On human nature and nature of power

Human nature is a long debated issue in philosophy. So many philosophers have offered different perspectives on human nature. Four important sources that particularly deal with human nature are Plato’s Republic, Thomas More’s Utopia, Pierre Clastre’s Society Against State and Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations.

Plato’s view on human nature is basically grounded on excellence. Plato introduces the analogy that a pruning knife is peculiarly used for pruning. Therefore, excellence of pruning knife is to prune. No other type of knives can do exactly what a pruning knife does. Similar to that, every man has, in a broader term, one excellence in himself. This excellence is justice.  According to Plato, every and only, human being in this world has justice. If a man was deprived of justice completely, he would not be able to live at all because he would destroy himself too.

Besides justice, Plato states that every human being is born with certain characteristics. Every man is capable of doing only one job that is naturally fit to himself. One man cannot and should not bare two duties at the same time. Otherwise this would end up in imperfection.

This type of specialization results in division of labor. In a society, every citizen must perform only one craft. Everybody should spend his time improving his abilities in accord with his natural talents. A man who is especially prone to farming must be farmer. Another man whose natural talents fit him to do better house must be a house builder, so on.

According to Plato, people who are to carry labor force are educated in their family because natural talents are inherited from parents. Therefore children have a natural inclination to perform what their families perform.

Furthermore if the state gets more luxurious, as Plato do not reject it, the state gets into war to maintain its own existence as a whole. This would require warriors and rulers.

Like other occupations, warring and ruling also require their own specialty. People who are chosen to be warriors and rulers are called in general as guardians. Guardians are especially important people because maintenance of the state is on the shoulders of guardians. They must possess some characteristics that distinguish them from other members of the society. They must be swift, strong, spirited and philosophic. Plato, here, introduces the analogy of watchdog. A guardian must be like a watchdog who is sensitive to detect enemies and have courage to fight them. These watchdogs also must be strong and spirited. They also must be gentle to their own people. Likewise, Guardians must be quick to detect enemies, strong to fight them and gentle to their own people.

Like other children, the ones who have natural capabilities for war and rule must undergo special training and education. On the other hand, these children must be educated more strictly and under firmer control because they are the ones who are to run society later on. Children who are chosen to be guardians must prove that they will do what the commonwealth requires and that they will be against what is against commonwealth.

For guardians to consider commonwealth first, they must lack private property, genetic family bonds, private houses. To achieve this, family must be abolished by law for guardians. They must be bound with each other by fellowship. They have to share everything including women and children.

Women also take part in guardians and become guardians since, according to Plato, they all have the similar talents with men. Even though, they are the weaker, they can have all the same education with men.

Lastly Plato equates a human being with state. If a state has balance between its parts, it achieves justice in itself. Likewise if a human being has unity within the parts of the whole and his every organ functions in its only one special way in accordance with its nature, this human achieves the justice in himself.

On the other hand, Thomas More’s founding principle in Utopia is pleasure. According to More, Utopians regard pleasure as the most desired goal of one’s life. They think that they are created by a God who himself want human beings to be happy. Therefore Utopians try to get as much pleasure as they can in this world. For Utopians, it is the natural for human beings to seek pleasure.

On the other hand, they do not confuse smaller pleasures with bigger ones. Also, they try to achieve the most desired pleasures. In that respect, they divide pleasure into two categories: Physical pleasures and mental pleasures. Physical pleasures involve filling the body with pleasant conscious sense of enjoyment, and getting rid of remains of their fillings.

The most desired physical pleasure is health. They think that health is the founding condition to achieve pleasure. It is also a requirement for mental pleasure. For Utopians, for a man to be happy, he should be healthy, so that he can feel the other types of pleasures in this world.

They also believe that sacrificing one’s own pleasure for the public good will be paid in the afterlife by God with eternal joy. Therefore, they are very fond of helping others. However they do not find any good in mere self-sacrificing acts that do not contain any helping behavior in itself such as asceticism. They think that one must consider others’ pleasures as well as his pleasures.

In Utopia, every citizen is obliged to learn and to perform farming for a period of time in their lives. After completing their duty in the county, they perform what talents require them to do. They receive their education for their occupation in their families. Later in their lives, if they get proficient in their job, they can learn another job. Then, they are free to choose one of them.

More writes in the Utopia that human beings are not naturally greedy or bad but because of fear of want and property. In Utopia, people do not worry about food or other supplements necessary for their living because they are gathered in a center which is available to every citizen. And when people need something, they go and take it from there with no payment for what he has taken. Utopians think that if stocks are enough, why would anyone would like to accumulate it for himself. Because as he needs something, he can go and take it from the center.

Utopians also have a communistic life style that they do not possess anything. They do not regard luxury as the state of happiness. They think that gold and silver do not involve any value in themselves but we give the value to them because of the relative scarcity of these metals. They regard people of other nations who value and put on those metals as silly. They adorn their slaves and children with those metals.

Furthermore they regard dice, gambling and hunting as inhumane. They think that these activities have no good in themselves but people get used to do these because of bad moral conduct and habit.

In his book, Society Against State, Pierre Clastre introduces the political structure of hunter-gatherers. He starts with stating ethnological theory’s two opposing yet complementary ideas. First, primitive societies lack political power and institution. Second, some primitive societies transcended anarchy and formed simple political institutions. This theory describes one with deficiency, the other with excess in power.

Clastre opposes this idea and describes the way hunter-gatherers formed their political institution different from the modern, civilized political institutions. He states that Indian societies lack social stratification and authority of power. This is what distinguishes them.

These societies intuitively apprehended the coercive violence in power. In order to prevent power to grow uncontrollably, they changed the locus of power. In their societies the locus of power is not the political institution, but the society itself.

In order to control the leader, they exchanged women with goods, and words. The chief is the only person in the society to have more than one woman. However in exchange of this, the chief has some duties towards the society. These duties are generosity, peacemaking and giving speech.

The chief do not have right to speech but duty to speech. He has to speak everyday ritualistically. He does not speak about different issues in everyday. He speaks about cultural norms of the society that everyone already knows. Furthermore people in the society do not listen to the chief or pretend not to listen to the chief in order to remove power in speech.

Moreover the chief must be generous towards his society. He has to give whatever they want from him. Otherwise he will be abandoned. If he does not possess anything to give others, he may give up being a chief. Generosity does not show the moral superiority of the chief but it is an obligation.

Another duty of the chief is peacemaking. He has to settle disputes down within the society. However he cannot do it by coercion or by power, but by prestige, fairness and verbal ability. He cannot exert power within the society.

Another point Clastre shows is that society has two leaders: One is peace-leader, other is war-leader. War-leader is the only one who can have right to command in case of war with other tribes. As soon as the war is over, war-leader’s power is abolished. On the other hand, peace-leader does not possess any right different from other members of the society, but the right to marry more than one woman. This privilege is only to the chief.

Now we turn our attention to Adam Smith and his ideas about human nature. In his book, Wealth of Nations, he describes the universal man and society which is based on exchange and market.

Smith states that every man has propensity to exchange, to barter, to truck. Even in simple barbarous societies, people divide their work and exchange their products with other products they are in need of, in order to achieve some degree of affluence.

After dividing duties among themselves, they begin to specialize in their occupations and become dexterous in their job. Also, because they do not switch to different jobs in every hour, they save their time by division of labor. Furthermore since every man spend his time on only one job, he becomes expert in it, and finds better and easier ways to perform his particular job. Therefore according to Smith, division of labor results in dexterity, time-saving and inventions of new machines.

These three factors increase the quantity of work. Because of increased excess of products, people can purchase more good by less money. This increases the overall richness of every person in the society. Therefore increased quantity of work, then, results in universal opulence in the society.

Smith also states that this propensity to exchange is peculiar only to human beings. No other animal species are capable of exchange. This ability to exchange comes especially from the faculties of reason and speech.

Furthermore Smith says that division of labor is limited by market size. Division of labor is better established in larger societies. For example importers cannot perform their job in villages or small towns. So that they must live in big cities to realize their work. Water-carriage extends the market size. Market is more lively in places where rivers and seas allow traders to carry their products to other parts of the country and of the world.

Once division of labor is thoroughly established, every man becomes dependent on exchange. Every citizen carries another commodity to exchange besides his own peculiar products. This commodity can be cattle, salt, rice… In improved societies, to prevent cheating, problem of equality of products, and problem of durability of this exchange product, metals are introduced. This is where money enters the market.

According to Smith, value has two meanings: value-in-use, value-in-exchange. Labor is the real measure of the exchangeable value of all commodities. On the other hand because labor is hard to estimate, money becomes the measure of exchange. Therefore labor is the real price, money is the nominal price of the commodities.

Three components that make up the price of commodities are labor, profit and rent. Labor power is what wage-earners exert their power to produce a particular product. Profit is the money earned by masters who possess the stocks to produce this particular good. Lastly rent is the money earned by landlords. Rent is earned from the place where the product is produced.

Price of commodities has two types: Natural price and market price. Natural price what a particular commodity actually worth. Market price of a commodity is the price that commodity is sold. Natural price of a commodity never changes whereas market price is regulated by quantity and demand. Quantity suits itself to effectual demand. Lastly natural price is central price that all components of price are gravitating. Then Smith states that an invisible hand regulates the demand and supply in a market.

Then Smith states that produce is the natural wages of labor. But later on, landlords and masters come into place and share the wages of labor with laborer. In this system, laborers want their wages to increase, whereas masters want in to decline. Mostly masters win the struggle. But when the market needs man power, masters increase wages to hire more workers. In this situation, workers propagate more because their livelihood increased. Therefore demand for men regulates the production of men.

After that Smith touches upon different issues regarding market. Firstly he argues that cost of free workmen is less than slaves because free workmen work excessively to maintain his and his family’s life. On the contrary, to make slave work enough, a master need to hire an overseer which cost more to the master.

Secondly Smith argues that for a workmen to live healthy, he should work moderately because excessive working is harmful to the body.

Lastly Smith argues that because common people do not have opportunity of education, government should give little incentives to increase level of education. Government should open district and parish schools where children can learn to read, to write, and basic science before entering their particular occupation in the society.

One theme that all this texts share is power. These four philosophers try to understand and place it in the society. They see that power is an indispensable component in a society and among men. Therefore they do not try to dispose of it. Rather they offer theories in which power is put into the society in an useful, not hurtful, way.

Plato places the power in the ruling class which is capable of ruling. It is important to note that in Plato’s Republic everyone does what is naturally fit to himself. Therefore injustice would not arise in any part of the society. According to Plato, problems that arise from the ruling class would lead to overall injustice in the society. The reason for this is that this class holds the power to affect the whole society. Therefore Plato assigns people who are capable of controlling power and who do not misuse it as rulers. In this way, Plato offers a society where harmony and justice is achieved.

More offers a society in which mostly the elderly is in power. Even though his society is much like a democracy, the elderly is more privileged. More’s society is inherently based on a founder who was very diligent. The elderly is chosen to be the beholder of power because the principles that this founder laid down can be carried only by the elderly.

In Pierre Clastre’s text, hunter-gatherers place the locus of power in the society itself. They also intuitively saw power and realized a society in which political institution does not hold power. They set some rules and duties to prevent the chief to claim power.

Lastly Smith places power in the market. His notion of human nature is based on human beings ability to exchange. Therefore he puts power where it can grow naturally in a society. Smith’s market is free. Smith tries to remove governmental interventions in the market as much as he can. He sees government and state not as regulator of the market but as servant to the market. Government enacts policies which are to optimize market size.

As a conclusion, I think these philosophers gives really good descriptions of human nature and powerful theories about human nature and power. But I think they see human nature from one perspective. The term natural is a slippery slope. Data from neuroscience show that humans are born to learn. Even though a baby is born with some predispositions, it can be changed in the society he is raised. Human beings are very adaptable creatures. I am not really sure whether exchange and excellence are terms as modern humans understand in societies and groups where delinquency is very common and almost a norm. Or, like old stories tell us, if a child is raised among animals, is he still a human in our terms. Can we simply conclude that he is not a human anymore.

But these theories are especially beneficial because they offer good ideas about human nature and nature of power in modern, civilized societies. That does not mean we should be suspicious about these theories just because there are other options to be grown in other natural ways. We live in modern, civilized countries. And we need to understand what is natural to modern human. Only in that way we understand where humanity goes. Otherwise we cannot simply change what is natural to a particular society.

Note: Because I am too lazy, I did not put references. If somene would like to know about books, I can give the references.

Aziz Muhammed Akkaya

Aziz Muhammed Akkaya

Boğaziçi Üniversitesi, Psikoloji Bölümü
Aziz Muhammed Akkaya

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