Washington: "Vain to exclaim against the depravity of human nature"

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George_Washington_19.JPGIf you are an engineer, you understand the forces of nature so that you can exploit them in your designs. There's no point in complaining about gravity. If you wish them away or pretend they don't exist, your designs will fail.

If you are organizing people, you had better understand the forces of human nature and how to exploit those forces to accomplish your aims.

Gen. George Washington knew that the Continental Army needed officers in order to succeed. He also knew that altruism wasn't enough to keep good officers over the long haul. On January 28, 1778, Washington wrote to a committee of Congress that was investigating reforms of the Army:

A small knowledge of human nature will convince us, that, with far the greatest part of mankind, interest is the governing principle; and that, almost, every man, is more or less, under its influence. Motives of public virtue may for a time, or in particular instances actuate men to the observance of a conduct purely disinterested; but they are not of themselves sufficient to produce a persevering conformity to the refined dictates and obligations of social duty. Few men are capable of making a continual sacrifice of all views of private interest, or advantage, to the common good. It is in vain to exclaim against the depravity of human nature on this account--the fact is so; the experience of every age and nation has proved it, and we must in a great measure change the constitution of man, before we can make it otherwise. No institution, not built on the presumptive truth of these maxims can succeed.

(Hat tip to Steve Fair, who includes this quote from Washington in his column on the legacy of Reagan press secretary and gun control advocate James Brady.)

Some say that theology has no place in the public realm. But if theology is a summary of the Creator's revelation about the world He created, we had better pay attention as we design our institutions. Even if you merely believe that theology is a mere reflection of human wisdom, why ignore it? Someone has noted that human depravity is the one tenet of the Christian faith that can be observed and proven empirically.

Jonah Goldberg attributes to Professor Glenn Loury the idea that "the essence of conservatism was that human nature has no history."

Late OU Professor of Classics J. Rufus Fears:

As the American Founders understood, the lessons of history endure because human nature never changed. All the human emotions are the same today as in Egypt of the pharaohs or China in the time of Confucius: Love, hate, ambition, the lust for power, kindness, generosity, and inhumanity. The good and bad of human nature is simply poured into new vehicles created by science and technology.

From that same Goldberg column:

Remember my favorite Hannah Arendt quote: Western civilization is invaded by barbarians every generation. We call these barbarians "children." That is what conservatism properly understood is about. That's what Russell Kirk and others meant by "the wisdom of the ancients." That's why we need to protect our institutions and not presume out of the arrogance of our own intellects to remake society in one fell swoop. That is the villainy of the French, Russian, and Chinese Revolutions in this century. Our institutions have been very carefully crafted by trial-and-error to improve the human condition.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on August 8, 2014 8:06 AM.

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