Does a Human Nature Exist?

Author: Cardinal Jean Danielou


Cardinal Jean Danielou

My intention is to show the existence of an irreducible human reality, whatever be the name with which it is designated. The word <nature> is perfectly valid; Tertullian preferred "<status>" and Pascal "<order>".

What I would like to show briefly is that the denial of human nature, in the name of culture, society or becoming, leads to such "impasses" that the concept of human nature appears today as the most evident one there can be.

The first opposition that presents itself is that of nature and culture. Such an opposition is connected with the amazing development of science in our times. Science has a theoretical aspect, but theory always leads to practice. Knowledge becomes power. Today man is becoming aware for the first time of the extension of his power. It begins with the world of inanimate matter: and the planetary adventure is its expression. The same is true of the field of society and the possibility of constructing it in a rational way. Psychology and force are used to manipulate man.

It is understandable, then, how this creates the feeling of man's unlimited possibilities. Modern man realizes that there are no cosmic and historical fatalities. What was called nature was just the expression of helplessness. Now man can act on the cosmos, on life, on society and overcome their resistance. Merely de facto situations had formerly been unduly transformed into de lure situations. The artificial, the technical and cultural now allow man to throw off constraints and to model himself according to his own will.

It is necessary to distinguish what is valid in this attitude. It is perfectly true that a false concept of nature has often been the mask of laziness and of the fear of invention. The Ancients already knew a criticism of civilization as the perverter of nature. It was contrary to nature for man to take trees away from their intended purpose and make ships of them, to dig the earth and to tear from its bowels the gold and diamonds that God had intentionally hidden there, to try to rise in the air when he was made to walk on the ground. Yet it is certain that the inequality of fortunes, the subordination of slaves, the inferior condition of woman, have sometimes been taken as the expression of natural law. And this should make us prudent.

It is perfectly legitimate, therefore, that man in taking stock of the riches of the physical and human universe should acquire a power over it. But is such a power unlimited? Is culture gradually taking the place of nature? Is man's freedom completely sovereign?

Today we are in the presence of a strange paradox. The claim of scientific methods, that is those that decipher the laws of phenomena and can thus act on them, leads today to a dangerous crisis of culture. On the pretext of reducing reality to what can be known by scientific methods, the latter empty it of its content. In fact, at the level of scientific methods there are only structures and there is no content. In this way the objective reality of the universe is contested, for in fact science does not reach it in its ontological entity. There will be denial, too, of the reality of man, reduced finally to being a mere aggregate of words.

The crisis of culture

The present crisis of culture is due mainly to the fact that, fascinated by the spectacular success of positive methods in the order of physical and natural sciences, people are trying to apply them in all other fields. Philosophy, literature, history are thus tending to become sociologies, psychologies or philologies. But if already on the plane of the physical world the reality underlying the laws eludes capture, how could that fail to happen to an even greater extent in the case of man, with his personal mystery, his inaccessible spirituality, his high dignity?

In this way the present "impasses" of technique are highlighting the crisis. Having acquired control of the laws of the universe and of life, man is asking himself what he must do. Up to the present, he had been conditioned by some constraints. Is it from his decision alone that he must now expect a solution? But on what basis should this decision itself be formulated? Are we, in the meantime, at the mercy of all arbiters?

Most likely, we run the risk of falling once more under the weight of new fatalities. For technique, the product of man's genius, can in its turn enslave him, such as nature did in the past, if man is not able to master it. And this is where the problem of an objective reality that continues to impose itself on man is raised again. It is this reality that we call nature. It is not something just given; it is a programme to be carried out. It is in this programme that culture takes on its meaning. As is written in the Constitution "Gaudium et Spes", "wherever human life is involved, nature and culture are quite intimately connected" (n. 53, 1).

If we look deeply into this negation of nature, we see that it often comes about because nature forces man to recognize a limit that is imposed on him and over which he has no power. This is not just the phenomena of an absurd world against which he could revolt. It is the intelligibility of a rational world the value of which he must recognize. But it is clear that this "intelligible" cannot but be the expression of an intelligence, that the recognition that there is a nature of things is a recognition of the transcendence on which it is based it is finally, as the old historians had already perceived, to conform to God's plan. And this is certainly why the desire for sufficiency is contrary to it. But it is precisely in this conformity that the person finds his full justification.

The social dimension

A second denial of the concept of human nature comes from its reduction to the social dimension. This is, in particular, what was expressed by Marx in his first period. The reality of man is not an abstract nature, it is the whole formed by the social relations that exist among men at a given time. It is clear that one of the characteristics of our time, alongside technical progress, is an awareness of human solidarity, which is continually growing as a result of the intensification of exchanges at all levels economic, political and cultural. The man of today realizes that the human adventure is inexorably collective, for better or for worse. Marx expressed this in a more philosophical way. There is a desire for complete identity in the individual. Every man aspires to be man. Now it is impossible for him to realize this identity in himself alone. There is at the same time the desire for universality and the impossibility of realizing this universality. Now what the individual cannot realize, society will be able to accomplish. Universality will coincide at that moment with totality. It will be the realization of this totality.

At this moment human nature becomes historical. It is the progressive realization of all man's virtualities. And it is with participation in social existence that man comes to realize his essence.

This substitution of concrete society for abstract nature can be tackled from the angle of the contradictions of free: dom. The claim of the autonomy of freedom in relation to every objective transcendence, is one of the fundamental claims of contemporary philosophy. Sartre summed it up in the words that existence precedes essence. The decision of freedom is an absolute beginning. But freedom is at the same moment referred to itself. It gives its own profit to itself. Hence the giddiness of modern man before this freedom that has no other content but the negation of all transcendence. The problem that is raised here is that of the possibility of an order in which freedom can be inscribed without destroying itself. Now, according to this philosophy, it appears that the only limit that freedom can recognize is that of another freedom. And this appears as an unquestionable: "Every licence, except against love", as Barres said.

But such an inter-subjectivity, if it goes beyond subjectivism, no longer solves the question of the universality of Marxist social existence. Both are alibis since they merely carry to the level of the collectivity or to level of the other problems that are raised at the individual level. The fact of wishing the freedom of the other and not just one's own freedom, does not confer for that reason a content upon freedom.

Sartre is right here, in a sense. The fact that the absurd is lived in society does not prevent it from being the absurd.

So both of these positions can be criticized from their premises. If Marx projects the universal on the plane of society, it is because he refuses to recognize the latter as having a transcendental reality. He presupposes the existence of a dialectic of the individual and of the universal but instead of seeing in transcendence a complementarily, he sees in it an alienation. Now, that is perfectly debatable even in terms of dialectics and marks the introduction of an arbitrary option. However, the fact of recognizing an inter-subjectivity that is not an alienation shows that the fact of receiving from another does not destroy existence, but only the appropriation of existence. And the concept of creation no longer appears as taking man away from his reality.

In this perspective it is strange to see today a sector of Christian thought impressed by the idea that to recognize a transcendental, sovereign, creating God is to accept an alienation of man. It, too, can be seen to project the absolute at the horizontal level of humanity as totality or at the level of the community as finality. This is the expression in turn of a deficiency, a metaphysical weakness, a contamination of the present philosophical atmosphere and finally of a lack of critical spirit, which appears as one of the features of a part of contemporary Catholic intelligence. By critical spirit I mean here not opposition to the real as starting from ideologies, but the confrontation of ideologies with the real.

It should be affirmed, therefore, that this universality that appears as being involved in the individual determination to seek fulfilment, cannot be reduced to concrete totality. It would merely be pulverized into a multitude of individuals, and a sum of individuals does not make a universal.

Totality any more than false pluralism could not replace truth. For there to be a universal, it is necessary that there should be an element common to all and therefore transcendental to all that which makes every man a man. It is of little importance what name is given to this reality. But it is this that the word "nature" designates traditionally. It is in the name of this reality. and because it is not at the mercy of individual wills, that a communion is possible. It, too, is the only thing that can found a moral claim to which an appeal can be made from individual wills. Society could not replace nature, since nature in the only foundation of society.

Nature and history

A last opposition—which is to a fair extent, linked with the preceding ones—is that of nature and history. Here it is the permanent character of man that is questioned. This contestation may come from human sciences. It will take on different forms. There will be sociological historicism. which sees in what we call nature only the projection at the level of conscience of the technical and economic infrastructures that are reality. And it will vary therefore, according to the evolution of its conditionings. What we call nature is nothing but a state of fact corresponding to a certain moment of civilization. The philosopher's concept of nature is according to this theory the expression of the determination to refuse recognition to the existing state of things.

The structuralist conception is very different. It will stress not so much evolution as the radical heterogeneity of the types of civilization in relation to one another. It is a far more static vision, which recalls Spengler's cycles. But here too the reference to a human nature is utterly contested. There is nothing but equilibria that are constituted at a given time and place and which are reflected in the language. But each of these syntheses constitutes a totality that is sufficient unto itself. It is this totality, this structure that will be considered by the society reflected in it as nature, but this nature will not have any universal character. It is made up only of the conventions that a society adopts in order to be able to exist.

Historicity in the Heideggerian—and Bultmanian—sense of the word takes us in a quite different direction. Here there is, on the contrary, an ontology. But the experience of being is historical in the sense that it is completely inaccessible and devoid of intelligibility except in the meaning that each one gives to it.

There will not be any criterion of objective truth, therefore, but a hermeneutics that creates meaning. At the exegetical level, existence according to Christ, which is the whole content of the word of God, will have to be perpetually reinterpreted in terms of new existential situations. But the determinations are always on the side of the spirit and not on the side of reality.

As regards the thesis of the transformation of human nature according to the evolution of technical and economic structures, we find here again the ambiguities we pointed out at the beginning, in an even more marked form. What in fact changes are the instruments at man's disposal.

He is situated in events which are modified. But that does not concern human reality in its fundamental characteristics, in its qualitative aspect. It is just stupid to say that modern man is more intelligent than Plato, of greater genius than Dante, more saintly than Augustine. What distinguishes men of various ages is incidental, what makes their unity is the essential. Nature means the permanence of. man's fundamental characteristics.

The thesis of the heterogeneity of cultures is particularly open to contestation. What is essential here, moral consciousness, metaphysical knowledge. personal dignity is common to men of all times and all races. And this universality is the foundation of brotherhood. Von Hildebrand has recently attacked the thesis frequently put forward today that there is a fundamental difference between biblical anthropology and Hellenistic anthropology-a thesis which is based on the premise that Hellenization perverted the authenticity of the biblical conception of man. Even at the purely natural level, there is no heterogeneity in what regards the fundamental realities of the immortality of the soul, and its relationship with God. And Revelation remains the same whether expressed in Semitic categories or in Hellenistic categories.

As for the thesis of man's historicity, ii implies first of all an idealistic theory of knowledge, according to which determinations are the expression of an act of the spirit, not of the reality of things. If it is true that, reality has always an inexhaustible character which no concept could express exhaustively, it is no less true that what the spirit affirms expresses something true or false about reality and that it is precisely reference to the real that makes discernment possible. Otherwise we should be prisoners in a world of pure subjectivism, in which all dialogue would be impossible, all progress suppressed. What interests me in a philosophy is not what the author teaches me, but what the philosophy itself teaches me about reality.

Furthermore, the conception of man's historicity rests on a confusion between the permanence of reality and the progress of knowledge. It is not the world of astronomy that has changed from Ptolomy to Copernicus, but our knowledge of it.

There has been no change in man from Plato to Heidegger, it is our knowledge of him that should have advanced. It is not the reality of the resurrection of Christ's physical body that is changed. The progress of dogma is the progressive explication of the implications of something that is given once and for all. Now for Bultmanian hermeneutics, it is reality itself that changes with language. This is contrary to any serious scientific attitude.

This does not mean at all that temporality is not a constituent part of everything that is created. Gregory of Nyssa, after Irenaeus, had already pointed out that what characterizes being is that it is a movement from nothingness to being and that temporality always remains a constitutive part of it.

It is the passing from being to more being. But this temporality, this development, is at play within each order, each nature. Evolution in the world of matter is one thing, quite another is the transformation by man of his conditions of existence, amid the growth of supernatural knowledge in luminous darkness. Here the conception of nature reaches the conception of order. It does not at all imply the fixity that some people would like to make it express. But it signifies that authentic progress consists in becoming what one is.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
1 October 1, 1970

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