What Is Our Fundamental Nature? Is It All Made Up?

What is our essence, our nature, human nature?

If there is one question that truly matters and thus pervades our existence it is the question concerning human nature: what is our essence, our nature, human nature?

essence
ˈɛs(ə)ns/
noun
  1. 1.
    the intrinsic nature or indispensable quality of something, especially something abstract, which determines its character.
    “conflict is the essence of drama”

There are no shortage of answers. It occurs to me every speaker who speaks on the essence of human nature is convinced that there is a such a thing as human nature. And that he/she has the right answer:

  • Some say that human nature is selfish and competitive. In this school of thought even altruistic acts are recast and explained as selfish.  Others say that human nature is fundamental kind, altruistic, cooperative.
  • Look underneath western management and you will find the taken for granted truth that human beings are fundamentally lazy and will do the least work they can get away with: theory X.  Then there are others who say that human beings are eager to learn, to improve their condition, to contribute and do work – as long as the works shows up as meaningful, worth doing.
  • There are those who say that essence of human beings is reason and rationality.  And others who say with equal conviction that the essence of human beings is emotion/affect.
  • Some say that our essence is to pair bond and live in monogamous relationships. Others say that the polygamous relations are more in tune with nature and the imposition of monogamous relationships has come about through the white man’s domination of the world.

Who has generated the right answer to the essence of human nature?

I don’t know and I have little interest in debating right-wrong.

What I can share with you is the insight that hit me when I was around 8 years of age. To make sense of this insight it is worth pointing out that I was born in the East into a muslim culture. And at the age of 5 I arrived in the UK with my mother and younger brother. So by the age of 8, I had been living a dual existence: one way of thinking-living at school (the English way) and other way of thinking-living at home (the Pakistani Muslim way).  What was this insight?

The insight that struck me forcefully, which blew away my confusion-bewilderment, which set me free was this: “It’s all made up!”  

Once I got this, I got that I was free to choose the practices, from each culture, that worked best for me. As a result I chose not to have an arranged marriage.  I also choose not to drink for the sake of drinking – just to show that I am a man and be one of the boys ……

What is a great place to stand in relation to the question of human nature?

Back to the question of human nature: what is our human nature?  What is natural to us, our essence?  What is not natural to us, not in line with our essence? Heidegger, the 20th century philosopher and some say one of the two most important philosophers of the 20th century, says:

“The ‘essence’ of Dasein lies in its existence.”

– Heidegger

If you do not have background in philosophy then what Heidegger is getting at may not be clear. So allow me to share, what shows up for me as, the most pithy insight into the human condition:

“Custom is our nature”

– Blaise Pascal (1632 – 1662)

Put simply, human beings don’t have a fixed nature, we do not have an essence. We are shaped by the cultural practices (customs) into which we are born. This shaping starts from the moment of our birth (possibly earlier) and happens without our consent.  By the time we are in a position to think for ourselves our nature has already been shaped-moulded towards a certain style of being-living, and away from other styles of being-living.

I say that this is a great place to stand in relation to my nature, your nature, human nature. Why? By taking this stand we liberate ourselves and our fellow human beings.  If you/i stand and operate from this stance then we get that you/i can shape our nature (no matter what we say it is today) by who we live amongst and what we do and do not do. Put differently, if i/you want to change our natures we simply have to change our customs. Furthermore, in this stand you get that a powerful access to influencing others is to effect changes in customs.

Summing Up

Please remember: Its all made up! If you stand in “It’s all made up!” then you are in a place to remake it – all of it. When you get this, really get this, then I say your experience of yourself, and of life, is transformed. 

Author: Maz Iqbal

Experienced management consultant working at the intersection of strategy, customer, and technology. Combine a tendency to think strategically with a penchant for getting my hands dirty at the coalface of implementation.

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