Humankind, A Hopeful History is the title of a fascinating book by famous Dutch author Rutger Bregman that I received as a gift from my sister-in-law, Mrs. Alice Azabo, based in the Netherlands.
I was absorbed in reading the book for a few 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 inherently selfish and governed or motivated by greed and self-interest. Locally, the despicable, offensive and shameless behavior, talk and misdeeds of Uganda’s corrupt and morally decadent ruling clique confirm this belief.
From Machiavelli to Hobbes, from Freud to Dawkins, the negative view of human nature is deeply rooted and entrenched in Western political thought. It reminds me of concepts like ‘the state of nature’ and ‘the noble savage’ that I learned in first year political science classes at Makerere University, in a compulsory course taught by Prof. Ali Mazrui.
Bregman, a prominent European historian, makes a relatively new argument that it is both realistic and revolutionary to assume that human beings are naturally good.
The human instinct to cooperate rather than compete, to trust rather than mistrust, has an evolutionary basis dating back to the origins of our species. Assuming the worst of the rest, as most African leaders routinely do, affects interpersonal relationships, politics and the economy.
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 plays. The prologue to the book titled “ A New Realism ” begins as follows:
“It’s a book about a radical idea. An idea long known to make executives nervous. An idea denied by religions and ideologies, ignored by the news media and erased from the annals of world history. In response to the question: “So what is this radical idea?” the author replies: “That most people are basically pretty decent.”
As a practicing Christian, I am not surprised by this “radical idea” because human beings, created by God in his image, as the scriptures teach, must basically be good and decent, reflecting goodness, grace, mercy and love of their perfect Creator in every sense of the word.
The third part is of particular interest to Uganda and African countries. There are three chapters under this part, titled: “How Empathy Blinds,” “How Power Corrupts,” and “What Enlightenment Has Gone Wrong.”
While Niccolo Machiavelli, author of a classic work, The Prince, argues that “men never do anything good except out of necessity,” Bregman provides a powerful and compelling argument for defending the innate goodness and natural decency of human beings. .
Bregman argues that human beings are not wild, hopelessly greedy, violent, unreliable and rapacious species as argued by Hobbes, Machiavelli and many Western political thinkers. It challenges the very premises upon which cynical and negative ideas about human nature are based and offers a ray of hope for a desperate, fearful and unhappy world.
How power corrupts
Bregman begins this chapter by reminding us of Machiavelli’s formula for acquiring power written in The Prince, a manual for tyrants. “If you want power, you have to grab it. You must be shameless, free from principles or morals. The end justifies the means. And if you don’t pay attention to yourself, people will waltz right above you.
Among avid readers and practitioners of Machiavelli’s philosophy are Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill, Benito Mussolini, Napoleon and many African leaders.
Bregman concludes as follows: “To believe that people are wired to be nice is neither sentimental nor naive. On the contrary, it is courageous and realistic to believe in peace and forgiveness. ”(P.380). As a Christian, I agree. Let us keep hope alive.
Mr. Acemah is a retired political scientist and diplomat.