Authors' Conceptions of Human Nature
Philosophers, politicians, and writers throughout all of the western world and
across all of our written history have discovered the importance of knowing human nature. Human nature is responsible for our definitions of abstract concepts that are surprisingly universal across the western world like justice, equity, and law. Human nature must also be carefully studied in an effort to understand, obtain, or maintain power within society. Finally, human nature must also be carefully understood so as to protect it from being manipulated and to understand its place in society.
In ancient Greece, Aeschylus sought to define for the people of Athens the part of
human nature that necessitates justice and power. At the end of his series of plays in the Oresteia, Aeschylus tells the story of Orestes and the progression of justice. The final play, The Eumenides, ends with a struggle between different definitions of justice. Orestes is a youth charged with matricide which is punishable by death according to the Furies and the traditional method of restoring equity. Athena, however, offers a form of justice that considers the context of a person’s actions when restoring equity. In the case of Orestes, the context of his case is the guidance given to him by Apollo and the wrongs that he had suffered as a result of his mother, Clytaemestra. Athena’s understanding of human nature is that the ideas of compassion and empathy coexist with the concept of justice in the minds of most people. As a result, Athena establishes a jury comprised of the peers of Orestes so that they may judge him with understanding for both the context of Orestes’s actions and the need for justice for the death of Clytaemestra. The struggle between the Furies’ cry for justice and Athena’s call for understanding comprises the majority of the play.
During the course of this struggle, the Furies argue that the actions of Orestes must be answered, because consequences must be established for all punishable actions in order for a society to remain stable. This need arises out of a basic understanding of human nature: people often only act justly out of fear. The Furies remind Athena of this common behavior among humans:
Here is overthrow of all
the young laws, if the claim
of this matricide shall stand
good, his crime be sustained.
Should this be, every man will find a way
to act at his own caprice;
over and over again in time
to come, parents shall await
the deathstroke at their children’s hands. (Aeschylus 152)
The Furies disregard Athena’s plea for understanding when reaching justice, instead, they reason that when crimes remain unpunished, all people will lose their fear of committing similar actions and will discontinue acting responsibly because there will be no consequences. Athena agrees with the Furies and asks the question, “What / man who fears nothing at all is ever righteous?” (Aeschylus 160). ...