calcutta: Minerva Associates, 1979).

[xxxv] In this literature review, I will limit my comments to the secondary literature on utopianism rather than touching on the vast array of utopias written throughout the years.

[xxxvi] Krishan Kumar, Utopianism, ed. Frank Parkin (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991) 31.

[xxxvii] Kumar, 31

[xxxviii] Kumar, 31

[xxxix] Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s 1984 and Yvegny Zamyatin’s We define the dystopian genre.

[xl] Some later utopian writers adopted the ancient idea that human nature has some fixed qualities and built their utopias around these qualities. Primary among them is Charles Fourier who believed that there were twelve major passions. His phalanxes were an attempt to satisfy all these passions. Thus, Fourier combines the idea of fixed passions/human nature with a society which is meant to express all these passions. In this way, he is a departure from the utopias critiqued by the dystopians.

[xli] Brian Ellis, The Philosophy of Nature: A Guide to the New Essentialism (Ithaca: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002) 1.

[xlii] Ellis, 28

[xliii] Ellis, 31

[xliv] Ellis, 27

[xlv] Ellis, 27

[xlvi] For Marx, “the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations.” From Friedrich Engels Karl Marx, The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert Tucker (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc, 1972) 145.

[xlvii] Taylor and Keith, 104

[xlviii] Thomas More, Utopia (London: Everyman, 1994) 34.

[xlix] B. F. Skinner, Walden Two (New York: The McMillan Company, 1948) 243.

[l] Manent, xi

[li] Manent, 34-35

[lii] Taylor and Keith, 68

[liii] Stephen K. White, Sustaining Affirmations: The Strengths of Weak Ontology in Political Theory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000) 4.

[liv] Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground is the most explicit delineation of the dystopian emphasis on will.

[lv] Ellis, 147

[lvi] Yevgeny Zamyatin, We (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1972) 40.

[lvii] White, 8

[lviii] White, 9

[lix] Rouner, 24

[lx] Rouner, 26

 

This excerpt is from Human Nature and Politics in Utopian and Anti-Utopian Fiction (Lexington Books, 2018) with our book review here.

Nivedita Bagchi

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Nivedita Bagchi is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Millersville University. She is author of Human Nature and Politics in Utopian and Anti-Utopian Fiction (Lexington Books, 2018).