Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Changing Human Nature

Who Can Change Human Nature? 

by Walter Lang, 1971.

"You can't change human nature" is a folk saying heatedly rejected by socialists and  humanists and by a good many psychologists. Human nature, they say, is essentially good. Give it a chance, and it will prove so. Their recipe is simple: remove anxiety, abandon discipline, take the guilt out of sex, guarantee social security. If possible, sing the Red Flag. Then sit back and wait for Utopia. 


This experiment has now been going full-blast for half a century, and the results are pretty obvious. Instead of greed dissolving before affluence, it expands to meet its opportunities. Crime-rates soar to match living standards. Instead of serenity, insecurity; instead of tolerance, jealousy; instead of a noble freemasonry of science, Doomwatch; instead of health, a planet sick from pollution.

Given security and affluence, human nature, it seems, is highly unconcerned about changing itself at all, and the suspicion grows that, left to itself, it will always "regress to the mean". In the West, the mean seems to lie somewhere between Bingo and Buchenwald.

Are we then fated to inevitable decline, chaos and extinction? Is it just not possible to change human nature?

The Afghan writer Idries Shah would disagree. He would probably say that human nature can certainly be changed, but that the process is a little more subtle than we suspect.


In some fourteen books during the last ten years,  he has presented (though never quite explicitly) many facets of the same extraordinary idea: that at various points in history, specially prepared people appear on the scene and act as an oxidizing agent for the human mass. Though they transmit an evolutionary impulse, this role is unsuspected, and to all appearances they are engaged in some quite mundane activity. What they are really engaged in is human engineering: changing human nature in respect of their own time and locality and in terms of a purpose in the distant future. From the nucleus which forms around these people, a new cultural epoch may arise. 

This idea, ludicrous as it might seem in a Cola and Cadillac age, is probably an implied basic in many world religions. Only the West, self-oriented, finds it implausible. 

Shah's fifteenth title, Thinkers of the East, is an anthology of material by or about some of these Secret People. It records the actions they took, the teachings they gave and the stories that are told about them. Even at cursory reading, a deep and subtle psychology is apparent. Such men, it would seem, affect their immediate environment by "rub-off", and their own immediate circle, by what might be called "subjective drama".

The latter, if it admits of analysis at all, seems to involve submitting selected people to carefully contrived life situations while they are in an exactly calculated mental and emotional state. Under these precise conditions it seems that experience does teach. There is an ethical and perhaps also an intuitional gain which, if implications are to be believed, becomes permanent.

The process seems unknown in the West and there is no word for it in English, but "action teaching" and "experientalism" are terms coming into vogue.

John Fowles, the novelist, probably without inside information, but with some insight, based his bestselling novel The Magus on a similar if somewhat romanticised idea. He called it "The God Game".


Could such an activity really have gone on all through history? Implausible as the idea seems, it is currently attracting a great deal of attention in academic as well as popular circles. Idries Shah's writings are now being paperbacked in America and all his books are being reprinted in Britian this year. His One Pair of Eyes program on TV produced a flood of letters and his material is currently in use in five universities. The Book of the Book, which some English reviewers last year regarded as a heavy joke, is now studied in Stanford University's psychology department. A British publisher has just commissioned a series of essays by specialists in a number of sciences to analyze the value of these ideas in their own disciplines. 

The present book, Thinkers of the East, is at surface level,  pleasant  bedside book entertainment, with a gentle, fey, moral content. Read receptively-- and in conjunction with the psychological processes listed at the beginning-- the simple stories may yield insights of great strength and power. The readers emotion, strangely enough, may not be surprise, but nostalgia. 

from The Evening News, London, Wednesday,  March 3rd 1971, no. 27, 715.

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