December 28, 2006
Aspen, CO ColoradoDid Adolf Hitler love Eva Braun? Did Saddam Hussein love his sons? Was there a glimmer of redemptive hope in Jeffrey Dahmer, Timothy McVeigh, Ted Bundy? Can we recognize goodness in Osama bin Laden, in the Unabomber, in George Bush?Those who are reviled for darkness and evil usually have a counterbalance of goodness and light. Except for Iago in Shakespeare’s grim tragedy, “Othello,” mankind is neither black nor white. Iago is the exception because he revels in amoral glee as he omnisciently exploits human foibles and converts them into ruinous consequences.Iago is less a character than a prevailing force in human nature that ferrets out universal character flaws. By making him a man, Shakespeare gave a human face to fatal flaws that are routinely exposed in war: corruption, greed, suspicion and a litany of ills that plague humanity.What’s perplexing is why the default mode of human behavior tends toward venality when we hold in equal measure positive attributes that could make life so much more harmonious. The answer lies in the murky beginnings of our species.Thomas Hobbes, the British philosopher, took a dim view of our beginnings. He surmised in his book “The Leviathan” that man’s life in a state of nature was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”Hobbes said men are fundamentally equal in ability and potential, but when they strive toward the same thing as competitors, they become enemies who “endeavor to destroy or subdue one another” for a particular gain.In the absence of a “Leviathan,” which is a form of overbearing authority that overrules our baser instincts, men are pitted against each other in a state of perpetual war “wherein every man is enemy to every man.”This is our world as presented daily by the headlines. The Hobbesian view appears to be our default when chaos negates moral authority, when Iago is given free reign. Nationalism and tribalism play to this void with myopic distrust. There is something inherently divisive – and outmoded – about our social constructs.As we move from one year to another, our very survival depends on a shift away from Hobbes and away from the mischief of Iago. If we possess free will and are, by nature, free thinkers able to grasp new ideas without the coercion of history and society, we owe it to ourselves and our progeny to endeavor for a brighter future.Perhaps it begins by recognizing our own, innate sense of goodness. It’s not always a matter of choice that allows our good sides to prevail, but goodness is the moral and ethical part of our mix that is vital for a default shift that could transform the future of our species.Reflect on the many small choices made daily and weigh how each one contributes to an outlook, a point of view, a way of being. This is a function of reflective thought that we, perhaps alone in the animal kingdom, possess. If we can exercise free will in making our choices positive, perhaps then we can approach the Greek ideal of happiness.”Happiness is a choice,” suggests a philosophical aphorism. That’s overly simplistic, but the alternative is surrender to the Machiavellian status quo of money, fame and power. Such surrender is a sad and ultimately destructive way of viewing our shared world.Finding the good in each of us implies wanting to cultivate societal good in the first place, and that means embracing peace, harmony and generosity of spirit. Agreeing on those values as a New Year’s resolution could be the most important thing we do in 2007.Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays.
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