A poor, bare, forked animal

…men are not gentle creatures, who want to be loved… As a result, their neighbor is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. Homo homini lupus. Who in the face of all his experience of life and of history will have the courage to dispute this assertion?
  • Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents
No quality of human nature is more remarkable… than the propensity we have to sympathize with others and to receive by communications their inclinations and sentiments, however different from, or even contrary to our own.
  • David Hume, A Treatise on Human Nature
I used the above quotes to lay out two views of human nature in the first-year honors seminar yesterday.  We've been reading Gulliver's Travels and have come to the last voyage. That means we have to decide how seriously we want to take Gulliver's dim view of humanity.

On the one hand,  Freud is right: man is wolf to man.   On the other, Hume is equally right.  It is an absolutely jaw-dropping fact that we can empathize even with those whose inclinations are contrary to our own.  And, as always, all roads lead to Lear.   Year after year, I keep circling around and returning to this astonishing play. 

Yesterday, for instance, I fell into a conversation with the philosophy professor whose office is next to mine.  We were talking about Hume's contention that morality isn't discovered through inductive reasoning; rather, it emerges from our emotions and our imaginative capacity to place ourselves in someone else's position.  This strikes me as intuitively true, but it does raise a serious problem because it means moral stances have no objective or rational basis.   They are simply moods we may or may not feel. 

There's no good reason for Cordelia to be honest with her father in Act 1, and there's no good reason why Edgar should take pity on the father who has ordered him hunted down like a beast.  Empathy, compassion, forgiveness are all deeply irrational.  They lack any objective ought.  We can only speak what we feel and hope for the best.  Humanity really is a poor animal forked between the Edgars and Edmunds of its nature. 

Each spring I teach King Lear in the first-year honors seminar and the damned play astounds me all over again.


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