... is described in a different way by each of the hundreds of religions, by the many philosophical schools, by psychologists, by psychiatrists, by sociologists, by economists, by political scientists, by marketing experts, by the thousands of guests on the hundreds of talk shows, and by the authors of thousands of self-help books. If one of these descriptions of human nature is the most accurate, then the other descriptions are, at least in part, wrong. Because no single description is embraced by a majority of people, we can safely say that most people base their lives on a flawed description of themselves and their world. And, as we all know, most people confidently assert that their beliefs are the really real, truly true ones, and that other people are foolish and mistaken. Every philosophy insists that its principles are the only correct ones and every religion asserts that its regional deity is the best or only one. This cacophony of beliefs is one of humanity’s biggest problems.
Why should you think, then, that the Machiavellian perspective - my version of it - has any more validity than other descriptions of our species and our world? You could be reading a description of just one more flawed philosophy being peddled by yet another author seeking income. Your thoughts may be like those of my drill sergeant, who explained to me in 1970 that, “Opinions are like assholes. Everybody has one.” He then mused aloud at some length and in very graphic detail about the similarity of his interests in my opinion and my asshole, much to the amusement of my fellow draftees.
Machiavellianism is a perspective, not a philosophy or a religion. Its value is that it enables you to understand your situation and your options in a way that helps you decide upon the proper course of action for you at that moment. It does not try to provide a final and complete description of the Truth of Things or the Meaning of Life. It is a tool, not a creed. Its power is that its assertions become self-evident after you have thought about them. If they don’t, then should look elsewhere.
Here are the key assertions that Machiavellianism makes about human nature:
Human beings are primates. According to the smartest scientists, the human ape is a product of evolutionary development. The human ape and the chimpanzee, they say, evolved from the same ancestor. That distant ancestor’s population was split apart by the appearance of a geological rift in Africa, long ago. The human developed on one side of that geological rift and the chimpanzee developed on the other side. From Africa, the human primate spread over the world.
(Note to the religious: Machiavellianism doesn’t require you to believe in evolution. If you prefer to believe that your regional deity created humankind, then there is no special reason for you to change that belief. Just remember that beliefs are personal preferences, nothing more. Whatever you believe, many people who are smarter than you agree with you. Many people who are smarter than you disagree with you too. Believe whatever works for you.)
1. The human ape has a huge brain. Scientists have shown us that particular thoughts or moods are always accompanied by changes in the chemistry, electricity, and blood flow in certain parts of the brain. Apparently, both thinking and feeling can be defined as your experience of your brain’s electrochemistry. That is to say, you are your brain, which is essentially a stew-pot of biochemical reactions and electrostatic charges. Brain tissue - in the form of nerves - permeates your entire body; controlling, regulating, communicating, and coordinating via chemical reactions and electricity. In addition to the five big communication channels of sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste, your brain’s internal non-conscious senses monitor and regulate the organs that keep it (you) alive. Brain activity is so intermingled with the processes of your body that it makes little sense to speak of your brain as separate from your body. Brain and body form one system, not two. You are your brain, but you are also your body - not a passenger inside it.
The discoveries of neuroscientists have completely revolutionized our view of human nature.
What is romantic love? It is the sensation you feel when your caudate nucleus (a part of the brain) is filled with dopamine (a brain chemical that causes the sensation of pleasure). Lots of dopamine = lots of pleasure.
What about other kinds of love? Love for your spouse, your children, your parents, your regional deity, your country, a style of art, certain foods, your favorite dessert, etc. are all caused by a change in your brain’s chemistry. Where else but the brain can love be located? Part of your brain is rewarding another part of your brain. The part of your brain that produces dopamine is rewarding other parts of your brain. When this happens, you feel very good.
What is hatred? Hatred, like every emotion, is a change in brain chemistry. It prepares you for a fight with the hated one.
What is the love of a mother for her newborn baby? Brain chemistry again; the sight and smell of her baby causes the mother’s brain to reward itself with pleasurable chemicals. Baby’s brain is rewarding itself too, whenever mother is close by. The two dopamine junkies - mother and child - are inseparable.
What is the cause of autism? Not demonic possession. Not poor parenting. Not a clumsy obstetrician. Not proximity to power lines. Not vaccinations. Not bad karma from a past life. It is a malformation of the brain caused by the individual’s genetic inheritance or perhaps by a malformed, flawed DNA strand that was copied over and over and over while the child was developing in the womb. Neither the nature of the brain dysfunction nor its cause is understood. No one knows why autism is appearing among us so much more frequently than it did in the recent past. Autism, like every other behavior and learning disorder, occurs between the ears.
What is the cause the a murderous rage that compels a man to kill his wife, his children, his boss, and then himself? Brain chemistry. If some device could allow us to control his brain chemistry we could change him in an instant into a loving - though perhaps not skillful - husband and father, as well as a devoted and loyal employee.
Why does a birth mother kidnap the child she gave up for adoption six months before? No human is in greater anguish than a mother who cannot find her baby. In that situation, other brain chemicals that we associate with feelings of desperation, anguish, and fear flood her brain. Her brain is in torment because of the absence of her infant, whose cry, smell, and appearance have become addictions to her. She is the most desperate of all junkies: a woman who cannot find her infant.
Why do humans use mood altering chemicals? Tranquilizers, antidepressants, marijuana, cocaine, alcohol, and heroin affect the brain in the same way that pleasure-giving brain chemicals do. They make you feel good even though they are a poor substitute for the real McCoy: dopamine. That is why the war on drugs has been arguably the least successful government program in history, except possibly for President Carter’s attempt to switch America to the metric system.
Why do you feel guilty when you cheat on your spouse? Again, one part of your brain is punishing another part of your brain. You have been socialized so that your brain now exudes punishing chemicals when you remember that you have slept with another in a socially unauthorized way. On the other hand, the more primitive parts of your brain generates a more pristine emotion that makes you want to be with your exciting new partner and spend time with him or her in bed, in restaurants, in libraries perhaps, on a romantic getaway perhaps, working with her at the office perhaps, helping him to win the mayor’s race perhaps. In any case, you feel guilty about something you have done before and plan to do again; and you want something that you cannot resist, something that has become the pleasure of pleasures. All brain chemistry.
All passions - romantic love, hatred, reverence, sexual arousal, motherly love, depression, road rage, fear, cowardice, patriotic pride, fury, even the fear of death - may be defined as particular chemical states of the brain. If we could control the chemistry of the brain, we could control how a person “feels” regardless of his circumstances. If a man were to be sentenced to life in prison - but his brain could be kept filled with dopamine - then he would love prison and would do anything to stay there. If a device could be implanted in a woman’s mind so that her brain would produce dopamine every time she murdered a newborn infant, then - to our horror - she would slaughter every infant she could find.
It turns out then that human nature is not anything like we were taught by our well meaning philosophers and our devout but deluded religious teachers. They were wrong: dead wrong, completely wrong, absolutely wrong, totally wrong, wronger than wrong, wrong-city, wrong-a-mundo, super wrong, and as wrong as one can be. Our intellectual inheritance from the past regarding human nature is worthless. We have been led down a blind alley by our ancient wise men and women. In the parlance of my generation, this is a real bummer. This is the Mother of All Bummers. But, it is what it is.
2. The human ape evolved in communicating groups. We are a social animal. We occur naturally in societies, not in isolation. Our self-esteem is based on (1) what we think other people think about us and (2) how we compare ourselves to them. Most humans continually appraise their own self-worth by comparing themselves to those around them. Humans live in a network of communication with other humans: appearance, speech, writing, artistic and graphic images, and now electronic media like this web page. A human being who is raised in isolation from other human beings is just a deranged primate - not a person. Our ability to communicate complex thoughts and behaviors to other members of our species, who can then react to them or imitate them, is the secret of our short but unprecedented success as a species. Only humans can teach each other how to program a computer, make pasta, navigate a sailboat from Guam to Hawaii, think about Machiavellianism, rebuild a carburetor on a 1987 Ford pickup, or play pinochle. Humans like you and me can learn how to do all of those things by accessing information that is readily available in our culture. For most tasks, if one human can figure it out, then he or she can teach it to any other human who can teach it to any other human, etc.
3. Human see, human do. The human ape is a superb mimic. We are a remarkable learning and teaching animal. We learn our repertoire of behaviors by imitating the speech, appearance, and actions of others. Excellence in imitating others is the great genius of our species. We teach each other and learn from each other as naturally as we breathe.
4. The organization man was born. Organized imitation is even more efficient than spontaneous mimicry. Military, governmental, corporate, and religious organizations put a lot of energy into regimenting the behavior of their memberships. They shape the human being into a person that is pretty much interchangeable with other people in the organization. One district manager can take over a territory from any other district manager, one payroll clerk can complete a job begun by another, one Roman centurion can step in when another is killed in battle, etc. Each member of the organization strives to imitate, perfectly, the behavior of the ideal member as defined in organizational rhetoric, policy documents, and training. Organizations that encourage individualism and eccentric behavior do not thrive for the obvious reason that they fling themselves apart. There is no Rugged Individualists’ Club or Society of Hermits.
5. The human ape is true to its primate nature. Because the human race is not a race of angels but a race of primates, because our evolution over the past million years has been a twisting path though changing environments, because our very brains are divided into a number of lobes or compartments that were developed over eons in response to those changes, we are complex rather than simple beings. The tendency of human beings to be contradictory, inconsistent, untruthful, delusional, deceptive, hypocritical, self-deceiving, pretentious, selfish, and very, very clever is not a violation of human nature; it is the very expression of it.
6. Human culture defines human beings. The sum of all human communication in all forms is human culture. It is in human culture that we live. It is there that we learn what makes life meaningful. Your culture can tell you that the purpose of your life is to become CEO of a corporation, die for Allah, raise children, dress stylishly, sacrifice your life for your country, believe in and worship the local god(s), obey your husband, plant and harvest corn year after year, paint and sell paintings year after year, kill your country’s enemies, become a Cold War spy, pray to Yahweh, build weapons capable of destroying life on earth, act in plays, preach sermons to the faithful, or execute prisoners. Many humans have devoted their lives to each of these things.
7. Human nature is expressed broadly in each generation in a wide variety of human personalities. The phrase “human nature” suggests that all humans have the same nature. “Human nature” is much too large to be contained in a single human. “Human natures” might be a better phrase, as our personalities differ from one another as much as do our faces, voices, laughter, intelligence, courage, strength, weight, penises, fingerprints, and swiftness. On every dimension, humans vary greatly: from the tallest to the shortest, from the meanest to the sweetest, from the skinny to the fat, from the boring to the charming. Every face is recognizably human, yet every face is unique. As much as we are like other humans, we also differ from them. All of our personal qualities add up to form what we call our personalities. Surely this personality is to a large extent a reflection of the individual structure and chemistry of our very brains, shaped first by genetics and later by experience.
8. The Prince is a special type of personality. While it is true that most humans mimic each other’s thought and behavior, a very few people are more inwardly directed: less imitative, more original, more thoughtful, more insightful, more intelligent, less complacent, and more introspective. The Prince determines for himself - by insight rather than imitation - what goals to pursue, what methods to use to achieve them, what kind of happiness to enjoy, and how other people should behave. The mind of the Prince is different - not necessarily superior - from most of the people who surround her. He or she pursues self-determined goals through self-determined methods.
Caveat: Do not confuse the type of person that I call the Prince with those who have leadership positions in our nation, our universities, or our corporations. While there are a few Trumans and Churchills among our presidents, chancellors, and CEO’s, most of them are simply imitating other presidents, chancellors, and CEO’s - who are, in turn, imitating them. We note that most members of our culture’s leadership speak in the same phrases, dress alike, make and break the same promises, preserve their deniability by speaking in the same doublespeak, and aspire to pretty much the same lives - always avoiding controversy and criticism, always mimicking each other in every way.
“... as Nature has given men different faces, so she has given them different dispositions and different imaginations.” -- Machiavelli, 1513.
Next, read the Machiavellian description of your world and your domain