I’m currently in the process of compiling a portfolio for my fictional works. While reading older pieces and writing new pieces, I’ve taken notice that all of my work is essentially philosophical. All of my fiction expresses in some way aspects of human nature. I ultimately realized that I’ve never personally attempted to define what it means to be human. Human nature has been the subject of movies, books, and songs. Definitions of human nature have been used as justification for terrible atrocities, like the Holocaust and other mass genocides. But the definition is not relative, but rather an absolute truth. With consultation from my former Philosophy professor, I researched the topic and put together an analysis of human nature.
Viktor Frankl in his memoir, A Man’s Search for Meaning, states, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” To Frankl, the ability to choose is integral to human nature. In All Art Is Propaganda, George Orwell said, “On the whole, human beings want to be good, but not too good, and not quite all the time.” Again, the ability to choose is implied here by Orwell, but humans are also choosing from something. Abraham Lincoln also tackled this idea of humanity. In his speech following the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, Lincoln points out how human nature is inherent when he said:
“Repeal the Missouri Compromise – repeal all compromises – repeal the Declaration of Independence – repeal all past history, you still cannot repeal human nature. It will be the abundance of man’s heart that slavery extension is wrong; and out of the abundance of his heart, his mouth will continue to speak.”
So where does this put the definition of human nature?
This characteristic of human nature shows the line of connection between the problem of evil and the nature of humanity. This particular connection just happens to be our free will. Free will is ultimately the driving force behind all actions and performances. Free will is the characteristic that sets humans apart from all other living creatures. More specifically, free will is the innate human ability to choose against our own instinct. We can pause and reflect on what our gut-instinct is telling us, but then on the contrary choose to ignore it. A tree cannot do that. A dog cannot do that. The only way a tree or a dog can change is through an interference by an outside force.
But why do humans choose to act against their instincts? There is something about human nature more than just free will. Free will may be the foundation of human nature. However, there is a reason that humans will choose to act against their animalistic instincts. There are men and women who have chosen death over survival. Why? There are people that have chosen to suffer through horrors when they could have chosen an easy death. Why? Friedrich Nietzsche said, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” So what is the why?
Viktor Frankl said of someone who was completely blind to the plight of those in concentration camps that, “Little does he know of the hard fight for existence which raged among the prisoners.” Even though the prisoners of concentration camps faced almost certain death, they kept fighting. They did not run to the fences so they could be shot. Something was keeping these people alive. What was it?
I think Frankl precisely defines the reasons humans don’t give into their instincts and capitulate. Viktor Frankl sums up the first reason when he states, “What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal.” Frankl had his original draft of A Man’s Search for Meaning taken away. He had to restart by writing on scraps of paper he was able to hide in the camp. The goal of finishing his book kept his hope alive.
The second reason Frankl gave was one of a more benevolent sort: helping others. For Frankl, there was something about being there for others that gave him hope. He said, “The more one forgets himself—by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.” According to Frankl, the only way one could know themselves was after they discovered “self-transcendence.”
Viktor Frankl is not the only one to understand these concepts. These characteristics of human nature seem to transcend time and place, showing up throughout history. If we look to our Founding Fathers, we see a group of men that essentially gave their lives when signing the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration concluded by saying, “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” These men were willing to lose everything. They were wiling to face the might of British army, and they were willing to die. For what? The preamble of the Declaration lays out the principles behind their decision. It is stated, “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” and, “they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”. The Founding Fathers were not fighting for themselves, but instead fighting for something beyond themselves. The principles they fought for existed before them, and they continue to exist today, without them.
These same principles and the recognition of the absolute truths of human nature were repeated less than a century later by Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln said in his famous address, “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work.” What is this so-called “work”? It appears as if “work” refers to the same principles that were enumerated earlier by the Founding Fathers. Lincoln begins by reverting back to our founding era when he says, “our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty.” He then goes on to elicit that the country is “engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated.” Lincoln is not the end of line when it comes to echoing the same sentiments that were omnipresent during our founding era. On July 4, 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta about the Declaration. He called the preamble a dream of “an amazing universalism.”
Outside of politics, other people have echoed similar sentiments. Christopher McCandless, who appeared in the novel Into the Wild, scrawled a phrase on a page in his copy of Doctor Zhivago right before he died. McCandless wrote, “HAPPINESS ONLY REAL WHEN SHARED.” This phrase is awfully similar to a line in the Pasternak novel which McCandless had, which says, “that an unshared happiness is not happiness.” George Orwell also stated something similar. In his essay, “Raffles and Miss Blandish”, Orwell wrote, “Men can only be happy when they do not assume that the object of life is happiness.”
There appears to exist a common thread throughout all the people I examined and the statements they made. That thread seems to concern the idea that every single one of the aforementioned people faced insurmountable barriers. And in the case of most of these people, the specific insurmountable barrier was their inevitable deaths. The Founding Fathers knew that if they were caught, they would be killed almost immediately. Lincoln and MLK were assassinated by political opponents, knowing that their political maneuvers would be disliked, and potentially hated, by many. Viktor Frankl could have died at any moment of any day while in the concentration camp. Orwell lived in England which was still facing the evil of the Third Reich. And McCandless was on the verge of death. What these historical scenarios reveal to us is that if we as humans simply hold onto hope and look beyond ourselves, we can find a thing greater than ourselves.