Many years ago I asked a group of men if they believed human morality was improving and if we were becoming a better society. To my surprise a bright attorney quickly responded, “Absolutely.” I was dumbfounded. He proceeded to share his optimism about the future as if human beings were perfectible and that a Utopian society might be achievable in our lifetime. That was well over twenty-five years ago and I wonder if he has changed his mind.
Leonardo da Vinci lived most of his life optimistically believing in the nobility of every man. He was convinced that man on his own terms, given his native ability, could solve every problem he faced and ultimately was capable of bringing forth an ideal community. He had complete faith in the ability of man to achieve harmony. However, as time slipped by, Leonardo finally recognized that there was a division between his theory and the way people actually lived their lives. When Francis I, King of France, brought him to the French court, Leonardo was despondent. He lived out the last years of his life completely dejected over the condition of man and the hopelessness of the future of mankind.
The great twentieth century thinker and author H.G. Wells had a similar experience, as he believed passionately in the perfectibility of human beings in our society.
In 1920, he published an extraordinarily ambitious work, The Outline of History, which also served as his unabashed declaration of idealism. Each page conveyed an unshakable faith in progress and a conviction of complete optimism for the future. However, a mere thirteen years later, in his book, The Shape of Things to Come, Wells had clearly shifted perspectives. Now, his writing, rather than being optimistic, related the stubbornness and selfishness of people and governments. So radically altered was his consciousness that he even went so far as to maintain that the only solution for mankind was for the intellectual elite (which included himself, of course) to take control of the entire world and forcibly change people’s lives through compulsory education. Twelve years later, in 1945, just shortly before his death, he completed his final work, The Mind at the End of Its Tether. In it, he concluded that “there is no way out, or around, or through the impasse . . .” there is no hope for mankind.
Many people are beginning to wonder if moral transformation is possible, and if so what resources are necessary for it to come about.
I recently read about the life of Benjamin Franklin. He once attempted, on his own, to try and achieve moral perfection as an act of his will. In an excerpt from his autobiography, he writes about his plans to conquer all of his imperfections, whether they were a result of his natural inclinations, habits, or the influence of people he spent time with. In reflecting on his efforts, Franklin said:
“I soon found I had undertaken a task of more difficulty than I had imagined. While my care was employ’d in guarding against one fault, I was often surprised by another; habit took the advantage of inattention; inclination was sometimes too strong for reason.”
Why are we this way? Why can we not produce a society where people are loving, selfless and good? We seem to have this deeply entrenched pattern of self-centeredness that comes natural to us. The social sciences have a difficult time explaining it, and it seems to me that Christianity provides the most reasonable explanation: the natural depravity of man. We are naturally sinful.
Jesus says that our thoughts, our words, and our actions all flow out of our hearts. We live from the heart. We have a heart problem. The prophet Jeremiah says, “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick.” And then he poses this question: “Who can understand the human heart?” (Jeremiah 17:9) More significantly, can the human heart be changed? Can it be transformed to do good?
I will pick up on this in my next blog.
Here is Why Am I This Way? – Part 2