Human nature

fundamental characteristics of human beings

Human Nature refers to the distinguishing characteristics, including ways of thinking, feeling and acting, that humans tend to have naturally, independently of the influence of culture.

Human nature is evil; its goodness derives from conscious activity. ~ Xun Zi

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  • Knowledge of human nature is the beginning and end of political education.
    • Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (1907), Chapter XII
  • All men by nature desire to know; the proof of this is the pleasure caused by sensations, for even apart from the usefulness, we enjoy them for themselves, and visual sensations more than the others.
    • Aristotle, Metaphysics 980b22, in Complete Works, vol. 2, p. 1552
  • Human nature is so well disposed towards those who are in interesting situations, that a young person, who either marries or dies, is sure of being kindly spoken of.
  • Everyone who achieves strives for totality, and the value of his achievement lies in that totality—that is, in the fact that the whole, undivided nature of a human being should be expressed in his achievement. But when determined by our society, as we see it today, achievement does not express a totality; it is completely fragmented and derivative. It is not uncommon for the community to be the site where a joint and covert struggle is waged against higher ambitions and more personal goals. ... The socially relevant achievement of the average person serves in the vast majority of cases to repress the original and nonderivative, inner aspirations of the human being.
    • Walter Benjamin, "The Life of Students" (1915), as translated by R. Livingstone, in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings – vol. 1: 1913-1926, ed. Michael William Jennings, Harvard University Press, 1996, p. 39
  • One man talks continually about the particular actions of this or another neighbor; whilst another looks beyond the acts to the inward principle from which they spring, and gathers from them larger views of human nature. In a word, one man sees all things apart and in fragments, whilst another strives to discover the harmony, connection, unity of all. One of the great evils of society is, that men, occupied perpetually with petty details, want general truths, want broad and fixed principles.
  • Before all other things, man is distinguished by his pursuit and investigation of Truth. And hence, when free from needful business and cares, we delight to see, to hear, and to communicate, and consider a knowledge of many admirable and abstruse things necessary to the good conduct and happiness of our lives: whence it is clear that whatsoever is True, simple, and direct, the same is most congenial to our nature as men. Closely allied with this earnest longing to see and know the truth, is a kind of dignified and princely sentiment which forbids a mind, naturally well constituted, to submit its faculties to any but those who announce it in precept or in doctrine, or to yield obedience to any orders but such as are at once just, lawful, and founded on utility. From this source spring greatness of mind and contempt of worldly advantages and troubles.
    • Cicero, De Officiis, Book 1, § 13
  • It is essential to every inquiry about duty that we keep before our eyes how far superior man is by nature to cattle and other beasts: they have no thought except for sensual pleasure and this they are impelled by every instinct to seek; but man's mind is nurtured by study and meditation.
    • Cicero, De Officiis, Book 1, § 105
  • Nature outweighing art begets roughness; art outweighing nature begets pedantry. Art and nature well blent make a gentleman.
  • The nonchalance of boys who are sure of a dinner and would disdain as much as a lord to do or say aught to conciliate one is the healthy attitude of human nature.
  • Thus we discover that this blind and impersonal process produced humans not in a lightning flash, not in a sudden instant of creation, but as the result of accumulation. The origin of humans is not something that can be pinpointed at five million years, or one million years, or 100,000 years in the past, but, rather, occurs continuously over time. Our origin is the whole pattern of evolution, although there are key events that we must discover and identify. The things that make us human are acquired as a complex mosaic—we became upright four million years ago; we began to make tools two million years ago; we began to live all over the earth less than one million years ago; and possibly we only acquired language in the last 100,000 years or so.
    Each of these factors is an essential part of the process of becoming human. What makes human evolution such an endlessly fascinating story is trying to visualize the stages, imagining what sort of a creature could walk upright but not talk, make tools but not use fire, survive the rigors of the Ice Age but know nothing of agriculture and a settled way of life.
  • History often reproduces without reference to nationality some particular human type or class which becomes active and predominant for a time, and fades away when its task is finished. It is, however, not utterly lost, for the germ of it lies dormant yet ready to re-appear when the exigencies of the moment recall it. The reserve forces of human nature are inexhaustible and inextinguishable.
  • Human nature is intractable stuff, hard jagged stuff, the kind of stuff that dreams are wrecked on.
    • Elizabeth Goudge, The White Witch (1958), Part I, Chapter XII.2
    • Goudge alludes to the well-known line from Shakespeare's The Tempest, Act 4, scene 1: "We are such stuff as dreams are made on."
  • The nature of man doesn’t change, and that’s reassuring, since we know the necessary conditions that can save him from himself.
  • The fate of the Jewish people is the fate of Macbeth who stepped out of nature itself, clung to alien beings, and so in their service had to trample and slay everything holy in human nature.
    • Hegel, The Spirit of Christianity and its Fate (1799)
  • There is a startling similarity between Bacon’s prescription for mastering nature—“Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed”—and Loyola’s formula for manipulating men—“Follow the other man’s course to your own goal.”
    • Eric Hoffer, Between the Devil and the Dragon (New York: 1951), p. 13
  • In the course of evolution nature has gone to endless trouble to see that every individual is unlike every other individual. ... Physically and mentally, each one of us is unique. Any culture which, in the interests of efficiency or in the name of some political or religious dogma, seeks to standardize the human individual, commits an outrage against man’s biological nature.
    • Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited (1958), Chapter 3, p. 21
  • Human nature, as manifested in tribalism and nationalism, provides the momentum of the machinery of human evolution.
  • Someone who thinks well of himself is said to have a healthy self-concept and is envied. Someone who thinks well of his country is called a patriot and is applauded. But someone who thinks well of his species is regarded as hopelessly naïve and is dismissed.
    • Alfie Kohn, The Brighter Side of Human Nature: Altruism and Empathy in Everyday Life, 1990.
  • Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing.
    • John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (Henry Holt, New York: 1895), Chapter 3, pp. 106-107
  • Human nature is not of itself vicious.
  • Nature … has born and reared all men alike, and created them genuine brothers, not in mere name, but in very reality, though this kinship has been put to confusion by the triumph of malignant covetousness, which has wrought estrangement instead of affinity and enmity instead of friendship.
    • Philo, Every Good Man is Free, 79
  • The needs of man, if life is to survive, are usually said to be four -- air, water, food, and in the severe climates, protection. But it is becoming clear today that the human organism has another absolute necessity... This fifth need is the need for novelty -- the need, throughout our waking life, for continuous variety in the external stimulation of our eyes, ears, sense organs, and all our nervous network.
    • John R. Platt, (1959) "The Fifth Need of Man," in: Horizon 1 (July 1959), p. 109.
  • Humane nature I always thought the most useful object of humane reason, and to make the consideration of it pleasant and entertaining, I always thought the best employment of humane wit: other parts of philosophy may perhaps make us wiser, but this not only answers to that end, but makes us better too. Hence it was that the Oracle pronounced Socrates the wisest of all men living, because he judiciously made choice of human nature for the object of his thoughts; an enquiry into which as much exceeds all other learning, as it is of more consequence to adjust the true nature and measures of right and wrong, than to settle the distance of the planets, and compute the times of their circumvolutions.
    • Alexander Pope, “On Reason and Passion,” Prose works of Alexander Pope (1936), vol. 1 p. 44
  • Therapeutic re-education … teaches the patient-student how to live with the contradictions that combine to make him into a unique personality; this is does in contrast to the older moral pedagogies, which tried to re-order the contradictions into a hierarchy of superior and inferior, good and evil. ... What hope there is derives from Freud’s assumption that human nature is not so much a hierarchy of high-low, and good-bad, as his predecessors believed, but rather a jostling democracy of contending predispositions, deposited in every nature in roughly equal intensities. … Psychoanalysis if full of such mad logic; it is convincing only if the student of his own life accepts Freud’s egalitarian revision of the traditional idea of a hierarchical human nature.
    • Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic (1966), chapter 2
  • Human nature is governed by general self-interest and affected by genetic predisposition, which implies that there are likely to be limits to our moral sensitivities.
    • Nayef Al-Rodhan (2008) “emotional amoral egoism:” A Neurophilosophical Theory of Human Nature and its Universal Security Implications. Berlin: LIT, p. 15
  • Natural desires are limited; but those which spring from false opinion can have no stopping-point. The false has no limits. When you are travelling on a road, there must be an end; but when astray, your wanderings are limitless. Recall your steps, therefore, from idle things, and when you would know whether that which you seek is based upon a natural or upon a misleading desire, consider whether it can stop at any definite point. If you find, after having travelled far, that there is a more distant goal always in view, you may be sure that this condition is contrary to nature.
    • Seneca, Moral Letters, R. Gummere, trans. (1917)
  • Once the increase of empirical knowledge, and more exact modes of thought, made sharper divisions between the sciences inevitable, and once the increasingly complex machinery of the state necessitated a more rigorous separation of ranks and occupations, then the inner unity of human nature was severed too.
  • Human nature is the same now as when Adam hid from the presence of God; the consciousness of wrong makes us unwilling to meet those whom we have offended.
  • It belongs to human nature to hate those you have injured.
    • Tacitus as cited in: William Shepard Walsh (1909) Handy-book of Literary Curiosities. p. 392
  • You don't really understand human nature unless you know why a child on a merry-go-round will wave at his parents every time around and why his parents will always wave back.
    • William D. Tammeus, Attributed in Reader's Digest Quotable Quotes (1997), p. 58
  • We're just like other people: We love to sing, we love to dance, we admire beautiful women. We are human, and sometimes very human.
    • Professor Siletsky in To Be or Not to Be (1942)
  • Ancestral humans behaved like Bonobos. Later, when we developed the family system, the use of sex for this sort of purpose became more limited, mainly occurring within families. A lot of the things we see, like pedophilia and homosexuality, may be leftovers that some now consider unacceptable in our particular society.
    • Frans de Waal ethologist at the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center at Emory University Discover (1992)
  • God consecrates us with His Spirit; whom He adopts, He anoints; whom He makes sons, He makes saints; He doth not only give them a new name, but a new nature. God turns the wolf into a lamb; He makes the heart humble and gracious; He works such a change as if another soul did dwell in the same body.
    • Thomas Watson, as cited in Dictionary of Burning Words of Brilliant Writers (1895), p. 159
  • Human nature is evil; its goodness derives from conscious activity. Now it is human nature to be born with a fondness for profit. Indulging this leads to contention and strife, and the sense of modesty and yielding with which one was born disappears. One is born with feelings of envy and hate, and, by indulging these, one is led into banditry and theft, so that the sense of loyalty and good faith with which he was born disappears. One is born with the desires of the ears and eyes and with a fondness for beautiful sights and sounds, and, by indulging these, one is led to licentiousness and chaos, so that the sense of ritual, rightness, refinement, and principle with which one was born is lost. Hence, following human nature and indulging human emotions will inevitably lead to contention and strife, causing one to rebel against one’s proper duty, reduce principle to chaos, and revert to violence. Therefore one must be transformed by the example of a teacher and guided by the way of ritual and rightness before one will attain modesty and yielding, accord with refinement and ritual, and return to order.
    • Xun Zi, “Human Nature is Evil,” Sources of Chinese Tradition (1999), vol. 1, pp. 179-180

See also