“Shower upon him every earthly blessing, drown him in a sea of happiness, so that nothing but bubbles of bliss can be seen on the surface; give him economic prosperity, such that he should have nothing else to do but sleep, eat cakes and busy himself with the continuation of his species, and even then out of sheer ingratitude, sheer spite, man would play you some nasty trick.” 

—Fyodor Dostoyevsky 

You would play upon me; you would seem to know my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my mystery; you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass … do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, you cannot play upon me.” 

—Shakespeare’s Hamlet 

One of the pretenses of modern liberalism is the therapeutic or unconstrained view of human nature – that man is an infinitely perfectible creature whose needs can and must be managed by his enlightened betters for his own good and the good of society. A more perfect world is just a few nudges and nods away, they say, though the progress may be slower than anyone hopes. 

To a certain degree, this seems true. The world today does seem better than ever, more perfect than before. Yet, for all our progress, all the evils that Pandora’s curiosity unleashed upon the world are still with us: war, crime, famine, lies, murder, betrayal, lust and anger.  

Fear not, the therapeutic mind says. After being intensely examined and analyzed, men can be coaxed into quitting their wicked ways with the right mix of outside interventions and incentives. For instance, just look at the success of modern propaganda!  

Indeed, propaganda — the art and science of shaping public opinion for the purpose of achieving certain political ends — often seems more fundamental to “Our Democracy” than voting itself. Though there is always a bit of uncertainty and anxiety on Election Day in anticipation of the final results, the most successful propagandists usually know which way the cat is jumping before the cat actually jumps — because they trained the cat to jump that way.  

Training a cat to jump a certain direction is one thing, but training a cat to be a vegetarian is quite another. Similarly, conditioning the public to believe a certain idea and vote a certain way may be achievable, but conditioning man to defy his very nature is a foolish and dangerous dream.  

The therapeutic liberal elite may have perfected propaganda, but they will never perfect man. No outside, manmade force can explain away a man's sense of free will nor his all-too-human tendency to find tragedy at every turn. Such profound mysteries at the heart of the human condition should not be ignored. 

Yet the therapeutic mind continues to treat man like a musical pipe to be played. Alas, no matter how they put their fingers to him, the music never sounds quite as sweet as they hoped. There is always a bit of dissonance and melancholy lurking between the notes, as a tinge of tragic frailty quivers in their attempts to blow happy melodies.  

They have tried nearly everything – more money, more time, more policies, programs, committees and interventions – but man’s pesky proclivity to sin endures. I suspect the more they ignore man’s tragic nature and free will, while trying to drown him in a sea of happiness, prosperity and opportunity, the more they risk some nasty trick.  

Consider the issue of crime. To the therapeutic mind, the reason people enter into a life of crime is poverty, privation, lack of education, and an historic web of inequities and inequalities visited by a legacy of oppression. Remove the barriers and provide enough sustained assistance, they say, and people will rise above their culture of crime – or so the theory has been for a few decades now.  

There is indeed much that can be done practically when it comes to policies to reduce crime — from reforms to the criminal justice system, to better police recruitment and retention, to early crime interventions programs. But much like training cats, there is a limit to such practical measures. Crime persists no matter this or that policy, this or that intervention.  

The reformers of man do not seem to have considered that some men choose to do evil no matter their circumstances. Some men do not wish to be coddled, comforted and charmed into compliance. From impoverished gang members on city streets to white-collar thugs in the highest halls of finance and government, some men are just no good – and should be treated accordingly.  

This is not to say that men in the grips of evil can’t decide to change their stars and choose a more righteous path. Many down-and-out individuals have done so over and over again. But that choice is ultimately an individual's alone. Though we may wish it, no man can choose the good for another. Tragically, too many men are stuck in a hellish kingdom of their own making and welcome death to their door. But, they still have the free will to change in spite of the odds, especially by embracing the tragedy of their condition.  

Victor Davis Hanson beautifully summed up the practical implications of the tragic view of human nature in a 2011 essay for National Review:  

The more the individual understands that he is responsible for his own welfare, the more he is likely to accept and master that responsibility. Poverty and war are never eliminated, since human nature is fixed, but their terrible effects can be mitigated through sacrifice, altruism, and heroism in an unending struggle until the nature of man changes. 

The beautiful thing is that emphasizing personal responsibility and free will isn’t just a way out for individuals. A strong example of personal responsibility can also serve as a growing beacon of hope, a grassroots model of change for an entire community and culture. 

When one person decides to choose good over evil and bears witness to someone they love, anything is possible – though I suspect some men will always try to play other men like a pipe while having some nasty trick up their sleeve.

Joey Clark is a native Alabamian and is currently the host of the radio program News and Views on News Talk 93.1 FM WACV out of Montgomery, AL M-F 12 p.m. - 3 p.m. His column appears every Tuesday in 1819 News. To contact Joey for media or speaking appearances as well as any feedback, please email joeyclarklive@gmail.com. Follow him on X @TheJoeyClark or watch the radio show livestream.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to Commentary@1819news.com

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