One of my favorite philosophical precepts appears on the back of the old Crest toothpaste tube:  “Squeeze the tube from the bottom and roll it as you go up.”  So let’s do that.

“The soul is fire.”  An ancient Greek philosopher named Heraclitus said this, long before Socrates was even in diapers.  Here’s what I think he meant. 

The human soul, or spirit, or mind or whatever it is – that “something” that we all know is there, really, maybe “human nature” is the best term – is somehow like fire.  What does that mean?  Well, let’s look at what fire does.  Fire can give light.  Fire can warm a home.  Fire can be used to make pottery and crystal, weld metal, power a car, and all sorts of other good, useful, comforting things.  But fire also can destroy, burn down homes and forests, light the fuse of a bomb, and kill. 

Fire is powerful, and can do evil or good.  The difference seems to be whether it is tamed and directed by a benevolent will, or untamed and wild – or worse, directed by a malevolent will.  What’s more, the essential character of fire never changes.  Fire today is exactly like fire ten thousand years ago.  Fire is always dangerous and always ready to destroy and kill.  All it needs is to be left alone.  Fire doesn’t “improve,” or become more enlightened, and fire today is no better or worse than it was in any bygone age.   

 All you have to do to get where I’m headed, without me having to write it all out, is insert “human nature” in the preceding paragraph wherever “fire” appears.

This view of human nature comports with Judaic and Christian orthodoxy, although clearly Heraclitus came to this view separately.  But it makes a nice image and gives us a good starting point.

This ancient view of human nature does not, however, comport with the view of human nature held by Enlightenment philosophers, or by their bony-armed offspring, the modern liberal.  Obviously, I’ve skipped over some ground here but it’s all there in the books.  Anyway, Enlightenment thinkers cast off the excessive spiritualism of the Middle Ages, which isn’t all bad, but in doing so also threw away its ancient skepticism about Man’s nature.  For instance, Rousseau’s concept of the God-like “General Will” makes little sense if human nature is as Heraclitus, the Jews and Christians believed.  Indeed, for Rousseau, the general will of the nation actually took on the role of God (hence his modern reputation as the father of fascism).  The modern liberal believes in “improvement” of Man, i.e., hope and change not simply about the way things are, but about the way we are: once we are all the New Soviet Man, it’ll be just fine.

In any event, the view of human nature that governs today among the “political class” (a term I despise) is fundamentally at odds with what I believe is the much more accurate, ancient belief about Man’s ultimate nature.  And this has important and concrete ramifications for our nation, for liberty and its interplay with human and civil rights (which are different things), the role of Law, the role of political “elites” and the citizen, and the election of 2008.

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