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In this lesson, you will read about major theories that have developed from considering the behaviors and characteristics of humans that have influenced world cultures. Then you can test your knowledge with a quiz.

Definition of Human Nature

When you look in the mirror, you are checking how you appear, what you seem to be, and whether it matches how you feel inside.

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Thinking about human nature is the equivalent of our whole species looking in the mirror to check its identity. Just as we all react differently to our own reflections in the mirror, the reflection we call human nature is also often disputed.By definition, human nature includes the core characteristics (feelings, psychology, behaviors) shared by all people. We all have different experiences of the humans in our life, and this is where the disputes begin. Some people will tell you humans are ‘good’ or ‘bad’, or ‘predators’ or ‘capable of great kindness.’ These views are colored by the influence of the people we know and what our culture and subcultures tell us.

The group you are born into will pass on its particular ideas about what makes humans ‘human.’

How We Talk About Our Nature

Philosophers and scholars tend to talk human nature based on major schools of thought from human history. Some religion scholars argue that spiritual or religious natures are the key trait in human nature. For example, Judeo-Christian belief presents humans as creations of God that have free will, which provides them both dignity and ethical dangers. Buddhists think that to be human is to be aware (conscious) and to desire.

More broadly, in Western cultures, the discussions usually begin with Plato and Aristotle in classical Greece. Plato thought that humans were rational, social animals, and he connected our nature with our souls and ability to reason rather than our bodies. Aristotle differed primarily in his belief that both body and soul contributed to our human identity. These theories are not mutually exclusive, but have been built upon each other and adapted over time.

Other ideas about human nature have been discussed by historically important figures including Rene Descartes, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud. The following items represent changes in theories from the 1500s to the 20th century.Descartes (1596-1650) expanded Plato’s ideas, describing people as thinking spirits. He was later critiqued by Gilbert Ryle, who, like Aristotle, could not completely separate human mental processes from physical ones. By way of example, Aristotle and Ryle would agree that the action of hammering a nail when building a house inherently weaves mind and body together.According to Darwin (1809-1882) and the logic of evolution, humans are described as another form of primate. Human life, like any animal’s, is experienced as a series of problems to be addressed and resolved.

Darwinian thinkers do not raise humans above other animals, but recognize that human characteristics are a product of nature, developed through circumstance and physical characteristics that affect behavior.Marx (1818-1883) believed that human nature is revealed through the natural progression of history. He believed that history’s natural progress could lead humans to true freedom as they recognized the cultural and social factors that alienated them from their natural identity. Like Darwin, Marx took the stance that humans are characterized by their species’ traits more than divine influence or a spiritual character.Finally, Freud (1856-1939) characterized us as creatures of internal conflict. For Freud, mental life (akin to Plato’s and Descartes’ ideas of the soul) was in conflict with our biological instincts due to the forces of civilization.

Freud separated the self into the id (the biological instincts), ego (the rational mind), and superego (the conscience that produces guilt to control the id).There is one more school of thought, known as existentialism. Existentialism emphasizes the experience of the individual and describes humans as freely responsible through independent acts of will. Religious existentialists describe humans as free but, at core, uncertain beings who build individual identities through their ability to doubt. Atheistic existentialists, like Jean Paul Sartre, denied the existence of human nature because humans are agents of free will who choose, rather than being driven by animal instincts or cultural conventions. Atheistic existentialists characterize humans as creatures of choice, though this on its own is a description of the nature of humans.

Lesson Summary

Human nature is the sum total of our species identity, the mental, physical, and spiritual characteristics that make humans uniquely, well, human. Plato and Aristotle described human nature with differing definitions and characteristics; Plato stressed mental/spiritual characteristics, while Aristotle claimed the mind and the body could not be separated.Since then, definitions have split between scholars considering the body as part of human nature and those who see it as primarily a container for what is essentially human. Thinkers such as Aristotle, Darwin, Sartre, and Ryle consider the mind and body in relation to the world, while Plato, Descartes, Freud, and Judeo-Christian religious thought see human nature as tied mostly to something intangible – often called spirit, essence, or mind.

Theories of Human Nature

Human nature symbol
  • Plato: humans are rational, social animals; our nature is connected with our souls and our ability to reason
  • Aristotle: both body and soul contribute to our human identity
  • Descartes: Agreed with Plato but described people as thinking spirits
  • Darwin: human life, like any animal’s, is experienced as a series of problems to be addressed and resolved
  • Marx: believed that human nature is revealed through the natural progression of history, which could lead humans to true freedom
  • Freud: characterized humans as creatures of internal conflict

Learning Outcomes

Once you are finished, you should be able to:

  • Recall what is included in human nature
  • Describe the Classical debate over human nature
  • Discuss the theories behind human nature that have emerged throughout history

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