Do humans need to be commanded?

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” So Christ is reported to have said to his disciples in John 13:34. As it happens it is also the commandment that the Venerable Alan Jeans, Archdeacon of Sarum, chose to form the basis of his sermon at the Civic Service in St Thomas’s Church to celebrate the election of the 761st Mayor of the City of Salisbury – Cllr Tom Corbin.

It is an interesting quote that raises the obvious question: does humanity require commanding in order to ‘love one another’? Or is the ability, if not always the practice, to love one another inherent in humanity?

In his sermon the Archdeacon argued that there are many kinds of love. We might say, for example, that we love our car or a painting or a piece of music.

Not the sort of love Christ had in mind

But Christ explicitly says that this commandment to love one another is a ‘new commandment’. Really? What is he saying? That prior to his commandment people didn’t know how to love one another, or if they did know they didn’t practice it enough, so they needed a commandment to enforce it? It’s a bit like the the question that Socrates posed to Euthyphron 2,500 years ago: “Do the gods love holiness because it is holy, or is it holy because they love it?” Does Christ command that we love one another because it is the right thing to do, or is it the right thing to do because Christ commands it? If it it is the latter then do we simply have to take Christ’s word for it? This position appears to be endorsed in John 15:7: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you.” On the other hand in John 15:6: “If anyone does not abide in me he is cast out as branch and is withered, and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned.” So, we don’t need to know whether the word of Christ is right, we simply have to follow his word, or suffer the consequences.

But does humanity need a commandment to love one another and the threat of being burned if we do not abide in Christ? It is hard not to sense a whiff of the Original Sin in this need for commandment.

The doctrine that humans inherit a tainted nature through being born, of course, stems from the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. As Paul says in Romans 5:12: “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned- “Here we get into the deltoid schisms of Protestant thinking and ideas like ‘total depravity’ in which humans’ motivations, even though they might appear to do good, are always sinful or self-regarding – similar to modern day secular thinking found in egoistic morality. On the other hand some thinkers, like the clergyman Samuel Hoard (1599-1658) argued for ‘partial depravity’, which basically claims that humanity does have some choice in the matter and can choose salvation and God.

In more modern times these positions are starkly represented by the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who took a largely dim view of human nature, and Jean Jacque-Rousseau, who was rather more optimistic.

Thomas Hobbes looking suitably grumpy

For Hobbes human life in the state of nature was ‘solitary, poor, nasty, and short’. His answer was to relinquish our freedom into the hands of a ‘solitary sovereign’ – the Leviathan, the name of his magnum opus. Hobbes, incidentally, came from Warminster and there is an early edition of his book in the town’s library.

Rousseau, on the other hand, takes the opposite view. For him, we are naturally good in the state of nature and it is civilization that warps that natural goodness, although it should be said that his state of nature was a thought experiment rather than an actual state.

Rosseau looking decidedly sunnier

Nevertheless, for Rutger Bregman in Humankind Rousseau is largely correct. He argues that for most of human history we ‘inhabited a world without kings or aristocrats, presidents or CEOs’, and problems began about 10,000 years ago. “From the moment we began settling down in one place and amassing private property, our group instinct was no longer innocuous. Combined with scarcity and hierarchy it became downright toxic.”

It is fair to say that this a pretty simplistic view of humanity and this blog will explore a more nuanced approach in a future blog. But for the moment it should be said that Bregman is not advocating a return to a pre-civilized society and he acknowledges that things have become a lot better for millions of people over the last 200 years or so. But, he argues that when you ditch Original Sin and Hobbes you find underneath it all that most people are pretty decent most of the time and don’t need a commandment from Christ – or anyone else for that matter – to love one another.

We could also make the point that many evolutionists now believe that altruism forms a part of our genetic make-up and, in its conceptualized form, helps us to love one another – although of course it will always be in competition with our more selfish instincts. Even Richard Dawkins in his celebrated book The Selfish Gene writes: “However, as we shall see, there are special circumstances in which a gene can achieve its own selfish goals best by fostering a limited form of altruism at the level of the individual animal.” What Dawkins fails to say is that a gene cannot be either selfish or, indeed, pretend to be altruistic. You cannot simply conflate the individual gene and the genome. This sort of thinking comes up with logical absurdities like reciprocal altruism. If part of our make-up is indeed altruistic, then it has to be genuine altruism.

One cannot help feel that Christ’s commandment infantilizes humanity. Indeed, he refers to his disciples as ‘little children’. Is it not time that we grew out of this infantilism and took responsibility for our own lives and actions? Immanuel Kant argued that the Enlightenment represented the maturing of humanity. Perhaps it is time that we took this notion seriously.

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