The crooked timber of humanity

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Jason Miko

In my previous three columns on what it means to be a Macedonian conservative, I have expounded on issues of gratitude as well as the wisdom found in the old ways and tradition, and the idea that, alas, there are limits in life, and that limits, boundaries, and rules are necessary in life.  And in each of these columns, I have then applied those thoughts to the Macedonian conservative.  In this column, I want to discuss the “crooked timber of humanity.”

American author Jonah Goldberg has made the point that there is great divide today (and frankly has been for some time) between those who believe in the perfectibility of mankind and those who believe that this is impossible.  Writing in a column in April, 2018 in National Review, he posits “One of the great intellectual and philosophical divides — a chasm really — is between those who believe in the ‘perfectibility of man’ and those who side with Kant’s observation that ‘out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.’” (Goldberg here refers to German philosopher Immanuel Kant, 1724-1804)

That phrase – “out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made” – comes from one of Kant’s propositions in which he states that rulers, those who rule over us, themselves need checks on their power and that, as a species, we need masters for the simple reason our human nature is corruptible and crooked. American Founding Father James Madison (1751-1836, fourth president of the United States, stated this as well in Federalist No. 51 writing “If men were angels no government would be necessary” (The Federalist Papers were a series of 85 articles and essays written in 1787 and 1788 in support of ratification of the US Constitution).  Alas, men, nor women, are angles and so we must be ruled by men and women who themselves are imperfect.

Taking this idea from the rulers and then applying to it ruled, we find that those from the progressive and left side of the aisle tend to subscribe to this “perfectibility of mankind” idea believing that with enough social engineering, money, and government intervention, and preferably with them in charge of all three, mankind can be made perfect, or nearly so. Individuals from the conservative and right side of the aisle tend to subscribe to the understanding that we all, as individuals, are all fallen, broken men and women and therefore are part of the crooked timber of humanity and cannot be made perfect.  The Christian doctrine of “original sin” attests to this.

An important part of this understanding is that human nature is flawed and immutable (unchangeable) and, again, that no amount of engineering, social or otherwise, will change it.  You might talk of the “lofty virtues of human nature” as Scottish preacher Oswald Chambers (1874-1917) put it, but if you refuse to acknowledge and recognize the wickedness and selfishness inherent in human nature then, sooner or later, you will compromise with it and accept it.  Better, then, to acknowledge this, reconcile yourself to the fact of our fallen nature, and work in other ways to at the least, produce better behavior.

You cannot change human nature – but you can change human behavior.  And that change starts with the individual – not with government, not with civil society, and not with progressive individuals shouting, “do something!” as if that will make societal problems go away.  For adults who have young children to care for, that change begins with proper instruction from the adults, but it all begins with the family, the basic building block of any society.  

So, how does all of this apply to the Macedonian conservative?  To my mind – and this is very practical thought – there is no reason to put political leaders – of any party – on a pedestal and turn them into “cult of personality” figures as some have done in Macedonia, and frankly, in every country with a form of democracy as its governing philosophy.  Because again, those who rule are just as imperfect as we are.

The Macedonian conservative should also be wary of politicians and unelected bureaucrats who wish to use taxpayer money, and the levers of power, to try to engineer their own desired results among the populace. This is not only wrong, but dangerous. All too often, this social engineering is designed and pursued to the detriment of the family, faith, and community, and in favor of a certain uniformity that demands obedience to it and to it alone.

Finally, the Macedonian conservative should recognize that raising children and teaching them proper behavior is where real change begins and must happen. Every society and every generation is invaded by barbarians – they are called children – and they must be shaped and formed by adults who have already gone through the crucible of life and have learned on their own, either through teaching or the proverbial school of hard knocks, what it takes to become civilized, to behave correctly, to know and then to practice the virtues – courage, honesty, fairness, self-control, duty, sympathy, and more.  Too often in our world today, we are told we must have “values,” but far too few people want to talk about the more important thing – virtues.

All of this begins with an understanding that we – all of us – are part of the crooked timber of humanity and that no amount of an attempted change of our human nature will make that go away. 

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