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Athenian View of Human Nature Essay

The course of history has shown that during times of confusion or disaster, people’s true human nature emerges. Unlike the view of Gandhi, in these moments humans behave violently and are concerned with self-interest, supporting the Athenian’s view of human motivation. In the History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides gives ample support of this view of human nature. Generally regarded as one of the first true historians, he wanted to view the world as it really was and firmly insisted on sticking to the facts.

Thucydides subjected human nature to an extremely cold and reductive analysis, which could be regarded as pessimism, but he considered to be realism. Generally people want to maintain a positive self-concept of themselves which causes them to agree with the overly idealistic views of human nature, such as that presented by Gandhi. The Athenians held the belief that the three motives for human nature are security, honor, and self-interest, and these cause people to be inherently violent.

When there is a breakdown of law and order, a state of unprecedented lawlessness occurs and during the confusion, people’s values revert to a barbaric state. Gandhi, on the other hand, believed that humans act violently as a result of a war or disaster, but that their true human nature compels them to be peaceful. In other words, humans only act violently when provoked and when it is necessary for survival. Yet, the Athenians show that people become wild and violent during times of confusion, because their true human nature is allowed to emerge.

“Then, with the ordinary conventions of civilized life thrown into confusion, human nature, always ready to offend even where laws exist, showed itself proudly in its true colors, as something incapable of controlling passion, insubordinate to the idea of justice, the enemy to anything superior to itself? ” (p. 245) During the Peloponnesian War, Athens was struck by the plague, which caused widespread chaos and confusion. The Athenians became indifferent to the rules of religion and law, and began openly performing acts of self-indulgence.

“It was generally agreed that what was both honorable and valuable was the pleasure of the moment and everything that might conceivably contribute to that pleasure. No fear of god or law of man had a restraining influence. ” (p. 155) The same kind of lawlessness occurred during the civil war in Corcyra where extreme violence took place during a period of uncertainty. Fighting and aggression were considered courageous and anyone who held violent opinions could always be trusted, while anyone who objected them became a suspect.

The Athenians developed a democratic system of government that was necessary to keep order and peace among the people. The people felt that their participation in government was important in order to prevent themselves from being uncivilized and therefore barbaric. Gandhi argued that mankind shouldn’t punish each other due to the belief that no one has power over anyone else but themselves, yet it is clear that laws and punishments are elementary in containing violent human nature.

Strong governments prevent people from destroying each other out of self-interest. There becomes an orderly balance provided by the strong ruling the weak. A major aspect in the Athenian view of human motivation is the notion that those in power are the stronger and naturally rule or dominate over the weak. During the debate at Sparta, the Athenians admit to exploiting their empire for their advantage and ground their actions firmly in a natural law tied to an eternal human nature.

They hold the belief that it is human nature to rule what one can and they are merely acting in accordance with the existing law. “It has always been a rule that the weak should be subject to the strong; and besides, we consider that we are worthy of our power. ” (p. 80) Violence and survival are the laws of nature and although humans have found a way to manipulate their surroundings those basic instincts exist in all humans on a fundamental level.

It makes the most sense to live peacefully in society, which is why people generally obey laws, but that does not mean that humans are inherently good. In the end, people are naturally disposed to do wrong and no amount of laws of punishments will prevent it. “In a word it is impossible? for human nature, when once seriously set upon a certain course, to be prevented from following that course by the force of law or by any other means of intimidation. ” (p. 221).


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