Knights or Knaves, Angels or Devils? 2

There's nothing noble about savagery.

The first article in this series explained two competing views about the nature of man.

The doctrine of Original Sin holds that all men and women are inclined to do evil from birth.  Babies are born selfish and are natural liars; they have to be individually taught to think of others and to tell the truth.  This belief goes back at least 3,000 years.

Doing good is a lot of work for people who believe in original sin.  People are knaves who have to be reformed individually, which takes a great deal of personal involvement and persuasion.  In order to reform, a person first has to believe that he or she needs to reform.  This requires that a person recognize evil in their makeup and turn away from it.

The competing "noble savage" concept originated in 1580.  The idea is that men and women are inherently good but they are corrupted by unjust social institutions.  This allows bad people to blame society for their misfortunes rather than blaming themselves.

Doing good is easy if you believe that all people are inherently good.  People are inherently noble knights who act badly because they've been treated unjustly - all you have to do is end injustice.

Our entire welfare system is based on this principle - we attempt to end a injustice by taxing people who have more money than they need and giving it to people who have less.  Notice the underlying assumption here: that inequality is in and of itself unjust; the fact that some people have more money than others is all the proof you need that something's wrong which the government needs to fix.

The notion of reforming individuals by spending billions reforming society has led to a huge welfare industry which employs thousands of people.  Those who believe in original sin regard this as a colossal waste of money.  Since people are knaves from birth unless they choose to reform, most welfare recipients will happily take whatever society gives them and use the money to cover the costs of committing more evil than they could afford if they paid their own way.

The hardest tenet of the doctrine of original sin is that anyone who believes it has to believe that he or she is inherently evil.  This is so rough on self-esteem that many social workers believe that parents teaching their children that they're born sinners constitutes emotional abuse.

Instead of teaching original sin, European and American educators have been teaching self-esteem, the opposite of original sin.  This is such an attractive idea that it's no surprise that it was only after being tortured in the jungle for years on end that Ingrid Betancourt came to believe that she, too, could do evil under the right circumstances; as the recipient of a civilized, well-off upbringing, she's doubtless been told her whole life that evil is beneath her.

Tell me again how noble savages are?

Noble Savages and Real-World Consequences

The most unfortunate consequence of the noble savage idea coupled with our schools' universal build-up of self esteem is that American adults generally end up thinking of themselves more highly than they ought to think.  The New York Times mourned the decline of civility in modern America:

Civility is a tree with deep roots, and without the roots, it can’t last. So what are those roots? They are failure, sin, weakness and ignorance.

Civility is based on each person realizing the possibility of failure and on realizing that other people may have valuable knowledge.  The Times observed that people who recognize their own limitations work better with other people:

You may write a mediocre column or make a mediocre speech or propose a mediocre piece of legislation, but others argue with you, correct you and introduce elements you never thought of. Each of these efforts may also be flawed, but together, if the system is working well, they move things gradually forward.

Each individual step may be imbalanced, but in succession they make the social organism better.

What if your self-esteem is so lofty that you don't see any need to accept correction or even input from others?

The problem is that over the past 40 years or so we have gone from a culture that reminds people of their own limitations to a culture that encourages people to think highly of themselves. The nation’s founders had a modest but realistic opinion of themselves and of the voters. They erected all sorts of institutional and social restraints to protect Americans from themselves. They admired George Washington because of the way he kept himself in check.

But over the past few decades, people have lost a sense of their own sinfulness. Children are raised amid a chorus of applause. Politics has become less about institutional restraint and more about giving voters whatever they want at that second. Joe DiMaggio didn’t ostentatiously admire his own home runs, but now athletes routinely celebrate themselves as part of the self-branding process.

Our federal Department of Health and Human Services spends billions supporting welfare recipients in the name of "social justice."  As a consequence, we've raised three generations of children who see no need to work at all.

For welfare children, labor has gone out of style.  Although a few seem to realize that something is missing from their lives, most see no need to expend effort at anything other than self-gratification.  They see nothing wrong with consuming other people's resources without giving anything in return - they've been told that they deserve it, why would they feel otherwise?

What's worse, our Democrat politicians act as if they believe that they are smart enough to reorganize one-sixth of our economy without input from anyone.  The Obamacare legislation was written in secret; they had to pass it so that we could see what was in it.

Now that it's been examined by multitudes, even the New York Times admits that there's a lot wrong with it.  Once people digested the fine print, they saw that it would cost far more than projected and cover far fewer people than promised.

If the Democrats had had the humility to realize that their visions were imperfect and could be improved based on input from people who disagreed with them, the law would have been a great deal better.

It would have been better yet if the Democrats had acknowledged that as politicians, they tend to think of themselves first, last, and always, and that input from citizens who would be affected by the law would improve it even more than input from Republican politicians.

Those Whom The Gods Would Destroy

The Greeks had a saying, "Those whom the Gods would destroy, they first make mad with pride."  The tendency of a leader to think that he can accomplish anything whatsoever with no need for input from anyone else is so common that the Greeks coined the word hubris to describe "being out of touch with reality and overestimating one's own competence or capabilities, especially for people in positions of power."

If Hitler had been content with the conquest of France, he and Stalin could have divided Europe between themselves and there would have been little the British or Americans could have done about it.  Hitler's hubris led him to attack Russia, however, and his military was destroyed by General Winter as Napoleon's had been annihilated a century before.

Our leadership elites see no need to consider the possibility that their enlightened policies could have undesirable outcomes, to say nothing of the evil predicted by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.  It took years of being tortured for Ingrid Betancourt to realize that she was capable of evil; what disasters will have to befall our country for our leading elites to realize that they, too, are fallible?

Now that we've demonstrated the importance of understanding the true nature of man, the next article in this series discusses some lesser-known real-world examples.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Society.
Reader Comments

I'm sharing your Blog articles with friends through email and Facebook. Please do not fail to emphasize that our leadership elites includes many Republicans humanist. Although they may vote(hopefully) against evil, their ranks are also filled with hubris individuals "being out of touch with reality and overestimating one's own competence or capabilities, especially for people in positions of power."

February 9, 2011 5:53 PM
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