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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Dr. Benji Levy

Are Humans Hopelessly Corrupt?

(First published on on the 21st of August 2022).

Can the human heart be tamed through education or is humanity permanently enslaved to their passions?

"Everything is good as it comes from the hands of the Maker of the world, but degenerates once it gets into the hands of man." How's that for a slacker's creed? Keep calm and do nothing. Nature is perfect, and the human soul may be divine. But once we get our grubby hands on things, we can't help but make a mess of it all. Or perhaps we could take a more refined approach—retreat from the ugly mess of civilization. Spend our lives in silence meditating on a remote mountain, contemplating the sublime. Surprisingly enough, the author of these well-known words was saying nothing of the sort. They form the opening line to Emile, or On Education, by the seminal enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Emile is a philosophy of education, but it's also a book about what it means to be human.

Philosophy of Education The opening paragraph is a litany of the horrors of human intervention. Man "confuses and confounds time, place, and natural conditions…He destroys and defaces all things; he loves all that is deformed and monstrous." If that's not enough, Rousseau dismisses even the possibility of purity in a world besmirched by humanity and human evolution. "Nothing [is] as nature made it, not even man himself, who must learn his paces like a saddle-horse and be shaped to his master's taste like the trees in his garden." Rousseau seems to be maligning the concept of social influence and the civilizing effects of education. This makes his conclusion particularly startling: "Yet things would be worse without this education, and mankind cannot be made by halves. Under existing conditions, a man left to himself from birth would be more of a monster than the rest." Clearly, then, not all human intervention is bad. Education in particular, far from messing with our pristine God-given nature, is ennobling and essential. Through education – human meddling in our own nature – we can collectively form individuals into social beings.There is a purity and nobility to the abstract notion of a raw human being, unshaped by social forces and norms. But that's no way to create a society. Through education – human meddling in our own nature – we can collectively form individuals into social beings. In other words, man must be molded. Pink Floyd had it backwards – we do need education. Rousseau isn't confused. Nor is he contradicting himself. He has set himself the considerable task of finding the balance between education as a force for civilizational good while also retaining something of the purity of our natural being. As Rousseau points out, this is a risky enterprise. "He who in the civil order wishes to preserve the primacy of the sentiments of nature does not know what he wants. Always in contradiction with himself, always floating between his wishes and his duties … we make a compromise and reach neither goal." Our real objective, Rousseau implies, is synthesis, not a terrible jumble of contradictory impulses and compromises that ultimately leads to despair. In other words, we retain the primal aspects of our nature; we don't educate away our basic drives or cauterize to civilize. Rather, we channel those drives in ways that advance our collective wellbeing. We take the elemental, electric impulses we were born with and learn to direct them. Jewish tradition offers a vivid illustration of this principle. The Talmud teaches that those born under various astrological signs are pre-programmed with certain innate dispositions. For example, a person born under Mars tends to like blood. And yet, instead of becoming a serial killer, the Talmud tells us such a person can positively channel those energies, such as a butcher, mohel, or physician.

What good is a good society? The theory, then, is clear. And yet, in practice, it's hard to think about Rousseau without becoming a little disheartened. Even our best efforts at educating each generation seem doomed to barely succeed, and our education too often fails us. Maybe we should all just go it alone, do what's best for us, without the false comforts of civilized community?

Consider a much-discussed debate in the Talmud. Recounting the life of Noah, the Torah tells us: "These are the generations of Noah; Noah was a righteous man, complete in his generation." What does it mean that Noach was righteous 'in his generation'? There are two camps. On the one hand, that can be read as praise for Noah. Even in such a degraded generation as his, Noah was a mensch. Imagine how much better he could have been if he'd lived in more exulted times. But the opposite reading also presents itself. Noah may have been the best of a bad bunch, but if he'd lived at a time of great moral and spiritual giants, we wouldn't even remember his name. Perhaps these interpretations tell us less about Noah himself than provide two theories of social influence. Sure Noah had some essential goodness. How else did he rise above the rabble of his generation? But was his character fixed? Would he have been the same person in a more righteous generation - and thus comparatively mediocre? Or would a stronger, more moral, and dynamic social setting have uplifted Noah's character even further? For if we're all another brick in the wall, then that wall stands or falls on the strength of each brick. The latter reading offers hope. But it also contains a strong moral obligation, a call to action. If our surroundings affect our individual moral character, are we not collectively responsible for each other's behavior? For if we're all another brick in the wall, then that wall stands or falls on the strength of each brick.

We sometimes have to remind ourselves that self-development is not simply a personal indulgence. But also bear in mind that we can't fully help others without finding balance within ourselves. The more mastery we have of our drives and desires, the more effectively we can contribute to the greater good.Ultimately, shouldn't our goal be to use our self-mastery to build a society that enhances each of us? And in turn, is it not likely that a better society enables each of us to become better people? It's a virtuous cycle: Good people make good society, and good society makes better people. Now, all that may sound hopelessly utopian. But this utopian vision might illuminate an essential metaphysical truth. Consider one of the most famous lines in Jewish tradition: "If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?" In Hillel's profound dictum, we can find an answer to Rousseau. Perhaps the mission of education, of collectively forming individuals into social beings, isn't some terrible compromise. Maybe it's the most natural human act of all. For all of a human's intrinsic vitality and goodness, man on his own is not yet a fully formed 'I.' Of course, societies can also go horribly wrong, and we can lose ourselves in them. Surrender to the collective identity. The catastrophic damage wrought by the fascist and communist regimes of the 20th century offers us a cautionary tale in overemphasizing the collective at the expense of the individual. Remember, Hillel cautions, you exist to be for others, but do not also forget to be for yourself.

Ultimately, we need both sides. And it's that dialectical relationship between ourselves, the society we create, and the selves our society develops, which comprises our true identity; when we say 'we,' we mean – for better and sometimes for worse – a social being. Creating a virtuous, productive, benevolent, enriching community isn't easy; at times, it may not even seem possible. But in working together to try to make it possible, we have an opportunity to participate in the process of creating ourselves.

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