A year long search to understand mankind’s dark nature
Exclusive with 30 of the worlds leading experts in areas ranging from evolutionary biology and criminal psychology to sociology, psychology and philosophy
By Jesse Horn
Part Four: Pandora’s Redemption
“As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.”
-Carl Jung (1875-1961)
The Greek poet Hesiod explains in both his Theogony and Work and Days that in retribution for Prometheus stealing the secret of fire, and allowing it to be given to mankind, the God Zeus wanted to bring balance to the earth. He did so by ordering Hephaestus to craft a “beautiful evil” from the earth. This gave birth to what humanity would understand as woman, or more specifically the legendary Pandora. According to the myth, Epimetheus, Prometheus’s brother, took Pandora to be his wife. Prometheus, out of fear that more misfortune would befall them, warned his brother to not except any further gifts. Epimetheus did not heed this warning and took a gift presented by Zeus himself for Pandora. It was a vessel, or what is commonly misunderstood in contemporary times as a box, and Zeus told Pandora that she was not allowed to open it. Although she did not mean any harm, her curiosity was far too great and she opened the treasure, unleashing upon mankind all the evils that were previously unknown. When she realized what she was doing, she quickly closed the container, trapping inside only one element that remained…hope.
This in itself creates an interesting conundrum. With the items that escaped the container representing undesirable conditions for the world, why was the only one that remained something we would traditionally consider a virtue, and one of the defining aspects to our species that separates us from all other creatures? Now that mankind was forced to suffer, were we also condemned to live without true hope or salvation? Is the keeping of Hope in Pandora’s Box a benefit to mankind, or a curse?
Throughout this series we have examined the darkest parts of human nature in an attempt to, in some ways, find redemption for Pandora. In attempting to find answers to some of the fundamental questions about the limitations and intentions of the morality of our species, and ultimately a deeper understanding of the true nature of man, we have sought to also discover whether or not hope has been saved for us, or if it has been kept from us.
When you consider some of the darkest moments in human history many will gravitate towards events like the Black Plague, which took an estimated 60% of the population of Europe, or almost 100,000,000 people. This was a faceless and merciless killer that did not discriminate. What is not seen however is that World War II is estimated to have taken nearly 75,000,000 victims through some of the most horrific ways ever devised by the human mind, and cost close to the same as one of the most catastrophic plagues humanity have ever known.
We have discussed in some length the atrocities seen during the Battle on the Eastern Front, the Death march of Bataan, or the Rape of Nanking, and yet there were numerous groups that suffered during World War II. One of the worst was the Jewish population.
Born in 1930, Samuel Oliner was a Jewish farm boy who by the age of nine lost nearly his entire family to the brutality of the invading Nazis. After following the direction of his stepmother, young Samuel left home on his own before the remaining members of his family were murdered. He walked alone for nearly two days before he was taken in by a peasant woman. She risked her life by teaching him how to pass as a non-Jew, even showing him how to recite the catechism. At age twelve he found work on a farm in a community where there was no chance he would be recognized, and he changed his name. He had seen such atrocities that by the time the Russian army liberated the area in March of 1945, he was still too afraid to reveal his true identity.
When we are confronted with unimaginable evil, how do we find peace with our understanding of humanity, and still see goodness in man?
In an interview with the Mogollon Connection British philosopher and author Raymond Tallis explained to us that much of what we conceive as moral action comes from basic ideas that we are taught as children.
“My view is that of an atheist, optimistic humanist,” he began, “I feel that we have transcended our condition as dog-eat-dog organisms to become creatures with a moral sense who are aware, at least in principle, of the equal reality of others – an awareness that lies at the heart of morality and is expressed in the Golden Rule that we should do unto others as we would wish to be done to. However, I am intensely conscious of our unique capacity to treat others abominably. Given that I was born a few months after Auschwitz was liberated, it is hardly surprising that I have a strong sense of the evil that humans – individually and collectively – do. My position is that of cautious and chastened optimism, a belief that, if we are ourselves well-treated by others, we will usually treat others reasonably well.”
Much of our moral sense is not only crafted through our biology, and taught to us by our environment, but as we have seen in this series, it also comes from our ability to transfer the power of responsibility to others who stand in a perceived role of authority, and thus allows the perpetrator to behave in ways that are counter to our everyday understanding and experience.
Ultimately however, it is not our capacity to give into animalistic behaviors that define the human moral being…it is our ability to forgive, and to find hope.
In later years Samuel Oliner went on to become one of the leading voices on altruism and forgiveness. Dr. Oliner is the founder of the Humboldt Journal of Social Relations and both he and his wife Pearl are Holocaust survivors. We had the honor to speak to Dr. Oliner about his feelings regarding the innate nature of man, and our ability to do good.
“The question that you ask is very profound,” Dr. Oliner commented. “I am somewhat familiar with the Rape of Nanking having looked at the book by Iris Chang and the horrible pictures of torture and atrocities done by the Japanese soldiers. It is also during that time of unspeakable horrors that there was a German businessman by the name of John Rabe who sheltered about 200,000 Chinese from slaughter. I am saying this because your questions in your note focus on whether human beings are innately good or evil.” Dr. Oliner went on to explain that he can see two sides to where this behavior comes from.
“Having spent much of my academic life thinking and writing on the nature of good and evil, I have found along with others who say human beings are capable of both heroic altruism and terrible destructive acts. I believe that human beings have inherited both natures, but culture does modify behavior in the form of moral codes, ethical upbringing, and loving parents who teach the consequences of being a bystander and indifference towards other. There is evidence that there may be a genetic predisposition for empathic response to those in distress. Some scholars talk about a dual inheritance namely we inherit certain predispositions to behavior, but they are modified by culture such as empathy, teaching moral codes, and generally respecting ethical behavior towards others. I still put a lot of weight on the nurture side of moral development. While not ignoring the nature side.”
Ryan Jones, Professor of Philosophy for Northland Pioneer College, explained to us that even though we may give in to a darker side, there is far more to what makes us apart of a greater being.
“I think people win and lose the war for their humanity in small ways all the time. I suppose that what I’m saying is that we achieve our humanity when we manage to actually live up to our own ideas about what we should be, but that since the other stuff is also part of being human, it’s easy to let it win, and it even feels authentic and natural.” Professor Jones went on to explain that our big brains are natural too, and so are the products of our brains, our ideals.
“I don’t think one is more natural than the other,” he continued. “In tough times like these, you see people engaged in personal struggles all the time, and I think its impressive how often they win, and become who they want to be despite serious obstacles. In such cases, people say that they have been true to themselves. Or, if they fail, they say that they let themselves down. This way of speaking, I think, points to the plural nature of who “we” are as individuals, constantly in conflict with ourselves, always trying to raise our humanity above our merely human origins.”
Ultimately the redemption that Pandora can find is that the totality of our experiences makes us who we are, for the good and the bad. It is the hope that she kept inside her box that separates us, and truly makes us human, and humane.
The Mogollon Connection would like to thank all those who have participated in this series and as all of the content and interviews could not be used in the limited space available for print an extended version will be available on line in the future.