Henry Beston on Human Nature and the Power of Community
By Maria Popova
“It is essential that we be convinced of the goodness of human nature, and we must act as though people are good,” the great composer John Cage once told an interviewer. And yet although such certitude might be our best hope for a sane and satisfying life, humanity’s great thinkers have debated it since the dawn of recorded thought. The question of human nature — of whether we are inherently good (moral, kind, just, generous, unselfish) or bad (selfish, deceptive, cruel, greedy) — is perhaps the oldest and most elemental question of philosophy, undergirding all others. Its most commonly implied and somewhat disquieting answer is that in each of us reside dormant potentialities for both, but their effects, bother internal and external, are far from equal. Bertrand Russell captured this asymmetry elegantly in his 1926 meditation on human nature: “Construction and destruction alike satisfy the will to power, but construction is more difficult as a rule, and therefore gives more satisfaction to the person who can achieve it.”
A generation later, Henry Beston (June 1, 1888–April 15, 1968), that great poet laureate of nature and the human spirit, addressed this perennial question in Northern Farm (public library) — the irrepressibly beautiful and sage 1948 collection of short, lyrical essays and diary entires penned over the course of a year on a small farm in Maine, which gave us Beston on whimsicality and the limits of knowledge and his increasingly timely manifesto for reclaiming our humanity from the tyranny of technology.
Some of the religions have outspokenly taught the depravity of man, others have insisted on a rather sugary natural goodness. I hold to neither extreme. Save for those tragic individuals whom something physiological or mental twists towards what is wrong, I have always thought that people, on the whole, are as good as they are able to be. As they are able to be — that is the point, and if such is the natural direction, there is surely something very touching and decent in our troubled race. What is clear is that we simply cannot get on without giving the inclination a chance and providing it with some definite pattern and teaching of morality.
In another diary entry, penned in the thick of WWII and vibrating with enormous resonance amid our present ecological and geopolitical predicament, Beston writes:
There are moments in which melodrama becomes life, and this is one of them. It is not a struggle now between “good” and “bad,” it is a battle between creation and chaos, between human existence and meaningless, inhuman nothingness. Perhaps there is still time to take a stand for the Kingdom of Life; it needs defenders. Perhaps, mighty as its enemies may be, allies will come who are even mightier.
It’s an idea Rebecca Solnit would come to echo more than half a century later in her lucid and luminous insistence on our grounds for hope in the dark. Like Solnit, a champion of falling together while the world seems to fall apart, Beston points to the power of community as our greatest saving grace in the face of meaninglessness and destruction — a sentiment all the timelier today, in a divisive culture intent on finding more and more ways of making us cleave rather than converge. Beston reminds us that resisting those divisive forces is not only a courageous act of rebellion, but perhaps our only hope for healing:
Under today’s disorders there is something at work among the nations whose great importance has not yet been adequately realized — the need … for a community to live in and live with. The hope is vague, unsaid, and unformulated, but the need is great, and there is something in our hearts which troubles us that we have lost what was once so beautifully called “the commonweal.”
I suspect that if this open wound is to heal, it will have to heal like all wounds from the bottom, and that we shall have to begin at the beginning with the family and its obligations, with the village and its responsibilities, and with our universal and neglected duty to the earth.
Northern Farm is a tremendously rewarding read in its entirety. Complement this particular portion with Einstein and Freud’s little-known correspondence about human nature, Susan Sontag on what it means to be a good human being, and Erich Fromm on why we need rational faith in humanity, then revisit Beston on how the beauty of darkness nourishes the human spirit.
Published June 1, 2016