“Humankind, A Hopeful History”: Is Man Basically Good or Evil?

Human Kind
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“Humankind, A Hopeful History”

Harold Acemah

[Aluta Continua]

“Humankind, A Hopeful History” is the title of a fascinating book by renowned Dutch author Rutger Bregman which I received as a present from my sister-in-law, Ms. Alice Azabo, who is based in The Netherlands. I have been engrossed in reading the book for a couple of weeks. Originally written in Dutch, the book was translated into English by Elizabeth Manton and Erica Moore.

The book challenges the common belief that human beings are by nature selfish and governed or driven by greed and self-interest. Locally the despicable, offensive and shameless behavior, utterances and misdeeds of Uganda’s corrupt and morally decadent ruling clique lends credence to this belief.

From Machiavelli to Hobbes, Freud to Dawkins, the negative view of human nature is deeply rooted and embedded in Western political thought. It reminds me of concepts such as, “the state of nature” and “the noble savage” which I learnt during first year political science lectures years ago at Makerere University, in a compulsory course taught by the late Professor Ali Mazrui, “Pol Sci 101: Introduction to Political Theory.”

Rutger Bregman, a prominent European historian, advances a relatively new argument, that it is realistic as well as revolutionary to assume that human beings are naturally good. The human instinct to cooperate rather than compete, to trust rather than distrust, has an evolutionary basis which goes back to the origins of our species. Assuming the worst of others, as most African leaders routinely do, affects interpersonal relations, politics and economics.

The 465-page book is divided into five parts; part 1 - The state of nature; part 2 – After Auschwitz; part 3 – Why good people turn bad; part 4 – A new realism, and part 5 – The other cheek. The prologue to the book titled “A New Realism” begins as follows:

“This is a book about a radical idea. An idea that’s long been known to make rulers nervous. An idea denied by religions and ideologies, ignored by the news media and erased from the annals of world history.” In reply to the question: “So what is this radical idea?” the author answers, “That most people, deep down, are pretty decent.” (p.2)

 As a practicing Christian, I am not surprised by this “radical idea” because human beings, made by God in His own image, as Scripture teaches, must deep down be good and decent, reflecting the goodness, grace, mercy and love of their Creator who is perfect in every sense of the word.