March 11th, 2020

Is there a positive representation of humanity?

I recently looked through Robert Greene's recent (2018) book The Laws of Human Nature, and I have to say, the overall impression which Greene gives of human nature is even more negative than what I was expecting. Certainly, we know that human beings have a lot of negative aspects to them, but when portraying human nature, people usually balance out the negative traits by pointing out that human beings have some good in them as well. Yet whether intentionally or not, The Laws of Human Nature proceeds as if everything you could ever discover about human beings is simply more selfishness and thoughtlessness: The book has chapters like "The Law of Irrationality", "The Law of Narcissism", "The Law of Covetousness", "The Law of Shortsightedness", "The Law of Aimlessness", "The Law of Aggression", and even "The Law of Gender Rigidity" (which, in our gender-bending times, is seen by some as the worst human trait of all). There isn't a single really noble or admirable trait listed among the book's chapter titles; at best, some of the chapters like "The Law of Role-Playing" and "The Law of Conformity" could be seen as neutral (role-playing and conformity aren't necessarily bad, I suppose), but there's nothing to admire about the book's representation of human nature and how it works.

Of course, Robert Greene is just one human being, and the book represents his own perspective of humanity, which isn't necessarily a perfectly accurate perception. Then too, the book is written with a particular mindset or agenda in mind: The book isn't really so much about understanding human nature as it is about manipulating people. To be sure, the book can be read in a neutral and academic way, but Greene, whose previous books include The Art of Seduction, The 33 Strategies of War, and probably most famously The 48 Laws of Power, isn't just writing for curious people who'd like to understand other people better for understanding's sake; he's writing primarily to an audience that wants to learn how to manipulate other people for selfish motivations. The question on Greene's target reader's mind is not "How can I better understand other people's irrationality?" but rather "How can I exploit other people's irrationality to get what I want from them?"

In all truth, I must admit, when I thought about it, that I picked up the book for the same reason. After all, I also want to understand people so that I can get what I want from them. What I want from human beings is for them to behave less stupidly. Even if I am not manipulating people for classically selfish purposes like money and sex, it is true that I want something from humanity and thus try to understand humans better so that I can bring about the more thoughtful, less impulsive, more quiet, less riotous lifestyle I would like them to live. In this sense, I'm not objectively any "better" than people who might read Greene's book for the sake of conning money out of people or seducing them. I, too, am full of negative traits: I demand thoughtfulness from people, and am sneaky and manipulative to the point that I might try to exploit people's nature to get them to behave this way.

When I thought about these things, I couldn't help but ask myself: Is there a positive representation of humanity? Is there anything at all in the sick and scheming masses of human beings that is admirable, laudable, and worthy of taking an example from? Or am I simply being too cynical, interpreting everything negatively when these traits could just as easily be interpreted positively? After all, is it really so bad to be irrational? Yes, there is no logical, mathematical reason why hugging a kitten or a puppy should be a good thing, but if it makes people happy, is it really so evil to do so? You could go through the list of human traits listed by Greene, and--just as Ayn Rand famously wrote about selfishness as a virtue--cast them in a positive light. Narcissism? Well, is it really so bad to love yourself? Covetousness? Well, is it really so bad to want something?

For years, I cherished intellectualism, the careful study of philosophy, psychology, history, literature, et al., and while I still regard this pursuit as perhaps the most noble of humanity because it brings the most benefit to humanity, doesn't infringe on other people's lives, and produces no waste, it has its limits. I have already read and learned so much in my life that I can't remember everything that I've learned; I will inevitably forget most of what I've learned and most of what I will learn. At this point, for me at least, trying to read more is like trying to pile more stories onto a long-collapsed tower; at some point, you reach the point where you're not really getting anywhere with it anymore.

From the perspective of human existence, I suppose humanity can hardly be blamed for its negative qualities. All of us were forced into life: The decision of our birth was not made by us and no one even asked us whether we wanted to be born. All human beings were forced into this world without their consent or even knowledge, and there is no apparent reason for them to be here at all. There is no goal to strive for, no direction to move toward, nothing but existence in a world that usually doesn't seem to care about us, and when it does, only cares to the extent that it can take something from us. We are not required or even motivated to do anything good or meaningful, and the only thing we're really required to do is to survive, or else we die. When you consider a human race of people under those circumstances, it's hardly surprising that they exhibit negative traits. If you start something without a plan, without a goal, then you shouldn't be surprised when it goes nowhere and self-destructs suddenly.

I think there is a need for humanity to discover real positive traits about itself. If we have any reason to be alive at all, we need to develop ourselves in such a way that we can live according to what is good and meaningful. I do think that there is something good--or at least the potential for something good--in humanity, but it doesn't emerge without some thought and effort. If we are ever going to be something good, we need to develop ourselves, and encourage other people to do the same... even though that does mean manipulating them into it.