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Human Nature And Modern Society

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Karl Marx was born in 1818 to a middle-class family in what was then called Prussia and pursued an academic career before pivoting to political journalism to advocate for revolutionary socialism. Almost thirty years later, Friedrich Nietzsche was born and also pursued an academic career at the University of Basel in Switzerland until he was enlisted to serve in the Prussian military shortly thereafter. He suffered from a number of physical ailments before succumbing to a complete mental breakdown in 1889. The two did not consider themselves to be sociologists, yet both developed significant sociological theories that continue to be discussed today. However, unlike Marx, Nietzsche is not considered to be part of the classical sociological canon but rather an influencer. Over the course of their lives and careers, they each developed distinct notions of human nature that would prove to be significant in affecting their other views of society. Both Marx’s conception of human nature that our species being is characterized by our distinctive productive capacities and Nietzsche’s belief that humans are naturally and fundamentally motivated by the will to power were employed to inform their critiques of modern society, specifically the alienation of labor and the bad conscience, respectively.

To begin with, Marx’s conception of human nature is actually that of a so-called species being, which is defined as the potentials and powers that are uniquely human and that distinguish humans from other species. Essentially, humans have this inherent need to create because they can only recognize their potential through conscious, productive activity, according to Marx (Tucker 1978:150). As such, humans are defined by how and what they produce, which intimately ties labor, or productive activity, to the concept of the species being. Labor allows individuals to express their creative potential by objectifying products of their imagination and transforming them into real physical objects. Gradually, basic material needs are met, and new needs are created, which leads to the propagation of ideas and the advancement of technology. Furthermore, social relations, or the division of labor, will change and adapt to these productive forces, causing people to enter into definite relations of production. The sum total of the relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society on which rises an ideological superstructure that corresponds to definite forms of social consciousness, further signifying the value of labor. Since Marx recognizes the importance of productivity to the concept of the species being, he is concerned with the alienation of labor that occurred under capitalism when people lost control over their own labor power and over the conditions and objects of their labor. He critiques the capitalist nature of modern society for allowing the distinguishing characteristic of human nature to reach this level of estrangement. Instead of leading to personal and spiritual fulfillment, work is where individuals feel the least human because they are alienated from their species being (Tucker 1978:77). Industrial capitalism, in particular, continues to displace more and more workers due to increased production, forcing laborers to become “appendages of the machine” (Tucker 1978:479). Therefore, Marx’s conception of human nature as a species being and his understanding that it is heavily reliant on productive activity informs his critique of modern capitalism and its contribution to the alienation of labor.

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On the other hand, Nietzsche focuses on the fundamental drive of the will to power in his conception of human nature. Although he fails to properly define this theory of human motivation, it can be inferred that he was referencing the idea that people desire power over others. Prior to the development of modern society, humans were adapted to a certain, perhaps even primitive, way of life that involved wilderness, war, and the like (Kaufmann 2000:520). Mankind was far crueler yet, surprisingly, unashamed of their prehistoric instincts such as hostility and cruelty (Kaufmann 2000:502). For example, when debts failed to be repaid, some form of punishment that involved the suffering of the debtor was exercised by the creditor as a form of compensation. The ability to inflict pain upon others was pleasurable because it allowed individuals to experience a sense of power and authority that constitutes the perceived basis of the will to power (Kaufmann 2000:501). However, over time, society transformed and demanded that people’s prehistoric instincts be suppressed and internalized, which marked the beginning of the bad conscience that plagues modern society (Kaufmann 2000:520). Unfortunately, the bad conscience, or the will to self-maltreatment, has only continued to intensify with the coming of Christianity. Not only did it redefine what it means to be “good” and “bad”, leading to the regression of mankind, but it also gave rise to the irredeemable debt of eternal punishment and of God (Kaufmann 2000:479). Nietzsche asserts that humans have become weak due to their willingness to promote ideals of Christianity that deem themselves guilty to an irreparable degree while enduring feelings of absolute unworthiness (Kaufmann 2000:526). When the poor and the sick are regarded as good and even blessed by God, the will to power ceases to exist because the noble and powerful are considered to be evil, cruel, and damned (Kaufmann 2000:470). With that being said, Nietzsche capitalizes upon this idea of the fundamental driving force behind human behavior and motivation, this will to power, to critique specific aspects of modern society such as the bad conscience and Christianity.

In contrast to the teachings of Nietzsche, Marx supported the idea of material conditions and emphasized the importance of satisfying one’s material needs, while the former highlighted the influence of values on human psychology and behavior. He posits that the meanings of values or moral concepts are arbitrary because they change depending on who is interpreting the notion at hand. For example, the word “guilt” initially had no relation to the concept of the bad conscience until society began to associate guilt with the bad conscience over time (Kaufmann 2000:498). One can see how such values shape human behavior by looking at the internalization of man that occurred after the meaning of guilt evolved to what it is today. Meanwhile, Marx’s idea of material conditions asserts that changes in social relations and social consciousness only come after the satisfaction of material needs (Tucker 1978:155). As a result, human nature is heavily influenced by materialism as opposed to ideology and values, as portrayed in Marx’s conceptual model of the superstructure and the base. According to him, class conflict and material interests are the driving forces of social change. He also describes human nature, or species being, as inherently productive, which seemingly differs slightly from Nietzsche’s idea that humans are naturally destructive in their cruel and violent actions. However, these characteristics are not mutually exclusive in that Nietzsche did not promote destruction but rather recognized that the “joy in destruction” was a natural inclination before societal change prompted humans to suppress their prehistoric instincts (Kaufmann 2000:478). In his critique of modern society, he compliments the development of the inner life, or the soul, that accompanied the internalization of man and made humans “interesting.” Therefore, he does not want society to return to primitive or barbaric ways of life; he hopes that society can instead link the bad conscience to their unnatural inclinations of guilt and shame. Like Marx, Nietzsche recognizes the importance of productive activity to human nature. He continues to condemn the will to nothingness brought about by the bad conscience that results in mediocrity and prevents mankind from reaching its fullest potential. Marx, on the other hand, views productive activity as a form of motivation for human nature. As such, he criticizes modern capitalism for alienating individuals from their labor and, in turn, their sense of ambition and interest.

With that being said, Nietzsche and Marx have each established definite conceptions of human nature that shape their perceptions of and, more specifically, their critiques of modern society. Marx concentrates on the species being, which is synonymous with human nature, and its innate need to create and express productive capabilities; and Nietzsche dwells on an ambiguous will to power that he considers the fundamental driving force behind human behavior. Although both theorists provide convincing material to support their assertions, Marx appears to utilize scientific evidence to a greater extent as opposed to Nietzsche’s use of primarily empirical evidence. However, readers should also recognize Marx’s failure to depict what society would look like following the “inevitable collapse of capitalism” (Tucker 1978:483).

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