There is a common idea, pervasive in our culture, that human beings are wicked and corrupt at their core.
Are We Wicked by Nature?
In Hobbes’ Leviathan, he describes the condition of humanity before they enter into society with rulers and contracts and laws. This is the state of nature, and the state of nature isn’t pretty. Hobbes argues it is “nasty, brutish, and short”. It is the war of all against all, as human beings are equal in their abilities to kill each other, in their desire for more, and in their arrogance that they deserve what they want.
This is how I tend to picture people in Hobbes’ state of nature.
Hobbes was not the only one who had this pessimistic view of humanity. John Calvin, a theologian contemporary with Hobbes (more or less), argued that Adam and Eve’s original sin so thoroughly corrupted humanity that their nature was entirely depraved. Human beings are rotten through and through.
These ideas are still very common in some political and religious circles today.
When we internalize such messages of total wickedness and corruption, we believe that unless we control ourselves stringently through discipline and punishment, we will just be more wicked and corrupt. This can make it difficult, if not almost impossible, to trust ourselves or to believe that we are worthy of love.
We know our bad habits, addictions, and serious character flaws. We see all the things that are wrong with us. It seems like unconditional love merely excuses our bad behavior and permits it to grow worse.
So, instead of loving ourselves unconditionally, we scrutinize, criticize, discipline and punish ourselves. This mindset is pervasive in our culture.
In Discipline and Punish, Foucault argues that we have developed a society that is pervasive with hierarchies and bureaucracies of discipline and control, so much so that we live in a metaphorical panopticon in which we feel that someone is always observing, judging, and critiquing our behavior—noticing our failure to meet societal standards of worthiness.
We have internalized Foucault’s panopticon. We walk around with an internal voice continually criticizing our motives and behavior and continually questioning our worth as human beings. I will call this way of being in the world, Alienation Mode.
When we continually question our worth, we are alienated from ourselves because we are standing over ourselves in harsh judgment. We have internalized Alienation Mode so thoroughly that often we do not realize that there is another way to view ourselves or another way to exist.
Are We Good By Nature?
The ancient Chinese philosopher Mengzi thought there was. He argues that human nature is inherently good:
“There is that in our nature which is spontaneously part of us and can become good. The fact that we can become bad is not a defect in our natural endowment. All men possess a sense of commiseration; all men possess a sense of shame; all men possess a sense of respect; all men possess a sense of right and wrong. The sense of commiseration is the seed of humanity; the sense of shame is the seed of righteousness; these sense of respect is the seed of ritual; the sense of right and wrong is the seed of wisdom.”
Mengzi points out here that human beings have natural capacities for goodness. These natural capacities are like seeds, and they need to be nurtured to grow. Given the right conditions, these seeds of humanity flourish, much like tree seeds flourish and grow into trees if given the right soil.
Mengzi’s arguments for the seeds of goodness in human nature appeal to intuitions we already possess. We know that human beings tend to do much better when they are respected with basic rights and have access to education, meaningful relationships, and dignified work. This is the soil that allows the seeds of goodness present in human beings to flourish the best.
By contrast, when human beings are deprived of these things, the more likely they are to engage in self-destructive, violent, and socially harmful behavior. This suggests that when we do evil, it is not an expression of our natural state, but rather a defect or deviation from our natural state. (If evilness was our natural state, it seems that most of us would do evil just as much, no matter what circumstances were were in. But we actually tend to thrive and express goodness, generally speaking, the more we are surrounded by kindness, compassion, and respect.)
Mengzi argues this idea with a water metaphor in 6A.2 when he writes, “The good disposition of human nature is like water’s tendency to flow down. There are no men who are not innately good, just as there is no water that does not flow down. Now, by splashing you can make water leap up higher than your forehead, and by churning you can make it flow uphill, but how could this be the nature of water? It is merely the result of force. The fact that men can be made to act badly merely shows that human nature is like this as well.”
This philosophy would suggest that one of the primary ways to combat evil in ourselves is to focus on and nurture the seeds of goodness within ourselves. We can think of our hearts or spirit or nature as a plant we lovingly tend. (Mengzi’s primary argument is that rulers must nurture the seeds of goodness in their people, but in this post I am focusing on the personal implications, rather than the social implications, of his philosophy.)
Augustine argues similar ideas from a religious (specifically Christian) perspective.
He argues that all of reality, including ourselves, is created by God and therefore good. This original goodness is what is most real about us and can never be lost. But although we are good, like our Creator, we are not perfect (because we are finite and limited). Therefore, we can fall into error and evilness. We can also recover from this error and evilness and return to good. 
Augustine argues that error and evil is not a thing in itself but only a lack (or privation of the good). In fact, he argues, mistakes and evil could actually not exist unless there was an underlying goodness. And of course, for Augustine, this goodness in us is God’s goodness, which is what is most real in us. I think it is helpful to think of this goodness as God’s light in us.
“When, however, a thing is corrupted, its corruption is an evil because it is, by just so much, a privation of the good. Where there is no privation of the good, there is no evil. Where there is evil, there is a corresponding diminution of the good. As long, then, as a thing is being corrupted, there is good in it of which it is being deprived.”
Augustine argues that in order for us to rediscover or grow this original goodness, we especially need to focus on practicing faith, hope, and love.
While he does not explicitly trace out why these virtues are so important, I would argue that faith helps us believe that our original goodness and worth (God’s light in us) is there, even when we can’t feel or see it. Hope helps us believe that we can return to that goodness. Love allows us to cherish the goodness and worth in us.
Love especially is an important virtue to Augustine, and he writes in his love sermon, “To have love and be a bad person is impossible. Love is the unique gift, the fountain that is yours alone. The Spirit of God exhorts you to drink from it, and in so doing to drink from himself…Love and do what you will.”
And this brings us back to the idea of loving ourselves unconditionally.
Is it dangerous to love ourselves unconditionally?
Well, if we are completely wicked and corrupt by nature, it likely is dangerous to love ourselves unconditionally.
But, if Mengzi and Augustine are right, which I believe they are, and we are good by nature but our goodness needs to nurtured, then unconditional love for ourselves is one of the best ideas anyone has ever had.
There are at least two reasons it is a really good idea:
- Unconditional love does not excuse bad behavior but rather affirms what is most real and good in us.
- Unconditional love creates the perfect conditions for us overcoming our bad behavior, shortcomings.
Again, I think it is wise to think of ourselves and our spirit as little plants. We need proper nurture to grow, and unconditional love is a way we nurture our plant.
Of course we act in very bad ways sometimes. The question is how we go about amending that bad behavior and if love or punishment is the most suitable path.
While we might argue that both are sometimes necessary, and that is possibly right, it seems like love is the ultimate path to connecting back to the good that is present in us.
And we don’t have to feel love for ourselves to show love. I take love to be the power we express when we treat ourselves with respect, compassion, and kindness.
Respect is the realization of the seeds of goodness we have within us.
Compassion is the realization that life is really hard sometimes and can make it extremely difficult (because of tragedies or other people’s bad behavior) for our seeds to grow.
Kindness is our commitment to honor the seeds of goodness in us and to do all we can to support their growth.
And of course we need the love of other people, as well as our own love, but we only have control over the love we show ourselves, and we can always make a conscious choice to act in loving ways to ourselves.
How do you show yourself unconditional love? Does the idea of showing yourself unconditional love make you uncomfortable?
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You might also like these posts:
 Thomas Hobbes. The Leviathan. Chapter XIII. “Project Gutenberg.” https://www.gutenberg.org/files/3207/3207-h/3207-h.htm#link2H_4_0075
 Thomas Hobbes. The Leviathan. Chapter XI. “Project Gutenberg.” https://www.gutenberg.org/files/3207/3207-h/3207-h.htm#link2H_4_0075
 Or rather, it is Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon that Foucault wrote about.
 Mengzi.6A.6. Robert Eno, trans. http://www.indiana.edu/~p374/Mengzi.pdf
 Augustine. Enchiridion on Faith, Hope, and Love. Chapter III.11 http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/augustine_enchiridion_02_trans.htm#C3
 Augustine. Enchiridion on Faith, Hope, and Love. Chapter IV.12. http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/augustine_enchiridion_02_trans.htm#C3
 Augustine. #110. “Augustine’s Love Sermon”. https://christianhistoryinstitute.org/study/module/augustine