How should we live? How do we become who we should be? How do we truly “be ourselves”?
These aren’t silly questions. They are terribly practical. The answer we arrive at tells us a lot about our view of the world. And it will also shape how we see our own human nature.
How should we become ourselves? By following our nature or by going against it? Is our nature good or bad? Or do we need a new nature entirely?
A random ancient Greek looking guy.
The ancient Greeks believed – generally – that the world was an ordered place. Plants, animals, natural forces all behaved in the way they ought to. (there was an ought) The world was the way it should be and operated within not only natural law but also moral ones. For them, to live the virtuous life was to follow your own nature. Everyone had a role to play in the world, and when we were most true to ourselves we would live an ordered, virtuous, moral life. This is an incredible over-simplification but it serves. We need to be truly ourselves and then we will live the way we should. We’ll find our place, treat others properly, and be most true to who we’re supposed to be. If we acted in accord with our nature, we’d be who we ought to be. But the problem with this way of thinking is that it was missing something. That is, a satisfying answer to why things aren’t the way they seem to ought to be. I it really just because some people weren’t living out their true natures? What if we find that our natures are not inherently predisposed to virtue and right living? What then?
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Seriously thinking about something serious.
On the other side, and much later in history, came Immanuel Kant. One of the most influential thinkers in history, to be sure, and someone who took an opposing position to ancient Greek thought. Kant believed there was a Universal Good and everyone should pursue it. (again, an ought) That Good meant acting in unselfish ways towards others and humanity as a whole. But Kant didn’t think that nature was a good guide. Why? Because we’re naturally kind of selfish. Our human nature would incline us away from what was good. So Kant argued for acting in ways that were not in our natural inclinations. If we were able to act in ways that were selfish, we could also train ourselves to act in ways that weren’t. By, in a sense, not acting in accord with our nature. (see how different this is from the Greeks?)
But there are just as many problems with this. How do we act out a new nature? Where does this new nature come from?
So, should we get more in tune with our nature like the Greeks suggest? Or, should we resist our nature and discipline ourselves into a new one, like Kant wants us to?
If we feel like we have Greeks to the left of us, and Kant to the right, we should look at a way in the middle. Greek thought can’t account for the disorder of our natures – the ‘natural’ selfishness and so on. Kant thinks we can’t follow our nature but he can’t really give a us a new one either. Our nature’s are bad. But they weren’t always. The Greeks are right that there is a perfect way human nature should be. But they’re wrong in thinking that we’re already there. Kant is also right in that we can’t (kant… haha) follow our natural inclinations but he can’t provide us with a new nature either. But there is one who can.
Biblical Christianity tells us the world was once a certain way – unspoiled, perfect, ordered. But it also tells us that that it’s no longer that way. Nature (and our human nature) was once good but now it’s not. But it also gives hope for us because it offers us a new nature. In Jesus, that is when we believe in Him and are changed by Him, we are given a new nature. We become part of a new creation. And we’re told that we must not follow our old nature – like the Greeks would have us do. But we’re not left to construct a new nature – like Kant says. Instead we’re given as a gift a new nature – by being born again – and told to put off the old and put on the new. And it is by doing that, that we truly become ourselves and find the way to live in the world.