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Redeeming humanity – David Braithwaite SJ

Homo homini lupus – ‘man is a wolf unto man’ – is one of those lapidary phrases that has been passed down to us in a most interesting lineage. Originating with Plautus, the Roman poet, and approvingly cited by Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan, and later by his spiritual heir Sigmund Freud in his Civilisation and its Discontents, it is a phrase that captures a deeply pessimistic, and sadly, popular view of human nature.

To say that humans are no more than animals – and not cute pandas but ravenous wolves– is a proclamation of the innate darkness and irrationality of human nature. It is the motto of the metaphysics of pessimism, and the implicit belief of much of the thought that sustains our present-driven capitalism. The title of the film The Wolf of Wall Street is perfect in this regard.

We are darkly ambivalent about our natures and the ‘natural’.

Are we really irrational animals, naked apes, or is our nature essentially good and only in need of divine repair? How deep does our depravity go? Is it just a bad habit, or truly inescapable nature? Puritanism, both religious and secular, revels in this darkness. Economists presume this darkness in their oxymoronic ‘rational self-interest’ and the wonderfully mystical metaphor of ‘the invisible hand’.

If Adam Smith’s strange theological economics is grounded in a metaphysics of deep pessimism, then Ignatian spirituality represents its opposite in the metaphysics of optimism consummated in divine friendship. In this anti-Puritan view, human nature is good and open to greater goodness at all times. Sin is a defect, yet not the sum of our nature.

Pope Francis, prophetically, refuses to succumb to the weight of the supposedly ‘inevitable’ idea that we are indeed wolves unto each other and to all creation. He calls us back to the hope-filled vision of the human person found in the Gospels and calls on us to dream for a polity that reflects that gracious hope.