Jun 13, 2020
What was life like before we emerged from hunter-gatherer tribes and pulled ourselves into the civilised world? Notoriously, this same question was asked by the great philosopher Thomas Hobbes in the seventeenth century. His answer? The state of nature is a ‘time of war, where every man is enemy to every man’; where all live in ‘continual fear’, and in ‘danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’ This is human nature. Left to our own devices, we are led to fight by diffidence, competition, and glory. Here our inner demons come out to play: predatory, revengeful, dominant, and sadistic. We are survival machines, but ultimately, the best way for us all to survive is to create a new machine, a great Leviathan - viz, the dawn of the state.
Thirty years after Hobbes’ death saw the birth of his rival, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It is here, at the origin of the state, says Rousseau, where human nature is corrupted: society is the curse of humankind. In his own words, ‘many writers have hastily concluded that man is naturally cruel, and requires civil institutions to make him more mild; whereas nothing is more gentle than man in his primitive state… according to the axiom of the wise Locke: There can be no injury, where there is no property.’ Be sure not to listen to Hobbes the imposter. We are lost, but we can find ourselves again.
In this episode, we’ll be discussing the views of Hobbes and Rousseau with returning guests Steven Pinker and Rutger Bregman. Steven Pinker, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, is one of the leading thinkers in the field. Steven has an extraordinary list of accomplishments and awards, considered by many, including Foreign Policy and Time magazine, to be amongst the 100 Most Influential People in the World Today. Historian and author, Rutger Bregman, is acclaimed for his bestselling book, Utopia for Realists: and how we can get there. Described by The Guardian as ‘the Dutch wunderkind of new ideas’ and by TED as ‘one of Europe's most prominent young thinkers’, Bregman’s vision of (and for) humankind is a call to rethink our understanding of the past, and our vision for the future.
Coinciding with the rise of the homo sapien, this might be the oldest and most important philosophical question: what is human nature?