The Blessed Human Race
To Piers Lewis
Cynicism is the theory that all human motivation is selfish. We lock our doors because we believe humanity is bad; we ask strangers for directions, which we follow, because we believe humanity is good. Even cynics are not afraid to request and accept directions.
Despite the fact that our society values kindness and admires selfless people, there is a current of popular cynicism that is reflected by such underground proverbs as "Never give a sucker an even break," or "No good deed goes unpunished," or even "The good die young." Half the collective ethos of our culture tells us to be good; the other half warns us that the good are exploited.
A belief in the natural badness of human beings has religious implications. If human nature is evil, human institutions cannot be any good either; humanity cannot save itself. Indeed, a poetic way to express cynicism is to say that man is born in original sin. Thus, cynicism is frequently linked with the idea of faith. Some religions teach that the reason to believe in God and to act morally is to achieve salvation. What is more cynical than being good solely because you want to be saved and not damned? Thus do faith and cynicism go hand in hand. A religion that looks upon morality as a question of reward and punishment not only reflects cynicism but teaches it as well.
Goodness, if practiced merely for the sake of reward, is not goodness at all but merely obedience. Reducing the very idea of morality to reward and punishment implies that ethical rules are arbitrary and incomprehensible in human terms.
Cynicism ignores and obscures the fact that the greatness of humanity lies in the heroism of the ordinary. In our everyday lives we rear our children and care for our parents, help out our neighbors and make major efforts for our friends, are courteous to strangers and careful about our surroundings. We do these things not because we expect to be rewarded but because we are good. When we don't act as we should, it is because we are too tired, too frightened, too pressed - because life is too hard.
The opposite of cynicism is politics, which reflects faith in human institutions. Politics is the legal acceptance of the necessity of both selfishness and altruism. In the long run they work together to insure human survival; in the short run they conflict with each other. That is why we need checks and balances. James Madison and the other authors of the Constitution were not being inconsistent when they gave power to the people and simultaneously guarded against the tyranny of the majority. Checks and balances, and the rule of law in general, recognize that the contradictions between individual and public needs are reconcilable. Indeed, this reconciliation is the purpose of law and government. That is why all societies have laws. Man everywhere is a political animal.
Philosophies that are based on the ultimate redemption of man in the next world - either in Heaven or after the Revolution - assume that the existing state of humanity is wicked and so have no choice but to deny the goodness of the ordinary. They also contain within themselves the mirror image of cynicism - the belief that those who have seen the light are capable of total goodness. This is quite logical; a belief in pure badness is the same as a belief in pure goodness - only with a minus sign in front of it. If human institutions have no value, neither do human goals. For cynics, therefore, goodness is identified with selflessness to the point of sacrifice.
Sacrifice and self-denial are considered virtues by Marxism and Christianity. In Christianity, suffering is redemptive; Jesus is the Lamb of God whose suffering takes away the sin of the world. The pain of ordinary mortals is redemptive as well; it is punishment here on earth for sins that will not have to be paid for again in the world to come. Marx, an atheist, could not very well speak about redemption, but Marxist societies extol sacrifice and confuse normal self-interest with bourgeois acquisitiveness.
Faith in human institutions, on the other hand, finds redemption in law - in accepting the goodness of human nature and the creativity of disagreement. Those who recognize that the tension between the individual and the group is normal can then work to redirect its energies in order to minimize conflict and injustice. A system of checks and balances is the legal realization of the recognition that the conflict between selfishness and altruism will never end. Marx and Jesus had no interest in checks and balances. Law was impotent in the evil world of today; it would become irrelevant and vanish in the perfect world of tomorrow.
If people are good, why is there so much violence and cruelty? One of the reasons is that human altruism is most frequently realized through nationalism, religion and causes. One gets swept up in an issue which seems to embody the good; therefore, one does bad for the sake of doing good. The Khmer Rouge no doubt felt very virtuous. Unmixed altruism is even more dangerous than unmixed selfishness. Another reason for evil is fear, particularly fear of strangers and foreign customs. It is natural to dislike the ways of others - that is part of the instinct to adhere to the values of society. Foreignness looks very much like lawlessness to those who do not understand the vastness of the variety of human culture. The answer to xenophobia is politics - balancing the rights of those who fear the strange and those who are the strange.
We human beings have neither fangs, claws nor armor. We cannot run very fast. To protect ourselves, we have formed small groups, like families, and larger groups, like clans, tribes and nations. We identify according to profession, age, sex, faith, politics, taste, etc. Our groups may be included within others, may intersect or may overlap. They are often in conflict with each other, just as individual needs are often in conflict with social needs. But these disagreements can be muted, controlled and redirected in a legal system that recognizes the inevitability of disagreement.
Prejudice is perhaps a logical consequence of division into groups: bonding among insiders has as its corollary suspicion of outsiders. The only societies that have not known racism are those that have not known about other races. Religious disagreements and national hostilities are so widespread that they seem to be inherent in the human experience. War has existed throughout history and in all parts of the world.
The establishment of the League of Nations and the United Nations is evidence that war is not considered inevitable. The League failed and the U.N. has not been especially successful, but the wars since 1945 have not been global, perhaps because of the existence of nuclear weapons. We still don't know whether the optimism reflected by the world's continued willingness to support the U.N. is justified. Nor do we know whether racism can be eliminated. The United States has outlawed segregated schools and has integrated public accommodations, but racial tensions remain. To the extent that a society seeks legal solutions to the problem of prejudice, it has rejected cynicism. Similarly, a world that attempts arms control and maintains peace-keeping forces in troubled areas is not an entirely cynical world. Politics may eventually be extended to control warfare among nations as it now does within nations.
The Old Testament is very much about politics; it is the story of the establishment of human institutions in a particular time and place. The beginning of law is the development of the distinction between what is legal and what is illegal. This in turn presupposes the knowledge of what is good and evil.
Humanity separated itself from the rest of nature by discovering the idea of morality. This story is told figuratively in Genesis. Adam and Eve, like the birds and the bees, lived in innocence because they knew nothing else. They could no more be evil than a carnivorous animal or a deadly virus can be. By eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, they entered a new stage of awareness that would inevitably lead to the building of social structures. They could take control of their fate rather than being the passive victims of the elements. In the words of the serpent, "and ye shall be as gods, knowing good from evil" (Gen. 3:5).
Adam and Eve paid the price inherent in civilization: alienated labor. "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread" (Gen. 3:19). Social organization also led to communal memory, longer than individual recollection. Therefore every human being learned that mortality was universal, that no individual could escape it, which was the fulfillment of God's warning to Adam about the forbidden fruit, "For in the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die" (Gen. 2:17).
This beautiful story has been misinterpreted and trivialized. To say that humanity is wicked because of an act of disobedience by Adam and Eve is to deny the complexity of society and law, to lose sight of the fact that knowledge of evil is necessary in order to achieve justice, to forget that society - a prerequisite for both survival and civilization - is a human creation, to reject the view that law is a gift from heaven.
Mark Twain, in his essay, "The Damned Human Race," condemns Christianity and all religions for intolerance: "Man is the Religious Animal. . . . He is the only animal that has the True Religion - several of them. He is the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself, and cuts his throat if his theology isn't straight." Yet he accepts a traditional Christian reading of the doctrine of Original Sin: "What now, do we find the primal Curse to have been? Plainly what it was in the beginning: the infliction upon man of the Moral Sense: the ability to distinguish good from evil; and with it, necessarily, the ability to do evil; for there can be no evil act without the presence of consciousness of it in the doer of it."
Mark Twain comes very close to understanding why the human race is blessed and not damned. What is missing from his analysis is law and politics, the recognition of the legitimacy of disagreement. Yes, the knowledge of evil creates evil in a world without law, rights and debate. This same knowledge defeats evil when combined with science, which is another word for acknowledging the possibility that one may be wrong.
Deng Xiaoping, in 1985, was admired and respected all over the world, just as Mikhail Gorbachev was in 1990. Deng and Gorbachev spoke about prosperity and practicality. They seemed to have lost faith in Marxist dogma. However, when the theocracies they ruled were threatened with real opposition, they showed themselves quite capable of human sacrifice. Unlike Abraham, Deng was not only able, but apparently even eager to sacrifice his children on June 4, 1989.
Totalitarianism is a 20th-century phenomenon, but it is nevertheless a rejection of modernity. Totalitarian ideologies look back to an ideal time they claim existed in the past - a time of racial purity for the Nazis and of primitive communism for Marxists, a time when strife did not exist. The goal of such ideologies is the retention of contemporary technology but the rejection of all the other discordant features - questioning, variety, creativity - of modern life. The weakening of Marxist thinking now taking place all over the world is evidence of a reconciliation with science and freedom.
Although the Old Testament antedates both science and freedom, it recognizes the fact that time is linear. Events matter and change the course of history. History cannot be undone; the Garden of Eden is neither possible nor desirable; Adam and Eve's choices made us what we are.
The May 4th Movement, which was active in China in 1919, chose "Science and Democracy" as its slogan. A brilliant choice! Democracy and science are inseparable; both are reflections of modesty, of the fact that we need to look and listen and measure. Perhaps science and democracy are different sides of a single phenomenon: searching. Both, through exploration and debate, reject cynicism and make politics possible. Science is the enemy of the grotesque superstition that had been persecuting China since Liberation. The Democracy Movement demanded science as well as freedom and democracy. The Movement understood these three things are inseparable. That is where its strength came from. "Science and Democracy" is a Chinese slogan. It dates back to the May 4th Movement of 1919. Ironically, there is a May 4th Street in many Chinese cities, and May 4th is celebrated as a holiday, called "Students' Day."
The scientific method - questioning, testing, measuring, drawing conclusions, and reconsidering them in the light of fresh evidence - is precisely what we mean by free speech. The Beijing Spring Movement of 1989 is a logical consequence of the May 4th Movement of 1919. Science and democracy are the gifts of the blessed human race. Democracy is the political realization of the scientific method.
A Hebrew version of this article appeared in Nativ, Volume 4, Number 3, May 1991. An English version appeared In Midstream, Volume XXXXVIII, Number 7, November/December 2002.