The question of what is human nature, or what is a human being, is ultimately the question of how we as human beings fit into the universe. From the time I was young, this question has frequently exercised my attention, both intellectually and practically. Scientifically, it is the question of why individual human lives, each unfathomably rich in potential, nonetheless end up developing, in any given time and place, into a relatively small number of basic types, none very felicitous. Pragmatically, it is the question of choosing wisely an orienting horizon and establishing adequate motivational traction.
The question of human nature is curiously obligatory. No other species appears to possess either the capacity or interest to decide its own nature, to select its way of being from among alternatives. It is as of other species are programs; we humans, computers. We are of a different order, able to emulate a thousand simpler lives. This is what makes our canalization, the reduction of our unfathomable diversity to a relatively small number of types, so curious.
Our understanding of our own nature guides our self-conception, our motivation, and our behavior. In very practical ways, each individual must ask the question, even if only to parrot the answers loudly advertised by others.
Yet there is reason to avoid foreclosing the question so quickly. The asking is itself productive. Socrates’ oft-quoted statement “The unexamined life is not worth living” (ὁ…ἀνεξέταστος βίος οὐ βιωτὸς ἀνθρώπῳ) is better rendered “The unreflective life is not the life of a human.” Socrates’ recognized in human intelligence something quite distinctive of our species, fundamental to the way we ought to live. It is equally fundamental to our happiness and well-being.