Big Head Press

L. Neil Smith's
Number 731, July 28, 2013

"One of the most unmistakable indications
that a civilization is in decline is when
it is no longer capable of telling
its heroes from its villains."

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Free Will and the Natural World
by Giovanni Martelli

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Attribute to L. Neil Smith's The Libertarian Enterprise

The natural world, that is to say the mundus in which we live, has always presented a problem in terms of theology and philosophy. Are we, humans (with our arguably free will and human nature), part of that natural world, or are we not? Are we animals as are dogs and apes and elephants, or have we in some way transcended this order? What have we become, or what has become of us, that makes us as special as we are? Over the decades and centuries, many attempts have been made to explore this divergence from the rest of the animal order; it is apt, for example, to bring in the famous words of René Descartes, cogito ergo sum: I think, therefore I am. This is one in a long string of observations and theories that attempt to distinguish and set apart mankind from beasts, but can it set man apart as separate from the natural world in which he happens to dwell? Perhaps one could argue that man's experiments on nature and natural phenomena can set him apart, but man can also experiment on himself (of which he is clearly a part). There may never be a satisfactory answer as to how man should affect and be affected by his surroundings, but this does not stop man from dwelling continuously on his place in the universe.

In the late 15th Century, the Modenese Count Giovanni Pico della Mirandola extolled the "perfectability" of man; he argued that man's free will sets him apart from any other species, and that with this free will, he can choose to ascend to the ranks of angels or descend to the station of beasts. This seems to suggest that Pico believed that man was somehow separate from the rest of the natural world, that man's mental capacities ensure him a place higher than that of any animal (and in some ways, higher, even, as Pico himself states, than that of the angels). According to Louise Ropes Loomis, in her article The Greek Renaissance in Italy, these ideas were a sort of resurgence of Classical Greek thought, from the likes of Plato; they are a magnifying mirror of Petrarch's studia humanitatis (a term coined by Coluccio Salutato in Petrarch's eulogy). In fact, Salutato's use of the word humanitatis in this context denotes "affability and courtesy of disposition and culture and refinement of mind, that is, the qualities which especially distinguish man from brute." This rationality and emphasis on clarity of thought is one of a handful of hallmarks of the Renaissance and beyond. The intellectuality and well-roundedness embodied by Castiglione's courtier or "l'uomo universale" place an individual man (in Pico's eyes) higher on the spiritual ladder; conversely, the hedonistic seeking of earthly pleasures sets an individual man lower, into the realm of beasts. Essentially, man can become an angel or an animal, and it is his choice which he will be.

Conversely, Niccolò Machiavelli argued that his prince should become an animal; he opined that morality meant little unless circumstances demanded it. Machiavelli's prince has little trouble fitting into the mold of the natural world; he is ruthless and selfish, and succumbs to his so-called animal nature, letting the pursuit of power be his guide. Machiavelli wrote that his prince must be a lion to protect himself from foes and a fox to avoid traps; he believed that the state was beyond the realm of human morality.

This pessimistic, naturalistic worldview ties in somewhat with that of Thomas Hobbes, who believed man to be animalistic, cruel, and given to violence and war. In fact, it serves quite well to compare Hobbes and John Locke to Machiavelli and Pico, respectively; Hobbes' cynicism with regards to the nature of man ties in to Machiavelli's expectations that his prince should act essentially in concordance with this selfish, greedy, warlike nature of man, whereas John Locke's concept of tabula rasa fits in very well with Pico's argument for the perfectability of mankind. Anything can be written upon this slate, and this allows man to become most anything.

Hobbes' view of man lends itself just as well as Machiavelli's to the idea that man is merely another animal, given over to his instincts of self-preservation, but Hobbes takes his idea a step further; he insinuates that man cannot justly rule himself, and therefore, the individual should give up a portion of his freedom to a governing authority for the good of all (a social contract).

Locke, too, believed in the concept of the social contract, but his approach was different; he imagined that man has an inalienable right to individual human happiness, and that therefore, it was in the best interest of the people to choose a governor, but that the power should remain with those governed. This view of leadership helped to shape the government of the United States, in which an elected ruling class is established by, for, and of the people, and seems to fall into the camp of the belief that man is somehow special, somehow removed from the other animals; animals, after all, do not have these inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

There are echoes of these sentiments throughout the world, in all places in which absolute power and divine-right monarchy have been questioned by the people. For example, China's Forbidden City bears a striking similarity to the court of Versailles in both its splendor and its ominousness. It was something akin to a holding bay, as it were—an elaborate construction, centered around the ruler who called himself god—and one can but wonder if this is an example of men (or a man) transcending or attempting to transcend his animal order by placing his court in something like animal pens. Chinese writers caught onto this, of course, and, like their Western counterparts, satirized the rulership, exercising their free will as all controversial writers do, and choosing to make the point that even men who rule are still men.

Is it our free will that makes us human? Is it our ability to choose for ourselves that makes us something different, something special? Are we simply just another species of animal with instincts like any other? The question may never be solved satisfactorily, but man is the only animal who asks himself who he is.

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