In the article, Novus Ordo Seclorum, a reference to our nation’s motto that appears on the Great Seal of the United States, I described the “new order” of society with its recognition of individual human rights as being rooted in the nature of human beings as individual thinking entities.
But it’s important to point out that the “old order,” which denies our individual rights, or at least puts them subject and subservient to the power of a hierarchical command structure, is also rooted in our human nature. Just look at our history. Much of it is barbaric, with aggressive tribal or imperial leaders riding at the head of vast armies, conquering neighboring territories and even nearly entire continents and then ruling them with an iron fist.
This is natural. We can see that it is perfectly consistent with the activities of our closest cousins in the animal kingdom, the chimpanzees. We even use the military term “troop” to describe them as they act in their groups.
Humans are social animals. And humans are (relatively) intelligent. And these two things together require that humans naturally organize themselves into collective societies. We do our best and most impressive work when we organize ourselves into cooperative groups. In the wild, the relatively physically weak human species becomes the most dominant apex predator that the world has ever seen when we work together, share our ideas and plans, and coordinate our attacks on our prey. Or upon other groups of humans. We grew up over the past tens of thousands of years with organization, dominance, and aggression being a primary requirement for our survival.
The most primitive form of organization flows from the principle of “might makes right.” This is because it is the easiest form to create and maintain. So it is very natural to us.
And so, because of all of the above, some people claim that humanity is inherently, fundamentally barbaric. Some religious teachers, using certain plain text extracted from their scriptures, even claim that mankind is fundamentally “evil” and that we have no good in us at all. (See the article on The Root of All Evil for a commentary on this idea.) And, looking at selections from our history, we see that this can be an easy conclusion to come to.
But it is wrong.
Or, rather, it is incomplete.
And others who claim that humanity is “inherently good” are also wrong if that is their sole conclusion about our nature.
Humanity is multifaceted. We have what we might call higher and lower aspects. We have a savage, brutal, animal nature. And we also have a nature that has the potential for greater love, compassion, wisdom, understanding, and courage than any of our animal cousins. And many of us have the capacity to tap into and exercise a great range of potentials between these two extremes.
We are able to learn. But social evolution takes time.
And just because we can look objectively at ourselves, our past actions and our nature, and derive an increasingly better idea of what we should recognize as being correct in terms of our morality and our recognition of rights of human beings in our society does not mean that such recognition is completely obvious to us at first glance.
We have undoubtedly made progress over the millennia. Most of us no longer consider going to the Coliseum to watch Christians get eaten by lions to be an appropriate form of entertainment. And the nations of Japan and Germany seem to have learned more quickly to build a more peaceful, compassionate, and constructive society after their attempted wars of conquest than the ancient Romans, Huns, and Mongols did in their time. But the fact that the World Wars and other struggles of the past century happened at all, combined with the methods of conquest and expansion by the countries of Europe and the United States in the previous century, clearly indicates that we are still slow learners in our lessons of the centuries.
And, I think, even aside from the subject of violent conflict, too many of us continue to look to a powerful hierarchical command structure to be a central authority in our society and to be the maker of the solutions to our problems.
The old order of hierarchical command in our social structures and the violence that has often gone along with it is obviously still in our natures.
It’s easy for society to lapse back into the old order of our old ways.
But we claim in the founding documents of our nation that the rights of individual freedoms is the precious goal for which we are striving.
The formal structures in our society should work to facilitate each individual among us in expressing his or her own creative potential. It is not the job of an authoritarian government to be the architect and director of the resolution of all of our difficulties in life.
And so, we should be careful in giving our government too much authority over our lives at home in our own nation, just as we should limit its propensity to intervene violently in the affairs of other nations.