A few years ago I studied a semester of Classical Greek and realised quickly that I was never going to be an expert. A beautiful language, its grammar has been more than a match for smarter people than me. I read somewhere that in the days of the British Empire, civil servants were selected on the basis of their success in Greek at school and university. The theory must have been that if they could handle Greek grammar, they could handle anything.
So, I ask myself, doesn’t that mean at least some ancient Greeks must have been pretty smart? Especially since, early on, Greek sentences were written without spaces between words. Howeasyisthissentencetoreadwithoutspaces? Oh, and I should add, that the Greeks used to jumble up sentence word order (as we know it) at the same time. For example: sentenceeasyspacesreadtowithoutthishowis. Phew!
I’m told those early Greeks were no slouches in Philosophy and Mathematics either. One of them, Eratosthenes, worked out a method of measuring the diameter of the Earth – not bad without electricity, a telescope, or even a GPS!
But wait a minute! We’re talking about 2500 years ago. Aren’t we supposed to be more advanced these days? They didn’t even have flushing toilets. We have laser guided ordnance. Haven’t humans evolved to be smarter over the generations? Well, hold that thought.
I think it was Isaac Newton, the renowned English Physicist and Mathematician in the seventeenth century, who said that all he had done was to “stand on the shoulders of giants”; his predecessors. He was very aware of the genius of those who had gone before him.
Could it be, the idea that we are more intelligent, more civilized, even more moral, than people in earlier times, might be just a comforting myth? Granted we do have more toys and gadgets. Some of us live in more stable societies under the rule of law. But how different from our ancestors are we really?
A peasant farmer living in medieval Europe would have had to manage the environment with consumate skill; growing, harvesting and storing food, making tools and clothing, and defending family from all sorts of threats. One thing is certain: In such a challenging environment there would have been no place for stupidity, and much call for intelligence, craftiness and innovation. (By the way, have you ever read any Old English? Another beautiful and complex language; much more so than modern English. Granted that not too many peasants would have been acquainted with the finer points of the grammar though).
OK, life in earlier times may have been ‘nasty, brutish, and short’, but does that mean we would have done things any better if we had been alive then? Today we live longer and have human rights legislation, but have we abolished bullies and victims? Eliminated crime? What about poverty? Disease? Is injustice still a problem? War? Violence? Selfishness? Greed? How are we doing with all these? Are our toys and gadgets helping out? Do the stories we tell ourselves about our superiority convince us?
The way I see things, the common thread in the human condition has always been humans – us; ourselves; we; you and I. “I’m only human!” has been pretty much flogged to death as an excuse down the ages. I can imagine a Greek slave muttering something like it under his breath as his master berated him, just as I can also clearly imagine Michelangelo swearing after dropping a paint brush onto the floor.
If then, we’re only human, what does that mean?
There seem to be two main ways to look at that question. One is to see our flawed humanity as a problem; an embarassing problem; and to keep on trying to eliminate undesirable traits in people for their own and the greater good. More laws, more regulations, more supervision, more moralising: Don’t drink or smoke too much! Reduce your sugar and salt intake! Look after the planet! Respect Human Rights! Vote for policies to reduce discrimination! The list is long, and growing. The underlying assumption is that it is possible for humans to be made perfect, or at least morally superior to how they are now.
Another, quite different way to look at it is not to see it as ‘a problem’ at all, but rather as a given, a constant. From this perspective, all attempts at moralising and improving society will always stumble over the very nature of humans themselves. This nature has always been what it is: While we humans are capable of great achievement and noble selflessness, we are inevitably also wracked with annoying and often unpleasant and downright destructive characteristics that continue to poke their heads up however much we try to hide them. Seen this way, human nature cannot be fixed by decree or by moral striving.
If there are any humans on Earth who do not live the reality of this basic tension between goodness and moral failings I have not heard about them and have certainly not met them; although my wife, Sue, comes close to avoiding moral failings, naturally.
Self help books and Pop Psych gurus will all promise to unlock our human potential, but if they neglect our primary inbuilt tendency to stuff up serially, they are talking hot air. There are no perfect human beings. There are no ‘almost’ perfect human beings. To believe otherwise is to shut our eyes to human experience. The Mother Theresas and the Martin Luther Kings soar above us yet they all have clay feet. Every single one of them, no matter how much we might prefer to pretend otherwise.
We humans are exquisite contradictions. We are smart, but even the smartest of us does really stupid things now and then. We revere beauty yet wallow in ugliness. We grow wise yet do stuff we shake our heads over. We yearn for community yet fight our neighbours over petty things. We set out with grand plans, but find ourseves mugged by reality.
The term ‘Original Sin’ has fallen out of favour in our world. We don’t need ancient superstition. Still less do we need to hear we are flawed deep within our natures in ways we cannot begin to fix. Despite the unbroken trail of evidence, we believe we can do it ourselves thanks! We like to be told we are the masters of our destiny. Talk of ‘Original Sin’ makes us uncomfortable because it doesn’t fit with what we want to hear.
Our ancestors mostly thought otherwise. They trusted in their abilities and were not stupid, but they also realised they were vulnerable and weak before their creator, whatever they believed their creator to be. Which group would you say had a better grasp on reality?
That’s a question worth asking, isn’t it?