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Born to be Wild

Are human beings naturally good or naturally bad? Writing about mankind, 18th century Genevan philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued that “nothing can be more gentle than him in his primitive state.” That is, people are naturally good, but it is society and culture that ultimately cause their corruption. This position was a response to 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who argued in his book “Leviathan” that man is naturally cruel, and that a strong central government is the only mechanism to allow for society to ensue. “Hereby it is manifest that during the time when men live without a common power to keep them all in awe,” he writes, “they are in that condition which is called war, and such a war is of every man against every man.” There can be no industry, culture, or society, and “which is worst of all, a continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.

It is difficult to read Rabbi Chanina’s statement in this Mishna and not associate it with Hobbes’ comments 1500 years later:

“Rabbi Chanina, the vice-high priest said: pray for the welfare of the government, for were it not for the fear it inspires, every man would swallow his neighbor alive.”

A strong government is necessary to curb the human tendency towards evil. It is therefore essential to pray for the welfare of the government, so it can be allowed to function as an antidote to anarchy. Some commentaries point to the historical context of this statement to highlight its importance even when there may not be friendly relationships between the ruling government and the Jewish people. Rabbi Berel Wein writes that,

His exhortation applied to the rule of King Agrippa II, the Roman puppet who ruled over Judea before and during the time of the destruction of the Second Temple, and Rabbi Chanina spoke also of the time thereafter, of complete Roman rule over the country. We can well imagine that there was great bitterness against the Romans among the Jews who survived the cruel four-year rebellion against Rome that ended in defeat in 70 CE.

Yet, despite these potential feelings, it is still essential to pray for the government because of “its stabilizing effect in society.”

In his book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, challenges Rousseau’s view that humans are naturally good from the lens of modern psychology. Research indicates that cruel traits like antagonism and a tendency toward violence are genetically heritable. The evidence from neuroscience is that we have underlying brain mechanisms that are associated with aggression. Findings from evolutionary psychology also point to the ubiquity of conflict, as would be assumed by theories of natural selection. Yet, as Pinker argues in his other book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, although there is clearly a dark side rooted in human nature, we also have “better angels” such as empathy and self-control. These traits, like the darker one, are also heritable, have underlying brain mechanisms, and have basis in evolutionary psychology. It seems, therefore, that we have natural tendencies toward both good and bad.

Reflecting on this question from the Torah’s perspective, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks proposes that there is a shift in God’s perspective with respect to this issue within the early chapters of Genesis. He writes that “it seems that God created humans in the faith that they would naturally choose the right and the good. They would not need to eat the fruit of ‘the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil,’ because instinct would lead them to behave as they should.” Yet, as the stories progress, “It did not turn out that way. Adam and Eve sinned, Cain committed murder, and within a few generations the world was reduced to chaos.” After the flood, God realizes that He cannot just rely on humans to choose good based on their nature. He therefore creates a covenant with Noach, which serves as an antidote to the fact that “the inclination of their minds is evil from childhood” (Gen. 8:21). Rabbi Sacks argues that according to the Torah, and in consonance with psychology, “naturally we are neither good nor bad, but we have the capacity for both. We have a natural inclination to empathy and sympathy, but we have an even stronger instinct for fear which can lead to violence.” Therefore, we need the moral law and covenant to bind us to choosing good.

What Rabbi Sacks deems a shift in God’s perspective from the beginning of Bereishit to the end of Noach can also be seen as reflected in the first two mishnayot of chapter three in Pirkei Avot. Many commentaries contrast Rabbi Chanina’s comment in this Mishna with Akavyah’s message from the previous one (Avot 3:1). Akavyah recommends that in order to avoid sin, we should contemplate our humble origins and grim future. Rabbi Chanina, according to Abarbanel, disagrees with Akavyah’s approach. Because human nature leads towards sin, reflection and self-control is not enough. After all, who doesn’t know that they are going “to a place of dust, of worm and of maggot,” yet people still sin. To eradicate evil, we need a concrete, external force—like the government—to enforce morality. Similarly, Rabbi Yosef Yavetz suggests that Akavyah’s advice may work for some individuals, but the masses need law and order to keep them in line.

While we can be hopeful and optimistic that people will express their naturally benevolent and compassionate sides, we also need powerful external systems in place to curb the also natural human tendency towards maleficence and cruelty. It is therefore incumbent upon us all to do whatever we can, whether through prayer or advocacy, to ensure a strong, moral governmental power. Within that framework, it is also important for us as individuals to attempt to curb our more hostile tendencies and continue to cultivate the more kind and generous parts of our nature.


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