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Human Nature: An Analysis on 19th century American Literature

Human Nature: An Analysis on 19th century American Literature Henry Espinoza Tarrant County College, Department of English Undergraduate Research 4 May 2023

Abstract The nature of this thesis aims to analyze the concepts of human nature in American literature. Human nature is a doctrine of philosophy, founded by Aristotle and Plato in their treatises, which elucidates the actions of homo sapiens in several ways. Collectively, the variants of human nature have provided social agency to the contemporary world. This social agency is what characterized the modern American’s social identity in the early 20th century, which was a pivotal moment in American history. While human nature and its variants were denounced in the mid-20th century by scientific schools of thought, the debates regarding such a concept were precursors to the social agency that set the foundations for the modern American social identity. Keywords: literature, American, nature, human

Introduction The concept of human nature is a widely contested philosophical doctrine, which contributes heavily to the formation of contemporary America. The philosophical concept of “human nature” has an extensive history in the western hemisphere, with its study beginning in the 5th century BCE with Socrates (Plato, 2021). The concept of human nature would eventually refine through the arguments of Aristotle, who believed that human nature was characterized by unique abilities (Physics; Metaphysics). Stoicism also contributed to the concept by reinforcing the idea that human nature was what gave life meaning through their ideals of cosmopolitanism and equality (Sellars, 2007). Since then, human nature has been challenged extensively. The conceptual framework human nature offers are challenged by philosophers, feminists, Marxists, and more – particularly for a few reasons. Chinese philosopher, Xun Kuang, argued that human nature is evil because its ‘goodness’ originates from ‘conscious activity,’ therefore it is nature to be born with a ‘fondness for profit’ (Kuang, 1999). Similarly, biological philosophers like David L. Hull, disputed that human nature is incompatible with modern biology because of its logical contradictions it has on equality – particularly because it misconstrues the ideas of being biologically homologous and equality as one singular concept – which Hull believes is fallible and therefore should be rejected (Hull, 1986). In contrast, Chinese philosopher, Mengzi, contended in favor of human nature because humans have a mind that ‘commiserates’ with others, has compassion, is modest and compliant, and knows right from wrong – to have neither is inhumane (Menicus, 2000). Likewise, French philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, asserted that human nature is inherently good, but societal institutions provoke the degradation an individual’s innocence (Rousseau, 1889).

Despite an ongoing quarrel over the subject, Human nature has fallen out of popularity by several schools of thought. Modern feminists reject the idea of human nature largely in part to Aristotle’s view of human nature, which was considered sexist because both men and women are rational and equal, not either or (Keohane, 1982). Marxist, Karl Marx, believed that man can be defined biologically, anatomically, physiologically, and psychologically; these aspects vary by an individual’s needs, and is therefore a unique pursuit that denounces the idea of human nature’s idea of sameness altogether (Fromm, 1961). Collectively, these arguments create social agencies that shape an individual’s national and personal social identity. Human nature and its debates dictate how cultures, institutions, and individual’s change over time. For this reason, while human nature may be an innate concept to some, and a rudimentary subject for others, the information one can gather in this debate is invaluable. This is also true for literary writers and their texts. Their concerns addressing the ideals of human nature give critical insight as to how contemporary problems can be mitigated.


Nathaniel Hawthorn Nathaniel Hawthorn’s “The Minister’s Black Veil” expresses Hawthorn’s thoughts on human morality. It is in this work that Nathaniel recognizes the inherent evil of humankind through literary devices. The “Sermon” the minister preaches, reflects this well, because it recognizes the presence of “secret sin” in humankind whilst using this sermon as an opportunity for redemption. Consider this when Nathaniel writes the following: "The [sermon] subject had reference to secret sin, and those sad mysteries which we hide from our nearest and dearest, and would fain conceal from our own consciousness, even forgetting that the Omniscient can detect them. A subtle power was breathed into his words." (Hawthorne, 2017)

While it may appear that Nathaniel is critiquing humankind, further context proves otherwise. It is important to note that Nathaniel rebuked religious institutions, specifically Puritanism and Catholicism. Nathaniel saw first-hand at how religion was used to justify morally dubious situations by employing the best aspects of Christian belief to explain the nature of their actions. Because of this, Nathaniel greatly disapproved of religious institutions, and considered them ‘lost causes’ people could use as a ‘black veil’ to sheath their malintents (Martinez, 2022). Ergo, when Nathaniel is writing this piece, he is not simply critiquing humankind, but critiquing religious institutions and their impact on the American populous. While it suffices to say that Nathaniel’s thoughts on the inherence of evil in humankind, stems from the influences of religious institutions; it only begs the question ‘what’s the cure for this evil?’ To counter human evil, Hawthorn prescribes “rational piety” as the most effective treatment available. Hawthorn urges that rational piety is the best treatment to humankind’s evil because it challenges the extremity of each religious institutions’ belief and moral systems by categorizing such systems through a series of logical, moral, and ethical tests. Rational piety reestablishes the view of evil from an absurdist’s perspective into something optimistic by viewing sin as an opportunity to redeem an individual, rather than labeling the individual a ‘lost cause.’ In doing so, people can fully recognize the reality of evil, setting them on a path to salvation.

Edgar Allen Poe Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” critiques the doctrine of human perfectibility. It is in this literary work that Edgar argues that the pursuit of perfection evokes the degradation of humankind through various literary elements. The “House” personifies this best, because its journey from start to end illustrates the lengths at which an individual will go to reach absolute perfection. Examine this when Edgar writes the following: “While I gazed, this fissure rapidly widened—there came a fierce breath of the whirlwind—the entire orb of the satellite burst at once upon my sight—my brain reeled as I saw the mighty walls rushing asunder—there was a long tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters—and the deep and dank tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the 'House of Usher.” (Poe, The Fall of the House of Usher, 2017) While it appears that Edgar is denoting the ruins of the “House of Usher,” to think so, is disregarding on the text’s significance. It is important to understand Edgar’s exposure to incest and its popularity during the 19th century – especially with the debate on its roots. The American souths’ consensus then contested in favor of incest, considering it to be ‘second nature.’ Whereas the other Americans’ consensus argued in contrast of incest, believing that it was derived by cultural norms and not nature (Young, 2021). Edgar recognized that incest was an issue nonetheless and addressed that such a path led to the decay of humankind, not because such a path ushers the decadence of the American nation, but because of its psychological and physiological implications. It is for this reason that whenever Edgar wrote this piece, he was writing with the intention of weaving a premonition that remarks the inevitable fate that waited for incest and its contributors, should they continue their grotesque ways. In doing so, Edgar is able to eloquently criticize human perfectionism by exemplifying its fallibility with the ideology of incest and its concept of ‘purity.’ While it is evident that Edgar expresses his concerns regarding the subject of incest and its ties to human nature in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” what has yet to be discussed is his remedy to alleviate this matter. The truth of the matter is that Edgar does not directly prescribe a remedy for the contorted views on human nature. However, it is implied that literature can be a great tool to raise awareness of the subject. As Edgar Allan Poe said it himself: “Literature is the most noble of professions. In fact, it is about the only one fit for a man. For my own part, there is no seducing me from the path.” (Poe, Tamerlane and other poems, 1827) Literature allows the concerns of the populous, like that of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s and Edgar Allan Poe’s to be amplified onto a wider audience, which is crucial when trying to sway public opinion about the fallibility of incest. While this isn’t exactly a cure to ending incest, it is a starting point to do so, which Allan believes, is crucial to mitigating the American populous’ conceptions on human nature.

Walt Whitman Walt Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric” communicates his stance on the nature of humankind’s goodness. It is in this work that Whitman, much like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, believes that humans are inherently virtuous individuals, susceptible to the influence of societal institutions. Walt Whitman sets this up when he writes the following: And if the body does not do fully as much as the soul? And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul? (Whitman, 1885) While Whitman acknowledges the body and soul as two entities, like Descartes’ explanation of substance dualism, Walt expresses these two entities monistically. Doing so, asserts the doctrine of thought that considers all action and thought to be driven by the soul’s pursuits, rather than the idea that the actions and thoughts of an individual is the result of cultural, societal, physiological, or psychological necessities. While Descartes’ substance dualism was discredited, Whitman’s monistic view of human nature transposed how evil was understood. Whitman’s view of evil is utilitarian, as R.D O’Leary puts it: “For life is essentially a good and admirable thing; though it is in some degree capable of being conducted unwisely, that is, in disregard of some of the conditions prescribed, by its nature and environment, for its healthy continuance.” (O'Leary, 1914). To put it into simpler terms, humankind is inherently virtuous but is prone to the influence of nature and the environment. What we impose on ourselves, and others is the direct result of external influences and our need to pursue, is the result of the soul. Therefore, the soul is the ultimate form of reality, for its drive to live and create embodies the living experience of man and the world mankind lives in. Whitman elucidates that the nature of human experience stems from the soul and its pursuits in “I Sing the Body Electric.” For this reason, it is crucial to hone the natural world in its rawest form, either by immersing oneself directly or by embarking on a spiritual journey. In doing so, it would allow an individual to recognize the reality of evil, and in the process, properly mitigate it. While the applications Whitman’s doctrine offers are invaluable, Whitman’s philosophy was ultimately an expression of idealism. Nevertheless, Whitman’s contributions to the debate on human nature prosed an enlightening stance on the goodness of humankind and continues to serve as an optimistic voice of hope for future generations to come. Emily Dickinson Emily Dickinson’s “I Started Early – Took my Dog” uniquely explores the nature of human experience. It is in this work that Emily defines human experience as an enigmatic journey which can best be understood through the natural world. Emily first sets up her stance when she writes the following:

But no Man moved Me – till the Tide Went past my simple Shoe – And past my Apron – and my Belt And past my Boddice – too – (Dickinson, 1862) The limits of human knowledge, specifically the afterlife, is what makes our experience as humans a mystery. The uncertainty of what awaits humankind after death is something Emily recognizes as a limit to the human experience, because such fears inhibit humankind from fully experiencing life to the fullest. By using the Tide and the sea, Emily embodies death in a new light, labeling such a process as natural yet compulsive. Because such a process is a natural and compulsive experience, and not a controlled and synthetic experience, it stirs fear into the hearts of humankind because it is a process that cannot be controlled nor understood. For this reason, the nature of human experience is enigmatic to a particular extent. However, in terms of how the nature of human experience can best be understood, lies in the natural world itself. According to Emily Dickinson, the natural world offers wisdom and information that is invaluable to the American populous. Much like Whitman, Emily believed that the natural world cultivated the soul through the experiences one can gather from it. Such experiences mitigate the limitations of human experience by merging nature and the individual through mutual understanding. In doing so, the human lens that is used to understand the nature of human experience, widens. Discussion The contributions that these literary writers supply is large. The insight each text offers questions the ethics and morality of human nature in several ways. Nathaniel Hawthorn, for instance, saw the root of humankind’s evil stemming from the influence of religious institutions. While Edgar Allan Poe recognized the harm human perfectionism had on the American populous, claiming that those who pursued such a path will only be met with a destined death. Whereas writers like Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson considered the nature of human experience as a journey of mystery, that could only be understood by immersing oneself in nature itself. The efforts of these literary writers and philosophers ultimately created social agency for the contemporary world. The commentary Nathaniel provided in “The Minister’s Black Veil” reshaped how sin was combated, regarding such as room for opportunity to seek redemption, rather than considering the individual a lost cause. In doing so, religious institutions changed, using rational piety as a tool to routinely check the ethical and moral nature of their efforts. Whereas Whitman’s commentary, contrary to Nathaniel and Poe’s beliefs, considered humankind’s evil a result of societal influence, claiming that the best way to mitigate this is through nature. Whitman’s commentary ultimately redefined how societal institutions influence the modern consensus, using the idea of a spiritual journey, as a tool to reinforce the self, and minimizing the influence of social norms in the process. The contributions of these literary and philosophical individuals have constructed a safer and diverse America. Living in America has shown the American consensus how impactful the words of these literary writers and philosophers are. While their contributions may be textually based, the advice imbued into these works has guided people to a better and virtuous life. Whitman’s teachings helped people to appreciate nature in a new light, whereas Nathaniel’s teachings contributed to shifting the view of religious institutions and their agendas. Moreover, the techniques that Whitman, Egar Allan Poe, and others use inspire contemporary writers. Their ingenuity to prose concerns using subtle things like the ‘black vail’ and the ‘House of Usher’ all ushered in a creative renaissance that redefined the image of the American populus by challenging what was considered ‘good writing.’ In a local level, it helped promote hope to younger generations like me, and offered an alternative view that continues to inspire the American populous to construct a diverse and equal America that the world envies. Lastly, it must be addressed that while the efforts of these philosophical and literary figures are substantial – their scope is limited as to other issues relating to the nature of human experience. While Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman’s work explains what the human experience is in theory, it does not fully give a clear and concise explanation as to how it is and why It is so. However, I will grant that while these authors did not directly address this, their work did usher in a scientific movement that would later form the empirical branch of psychology. While the debate of human nature is still ongoing, the information this debate gives is valuable. Such a debate has and continues to highlight the implications currently present in societal, religious, political, and educational institutions by evaluating these institutions’ moral and ethical systems through rational testing. This process regularly ensures that the welfare and well-being of the contemporary populous is supported. Doing so ensures that future generations receive a better and prosperous future, a future that Americans like me are proud to be a part of. To keep the possibility of this future certain, a few things must be addressed.

It is important to consider the value that literature brings. The debate on human nature has proven the significance of literature and what it continues to bring to the table. From Emily Dickinson’s fascinating take on human nature in I Started Early – Walked my Dog, to Nathaniel’s boisterous outlook on humankind’s evil in The Minister’s Black Veil, these works are what form modern day America – the America I live in. For if it not been for these works, the face of America would’ve changed negatively. Which is why literature serves as an important part to the American populous because it is a podium in which many can voice their concerns, embrace individuality, create a unique culture, and more. Collectively, we must all continue to raise awareness on contemporary issues, engage in civil protests, and more to ensure that the wonderful paradise and magnificent future we yearn for ourselves and our children remains certain.


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