When I was an adenoidal sophomore in college I was fascinated by the difficulty of definition. It seemed the more basic a term, the more difficult it was to define. A Professor would ask me to define, for example, a book or a rose. I would stumble and sputter. But in handling more complicated terms, I was fluid and verbal. Tautology in human communication, is commonplace. It amused me to observe students in graduate psychology studies who, when asked to define “Intelligence”, would reply that “Intelligence is that which intelligence tests are designed to measure.” There were so many cognitive side streets and copouts to traverse that we could always find some lame justification for our positions. It has always been so with me and as, I suppose, with many others. An intellectual cop-out, in the instance of this essay, could be something like “Human nature is that which empowers human beings to be and function naturally.”
But, recently, a very urbane, sophisticated book publisher jogged me into thinking about a taken-for-granted- term I was using without definition of it. He rejected a monumental manuscript of mine, stating, among other legitimate criticisms, that nowhere did I ever define what I saw as “human nature”, a term I used generously throughout the work. So, dutifully, I asked myself “What really is human nature?” I found many perceptions, my own and a multitude of others..
Some elites say you can buy any one ultimately. Everyone has his “price.” Just offer him enough of some kind of bribe and he’ll give in. Politicians, business people, theatrical people, sports figures, the Church, they all have a weak spot! “It’s only human nature.” We are all envious, proud, selfish, greedy, lazy, insensitive and mean on some level. Sex drives, also, demand outward expression. Spending time trying to promote chastity, especially with young people is a waste of time and a joke. “It’s only human nature.” They all “fool around”. Teens are going to do “it”. Everybody does. It’s doing “what comes naturally.” Everyone needs some affection or love or attention. Whatever human nature is or is not, it demands companionship and “being with others.” Copulation is part of this Human nature and will always be around as long as the human instinct for survival exists! All you really can do is limit the damage done to self or others. All you can do is to make your brief, meaningless span on earth as pleasant and long lasting as possible. So give in and accept reality!
So goes the much thinking in our era. Defeatist. Damaging. Corrosive. Bleak. While partly true, it is the Gospel of the Half Truth. The description above is not really a full picture of the human nature. It is a skewed and inaccurate battle cry of much of our populace. And a tragic battle cry that shrieks boredom and low self esteem. It insinuates that “man” is really too weak and too “human” to resist the call of the easy way out. “I’m only human” is not only a copout but an almost universal justification for anything the human does or endues. But, I am interested in more than function. I seek what this human nature is—in itself!
I suppose the publisher is right. I haven’t defined something I am taking for granted. Yet, commonly, we say “ It’s only human nature…” Perhaps, this is a case of everyone functioning under his own perception while differing from everyone else’s. To a shark mating and hunting for food is its nature—but it is a shark. To a dog pleasing its master/mistress is what its nature demands—but it is a dog, male or female. To a tree, nature means that leaves bloom in the spring and die in the fall. This is its nature—but it is a tree. While one might say that the best one can do is offer a descriptive definition of human nature, Christians claim there is a real possibility to truly plumb this mystery for spiritual and intellectual satisfaction and profound benefit.
But the concern of this paper is the nature of a human being –no other for the moment. So, what is human nature? First of all, the term, Nature. It speaks to that which makes something what it is. It speaks to the reason something exists. Atheists must ultimately claim that nothing has a nature. There is no meaning. There is no purpose. There is, beyond physics, neuroscience and chemistry, nothing but illusion. But, since these physical sciences can give only an abstract understanding of “things”, consistently there is basically nothing, ultimately, to the honest atheist. Physics, for example, tells us nothing about the inner nature of things that flesh out abstract structure. It has been said that physics in fact is unintelligible unless there is more to reality than it tells us. This reduces life to a Reductio ad absurdum. Such dreary fantasy is unacceptable to my mind and to millions of others. Most of us intuit beyond such limitation and ask questions and make challenges.
In my own questing for some kind of reasonable definition of human nature”, I quizzed a colleague(who is a professional, academic philosopher-- see footnote) on his perception of the term. Though wedded to intellectual resolution through natural law thinking, he instantly suggested the Genesis insight. Namely that God, the Creator, made man in His own image, with an intellect with which man could reason, analyze, and see humor and with a will with which man could choose, decide and love. “In God’s image” would mean that these faculties would be spiritual, physically non-dimensional. Then I remembered a phrase I had used many times myself that we were called to be “participators in the Divine Nature..” But, of course. Unite the faculties of intellect and will (the Divine Image) to the body and we now have full human nature. And there had to be a reason for this Creation which reason becomes part of the definition.
But, then, I fancied, there is the whole question of the Adam and Eve “thing.” Christianity teaches that somewhere along the generational Line there was some kind of great aboriginal calamity which is commonly called “Original sin.” This Original “Fall” tainted the whole of the then human species, i.e. the primal parents, the aforementioned Adam and Eve. All descendants of this Pair would inherit and pass on the wounded (but not evil nor corrupt) tainted “Nature”. All descendants, because of the wound of Original sin, would be inclined to sin, categorized as the Seven Capital Sins flowing from this original tragedy (i.e. inherent inclinations to a series of misbehaviors). How this recalled for me the famous Wordsworth description of the Mother of Jesus, “Our tainted nature’s solitary boast” as a poetic acknowledgement of the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. Clearly this all presupposes the role of the “body” in definition. Body and soul “make” the Person who possesses this Human Nature.
But it would be important to note that the “inclination” with its coincidental temptations is not sinful in itself. There would be no pre- determined inevitability for evil or weakness to prevail since the Original sin would only darken the intellect and weaken the will. It did not destroy the original powers of thinking and loving. So, the possibility of rising to share in the Divine Nature looms largely real for the believer. While the Original trial centered on the lie that “Ye shall be like gods” if you disobey Him, the truth is that You shall share in His nature if you obey Him.
This “Nature” of the created tainted human being would be real since the very Creator Who allowed such things as rebellion to His will, at the same time, provides aid and help to resist the lure of Temptation and to rise to holiness and to unbelievable levels of generosity, love, courage and goodness. This is called “Grace” which is powerful and “amazin’”. So while “man” would be ever tempted to Pride, covetousness, sloth, wrath, lust, envy, gluttony, hatred, insensitivity, ingratitude and bigotry as dictated by his wounded, inherited nature, even with the harmful effects of the Original sin, his outlook should be optimistic and bright.
‘Man’ would, as the Blessed Apostle Paul noted, be ever torn by interior tension in that on the one hand he does what he does not will, yet on the other hand , does not what he wills. While his separation from God, the Creator, was healed through the sacrifice of God’s own Son, Jesus, the effects of this Fall would remain and Man would hear the alluring Siren cry “Ye shall be like God”. The central problem of the human being would be the residual echo of the Great Lie: You can be God. So man has ever striven for the perfection which belongs to God alone, with the inevitable frustrating results. Man has constantly compared himself to others in the dynamic drive to be superior, to be above all others as is God. Hence, the commands given by God is Thou shalt not have strange gods before me. All sin is reducible to this order. The temptation not to strive for full human nature is strong. The inclinations to “sin” are powerful and difficult to control. It is not easy to be a truly human being. It is easier to settle for less and “give in.”
Obviously, then, the person, both body and soul, who is informed by and who possesses the human nature is a complex being. Superficial definitions are probably wrong or at least very wanting. “O Man, strange composite of heaven and earth” wrote John Henry Cardinal Newman in the “Dream of Gerontius”. But, Cardinal Basil Hume wrote in his “Turning to God”, “there is in the composition of the human being a need to turn to God.” There is deep within the human nature a certain destiny which must be found if one is to have a satisfactory definition. St. Augustine in the “Confessions” stated the destiny of man in these terms: “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” To define human nature by functions and usage is limited and relatively easy. That had been my own failing in perception like scores of others. Human nature, by its own nature, is attuned to God. Any real definition must include that dimension. The Publisher who depressed me with his rejection of my manuscript has perhaps gifted me with a commission to think. Maybe that is what I can do with my eternity!
 Fr. Robert A. O’Donnell, CSP, Ph.D., who taught Philosophy at St. Joseph’s Seminary, Yonkers, New York and in Europe, received his Doctorate in Philosophy from the Louvain University in Belgium. He has published books and articles in professional journals and has promoted seminars in Israel and Europe.