Is there a human nature? This question has been answered in various ways over the course of history. Some individuals believe that what makes us human is our DNA or our biological characteristics. Other individuals believe that humanity is a social construct – we are human because we engage in human activities in society.
At least one thinker in the western tradition answers the question of human nature by incorporating both being and acting. Boethius (c. 480-524 AD), a Roman Christian and statesman, focused not only on what human beings are but also on what human beings can and should do. In so doing, he bridges the gap between the biological view and the social view and he points to human nature as something beautiful, admirable, and inspiring.
Echoing Aristotle, Boethius argues that human beings are mortal, rational animals, who have the ability to engage in rational reflection and activities. With respect to these activities, Boethius argues that human beings should aspire to greatness of character by using their intellect and their will to perform virtuous acts.
He writes, “Now since only goodness can raise a man from above the level of human kind, it follows that it is proper that wickedness thrusts down to a level below mankind those whom it has dethroned from the condition of being human.” (The Consolation of Philosophy. Trans. Victor Watts, Book IV, ch. III). What is the condition of being human, according to Boethius? Like Aristotle, Boethius incorporates a biological aspect to his definition by recognizing the animality of human beings yet, the ability to be virtuous and to engage in virtuous acts sets human beings apart from other animals. In addition, Boethius incorporates a normative ethical component to his account of human nature.
Boethius isn’t content to think of human nature as something we possess. Rather, he argues that our humanity (who we are) needs to be exercised and expressed. In other words, Boethius thinks that a human being isn’t just his or her biology – a human being is someone who is a particular kind of being who acts in accordance with his or her nature.
Boethius thinks that virtuous activities elevate a human being closer to the divine, while vicious acts diminish or dehumanize a human being. There are a number of pieces to this puzzle but I’m only going to focus on the aspirational part. An example from the writings of J.K. Rowling illustrates what I’m talking about.
Consider the character Voldemort from the Harry Potter novels. He’s described as being a great and terrible wizard but interestingly enough, when he attempts to murder the infant Harry with a curse, the curse backfires on him and he loses his body. As a spirit, he’s forced to look for a new body and even kills a unicorn for its blood in an attempt to regain physical form.
The character of Voldemort provides a literary example of what happens to a human being when he or she abandons human nature. Voldemort’s obsession with power clouds his judgment, eroding his ethical code. Rather than devoting his intellect and will to pursuing virtue, he kills, spreads fear and discord, and strives to destroy all those who oppose his ascent to power.
Boethius argues that since rational activity is natural to a human being and since rational reflection leads to an excellence or virtue of thought and deed, human beings act in accordance with their nature when they are virtuous. Virtuous activity also has a goal that it is directed toward an end, which is happiness. Interestingly enough, Boethius argues that vicious behaviour cannot achieve happiness.
So, human beings are more human when they are at their most natural, i.e., performing natural activities such as virtuous behaviours. As an example, consider the figure of Harry Potter, who distinguishes himself by being brave and loyal to his friends and having the courage to confront darkness when it threatens others.
In The Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius challenges his readers to be who and what they are supposed to be – to be excellent and to be good. In so doing, he focuses our attention on the best of humanity and what we can be if we embrace it. As we reflect on the complex question of what is human nature, we shouldn’t lose sight of this aspirational vision.