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.

Putin’s War: Old Threats Reemerge


Until 1945, war had always been “The solution to problems that have no solutions,” as a French minister once put it. But when America dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, war suddenly ceased to be a solution and became a grim harbinger of atomic winter.

True, it brought a quick end to World War II, but perhaps the only other positive thing about the “Bomb” was the worldwide consensus that big wars were now impossible. Atomic war would mean mutually assured destruction that not even the most diabolical leaders would risk. Or so sane people reasoned, a collective opinion that remained more or less unchallenged until 2022 and the Russian invasion.

Now we wonder whether the assurance that traditional warfare was over may have been said too soon. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is the kind of classic military aggression we thought history had buried for good. Hence the worldwide shock and dismay when it happened again.

It was as though a prehistoric dinosaur, a Tyrannosaurus Rex of war, had come back to life to tear and trample our already wounded world. Just when we had gotten used to war’s sordid replacement tactics–spying, lying, sham, and hacking–by friends and foes alike, Vladimir Putin turns the world upside down with an honest-to-God invasion in the crass, unapologetic, historical style. And does so without the expected pretexts and pretenses characteristic of today’s governments. The world has not seen anything so brazen since Adolf Hitler. Instead, we had come to accept international deceit as normal.

Now the question is how to cope with a despot who doesn’t hide his nefarious designs. Does the evident reluctance of other nations to retaliate give the Russian leader a winning advantage?

Not that the atomic age, which supposedly ended traditional wars, also ended the problems that caused them. In fact, more problems that ever confront humanity and the natural world: vanishing resources and dying species, environmental destruction, ethnic and religious fanaticism, economic and social injustices, and–as always–ambitious, abusive despots.

Worst of all, there is no international organization with the legitimate power and authority to deal with them. Although war seems obsolete, humanity hasn’t yet devised an effective alternative. The United Nations are anything but united, and many members are nations in name only. Diplomacy and American dollars have limited viability. And for moral reasons, U.S. military might is a half-hearted option, and thus, half-heartedly applied–Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, the Middle East.

Despite its economic and military power, American, the free-world leader by default, inclines politically to quick solutions and lacks historical memory. Hence its lackluster diplomatic history. Does anyone even remember, for instance, the diplomatic fiction called SEATO, or the flimsy pacts with other New World countries?

As for Putin’s brazen gambit, it’s easy to predict that it will turn out to be catastrophic–already for the Ukraine, soon for other countries, and perhaps ultimately, most of all for Russia itself (published March 17, 2022).





Wit and Wisdom

Here are several sample aphorisms, parables, and insights from my latest book, WIT AND WISDOM. Most are my creations.
1. Miserable young wife: “I married this old man for his money. The money ran out, but the old man didn’t.”
2. America, where people neglect their parents and obey their children.
3. A half-truth is a whole lie.
4. Most arsonists are men, but women can also start fires if it’s time to cook a man’s goose.
6. She would have gone farther in her political career if she had been more skilled at applying makeup to both her faces.
7. Common criminals serve time in prison; great ones serve terms in Washington. Many of the latter are repeat offenders.
8. The Law of creation: nothing is finished for good until it is entirely good.
9. Every sin is an error, but not every error is a sin. Six months do not make a year, but it is not a sin to think so. Forgetting your wife’s birthday is an error, but you will think it a sin when she gets through with you.
10. Do not pretend to be wise in all things, at all times, and with all people; wisdom invites laughter and enjoyment. The truly wise are but children grown large.

A penniless man trudged along a lonely road despairing of life as he peeled and ate his last apple.
“Where, dear God, shall I find my next meal?” he moaned, “I am the most wretched of men without help or hope in this desolate land.”
At that moment he heard a noise, and turning, saw a woman, shabbier than himself, feeding her starving infant the peelings he had dropped.

Moral: If we can walk, see, and speak, there are others in worse condition and needful of our help.

Harold Raley


Forbidden Questions

A century or so ago, the peak and beginning decline of the Modern Age, philosophers and scientists had reached general agreement that matters of human destiny, Deity, and cosmic purpose with their heavy load of mystery and mysticism were forbidden questions. Because they could not be answered, they should not be asked.
An illustrious series of agnostic or atheistic thinkers in science and philosophy–Bentham, Spencer, Schopenhauer, Pavlov, Russell, Sartre, Haldane, and many others–established and defended this Modern creed. It presents God not as the Creator of the Universe, but as a bothersome relic of a bygone, credulous age unnecessary in the modern paradigm of reality. And if unnecessary, then without valid arguments for his existence.
     The human corollary logically followed: if there was no divine guarantor of human fate, then mankind could make no valid claims to an afterlife. These and other likeminded thinkers shunted all such discussions off to theology, which they regarded as the dustbin of meaningless matters.
     But the Modern Age passed, and now we are more than a hundred years into a new phase of history as yet unnamed. And our views have likewise changed. What the Modern thinkers considered its greatest advance, we are now beginning to see as its greatest failure. In consisted of two mistakes. First. the Moderns reasoned that if they could not answer the ultimate questions, then no one could. They believed themselves to be superior not only to all past eras but also to all future ages. Their solution was to narrow the intellectual agenda and to define it by what it excluded rather than by what it contained. And they expected future generations to obey the same restrictions. For Modernity was archly imperialistic, an age in which each art, country, science, and philosophy sought to establish its dominance. The same imperialistic vision that inspired Cecil Rhodes to build counties inspired Richard Wagner to create heroic music.
     The second error was even more serious. The Moderns failed to understand that it is not the answers that stimulate science and philosophy but the questions themselves. The first thinkers of ancient Greece asked the basic questions and at first came up with simplistic answers. For instance, they reasoned that fire, water, earth, and air were the basic components of all things. From our perspective, it is a laughable hypothesis. But if we stop there, we misjudge the importance of their efforts. Instead of relying on omens and oracles, as their ancestors had done, for the first time these philosopher-scientists turned their intellect to the task of explaining the world. It was to be the pattern of intellectual progress from then on, not from the first answers, which often are wrong, but from persistently asking the right questions.
     Today, we still lack answers, but we have new perspectives and, most important, once again we have the questions. Now that the old restrictions of Modernity no longer apply, hasn’t the time come to begin asking again the forbidden questions?

Harold Raley

Roads not taken

In high school many of us read some of poet Robert Frost’s poems, including his classic “The Road Not Taken.” Its metaphorical power is immense but not forced in a way that would disrupt the simple New England setting. In an age of literary overkill, Frost was the master of artistic understatement. In “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” to my way of thinking, lyrically and euphonically an even better poem, the poet stops on a snowy road, yielding for a moment to the dark beauties of the deep woods that lure him. To what evil or innocence we cannot know. In any case, the call of duty, repeated for moral emphasis, finally breaks the hypnotic appeal and sends him towards his destination, which can be plainly literal or endlessly symbolic: “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.

Frost was one of our easier assignments. Even as teenagers we had no trouble picking up the road as a metaphor of life. For who among us has not decided to take one road at a crossroads or in life and pondered later what our destiny would have been if we had chosen the one not taken? Of felt in sidelong looks the temptation of mysterious byways that lure us from our main-road duties?

At such moments we feel the earnestness of life and sense the onrush of time. We cannot linger undecided at the crossroads or stop too long by the wayside. Duties and decisions crowd urgently upon us. And every road taken is also a rejection of another.

Yet pale and past, the rejected roads linger always. The story of our life is more than the sum of our documented episodes and decisions. Modestly, behind the factual content of our life trail the unreal images of other roads we could have taken, other places and persons we could have known, other lives we could have lived.

It is only in view of what we have said no to–and what has said no to us–that we can begin to make sense of human life, our own most of all. Historian Thomas Carlyle said that history does not reveal its alternatives. Perhaps he was not entirely right. For the alternatives remain in an ideal, unreal way as lingering reminders of the magnitude of their sacrifices. For some things must end so that others can begin. The roads not taken, the chances missed or rejected, are not mere nostalgic anecdotes of ancient renunciations but preparations for those we chose to follow. Each of us is a constellation of real and rejected lives. At varying distances from the dramatic center of our being, our chosen and forfeited ideals trace our way through the world. Paradoxically, who we are includes who we could not, or would not, be.

Harold Raley

English Farmers and French Aristocrats

The English language almost died in its infancy. When William the Conqueror of France defeated King Harold and his English army at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 AD, French became the official language of the English court and higher classes. For nearly two hundred years English–still a jumble of underdeveloped Germanic dialects called Anglosaxon–was relegated to second-class status, surviving among servants and farmers. Even though by several unlikely turns English eventually became dominant again in England and predominant in the whole world, this social division was, and still is, reflected in several ways, including food.

English farmers raised and slaughtered hogs, or swine, but the aristocrats who ate the meat called the animal by its French name: porc (pork). Sheep was served as mutton (French, mouton). cow meat became beef (modern French boeuf), and calf meat was veal (modern French veau). This duality was to become a permanent feature of English at several levels. (An ironic sidelight: in later times when English beefsteak became a worldwide delicacy, the French–and Spanish–borrowed the term, pronouncing it as best they could, biftec and bistec, respectively).

Not only were animals given different names but also culinary processes by which English cow, calf, hog, and sheep were prepared for table became a part of English: boil (French: bouillir), fry (French: frire), roast: (old French: rostir, modern rôtir); The English term “seethe” ceased to be a culinary verb and became a figurative term for “rage.”

We can say, therefore, that English is a hybrid language consisting mainly of a Germanic or Anglosaxon structure overlaid with Latinate vocabulary by way of French, which is descended from Latin. In everyday English we say more Germanic words, but in more formal, legal, military, and academic settings, the Latin /French content rises (along with Greek words in the sciences). Our understanding of Latinate words, especially compound words, is less than our comprehension of alternate terms with Anglosaxon roots. Here are two examples (1) understand vs. comprehend. We understand both roots of the Germanic under + stand, but probably not so readily com + prehend. And (2) overseer vs supervisor. We have no trouble with over + seer, that is, one who oversees, but do we as readily understand super + visor. Super is over or higher in Latin, and visor means seer. The terms are really equal, but supervisor sounds a bit more prestigious–precisely because we do not readily understand its humble roots.

As a rule in English, its Anglosaxon, or Germanic, words have a greater emotional impact and affect us at a deeper level than their Latinate equivalents. This is why our best speakers and writers (for example, Abraham Lincoln or J.R.R. Tolkien) use a high percentage of Anglosaxon vocabulary. And think how puny our profanity would be without our tiny but mighty Anglosaxon four-letter words.

Harold Raley

Levels of Reality

Our hardcore realists, that is, folks who argue that reality consists exclusively of physical things like sticks, stones, and other material objects they can see, touch, weigh, and measure, omit most levels of what is humanly real. Consider some examples. Nobody has ever seen love, wisdom, courage, or cowardice, but everybody has known lovable, wise, courageous, and cowardly people. We abstract these qualities and convert them into classes of things that are real to us, yet cannot be seen, touched, weighed, or measured like sticks, stones, and other physical objects.
     Laws represent another level of reality. But here the process is reversed: the laws must first be enacted by humans before we can speak of law-abiding persons. Laws are immaterial abstractions, yet we know they are real by the effect they have if we break them. Think of the consequences if we run red lights or ignore the IRS. We also speak of natural or scientific laws, and neither do such laws exist in the touchable way of physical objects, although we demonstrate their validity through experiments, evidence, and rational deductions. They are abstracted from predictable physical behaviors and verified by human observation.
     Today politics is probably the most intense level of abstractly constructed human reality. It does not exist naturally; animals are not political creatures, nature is indifferent to political ideology, and we ourselves cannot see, touch, or taste it. But based on experience, most of us can readily attest to its enormous powers of attraction and revulsion even though it has no physical substance.
     The reality of money is even more universal and enduring than politics. It is also a strictly human creation to which we attribute value. Nature is indifferent to finance; animals could not care less, or even know, whether we are rich or poor. The categories rich and poor are human classifications that do not apply to other creatures.
     Similarly, except for Antarctica, every square mile of land on earth belongs to some humanly designed and mapped jurisdiction. And frequent wars and tensions attest to the reality and importance of these boundaries. Countries themselves are manmade realities. In Nature there are no national borders or, for that matter, square miles, which is why human creations tend to be more impactful than the natural world.
     These are some of the levels of manmade realities. There are many others that deal with art, engineering, philosophy, science, and language. So many, in fact, that if these humanly created levels of reality were removed from the world, our life would be too impoverished to be called human. Yet modern anthropologists, laboring under Darwin’s giant shadow, have done their best to persuade us that we are still mere eccentric primates under Nature’s supervision. But if true, how true is it? If we still have one foot in Nature, the other is outside it. A separation is evident: the greater class of humanly created realities begins and extends far beyond where natural realities end.

Harold Raley

The Question of Gender

Gender has always been the most obvious feature of a newborn infant. In earlier times, doctors and family members would look at the baby’s anatomy and declare it to be a boy or girl. Later, ultrasound afforded a sneak preview of the child’s sex. But what appears to be clear anatomical evidence of gender is really based on a more fundamental distinction too obvious to be evident. A girl soon learns that is female because she is not male. And, similarly, a boy recognizes that he is male because he is not female. In short, we are defined by the other sex. If there were only females in the world, women would have no way or reason to identify themselves as women. And the same would be true of men. But because each sex has a defining alternative–persons called women and men, girls and boys–we conform to the expectation of our sex, or at least acknowledge it negatively by rebelling against its rules.
Once the child’s sex was determined, other features almost as definitive and defining followed: names befitting the child’s gender, family lineage, and society; clothing appropriate for a girl or boy, pink for girls, blue for boys; and toys and games suitable for the child’s sex. Also depending on the culture, its arrival might be accompanied by celebratory cigars, gifts, toasts, showers, christenings, and official documents attesting to the infant’s birth, parentage, and real existence.
But all that was yesterday’s world. Today the matter of gender is not so simple, but instead raises this primary question: shall we allow nature and chance to determine a person’s gender? Can’t it be a postnatal choice, or even a later, adult decision? Both apparently, because we hear of celebrated adult sex changes and infant surgeries to switch from the gender that nature chose to the one that parents or individuals prefer. And who has the right today to tell us that pink is the proper color for girls, or that blue is mandatory for boys. In recent times.
Behaviorists debate whether boys have an inborn compulsion to turn objects into make-believe weapons. Or does the culture teach them this tendency? Similarly, do girls acquire maternal tendencies by nature or imitation before they are physically and hormonally capable of motherhood?
Sigmund Freud and his followers reduced gender to sexuality, which cast suspicions on all relations between the sexes. As correctives to this crudeness, I recommend adding the terms sexuate, sexuateness, and derivatives to English. They would allow us to treat human gender with greater accuracy and finesse. Many people are not sexually active for long periods of life. Consider the infants discussed earlier, elderly survivors, and persons celibate by calling. These persons are no less gendered than those sexually active; they are sexuate but not sexual. This terminology could neatly distinguish between sexual liaisons and intersexuate friendships, which often prove to be our richest.

Harold Raley


The Problem with Paradise

The story goes that the pastor of Abraham Lincoln’s church once asked the congregation how many wanted to go to Hell. Not a hand went up. “And how many prefer Heaven?” he queried. All but Lincoln raised their hand. “Which is your choice, brother Lincoln? the puzzled minister asked. “I’d just as soon stay here,” Honest Abe answered for himself and probably for most of us today.

We reveal our preference for this life by the unconsciously dismissive way we refer to the next one: afterlife, hereafter. In other words, after our main life here is over, we begin an “afterlife” there. Like Lincoln, we reckon that Heaven is a nice enough place, but one we avoid as long as we can. And one reason is that from our physical perspective, Heaven sounds–dare we say it?–anemic, at least according to our sketchy knowledge of it. The Bible tells us precious little about Heaven, beginning with which part of us goes there. Does our whole self go to Heaven, or is it a journey only for the unbodied thing we call our “soul”? And once there, must we forfeit the pleasures we enjoyed in this life–food, drink, love, games, competitions, pets, parties, gratifying accomplishments, and creative endeavors? They tell us that we shall have other, greater delights. But can anybody tell us with any certainty what they are? Jesus stated that no marriages will be made in Heaven. Remove, then, one of this life’s greatest sources of happiness.

Will we even remember our earthly life and its troubles, or shall our memory be anesthetized and unhappy recollections purged so that we will no longer worry about loved ones still suffering on earth or perhaps writhing in Hell? Will we still be ourselves or, as the Buddhists believe, merge like a drop of water into the infinite ocean of being?

Though a relatively new concept to the Western countries, recycling in several Eastern religions is ancient and much more radical. There people have been recycling themselves through countless lives, trying to get it right.

In contrast, the male Islamic Heaven resembles nothing so much as an endless sexual orgy. It promises men several dozen accommodating virgins–young ones, we assume, and girls, we suppose. But who knows? Is age and sex discrimination allowed in paradise? The rewards for Islamic women are unclear, but I believe they can have anything their heart desires, similar to an everlasting shopping spree.

I cringe at two sentiments common to many obituaries: “angel wings” and “eternal rest.” The problem with the first is that angels are a separate category of beings that doesn’t admit humans. As for eternal rest, I cannot imagine anything drearier than everlasting idleness. (At least let me take along a magazine.)  We have worked to make our life count for something in this world, otherwise we probably wouldn’t have made it to Heaven to begin with. God grant us the chance to do likewise in life’s longer version.

Harold Raley