Natural Disposition

What is the natural disposition of mankind? That is to ask what are the basic emotions that make people recognizable to one another and not the ones added on by the veneer of civilization. What, in a word, are our “true” or “truest” emotions? The great psychologist-philosophers all tried to answer this question. Aristotle thought there was a very long list of standard emotions. Hobbes thought that there was an evolution of emotions from the most simple to the most complex, the key being when people learned or came to think in practical terms. Spinoza thought that emotions changed into one another, as when love turned to hate, and dispensed with Aristotle’s notion that there was a Golden Mean, whereby the best emotions were the ones between their extreme versions. Another way to answer the question, rather than to arrange a gigantic table of emotions, is to look at the actual history of mankind so as to see what emotions were exhibited by primitive, and so presumably more natural people. Durkheim looked at Australian Aborigines and concluded, based on their funeral practices, that the most basic feeling of humanity was reverence for the ongoing community. Australian Aborigines are about as primitive as you can get on the ladder of cultural evolution. In his book “A Commonwealth of Thieves”, Thomas Kennelly supplies us with portraits of a few of the Aborigines encountered by the early English settlers in Australia, and so let us consider what Kennelly tells us about people in their full naturalness, though the consideration of different Aborigines might offer different readings. We should remember, however, that we often use people who seem lacking and insufficient in some way or another even if they are singular to tell us all kinds of things about the general human condition. Helen Keller showed that people bereft of sight and hearing could still think and Ishi and the wild boy of Avignon showed us how children raised in isolation were limited as human beings.

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