People don’t like to talk about it, but it keeps reappearing in my reading of late: Heart of Darkness, Animal Farm, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, to name a few. They all demonstrate the unsavory topic of the depravity of humanity.
And it’s not just literature - my recent reading about American history and the founding of the Republic shows this theme. The founders of our nation understood human nature as being predominantly self-oriented and power grabbing, and therefore government needs to have checks and balances to reign in the human lust for power. A quote from Abigail Adams illustrates: “I am more and more convinced that man is a dangerous creature, and that power whether vested in many or few is ever grasping….The great fish swallow up the small and he who is most strenuous for the rights of the people, when vested with power, is as eager after the prerogatives of government. You tell me of degrees of perfection to which human nature is capable of arriving and I believe it, but at the same time lament that our admiration should arise from the scarcity of the instances.” (From David McCullough's biography of John Adams)
Alexander Hamilton, in the Federalist #6 argues for a unified country to protect against war on the continent. To those who argued that two American states, having no reason to war with each other, could peacefully coexist, Hamilton replies: “To presume a want of motives for such contests as an argument against their existence would be to forget that men are ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious.” In his book Warrior Politics, Contemporary author Robert Kaplan also cites the Federalist Papers as he makes this same point: “James Madison wrote in Federalist #51 that men are so far beyond redemption that the only solution is to set ambition against ambition, and interest against interest: ‘If men were angels, no government would be necessary.’ Our separation of powers is based on that grim view of human behavior. The French Revolution, conversely, began with boundless faith in the good sense of the masses – and in the capacity of intellectuals to engineer good results – and ended with the guillotine.”
Literature, history, political philosophy all point us back to this truth – depravity. I don’t like thinking about depravity. I like to think I’m a pretty decent, likeable guy. I like to think that everyone is basically reasonable and if just left alone we’d all get along just fine. But then I keep rubbing up against the truths in literature, history, and philosophy. I keep reading the newspaper and seeing evidence of depravity all about. Worse for me is when I look into my own heart and see the self-justification, the wrath, the desire to shape the world to my agenda – all the marks of Pharisee. I have to face the disturbing truth that depravity is real – honest self examination proves it so.
But this should not surprise, for it is an ancient truth “The Lord looks from heaven on the sons of men to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. All have turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good; not even one.” (Psalm 14:2-3). King David was described as a man after God’s own heart, yet he slept with another man’s wife, and conspired to have that man killed. When confronted, all David could do is cry out that he was guilty and beg God for forgiveness (2 Samuel 11-12, Psalm 51). And his cry leads me to something more universal “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Ps 51:15-17).
Ultimately, depravity should not orient our eye outward to proclaim the depravity of humanity, it should orient the eye inward to examine our own depravity in the light of truth. And the sight of what is revealed will drive us to the arms of the Healer of hearts as we cry out “Create in me a pure heart, O God….”
Soli Deo Gloria