Human Nature Essay, English Composition Writing on Human Nature
Human nature is one of the most thoroughly studied topics in human history. Even today the battle rages over human nature and how it is influenced by upbringing, society, and the context surrounding our lives. In our era, this argument takes place in many disciplines and many areas of study, from the labs of the psychologists to the political arenas and philosopher’s papers. In one book, published at the turn of the century, we are able to see a glimpse of this battle, a subliminal and subtle argument about the existence of human nature. Living in a time of colonial and imperial expansions and the racism accompanying them, Conrad uses his literature as a criticism of the times and the injustices he saw on a daily basis and during his own trip up the Congo.
The time period of Conrad’s life, and the context it was written in, had a large influence on personal views of Conrad and contributed to his writing. As a political commentary, the African theme in the Heart of Darkness was common at the time of its release. Indeed, the world was in a “scramble for Africa” (Coffin, pg. 862) at the time, and was gobbling up every chunk of land it could find. Every industrialized nation was trying to get its hands on as much African land as possible, in a “whole new scale of plunder” (Coffin, pg 865). Writing this book right in the midst of all the highest points of colonialism and imperial expansion, Conrad was aware of these events going on, and the fascination with that dark-skinned other; “the African”.
Well, The Heart of Darkness has been lambasted time and again for its use of racism and the way Conrad has portrayed Africa and Africans as a foil for Europe and colonialism. Chinua Achebe, in his critical essay of the Heart of Darkness, says as much, wondering aloud why Conrad picked Africa to contrast Europe, which was then considered the “civilized” or reasonable part of the earth. As part of a larger context in the Heart of Darkness this is a valid yet moot point. In order to point out the social problems and their meanings to our concept of human nature, Conrad, whether or not he “had a problem with niggers” (Achebe, Pg. 345), had to contrast Europeans against another group of people to prove a point. Whether he had used Southeast Asia, Madagascar, or any other place in the world affected by colonialism and the blatant contradictions of those encounters, there would have been racist words and implications against those respective peoples. The point that Achebe brings up, that this book contains racist views or Africans, is an important one, but in fact what we should remember, and perhaps that Conrad points out, is that colonialism and these interactions between the West and the rest of the world at this time were inherently racist in every context and in every location. At its core, however, this is not a story about racism. Instead, the underlying theme is that civilization is merely superficial. Once taken away from the external physical and moral environments, human nature is quick to return to its primal roots.
The suggestion that we have rationally grown away from some parts of our human nature has been greatly supported by Freudian work. The suggestion that we are at the mercies or our Id and our Superego, which are only kept in check by the conscious and rational thought of society, is the main idea in the Heart of Darkness. To prove this point, Conrad continuously gives the “civilized” characters of the book, who travel into the unknown, actions and feelings that we should think are unbecoming of them. It even extends beyond the immediate story of Europeans in the Congo to the Romans who feel the “powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate” (Conrad, Pg. 20) of their own explorations of a “dark place”: early Britain. The same goes for the European people who were sent with an altruistic purpose. Somewhere, we must think, something got lost in the translation from altruistic purpose to slave holder and exploiter. The author begins these human deteriorations with Marlow’s predecessor, who, though the “gentlest, quietest creature” (Conrad, Pg. 23) ended up beating on an old native because of a sale of hens. Why then would a man who is sent on a noble civilizing mission then snap? The same goes for one of the first white men Marlow meets, who was resisting “the great demoralization of the land”. At this point we start to wonder, what is it about this place, so far from an industrial Europe, that he must use his starched collars to face? This is where we are introduced to Kurtz. As a character he is introduced to us as a manifestation of all the great things Europe set out to do in Africa. He is a focus point of the quest to find human nature, because though he was the man that wanted to make his station the beacon on the hill, he is also the farthest point into the interior, and is the most isolated and alone.
It then shouldn’t surprise us that Kurtz, as the prototype of European ideals, has fallen the farthest of all those on the continent. In his ambition to bring the light to the very heart of the dark continent, he left himself open to the temptations afforded him in leaving his society. In effect, he, like the Roman captain in Britain, felt the “fascination of the abomination” (Conrad, Pg. 20) as well. At some point Kurtz, perhaps unknowingly, began to take control of the natives he met, and even start to become immersed in their rituals and cultures. Much different than just being in another cultural setting, Kurtz loses his entire identity to the tribes he trades with. He loses the cultural aspect of the European and becomes just like the African. In a Freudian way of speaking, he reverts back to a more natural state as his Super Ego, the part of him that wants to conform to society norms, is stripped away and gives in to the “darkness”: his Id. In this primal state he surrounds himself in this primitive darkness and begins to “forget himself among these people” (Conrad, pg. 93) you could say that this is a regression that probably happened to those Romans, conquering the same darkness in Europe. As Marlow calls it, he had the “The awakening of forgotten and brutal instincts” (Conrad, Pg. 106) and the Id, in the end almost took over. Only the influence of another European that had not given into the influence saved him, telling him “You will be lost…utterly lost” (Conrad, Pg. 106). This is the conflict people have studied for years, the ever raging battle between civilization and the state that exists without civilization’s restraints.
The collapse of the European, from Kurtz to the Swede that hung himself, after arriving in this antithesis of Europe can be summed up in one quote.
“...But if you were man enough, you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you -you so remote from the night of first ages could comprehend. And why not? The mind of man is capable of anything-because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future. “ (Conrad, pg. 63)
Here Conrad gives his main point. Not only do we relate to the people that were being constantly abused and exploited but we when we compare ourselves side by side with them, we can see the similarities they had been trying for decades to deny through the use of rhetoric like “savage” and “uncivilized”. This quote suggests that at our cores we are not so different from the people whose language or cultures are different from ours, we all came from the same place, and maybe, just maybe, the only difference is our experiences and upbringing.
In total, there are dominant themes of racism, colonialism and imperialism in The Heart of Darkness, but there is a more subtle message to the constant comparisons between the European and the African. These hidden messages offer us a backlash against Conrad’s own time and a critical portrayal of those themes that Conrad had offered in his book. This critical comparison has given us an idea of a human nature, as shown through the way everyone with a European way of life starts to break down as soon as they left their own society. Conrad is telling us a subliminal message here: no matter the race, we are still human and still have the same origins.
Essay Example 2: Human Nature
Gaozi said: "The nature of man may be likened to the willow tree, whereas righteousness may be likened to wooden cups and wicker baskets. To turn man's nature into humanity and righteousness is like turning a willow tree into cups and baskets." Mencius replied: "Sir, can you follow the nature of the willow tree, and make the cups and baskets? Or must you violate its nature to make the cups and baskets? If you must violate the nature of the willow tree to turn it into cups and baskets, then don't you mean you must also violate the nature of man to turn it into humanity and righteousness? Your words, alas, would incite everyone in the world to regard humanity and righteousness as a curse!"
Gaozi said: "The nature of man may be likened to a swift current of water: you lead it eastward and it will flow to the east; you lead it westward and it will flow to the west. Human nature is neither disposed to good nor to evil, just as water is neither disposed to east nor west." Mencius replied: "It is true that water is neither disposed to east nor west, but is it neither disposed to flowing upward nor downward? The tendency of human nature to do good is like that of water to flow downward. There is no man who does not tend to do good; there is no water that does not flow downward. Now you may strike water and make it splash over your forehead, or you may even force it up the hills. But is this in the nature of water? It is of course due to the force of circumstances. Similarly, man may be brought to do evil, and that is because the same is done to his nature."
Gaozi said: "Nature is what is born in us." Mencius asked: "'Nature is what is born in us'—is it not the same as saying white is white?" "Yes," said Gaozi. Mencius asked: "Then the whiteness of a white feather is the same as the whiteness of white snow, and the whiteness of white snow the same as the whiteness of white jade?" "Yes," Gaozi replied. Mencius asked: "Well, then, the nature of a dog is the same as the nature of a cow, and the nature of a cow the same as the nature of a man, is it not?"
Gaozi said: "The appetite for food and sex is part of our nature. Humanity comes from within and not from without, whereas righteousness comes from without and not from within." Mencius asked: "What do you mean when you say that humanity comes from within while righteousness comes from without?" Gaozi replied: "When I see anyone who is old I regard him as old. This regard for age is not a part of me. Just as when I see anyone who is white I regard him as white, because I can observe the whiteness externally. For this reason I say righteousness comes from without." Mencius said: "Granted there is no difference between regarding the white horse as white and the white man as white. But is there no difference between one's regard for age in an old horse and one's regard for age in an old man, I wonder? Moreover, is it old age itself or our respectful regard for old age that constitutes a point of righteousness?" Gaozi persisted: "My own brother I love; the brother of a man of Qin I do not love. Here the sanction for the feeling rests in me, and therefore I call it [i.e., humanity] internal. An old man of Chu I regard as old, just as an old man among my own people I regard as old. Here the sanction for the feeling lies in old age, and therefore I call it [i.e., righteousness] external." Mencius answered him: "We love the Qin people's roast as much as we love our own roast. Here we have a similar situation with respect to things. Would you say, then, that this love of roast is also something external?"
The disciple Kongdu Zi said: "Gaozi says that human nature is neither good nor bad. Some say that human nature can be turned to be good or bad. Thus when [sage-kings] Wen and Wu were in power the people loved virtue; when [wicked kings] Yu and Li were in power the people indulged in violence. Some say that some natures are good and some are bad. Thus even while [the sage] Yao was sovereign there was the bad man Xiang, even a bad father like Gusou had a good son like [the sage-king] Shun, and even with [the wicked] Zhou for nephew and king there were the men of virtue Qi, the Viscount of Wei, and the Prince Pigan. Now, you say that human nature is good. Are the others then all wrong?" Mencius replied: "When left to follow its natural feelings human nature will do good. This is why I say it is good. If it becomes evil, it is not the fault of man's original capability. The sense of mercy is found in all men; the sense of shame is found in all men; the sense of respect is found in all men; the sense of right and wrong is found in all men. The sense of mercy constitutes humanity; the sense of shame constitutes righteousness; the sense of respect constitutes decorum (li); the sense of right and wrong constitutes wisdom. Humanity, righteousness, decorum, and wisdom are not something instilled into us from without; they are inherent in our nature. Only we give them no thought. Therefore it is said: 'Seek and you will find them, neglect and you will lose them.' Some have these virtues to a much greater degree than others—twice, five times, and incalculably more—and that is because those others have not developed to the fullest extent their original capability.