We Humans Have no Nature, Only a History

Spanish thinker Ortega y Gasset wrote that humans have no nature but a history instead. Or to be more accurate, a variable medley of histories, or cultures, depending on where and when we were born. This means that practically everything we take to be reality itself was already up and running when we arrived. Not only do we owe our genetic makeup to recent and remote ancestors but also our languages, customs, courtesies, insults, laws, technologies, arts, and religions. For example, why do we assume that seven days constitute a week, or sixty minutes, an hour? Why are there no 12-day weeks, or 40-minute hours? Or for that matter, why should there be weeks, minutes, and seconds in the first place? Obviously, we have them and many other commonplace assumptions that are binding traditions created in the immemorial past and passed down through many generations. We may rebel against governments, moral codes, or social class, but seldom against our remoter ancestors and the uncontentious traditions we obey every day. Both revisionists and traditionalists keep count by the same inherited historical system, thus freeing them to concentrate on more important matters. Without this enormous body of preexisting concepts, we would be as mentally bewildered and vulnerable as toddlers dropped in the middle of a trackless jungle. Animals are born with the innate knowledge we call instincts, whereas unaided humans begin life with only blind appetites. It takes humans much longer to come of age, for everything truly human must be learned–which means it may also be forgotten–and the primary teacher is our history, not Mother Nature, as Darwinism argues. Although we call our schools, colleges, and universities centers of learning, in a deeper sense they are monuments of humanity’s original ignorance. All this means that the humanized world was already reasonably tamed and gentled before we got here. Normally, we can live our life in a human way because we inherited the necessary ways and means to do so. Both revolutionaries and reactionaries may revolt against the prevailing order but only because there is an established order to oppose in the first place. Innovators can innovate because a stable context is already in place to accommodate new advances and inventions. The past, therefore, is foundational, but also tyrannical: the old begrudges the new, the dead overshadow the living, and yesterday disputes with today for rulership of the world. Only the future remains open, thus offering the only realistic way out of our problems. But the tension between tradition and innovation, which is normally a stimulating see-saw between past and future, may lead to grotesque and dangerous imbalances. Societies that have outgrown old religions and ideologies may be newly tyrannized by rigid theocrats and despots, themselves enslaved to outworn agendas. Two cases in point: the Iranian State and its reimposed medieval precepts; and the Russian Head of State and what appears to be his toxic nostalgia for the failed empire.