Two Agricultural Analogies and the Nature of Optimism

Throughout history, you will find countless rulers, philosophers, historians, artists and critics who claim humans are naturally wicked. In my opinion, Saint Augustine of Hippo is the most influential of their number. Likewise, you will find many who argue people are naturally good. The most enduring and influential of these, by my estimation, is the Chinese philosopher Mencius. I think this is a fascinating question mostly because of the hidden assumptions both camps bring to their arguments.

Let’s start with Augustine. Born into a prosperous family in Northern Africa in 354, Augustine received an excellent classical education, particularly in rhetoric and Platonic idealism. The Roman empire of his youth was prosperous, relatively safe, intellectually open and afforded the ability to travel widely. The young Augustine took advantage of these privileges and became an imminent rhetorician and minor philosopher. Later, he grew into the preeminent theologian of the nascent Christian Church. He was, however, far from grateful for these happy circumstances.

Starting from his teens and intensifying in his 20’s and 30’s, Augustine became increasingly displeased with the world. Wherever he saw something good, his training in Platonic idealism allowed him to restore the proper degree of unhappiness and disappointment. A beautiful statue, therefore, became misshapen and displeasing to Augustine because he could always imagine a better “true statue.”

Augustine found an even more powerful weapon against the physical world when he discovered the Disciple Paul. With the ultimate goodness of the Christian God and the unchanging perfection of Pauline heaven, Augustine was able to raise his standards of goodness infinitely high and thus hold every object and every person he saw, touched and heard in disdain. Thus inspired, Augustine spent much of the rest of his life marrying Platonic idealism with Pauline idealism and, in doing so, offered two basic arguments for the corrupt and vile nature of human beings. First, a logical proof, second an anecdotal and emotional illustration of the same.

The logical proof goes like this. We are unable to escape our selfish, bigoted, unprincipled, greedy, cruel and hypocritical natures because anything we do can be interpreted as selfishness or pride. Thus, if a man does something kind like spontaneously gifting his neighbor a cake, Augustine would say that he has done this kindness out of a desire for future benefits (greed), out of a desire to be well thought of (pride) or as a way of earning favor in heaven (greed and pride). You might think that destroying oneself could avoid this circle of pride and greed, but Augustine rejects this as well, saying that self-destruction is ingratitude for God’s earthly gifts[1] and thus pride.

In addition to the divine Catch-22, Augustine has an agricultural anecdote to prove his own irretrievable, personal corruption. You see, as a teenager, Augustine stole some peaches. He saw them in a farmer’s orchard, climbed the tree and took them. This is not a trivial and almost harmless example of teenaged boy mischief, he explains, because he did not steal for any practical reason. He was not hungry. He didn’t want to sell the peaches and earn money. He did it for the pure love of evil. Augustine sees similar perfidy in everyone and, combined with the Catch-22 of pride and greed, declares humanity not just fundamentally bad but utterly incapable of good.

Mencius’ life took an almost exactly opposite course. Born in the 370s or 380s BC, Mencius was a member of the fallen “shi” class of knights left over from the Zhou Dynasty. His entire life took place in the chaotic, incredibly violent and unstable Warring States Period (476 BC – 221 BC). Let’s take a moment to unpack all of that.

The Zhou Dynasty technically lasted from 1046 BC until 256 BC, but after 771 BC it was a dynasty in name only. During the early Zhou, the royal family disposed of its surplus sons by assigning them feudal fiefdoms in the countryside. Under these feudal lords were the “shi” class of “knights.” We might rightly think of them as minor nobility. This system was effective for retaining Zhou unity for a few generations but, with smaller and smaller fiefdoms being divided between the ever-increasing ranks of royal princelings, it was doomed to failure in the long term.

As the Zhou disintegrated and a few dozen major houses subdued the feudal lords, most of the shi became lordless anachronisms; nominally nobles and legitimately well-educated but impoverished and without much function. Talented shi escaped this situation by taking advantage of a fashion for collecting ancient knowledge among the major royal houses. The exceptional shi were able to leverage their symbolic nobility and legitimately impressive educations into positions in royal courts, functioning as advisors and bridges to the glorious, united period of Zhou history. Mencius was one of these talented shi.

As such, where Augustine was born into wealth, stability and safety, we can assume with a high degree of certainty that Mencius was born to a family of moderate (or meager) wealth, into an environment of constant war and endemic chaos. He seems to have spent his youth studying the work of Confucius. By the time he reached his intellectual maturity in this 50s, 60s and 70s, he’d developed sophisticated ideas on several branches of Confucianism, Mohism, Legalism and Yangism (rival philosophical schools) and the general canon of liberal arts as understood by the ancient Chinese. He seems to have spent his later years providing various royal courts with his wisdom, tending to a flock of disciples in the gaps between royal appointments.

Against this precarious and violent background, Mencius developed a theory of universal human goodness. He explained that simply by virtue of being human, every person contains the “sprouts” of sympathy, shame, deference and proper judgment. These sprouts, when nourished, develop in the following ways:

Sympathy becomes benevolence.

Shame becomes righteousness.

Deference becomes propriety.

Judgment becomes wisdom.

As proof, Mencius offers the parable of a child teetering on the edge of a deep well. He argues that there is no human being who, seeing the child begin to fall, will not feel distress. The person’s sympathy, rather than attempting to gain favor with the child’s parents, will engage simply because she is able to imagine the child’s pain. Her shame will engage not because she wishes to avoid blame but because she wants the child to survive. Her deference to the value of life will engage not because she dislikes the crying of injured children, but because she thinks it is good to do good. Her judgment that it is bad for children to fall into wells will not engage because she wishes to burnish her reputation but because failing to distinguish good from bad makes you inhuman.

The existence of bad people, for Mencius, is then explained not by the inescapable corruption and rot Augustine finds but by a simple failure to properly nourish these sprouts of goodness. We start out good and become very, very good through the cultivation of these natural virtues, which is why education, self-improvement and ritual are useful. To borrow from Augustine’s analogy, we human beings are naturally peach pits. We can of course be tossed onto the rocky wastes and left to rot, but equally we can fall into the hands of a skilled gardener and provide generations with sweet, fragrant peaches, delightful fruit salads and mouth-watering cobblers.

The question then arises, who was right? Are we vile, stinking carrion redeemable only through undeserved and supernatural grace as in the Augustinian system or are we the sprouts of virtue described by Mencius? You might have your preferences, and I certainly do, but I don’t think we can solve this problem until we analyze the unstated assumptions both philosophers make. Namely, I don’t think we can decide until we understand the standards Augustine and Mencius measure human beings against.

Augustine was, for all his doom-mongering and misery, at base a very optimistic person. He truly and honestly believed that any “perfection” he could imagine not only existed but had a reality exceeding that of the mere sensible world. There’s a mathematical spirituality he shares with Plato, this belief that somewhere out there a divine realm of Forms (Plato) or heaven (Augustine) replaces the insufferable movement of the real world, where everything is eternal and unchanging, where there is peace and constancy. This is good for both Augustine and Plato because it replaces the mathematically imprecise, unpredictable and dynamic world of crooked lines we all live in.

Augustine is not alone in this preference. Romantics like Arthur de Gobineau, Fukazawa Yukichi and Herbert Spencer dreamt of hereditary heavens where the perfect truth of genetics would remove all this confusion, slot us all neatly into scientifically prescribed roles and deliver us to a utopia where nothing surprising ever happens anymore. Friedrich Engels prophesied a communist paradise where all conflict, all the messiness and dynamism of the fallen, capitalist world gives way to utter placidity, sterile, unchanging equality and an invincible peace.

At the 2019 World Education Research Association meeting in Tokyo, one of the keynote speakers discussed Foucault and the Frankfurt School, describing how we are all enslaved to freedom, doomed to produce ourselves or be produced by another, how, in this cruel world, we can never be “liberated.” When I asked this man what alternatives we can pursue, he kept a straight face even while explaining that we need to “get beyond alternatives and focus on things that cannot be thought of.” Another presenter at the conference lamented that his economic-justice approach to education hadn’t helped students with academic outcomes or quality of life. When I asked if he should perhaps look elsewhere, he told me such alternatives were impossible because practical solutions to education problems would destroy his belief in “heaven.”

When the standard of goodness grows as large, as optimistic and otherworldly as in Augustine, the fascists, the communists, the post-modernists, the Frankfurt School or social justice, living and breathing humans cannot help but look vile by comparison. There is a reason Nietzsche said that all the species of idealism – all the ways things “ought to be,” all the “better worlds” and “more just futures,” – were expressions of disgust with the world and, fundamentally, misery.

Mencius’ standard is a little harder to analyze because he doesn’t explicitly talk about it like Augustine does. However, if you grant me the liberty to make an educated inference, I think he was probably basing his standard of good on a world that “ought to be” utterly indifferent. That is, we humans are better intentioned than a rock and, therefore, we are good. If I’m correct, you’ll notice that Mencius’ standard is vastly lower than Augustine’s and, compared with the mathematical perfection of heaven/utopia/liberation/etc., downright pessimistic. That which “should be” is incredibly small, easy and common. Where the saint endlessly tortures himself with disappointment in the imperfect but overall very comfortable Roman world around him, the Chinese sage cheers himself by comparing the dangerous, chaotic and violent people around himself with the indifference they so clearly surpass. He, like the stoics and the practical learning school, allowed a pessimism of ideals to enrich his experience of life. He, like Marcus Aurelius and Siddhartha, let go of expectations and enjoyed the life he’d been given.

And so we return to the question of who is right. Are humans evil, degraded monsters? Yes, they are, but only if you are optimistic enough to believe in static, mathematical heavens, static, egalitarian paradises, genetic utopias, human rights or Frankfurt School “liberations” so exotic and impossible they cannot be expressed in words. Holding to such high standards, you will surely hate or, worse, pity everyone you meet.

Are humans inherently good? Yes, they are, but only if you think there’s no particular reason they should surpass a rock. If you are pessimistic enough to hold the world to such low standards, you will daily discover the beautiful, the sublime, the virtuous and hopeful in your neighbors, your family members and your friends.

People are, without changing at all, both good and evil. It depends almost entirely on what you expect from them.


[1] All of these earthly gifts should suck because they aren’t perfect according to Augustinian logic. However, the saint either isn’t aware of this contradiction or doesn’t care.

11 comments

  1. I’ve long thought the question of humans being inherently good or evil was a false dichotomy. Humans are evolved creatures, a social species, and so we have both selfish and pro-social instincts. Experience and circumstances have big effects on which arise and are either inhibited or indulged in any particular situation.

    Although to be fair to both Augustine and Mencius, we know a lot more than they did.

    1. I agree. I think it’s a false dichotomy in the sense of good or evil being, fundamentally, relative to some standard. I’m not sure this changes when we science things up either, to be honest. I could make a biological argument that selfishness is good and altruism is not, for example.

      Hope you’re having a great day Mike. Thanks as always for your interesting commentary.

  2. Good or evil? Yes this is surely a false dichotomy. Like Ben and Mike I’d suggest neither. The strange thing from this perspective however is why the converse perspective endures so strongly even in the age of science? Why must psychologists explore the human in terms of its moral existence when they might instead explore its amoral existence? Notice that harder forms of science are all explored amorally, and yet psychologists still at least implicitly tend to judge our function in terms of right and wrong behavior.

    The reason for this I think is because while hard scientists deal with dynamics which theoretically exist long before we do, psychologists specifically address our nature itself and so should tend to get caught up into being morally judged for refusing to morally judge. Morality seems to be an evolved social tool of persuasion for us to conform with standard social etiquette. Here psychologists may thus be socially punished for theorizing that the human, like all sentient creatures, exists as a self interested product of its circumstances, and so fail to support effective general theory regarding its nature. This is largely why our mental and behavioral sciences have tended to remain soft, I think.

    Ultimately this failure should be overcome however, and so effective theory should emerge regardless of standard moral judgement. This is to say that science should prevail regardless of this evolved social tool.

    1. Hey Eric,

      I think you’re right about a lot of this. It does seem to be a false dichotomy. I don’t think Mencius or Augustine were actually confused since neither knew the other existed and they obviously never met. They also had discreet standards of good and bad in mind when they laid out their arguments. For Augustine it was the Pauline heaven, and he was consistent in maintaining this standard. For Mencius the standard was “天,” which is an inscrutable divine principle similar to the Greek (and modern scientific) idea of logos or universal ordering principles.

      However, it becomes a false dichotomy when you don’t specify and stick to these sorts of a priori standards. And I don’t think we can escape a priori standards through science. Whether or not we’re self-interested evolutionary units of survival, the question of WHETHER we should live as self-interested survival units remains a question of pure value making. You can get around this somewhat (like I do in my upcoming book “Overcoming Justice”) by saying that values must conform to survival and meaning-systems, but even here I am making the unscientific value judgment that it is better to survive than go extinct.

      Thanks for the comment. 🙂

      1. And thank you Ben for giving me some things to think about!

        On the question of values, yeah I get that. I do consider that valid as such, though my approach is fundamentally different. Is there any “shouldness” in physics or any other hard science? Of course not. These sciences are naturally able to provide experimentally successful models regarding their domains without such concerns. And that’s what I think is needed in soft sciences such as psychology. To harden them up I think we need to ignore the “shouldness” dynamic, and so potentially develop effective models regarding our nature itself. From here scientists would do things like explain morality rather than display morality.

        So what general model do I propose for this despite constant interference from the social tool of morality? It’s not quite that we’re all self interested survival units, but rather that the value of existing is constituted by how good to bad something feels each moment. Just as electricity drives the computers that we build, I consider feeling good/bad to drive the subjective form of existence (or at least in functional examples of subjectivity).

        Regarding your new book where at least the title implies going beyond justice, hmm… I could go that way as well though the point would be about promoting happiness rather than survival. And here I’m sure you’ll say “Happiness? Isn’t that a value judgement just like survival?” Yes you could interpret it that way if you like, though I theorize this valence dynamic to be more like a fundamental law of physics than the arbitrary notions associated with moral discourse. Of course science will need to experimentally verify this proposal before our mental and behavioral sciences might take such a step, but still.

      2. I agree your suggestions would improve the explanatory power of soft sciences, but I fear they’d also be prone to “scientific values.,” the history of which are incredibly dark. I do object to the happiness standard but not for the reasons you propose.

        I’ll use two historical examples to illustrate my point because I think history makes a better guide of values than science. So anyway …

        In 1257 the greatest repository of mathematic, scientific and classical knowledge on earth was Baghdad. Sparkling gardens were available for the happiness of the millions of citizens. Caravans daily provided the people with delicacies and luxurious accoutrements. The arts scene was excellent, the legal system stable and functional. Nowhere on earth surpassed the physicians of Baghdad and no city in the world could claim to surpass the Caliph’s scholars. There was no better place to find and enjoy good feelings.

        In 1258 Baghdad was the cite of perhaps the greatest single slaughter in history. The Caliph was executed while he watched the headless citizens and scholars stacked into massive charnal piles. The Euphrates ran black with the ink from the Caliph’s massive library. At least 200,000 and as many as 2 million civillians were killed. The luckiest of the lucky were merely raped and made homeless.

        The Mongols who perpetrated this slaughter surpassed the Baghdadis in precisely one thing – survival. I think they demonstrated the primacy of that value when the ended the Golden Age of Islam.

        Second example. Shortly before his assassination in 44BC Julius Caesar was suffering with digestive problems, likely a relic of his time in Gaul. His muscles had begun wasting due to chronic overwork. His hair was falling out and dark circles formed under his eyes. He was well on the way to killing himself through overwork and stress even before the Senators got ahold of him.

        Caesar could have avoided all of this had he merely retired to an Italian villa and left the empire to its own devices. The pleasures available in such a scenario boggle the mind. But he didn’t retire and embrace pleasure because doing so would have prevented him propagating Lex Julia. It would have stopped him bringing the nobility to heal, it would have stopped one of the greatest and most needed administrative reorganizations in history. It would have, in other words, required he sacrifice systems of meaning for mere happiness.

        It’s for these reasons I think happiness trails survival and meaning by quite a large measure.

      3. By the way, thanks for the interesting discussion.

      4. I enjoy such discussions as well Ben. I don’t think there’s a true conflict between us here however. Let’s see if I can use your examples to help better clarify my position.

        First we have quite advanced pleasures in Baghdad, as well as Mongols that destroy it all. But note that I’m not talking about “survival versus happiness”. I’m saying that the desire for happiness gave certain varieties of creature an improved way to survive. This is often referred to as the “conscious” kind. As I see it we’d otherwise need to function as programmed biological robots, though they shouldn’t be able to meet the challenge of novel situations and so survive all that well in more “open” environments.

        These Mongols should naturally have been jealous and hateful of the prosperous and soft Bagdadis. Destroying this disrespectful culture should have thus made them feel better. And indeed, surely Bagdad would have protected itself if it realized the magnitude of this threat — a critical oversight which might have been addressed.

        As for the suffering of Julius Caesar, I don’t believe that he would have enjoyed leaving his empire for life in an Italian villa. He should have had too much invested in his empire to simply let it go. Why did he work so hard? Two reasons I think, and they apply to us all.

        First there is “hope”. We permit ourselves to suffer presently when it seems that this will bring a better tomorrow, because hope can feel good enough right now to offset the negatives. This is somewhat like the donkey’s potential carrot. Secondly there is “worry”. We force ourselves to do non enjoyable things when the consequences of not doing them seem too unbearable for us to stand. This is like the donkey continuing on while tired since it knows it will otherwise get whipped. It’s all too easy for us to say that Cesar would have had a better life retiring, but surely he didn’t think so.

      5. These are very good points, Eric. I think I was interpreting your qualia idea too narrowly before. I wonder, however, if our human ability to transform negative experiences into positive experiences – and vice versa – doesn’t render any outside stimulus potentially desirable.

      6. That’s a good question Ben. It rarely occurs to me to get into various technicalities since I’m perhaps overly familiar with how my models work, and so implicitly presume that others will already grasp what I haven’t explicitly mentioned.

        As I see it negative valences constitute inherently punishing dynamics in those specific regards, though associated positive valences may feel good enough in the moment to choose to go that route anyway. There are countless ways in which we choose to do things that we don’t want to as investments in order to potentially do more of what we want to later. One stark example would be deciding to take chemotherapy for cancer treatment. Here there may be hope that feels good presently about living longer, as well as worry about the implications of not doing so given the presumed pain of loved ones and such. And indeed, perhaps some don’t initially grasp how bad the chemo will be! Or there’s the popular story of the trapped hiker who ended up hacking off his arm to survive given the flood of emotions that overcame him.

        So I’m not saying that the pain I experience given my beloved hot peppers enriches my life in itself, but rather that the adrenaline rush which comes along with them more than compensates.

  3. excellent post – yes, we all have good & bad in us…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: