This article was last modified on January 25, 2010.

On Human Nature and Enlightenment

“Poor human nature, what horrible crimes have been committed in thy name! Every fool, from king to policeman, from the flathead parson to the visionless dabbler in science, presume to speak authoritatively of human nature. The greater the mental charlatan, the more definite his insistence on the wickedness and weaknesses of human nature. Yet how can any one speak of it today, with every soul a prison, with every heart fettered, wounded, and maimed?” – Emma Goldman

I was asked to write an essay on “the nature of humanity… what makes us flawed and what you believe leads us to ‘enlightenment’ in however you define it”. The following will attempt to cover these topics, though I make no effort to say this is the last word or even a complete collection of my thoughts.

What Is Human Nature?

The idea of “human nature” is that there is a certain normal, natural way for humans to be. Many have said such a thing exists and another group have basically argued that our nature is to defy nature. Darwin, for example, did not think there was any one group of characteristics that define “human nature”, and that man was capable of adapting over time given different environments (he felt the same about other animals, too).

There used to be much debate about what man would be like in a “state of nature”. Some, like Hobbes, thought man left to his own devices would be constantly at war with his fellow man. Without laws, the natural state is competition and chaos. Hobbes follows Machiavelli’s view of human nature, who describes it as “basically immoral” and “suggests that it is realistic, indeed only human, that you should behave that way too.” [Zinn: 11]

Others saw a primitive communism, and believed mankind only became competitive when scarcity of goods arose, since there is no need to fight if we are all living comfortably. Conflict came from necessity, which came from human population outpacing the availability of goods.

If humans have a certain nature, it is probably along the lines of Darwin’s belief. They strive to survive, and as situations change, so do humans. Much of this has been turned into tradition, whether for better or worse. What one person sees as human nature, another may not see… and a constant assessment of values should be considered, as what has come to be “common sense” may be resting on foolish reasons.

Richard Dawkins, following in the tradition of Darwin, realizes that humans are genetic creatures like any other living thing and are inherently prone to selfishness at the most basic level as an instinct to survive. He warns that “we must teach our children altruism, for we cannot expect it to be part of their biological nature.” [Dawkins: 139] He presents the idea that possibly “another unique quality of man is a capacity for genuine, disinterested, true altruism.” [Dawkins: 200] And that is the beauty of humanity: that we are able to perceive error in our so-called nature and correct it. We are also capable of seeing peace and making things more troublesome, but history tends to show that we are gradually approaching levels of increased calm. We are more than our basic biology in this way: we have it in our moral nature to override our instincts.

Why Are We Flawed?

When asking “why are we flawed”, there is the assumption in here that the answer to “are we flawed” must be a yes. But, are we flawed? What is a flaw?

A flaw is synonymous with a defect or an imperfection. By assuming mankind is flawed or imperfect, there is the underlying assumption that there is some way, whether reachable or not, that mankind could be perfect. This seems to be an error.

Outside of such theories as Plato’s Forms, the thought that an “ideal” man exists seems absurd. Yes, we are able to recognize problems and fix them, and this “fix” makes someone “closer to perfect”, but it would be quite a feat to identify what characteristics would fit a “perfect man”.

Is a person who acquires cancer a flawed person? Perhaps. On one hand, they are no less of a person than someone without cancer, but on the other their abilities may be depleted and the person with cancer clearly is not as capable as a “normal” man is his physical abilities. But isn’t this only a matter of degree? If a person with lung cancer has flawed lungs, and a man without lung cancer does not… what would happen if a third man comes along and has superior lung capacity? Does this make the second man flawed in comparison?

Unless there is an identifiable goal for perfection, it would be hard to say that mankind is flawed. If anything, they are beyond the concept of flaws because they have the ability to overcome physical, mental or moral failings and improve themselves. The ability to improve does not hint at a flaw, but rather at a gift.

What Is Enlightenment?

Traditionally, “enlightenment” has probably been associated with Eastern philosophy, particularly Buddhism. But there was also an “Age of Enlightenment”, so the term is not exclusively Asian.

In short, let us define “enlightenment” as moving from a lower to a higher stage in life, either with the spirit or the mind.

How Is Enlightenment Achieved?

How enlightenment is achieved is probably one of the most difficult questions to answer. For many people, the answer will not be spiritual or religious, and may not be in accord with Eastern philosophy. Europe and America are largely secular cultures and the idea of “enlightenment” may be difficult to entertain here, but I think it is still quite possible, even without any sense of spirit or faith.

Enlightenment can be understood in our culture as two-fold: a purity of the body and a strengthening of the mind, in accordance with our surroundings. Whether we choose to call it “harmony” or not, the highest goal for a person seeking enlightenment should be the union of self with their world. The phrase “go with the flow” may apply here, though not in the typical sense. Rather than simply following the course of the world, we must find our own course. By going where our life takes us, rather than struggling against it, we will be more calm, at peace and generally happy. We must “become what we are”.

Growth can be found everywhere in any situation, even those that appear counterproductive. But the ideal situation is to recognize what is counterproductive and reduce it. An improved diet and exercise regimen are important, as they not only improve the health of the body, but reflect on our sense of well-being, our self-esteem and our mental health. These things are great aids to achieving our goals and our sense of place in the world. Likewise, education is crucial to the end goal. No uniform education exists for everyone. While I personally find philosophy a great way to expand our awareness of the world and improve our critical thinking, it is not an end-all for everyone.

Well-roundedness is key. I am not a great mechanic and never will be, for example, but it would be to my benefit to have a basic understanding of automobiles. Oil changes, for example, or how to test air pressure. Likewise, I am not fluent in any tongue besides English, but I have a general understanding of Spanish, German and Latin. For all practical purposes, this is all I need unless I plan to travel or read foreign books. But the basics of language and word origins helps in understanding concepts beyond simple comprehension. Most English words are cognates to Latin, Greek or German, or can be broken into Latin and Greek prefixes and suffixes. A full education in English is aided by the understanding of related languages. (Mandarin Chinese, on the other hand, while the most spoken language on Earth, has little practical value for one’s growth outside of China.)

View yourself as a high peak in a mountain range, with your peak being your natural strength. You want hat peak to be the highest it can possibly be, whether that be in philosophy, psychology, biology or whatever your field happens to be (auto mechanics?). But it would be absurd to have that peak and no other mountains. If we were one peak, a foot across, we could be toppled by the slightest gust of wind. We want to be not only tall, but wide, and be surrounded by other mountains. Mayhaps the tall peak is philosophy and lesser peaks are chemistry and sociology. And we want as many peaks as we can — why be the Grand Tetons when you can be the Rocky Mountains?

Returning again to the idea of human nature, we must be aware that we are psychological as well as purely physical creatures, and our needs are more than food and shelter. American psychologist Abraham H. Maslow posited that mankind has a hierarchy of needs, with a “full” human potential being realized only upon climbing the hierarchy.

Peter Singer sums up Maslow nicely when he says “human beings have a need for self-actualisation that involves growing towards courage, kindness, knowledge, love, honesty, and unselfishness. When we fulfill this need, we feel serene, joyful, filled with zest, sometimes euphoric, and generally happy. When we act contrary to our need for self-actualisation, we experience anxiety, despair, boredom, shame, emptiness and are generally unable to enjoy ourselves.” [Singer: 327-328]

If Maslow was right, and I believe he was, enlightenment is not only a good choice, but a necessary one for our emotional, mental and perhaps spiritual well-being.


[will add this in the revision]


Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press, 2006.

Singer, Peter. Practical Ethics, Second Edition. Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Zinn, Howard. Declarations of Independence: Cross-Examining American Ideology. HarperPerrenial, 1991.

Also try another article under Philosophical
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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