Skip to main content

To think realistically about politics (a radical idea!) it would help to understand the nature of its basic subject matter---people. Unfortunately, we lack a coherent, generally accepted concept of human nature.

In "As You Like It" (1599), a character famously says:

"All the world's a stage

And all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts...."

Shakespeare's idea was not original. Juvenal articulated it 1500 years earlier. In 1511 Erasmus asked "For what else is the life of man but a kind of play in which men in various costumes perform until the director motions them off the stage?"

The idea that we are all actors suggests ways to understand ourselves that are worth considering. But what kind of play are we performing?

In L. Ron Hubbard's science fiction novel, Typewriter In The Sky, the protagonist hears a typewriter clicking away in the sky. He is upset to discover that he has fallen into a universe created by a novel being written by a friend who treats his fictional characters roughly.

When not hearing the typewriter, he can do whatever he wants. But his actions are totally dictated by the writer when he hears the typewriter.

This suggests two kinds of play we might be performing: one where we must do exactly what the playwright dictates, or an improvisation where we determine our own actions.

Scroll to Continue

Recommended Articles

It is not unreasonable to assume that the major religions are closer to the truth about human nature than today's scientists are.

The consensus about this question among scientists is currently at odds with the concept of human nature implicit in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions.

Modern behaviorist psychology and cognitive science are "reductionist" and materialist. They reduce human actions to questions of psychology; questions of psychology are merely complicated questions of biology; biology is just extremely complex chemistry; chemistry in turn is reduced to physics.

And physics is the realm of billiard balls, moving only as external forces dictate. People are seen as fundamentally like billiard balls. Everything that we think, feel, do and say is supposedly completely determined by some combination of our heredity and our environment, perhaps with a little Heisenbergian randomness thrown in. Our belief that we are free to make make choices is dismissed as a mere illusion.

The human nature implicit in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic religions, in sharp contrast, holds that we are actors whose actions and words are not dictated by our play's author. We are free to choose among different actions and responsible for these choices. Our play is improvisational.

We all, I think, feel that we are making choices (between alternatives, of course, limited by our circumstances). The fact that currently fashionable scientists claim otherwise should be taken with more than a grain of salt. We need to distinguish between science --- an excellent process for testing our ideas about the world--- from the tentative conclusions that scientists come to by using that process.

If "scientific" conclusions conflict with universal experience, we must regard them with great suspicion. It is not unreasonable to assume that the major religions are closer to the truth about human nature than today's scientists are: we are not just puppets being jerked around by some typist in the sky.

Today's social, economic, and governmental institutions are the net result of the interactions of billions of improvising people, past and present. Predicting the large scale results of billions of interacting people is therefore well-nigh impossible.


Fortunately, when we are only dealing with a limited number of people it is often possible to predict the consequences of our decisions. But when we are trying to make major changes in the world we just have to make our best guesses about the consequences.

The only political certainty is that, as Yogi Berra said, "It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future."

Paul F. deLespinasse