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August 15, 2009

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The study of history is only fruitful, or even possible, to the extent one understands human nature.

Of course, we naturally and reasonably turn to history in order to understand human nature. Yet while we may use what we know of history to assist in our study of human nature and we may use what we know of human nature to assist in our study of history, the latter operation is prior to the former. You have to assume or take something to be true about human nature in order to learn about human nature through history. And you know something about human nature . . . since, well, you are one.

Historians spend much of their time investigating and verifying past thoughts and actions, but when these are examined and analyzed one cannot escape relying on an understanding of human nature in order to explicate the “bones” one has dug up. Of course, even in the pursuit of simply discovering what was, this same understanding of human nature will also guide one’s approach in choosing where and how to dig. It will, in fact, direct the entire historical enterprise in light of the fact that your understanding of human nature is necessarily a crucial element of the purpose for which you are acting as an historian in the first place.

The overarching point gets lost so often its hard to keep a grasp on it. History is about the past thoughts and actions of human beings, and how we understand such thoughts and actions will hinge upon how we answer the question: “What are we?” What is human nature? Do we have a nature? What is nature? When these questions go unanswered and/or are assumed in a facile manner any presentation of history ought to be tainted or suspect.

If we have seriously meditated upon human nature, and the extent to which we are ignorant on this score, I think most people readily understand the notion that history is not a science in the sense that, say, geometry is. Or, at least, not understandable as such a science to any of us humans living life as we know it. There are two extremes in this respect. Although the notion that history is such a science (perhaps even the highest science) is still with us (Progress!), the opposite notion is perhaps more prevalent these days, or at least its influence is rapidly growing. The explicit or implicit rejection of the very possibility of any sort of coherent understanding of history is now commonplace.

The first extreme relies on the explicit or implicit assumption that human beings are gods: functionally speaking or otherwise the highest thing in the universe. The second extreme relies on the explicit or implicit assumption that human beings are animals or worse, inherently worthless, and value-free. The universe in which human beings live in the first extreme is ordered to them, or should be made to. The universe in which human beings live in the second extreme is devoid of order, or functionally so in that we are not able to know one way or the other. Both views are obsessed with human beings flexing their wills for their own self-created purposes, but the variation on human nature betwixt them dictates different notions of history.

Something like that. The last paragraph is a tad too cute. Examples from experience anon.

The writings of the Anti-Federalists serve as a Rorschach test for scholars of American politics.  Ostensibly, the standards of political science require us to understand the Anti-Federalists as they understood themselves, but this undertaking is necessarily related to our understanding of the Federalists, the Constitution, and over two hundred years of American government.  Thus there is as little agreement about the fundamental divisions in the ratification debate as there is concerning the nature of the constitution and the nation it established.

What did the opponents of the constitution think the purpose of American government was or should be, and how did this understanding affect their opposition to the Constitution?  A review of the various ways scholars have answered this question reveals the heart of many of the major debates of contemporary political science.  Although there are a limited number of scholars working directly on Anti-Federalist thought, almost every political scientist writing about American government has expressed an opinion concerning the Anti-Federalists.

Some argue there was an underlying liberal consensus between the two sides of the ratification debate that assumed the end of government is to protect individual rights and property, while others hold that the Anti-Federalists were fundamentally opposed to the kind of government the Federalists sought to establish.  This review focuses on how these two positions have both modified their position in the midst of the rise and fall of the classical republican thesis.  The polar opposition among scholars today on the basic nature of Anti-Federalist thought is striking.  While one argues that the Anti-Federalists were “more, not less” Lockean liberals than the Federalists, another concludes that the Anti-Federalists were classical republicans seeking “…to preserve public happiness.”[1]

[1] The first quotation is from Thomas L. Pangle, The Spirit of Modern Republicanism: The Moral Vision of the American Founders and the Philosophy of Locke, (Chicago, 1988), 33-34;  the second from Christopher M. Duncan, The Anti-Federalists and Early American Political Thought, (Dekalb, 1995).

A passage in The Writings of Charles De Koninck asserts that, as opposed to animals, “in man taken purely as such, there is coextension between the object of intelligence and the object of love, since intellect grasps the mark (ratio) of the good. Indeed, the domain of intellect extends beyond the domain of love, for we can think of objects to which the will cannot tend as proper objects–mathematical entities, for example. . . In intellectual being, the inclination which follows on apprehension is under the command of intelligence.”

The endnote (112) to this passage reads as follows on page 352 of the hardcover edition:

The intelligence as such is a certain concrete nature, it is a natural appetite of its proper object, the intelligible. Being, considered as a term of this appetite, has beauty as a transcendental property. That is to say that every being, as an object of intelligence, is beautiful. Consequently, although mathematical being, being only a being of reason, does not at all participate in goodness, and cannot be an object of will, nevertheless it participates in beauty. And thus, like every object of intelligence, mathematical being can be indirectly an object of will insofar as will desires the concrete good of intelligence. In effect, one can distinguish a twofold good of intelligence: the good of the object considered as term of the desire to know for the sake of knowing, which is beauty–pulchrum proprie pertinet ad rationem causae formalis–but it is also the good of the concrete act which entails knowledge in intelligence taken as nature, and this act is an object of will and causes in it this characteristic joy which is as a complement to contemplation. Without being essential to the beauty which is formally in contemplation, delight is a quasi per se accidens. The enjoyment proper to beatitude which consists in contemplation is consequently an enjoyment of the object of intelligence as object of intelligence; this enjoyment, which one can call aesthetic, is the most noble of all pleasures.

If I understand this passage correctly it partly confirms a central portion of my senior thesis at Thomas Aquinas College entitled, “In Defense of Beauty,” but it also challenges and clarifies much of what I tried to say.