For a serious thinker it is not advisable to talk about “the nature” of man, because such statements almost always turn out to be speculative, mostly they only reveal the nature of the daring author. I will, nevertheless, begin with two sentences that aim at doing just that: to say something about basic human aspirations. I expect that the following statements will support my statement.
1) It is part of the nature of man that he likes to be praised, respected and appreciated.
2) it is in the nature of man that he does not like and often finds it offensive if only others are praised, respected and appreciated, but not he himself.
Assuming that both sentences may claim general validity, we are obviously faced with the basic problem that the ideal of justice can never be realized once and for all, because both sentences are in open contradiction to each other. The more scope a society gives to the first demand, the more concessions it has to make to the second – and vice versa. We are dealing with a variant of the contradiction between freedom and equality.
When we talk of praise, attention and appreciation,
we may, of course, mean quite different things. Acknowledgments can consist of an admiring look, a handshake, a bundle of banknotes, an awe-inspiring title, a high income, a medal or an entry in the Book of Records. Societies have invented thousands of different ways to both punish and reward their members. Robert Knox, the 17th-century captive of Rajasingha, King of Kandy (Ceylon), writes that among court nobles nothing was coveted as much as a lofty title – the longer and the more opulent the closer the man was to the king. At the same time, everyone knew that the closer they came to His Majesty, the more their lives were at risk. The highest title was a guarantee to be trampled by elephants for some, often quite fictitious, offence invented by the mischievous king. This happened regularly, and everyone knew it – and yet all the nobles strove for titles: the more bombastic the better, and everyone wanted to get as close to the king as possible. It was like the fascination of moths by the light.
The need to stand in the light before others
remains unchanged up to the present day. It underlies all competition. On the other hand, the need to be valued by others, not to be disregarded or to be offended as an inferior is at least as strongly anchored in the human breast. This need is at the base of cooperation, which is only possible if the individual sees himself appreciated by others in his specific role – whatever the latter may be. Societies oscillate between the two extremes of (aggressive) competition that drives people to constantly fight against each other and forced cooperation that like in a termite state assigns to everybody their specific role.
The liberation of the individual by Industrial Revolution
since the 18th century has given an increasing number of people the opportunity to be recognized and appreciated on the basis of individual performance, ability, intelligence and determination – usually directly expressed through higher financial remuneration. However, what initially came as liberation quickly turned into growing inequality, because the most capable (and often the most ruthless) were able to appropriate more and more of the common cake. Money, recognition and power were concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, thus destroying the initial liberation – this is called refeudalization. In other words, the individual was initially given greater freedom through competition, but he subsequently lost this freedom, as the superiority of a small number of the super-rich and super-powerful condemned him to impotence, which he experienced as an increasing insult to his self-esteem (thesis 2). The US, where income and wealth are concentrated in the top one percent, has come a long way in this direction.
The concentration of power, wealth and recognition
in a few hands has never enabled a stable society – especially not in a time like ours, which, due to its extraordinary organizational and technological complexity, can be so easily destabilized and sabotaged. That is why the idea of a society in which no one feels offended because everyone has equal access to recognition and social dignity is so appealing.
Original Christian Communism
and many sects of various religions have preached equality in spiritual and material terms as an ideal and have even been able to implement it in smaller communities. Marx and more recently Thomas Piketty want this ideal to be realized in all societies, regardless of size. It was left to Mao to promote the ideal with the means not only of ideological propaganda but also of physical coercion. As we know, millions of dead were sacrificed to the experiment. It turned out to be particularly bloody because it contradicted the need mentioned under thesis 1, a need that in turn is based on the fact that people are different and therefore find it unreasonable that the same lifestyle both spiritually and materially is imposed on everybody in the same way.
The craving for self-realization
explains the explosion of creative abilities as soon as Deng Xiao Ping allowed the Chinese to throw off the Maoist straitjacket in the 1980s. Everyone was suddenly called upon to develop their knowledge, their skills, their assertiveness (as long as this did not contradict the goals of the state). Not unlike in Europe at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, this was an act of liberation that changed the world instantly and in a most powerful way.
But in China too
(not only in the US and in Europe) the number of billionaires has risen sharply in quite a short time. There, too, the initial liberation threatens to produce a caste of super-rich people who, by being overweight in power, influence and financial strength, increasingly hinder the rise of their less fortunate fellows. This caste is ready to embark on the same path of refeudalization as the upper one percent in the USA.
Why is it so incredibly difficult to stop halfway and reconcile both needs: the need for cooperation and the need for competition? Why this eternal back and forth between two extremes: first, the accumulation of wealth and then bloody social revolutions that bring about redistribution?
In theory, the problem is surprisingly easy to solve. Plato had already proposed to take children away from their parents as in his time practiced by Sparta. Under this premise, every generation begins anew. For every child is to take up exactly that position which is due to him or her on the basis of their abilities. Inheritances cannot be handed over from parents to children, as they infallibly lead to the creation of classes or even castes. Certainly, Sparta was one of the cruelest states in world history, for the wealth of the top five percent of freeborn Spartans had to be earned by 95 percent of lawless helots. But the principle of social justice based solely on individual ability remains unaffected. If we were to transfer such a system to the present day, we would not have to worry about refeudalization and the one percent of super-rich and super-powerful at the head of the state. Marx, Piketty and Mao would not need to demand a classless society, because this comes about all by itself: talent and ability being distributed anew in each generation. And, of course, we wouldn’t even have to follow Plato and commit the cruelty of taking children away from their parents. It is enough to raise the inheritance tax to one hundred percent to achieve the same effect: a classless society.
But even this more modest goal has never been achieved,
because it is in turn contrary to a human need hard to suppress: the care of parents for their children. Every normal person takes it for granted that parents treat their own children with love, and love consists not only in good words but in all kinds of material gifts. It has always been seen as unnatural and as a sign of extreme lack of love that a father disinherits his children.
That is one thing. On the other hand, however, we think it is unfair that someone should be rich, respected, influential only because he received his position by mere accident of birth. Again, we are faced with a contradiction inherent in human nature. And again, we see societies oscillating between two extremes. A very few – especially smaller communities and sects – reject all unearned benefits of inheritance, including Sparta. But in densely populated societies, this strategy has proven to be unworkable. The prospect of working not only for one’s own ego but of sharing it with the whole family, one’s own children and grandchildren seems to be one of the most powerful motivations for action, while conversely the certain prospect of losing all property to the state or other unknown people after one’s death threatens to paralyze all initiative.
We should therefore not be surprised that in this case too it is extremely difficult to find the right balance. Ideals have so far only been realized in societies which we subsequently judge to be inhumane; this is true of communism in Sparta and under Mao and of neoliberal capitalism in the US today. Every society tries anew to find the right distance from the opposing extremes, but none has yet developed a final solution. The problem of justice is bound to accompany man throughout his history.
** The imperative of equality in Sparta had its obvious reason. A ruling minority of about five percent will only be able to permanently subjugate an enslaved majority of 95 percent if it does not allow dissent to arise within its own ranks. Equality among free Spartans was therefore the first commandment to maintain the inequality of all others. We are reminded of the actions of states in times of war. If they want to awaken in their citizens the willingness to sacrifice themselves for the fatherland, ruling circles feel compelled to grant them more rights – a concession that is quickly forgotten in times of peace.
Knox, Robert (??): An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon. (1681) Public Domain Book.