Human nature is one of the main problems of philosophy. The question boils down to: what is man’s purpose, and how does he fulfill it? Its a simple beginning, but our answer and its consequences permeate our lives.
First, purpose. In Greek, Telos. The Telos of something is the latent end point within it- for an acorn, the fully grown Oak; for a Salmon, adulthood and death during the yearly spawn. An egg grows into a sparrow, a seed culminates in the flower, and human beings reach their adult form. But this is only half the story. This is the physical Telos; the part of our nature that ‘takes care of itself.’ Neither a baby or a mother need know how that child formed itself in the womb- the process is one that transcends our knowledge of it; it simply is. This is the physical Telos of Man the animal.
This physical aspect of man’s Telos is critical, but modern man has taken it too far. The flaw of our modern view of human nature, as sterile as the science it is rooted in, is that it stops here. Modern scientific man has decided that there is no moral Telos; that morality is a question beyond our understanding, or not a question at all- and so he is left with a vacuous, animalistic, instinctual description of life and man’s potential. “Man grows from childhood to adulthood. It is a physical machine; it requires food and water, desires sex and status, and struggles through life to attain these things until, finally, the machine breaks down and drifts into nothingness.”
Its a tragic story. Sound and fury, signifying nothing. An arbitrary existence forced upon us with nothing to do but indulge ourselves until the silent end.
This story is a half-truth. Though many deny that there is more to life than mechanism and matter and instinct, we see now as society unfurls at the seams that a life like this is not the answer; society’s growing dissatisfaction and rejection of this story is the sign of that. Society’s growing disharmony is the Truth of that.
The story is about to change; we are about to reawaken neglected knowledge, that our Telos is not merely physical, but mental. Spiritual. Ethical. Man’s ethical Telos is rooted in his desires- in his pleasures- in the way that every moment of our lives is either self-evidently good, or self-evidently bad. The pain of fire is an ineffable moment. We do not ‘decide’ its bad; pain screams at us. The pleasure of food or sex is not something we decide; it beckons us, and we bask in it.
If we were to stop here, we would be left animals, chasing pleasures of the moment without regard for consequences. So we must go further.
Man is a rational creature, endowed by creation with intelligence and memory; foresight built upon hindsight. Man knows that tomorrow will come, and that yesterday will in its own way come again; that the laws of yesterday remain in effect today. In a word, man learns. He unearths the patterns of life and realizes that the pleasures of the moment, whether they be food, sex, aggression, or any other of the multiplicity of motivations, bear consequences. From this he realizes that what is self-evidently good in the moment is not necessarily good for the future.
For example, man basks in the pleasures of food, but realizes that overindulging this pleasure will lead to obesity, health problems, accompanied by ugliness, which causes rejection, which leads to mental and physical anguish. A man who realizes this complex interplay of consequences will then reject the pleasures of excess food, knowing that chasing pleasures today will keep greater pleasure from him tomorrow.
A man realizes that exercise is painful, but that avoiding exercise makes him weak, unhealthy, and keeps him from realizing his optimal physical form. This man, then, accepts the moments of pain that come from exercise because of the pleasure and fulfillment it will bring in the future.
This, in essence, is Aristotle’s virtue ethics.
And here, Virtue is born with its twin, Vice. Not modern virtue, which connotes an impotent goodness or chastity, but Virtue, Greek Virtue, the mixture of knowledge, power, and willpower that makes one live life optimally according to his nature and across the span of his life. And not modern Vice, which means a bad habit, cigarettes or booze, or even something titillating- but Vice, the enemy of Virtue, the enemy of man, the mixture of ignorance, weakness, and self-indulgence that makes one live life recklessly, overindulging their nature and damning their future in impotent selfishness.
So man’s spiritual, ethical Telos is pursuit of moments of intrinsic goodness: food, sex, mastery, the success of those we love- all these moments in all of their difference are unified in their intrinsic goodness. Not a goodness we decide, but a goodness we bask in. A goodness rooted in our nature, that shines upon our soul when our actions conform to divine law.
But man, in possession of reason, realizes that the present moment will bear consequences which will lead to future goods and evils- and so, accepts pains that will bring him greater good, and rejects goods which will bring him greater pain.
This is the nature of individual man- not the nature of a mere animal, but the nature of animal with a spark of reason, a spark of God. Not a selfish instinctual beast, but the Noblest creation yet to exist, the highest rung on a ladder we are still climbing- one that has attained a level of consciousness which is capable of understanding the consequences on our futures and on the lives of others.
We have still more to climb; mankind is not the end. We are approaching the era that will unearth this lost Truth, and resume the ascent.
No man needs philosophy to grow to his physical Telos of adulthood; every man needs philosophy to realize his Mental, ethical Telos: the attainment of the good life, eudaimonia, happiness. But we are not single men alone and isolated, but mankind- Billions in a harmonious cacophony of motivations and desires. And so a society needs philosophy- to master itself, it must understand itself- so that it can evolve towards the collective good of all, and cast Judgement on those who would parasitize off others for their own self-aggrandizement. It needs philosophy, a recognition of our nature and our purpose, to guide us toward harmonious cultural structures of mutual fulfillment. Without philosophy- or with an improper, materialist, scientific philosophy, bereft of meaning and purpose and consciousness and destiny- a society leads the collective to disharmony and exploitation, and in so doing sews the seeds of its own destruction.