In the days of ancient Greece, half a millennium prior to the biblical account of the birth of Christ, philosophy was in its fledgling state; it was viewed by the upper class and aristocratic citizenry of city-states such as Athens as a means to all universal truths, a light to illuminate the ignorance of the common man, and a panacea for all the flaws in human nature that led to mistruth, repression, and injustice. However, of all the titans of the art of philosophy, three men hold the most repute; the prolific minds of Euripides, Thucydides, and Plato have sewn their seeds most effectively in the collective conscious of humankind, their unique and varying perspectives on human nature surviving through the ages.
Euripides, in his play, The Bacchae, addresses aspects of human nature that many philosophical minds of his era would not deign to approach, whether out of distaste for the more appetitive and spirited pleasures, or more likely, a lack of his devotion and skill for stripping away the artificial barriers that society builds around one’s true self, the Freudian id. That is the defining aspect of Euripides’ philosophy; according to Euripides, to deny oneself the more carnal, or spirited urges can only lead to ruin. He links this ideology closely with the belief in the divine, a trait that renders him unique from his wholly logical counterparts, asserting that to defy the gods is also contrary to nature, and will result in the offender’s destruction. This belief is exemplified in the following quote from TheBacchae:
“How terrible your vengeance against those
who harness your forces
to their laws of unnatural order.
A free and open mind
is safe against the excesses
lurking in the secret juices of your plants.
But those who try to strangle you
in the roots of their own nature,
who oppress and are oppressed,
through you, achieve their own destruction.” (Euripides 81-82).
This is the heart of the Euripidean philosophy, that human nature is at its best when unrestricted and allowed to follow its own course in pursuit of the simple pleasures.
Plato takes an entirely different tack. He views the more basic urges of man as unnecessary, and the source of the very malaise that leads him to pursue yet more of that which debases him. The only escape from this nightmare of self-imposed suffering, Plato argues, is to seek enlightenment through knowledge. One must attain knowledge that enables one to truly comprehend one’s own life and its higher principles, not merely respond to life’s events as they occur. Plato likens this principle to a group of men raised in the depths of a dark cave, chained with their backs to its opening, thereby allowing them to see only the shadows and reflections of life and its higher principles. He goes on to explain that the next step towards attaining freedom from one’s desires is to achieve a consciousness of the greater concepts and ideas beneath life’s exterior, readily observable patterns. While not fully understanding these concepts, to at least attain some knowledge of them is to near the perfection of complete mental and spiritual freedom that accompanies the gift of philosophy; according to Plato, it is only through the art of philosophy and the science of mathematics that a man can become truly free.
Thucydides’s ideology is more similar to that of Euripides than that of Plato, in that he shares Euripides’ desire to strip away the outer, more public layers of human nature to reveal its often festering, putrid core. Through his relatively accurate and detailed history of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides strives, with no small degree of success, to shed light on mankind’s propensity for losing its more superficial values, such as that of a sense of philanthropy, in the face of misfortune, fear, and death. This argument is well represented in Thucydides’ On Justice, Power, and Human Nature, when he recounts the state Athens’ citizens during the plague that ravaged the city:
“The great lawlessness that grew everywhere in the city began with this disease, for, as the rich suddenly died and men previously worth nothing took over their estates, people saw before their eyes such quick reversals that they dared to do freely things they would have hidden before – things they never would have admitted they did for pleasure. And so, because they thought their lives and their property were equally ephemeral, they justified seeking quick satisfaction in easy pleasures.” (Thucydides 49).
It is through these incisive observations and concepts that Thucydides “lays bare human nature” by examining scenarios when it is exposed to great duress, presenting readers with an invaluable early model for understanding man’s less public (and therefore most intrinsic) tendencies.
Though each of these philosophers holds a differing view of human nature, none are any the less valuable for it. Through the works of each, human nature is, to a degree, laid bare and a model for understanding its more complex principles is presented. Euripides, Plato, and Thucydides, though long dead and gone to whatever end they believed in, have left a legacy and a methodology for understanding mankind itself, an accomplishment through which they have achieved immortality.