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Sunday, February 26, 2012

An Important Lesson in the Most Useful "Science of Human Nature" (Part Two)

(Note: This is the second and concluding segment in a two part series. The first segment sketched the outline of an important lesson in the most useful "science of human nature" through what some say is the greatest story ever told. Christ’s provocative ride into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday posed a potentially serious problem to Roman authority. The dilemma logically devolved to the local Jewish authorities.)

How does the story of Christ perfectly demonstrate an important lesson in the most useful "science of human nature?"   How does it equally demonstrate the necessary characteristics of leadership?

In a nutshell, the dilemma for the Jewish authorities was this. If Christ could lead a rebellion, which would culminate in the overthrow of Roman authority with their assistance, then they could conveniently ride Christ’s coattails. Their own authoritative status within the new power structure would remain intact, maybe even increase. However, should the rebellion be crushed, then their fate would certainly be the same. The stakes could not have been higher for them. So, they questioned Christ.

“Where is your army?” the Pharisees and Sadducees wanted to know, more than just out of mere curiosity.

“I have no army” was Christ’s succinct reply. “My kingdom is not of this earth. My kingdom is the kingdom of heaven.” This response was dubious, failing to inspire confidence in the Pharisees and Sadducees, who could not rest easily.

In the interim, the devil would tempt Christ, offering anything he desired to reject his Father’s plan for man’s salvation. Rejecting this supreme temptation, in what can only be labeled a sheer test of will, Christ continued: “I will tear down the temple in one day, and re-build it in three.” Christ was, of course, referring to his upcoming crucifixion, death and resurrection, to follow during the course of events over the ensuing week. But, the Pharisees and Sadducees were yet to know this.

They quickly summed up the earthly situation and concluded that Christ was probably out of his mind. The Pharisees and Sadducees were certainly reasonable men and made a fateful decision.  They said they must choose the military power of Rome over the popular yet enigmatic and army-less Christ, “for the sake of the nation.”  Left unsaid was the fact that they were simply acting reasonably in their own best interest..

In human terms, the decision was not difficult. They were not going to do something silly like risk their exalted place in Jewish society. They were not going down with the ship.  In reality, they were sacrificing Christ to preserve their own status. It was convenient. It was expedient. It’s what human beings typically do. It's an important lesson in the most useful science of human nature.  Pilate would not interfere with an internal decision of the Jewish people.

Christ was also aware that one of his own 12 disciples, Judas, accepted money to betray him. Moreover, when the heat was really turned up, the situation still fluid, Peter, the rock upon which Christ would subsequently build his Christian church, denied knowing him on 3 separate occasions in rapid sequence. After all, Peter had reasonably concluded that Christ’s fate would be his as well, had he simply admitted knowing him. Again, here was an example of a reasonable man, acting reasonably in his own best interest. The rest, as they say, is history.

But then there was that remarkable close: “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” Christ did not blame them, as we mere mortals are prone to do. He forgave them instead. To understand what leadership is, the ordinary citizen doesn’t have to look beyond the example of Christ: deny yourself, to advance a just cause, by the example of your actions.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

-Michael D’Angelo

Sunday, February 19, 2012

An Important Lesson in the Most Useful "Science of Human Nature" (Part One)

(Editor's note: This is the first segment in a new two part series which begins here today.)

The constancy of human nature provides authority for the notion that it must be classified as its own science. Viewed in the light of predictability, human nature rises to the level of a most useful science. And among the recurring patterns of predictable human behavior, both good and bad, the most useful science of human nature contains an important lesson.

My law partner, Mr. Blythe, frequently says that one can expect reasonable men to act reasonably in their own best interest. This is a simple statement.  However, it is rendered meaningless, absent some context.  In fact, when the message is repeated over and over from the same voice, one naturally begins to tune it out. But in light of Harry Truman’s experiences regarding the constancy of human nature, this got me to thinking.

Wasn't there a familiar story about an expectation of reasonable men acting reasonably in their own best interest?  Yes!  And some say it is the greatest story ever told, the story of Jesus Christ. As the story goes, Christ voluntarily chose to forego his immortality to take on human form, that is, an imperfect form. His purpose was to provide ordinary people a working model as to how to set the main priorities of human existence.

We don’t have a lot of detail on Christ’s day to day life, unfortunately.  But one scene depicts Christ in the temple.  There he overturns the tables of the money changers who had infiltrated its halls, casting them out with a rare display of anger.  It seems that economics had gained an undesirable preference over morality.

"Love one another" is the main message I seem to recall from my old Catholic grammar school days. And, coupled with that idea, the greatest gift a human can give to another is to sacrifice one’s own life for that of another. But the greatest story ever told also contains a very interesting and important message about how the other humans in the story behaved themselves.

The theme from the original Broadway musical, Jesus Christ Superstar, illustrates the basic story. Christ’s popular following and the threat to the authority of Rome that it represented reached a critical mass upon his riding into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Whether Christ meant it or not, the act was seen as an act of extreme provocation.

For the Jewish people, who were Roman subjects, the physical protection of Rome’s economic and military might could be relied upon, only if they adhered to two simple rules. Those rules were, first, pay your taxes (hence the phrase “Give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s”), and second, don’t rebel. The violation of either was sure to bring trouble.

In Christ’s case, his ride to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday would surely rouse the masses and thereby constitute a clear violation of Rome’s second rule. And so, the Jewish people had to confront a serious problem, sooner rather than later, or face the reality that the Romans would solve the problem for them.

The names Pharisees and Sadducees were the fancy old terms for the lawyers and priests of the day. Together, they constituted a powerful leadership body that claimed greater moral authority and righteousness than the rest of the Jewish society of Christ’s time. Setting themselves up as models of what was right and “godly,” they were hyper-zealous to preserve and protect the name of God on earth and his laws. While we may detect the obvious strain of self-interest in this arrangement, they did not see themselves as bad people.

And so the problem of Christ logically devolved to them.

(Next week's second segment analyzes how they utilized an important lesson in the most useful "science of human nature" as the means of efficient resolution.)

-Michael D'Angelo

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Human Nature Does Not Change (Part Three)

(Editor's note:  The previous segments in this three part series introduced readers to why we bother to study history and discussed Harry Truman’s self-education --- how he came to concentrate on the workings, the continuity and the consistency of human nature.  The third and final segment identifies the formula for understanding history and its value in understanding the course of current events.)

The formula was actually quite simple.  Imperfect and inexact, but nonetheless an efficient means to an end.  Essentially, while the names, the dates and the places may change, as well as the arbitrary lines on a map, national boundaries and the reign of great empires, human nature does not change.  So, if one were to study, comprehend and become proficient with the workings of human nature, one would be able to juxtapose the names, the dates and the places from one era to another, and pretty well figure out not only the course but also the direction of events.

America loved Harry Truman’s honesty and candor above all things.  Are these ingredients present in our elected leaders over the last 50 years or so?  America also loved Harry Truman’s role as a perpetual underdog, who always seemed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, and staunchly defended the rights of the ordinary citizen.

“Give ‘em hell, Harry” was the familiar phrase used by the people, to show their support for his unbending principles.  In fact, Truman didn’t see how it made much sense for one to enter politics and not be the proponent of the common man.  To be sure, Truman was known to review applications for appointments to West Point from Missouri boys.  Bypassing folders thick with recommendations from judges, state legislators, mayors, etc., he would favor an application consisting of a single page, written in pencil on a sheet of cheap, rough paper.

Lastly, Harry Truman seemed to know his place in the natural order and that his role, although very important, was essentially fleeting.  He never considered himself to be the President.  Rather, he viewed himself as the trustee of the Office of the President of the United States.  When asked the secret of his success, he cited to Oliver Wendell Holmes, a soldier in the Civil War, a Supreme Court Justice, among other things.  Old Holmes answered: “The secret of my success is that at a very early age I discovered that I am not God.”  And, similarly, Truman said that he never forgot where he came from, and would go back to: Independence, Missouri.

All Truman had to recollect was the story of Cincinnatus, the Roman hero, who was compelled to give up his plow when called into service to save the empire in its time of dire need.  When Truman’s work was completed in 1952, successfully, the man who arguably held the most power ever concentrated in any one single man to that moment in history, like Cincinnatus before him, voluntarily gave up the power, put down the sword and returned to his farm country origins.

Harry Truman’s experiences regarding the constancy of human nature teaches us that human nature is its own science, on merit standing upon its own foundation.  Many would agree that it is a most useful science.  Among the recurring patterns of predictable human behavior, both good and bad, there is perhaps one important lesson.  We’ll journey there next.

-Michael D’Angelo

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Only Thing New in the World ... (Part Two)

(Editor's note: This is the second segment in a three part series on why we bother to study history. The first segment introduced readers to Harry Truman, the self-educated president, who came to concentrate on the workings, the continuity and the consistency of human nature.)

Despite his lack of formal education, Truman was one of our nation’s smartest leaders, self taught in the mold of Abraham Lincoln.  Truman had gained his considerable knowledge from a passion to study history.  Even during his presidency, he could be found reading, his library filled only with biography and history.

Like most intelligent people, he criticized lawyers, in that they knew the law but not much of anything else.  “Gotta read your history,” Harry was known to say, for a viewpoint of whatever the present issue happened to be within the context of the bigger picture.  Above all, Truman encouraged the study of the nature of man and the culture and heritage of Western Civilization in general.

This presented another set of clues about human nature.  Truman was proficient in his reading of an old, classic series, entitled Plutarch’s Lives, a bound set of which he possessed from his childhood days.  It is a work of considerable historical importance, arranged to illuminate the common moral virtues or failings of the subjects of the biographies.

The work was written in the late 1st century, and consisted of a series of biographies of famous men.  The surviving work, more commonly known as the Parallel Lives, consists of 23 pairs of biographies, each pair consisting of one Greek and one Roman.

From his reading of history, Truman concluded that what were most striking were its elements of continuity, including, above all, human nature, which had changed little if any through time.

When I was in politics, there would be times when I tried to figure somebody out, and I could always turn to Plutarch, and 9 times out of 10 I’d be able to find a parallel in there.  In 1940, when I was running for re-election in the Senate, there was this big apple grower named Stark trying to beat me.  I’d started him out in politics, but in 1940 he was out to lick me, and I couldn’t figure it out.

But the more I thought about him, the more he reminded me of what Plutarch said about Nero.  I’d done a lot of thinking about Nero.  What I was interested in was how having started as well as he did, he ended up in ruin.  And Plutarch said the start of his troubles was when he began to take his friends for granted and started to buy his enemies.

And I noticed some of those same traits in old Starks.  That’s how I decided I could lick him, and I did, of course.  Nobody thought I could, but I did.
But about Plutarch.  It was the same with those old birds in Greece and Rome as it is now.  I told you.  The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know.
Harry Truman was then deftly suited to apply the lessons learned to the problems of his time - which were in abundance.  One of his favorite lines, “The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know,” was of invaluable assistance to him in dealing with the ominous strongmen of the era.  These were people like Germany’s Adolph Hitler, the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin and China’s Mao Tse-tung, finding similar connections with other despots and historical figures that had come before.

(The formula was really not very complicated.  Next week's third and final segment in our three part series will offer the details...)

-Michael D’Angelo