Man, the Social Animal Print
By George J. Marlin   
Wednesday, 06 April 2011

In his new, best-selling book, The Social Animal, David Brooks, The New York Times resident center-right columnist, writes about human nature and explains why we can, among other things, love, achieve, and develop character.

Brooks is no reductionist. We don’t discover what makes a human being human by studying cells or atoms. He’s not a behaviorist either. We’re not creatures biologically determined to react only to outside stimuli. Brooks also rejects the mechanistic view that maintains the proximate sciences alone – chemistry, molecular biology, physics – are sufficient to explain what we are. A human being is not merely a collection of artifacts: the human eye is more than a camera; the brain is more than a computer. 

“No simple machine,” Brooks declares, “is able to perform the imaginative construct in [a little boy saying] ‘I am a tiger’. No simple machine can blend two complicated constructs such as ‘I’, a little boy, and ‘a tiger’, a fierce animal into a single coherent entity. Yet the human brain is capable of performing this incredibly complicated task so easily, and so far below the level of awareness, we don’t appreciate how hard it is.”

The British Enlightenment held that people have innate social and intuitive senses; emphasized the influence of sentiment and affection; and viewed society “as infinitely complex networks of living relationships.” Brooks gives it his stamp of approval. The French Enlightenment on the other hand, misses the mark for believing that reason, logic, and science alone would solve human woes and that “society and its institutions [are] machines, to be taken apart and reengineered.”

For Brooks, “the central evolutionary truth is that the unconscious matters most. The central humanistic truth is that the conscious mind can influence the unconscious.” To make this case, The Social Animal examines the findings of numerous studies conducted by geneticists, neuroscientists, psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists about conscious thinking and unconscious appetites. 

The “study of conscious mind highlights the importance of reason and analysis; study of the unconscious mind highlights the importance of passions and perception.” And our conscious side, Brooks argues, can be cultivated so as to curb the very powerful unconscious mind, which can be impulsive, irrational, and prone to immoral, hurtful, and criminal acts.

       Saint Thomas Aquinas by Sandro Botticelli (c. 1500)

To accomplish this cultivation, children need parents, then friends and role models to teach them the virtues of self-discipline, hard work, valor, self-reliance, and responsibility. They must be instructed how to control social impulses that conflict (i.e., cooperative virtues conflicting with competitive virtues). Brooks agrees with sociologist James Coleman “that parents and community have a greater effect on achievement than school.” Hence, religious and cultural norms that build character are best learned in the home.

Brooks’ analysis of the human person’s make-up is fundamentally correct. The Philadelphia Inquirer’s claim, however, that The Social Animal “seeks to do nothing less than revolutionize our notions about how we function and conduct our lives” is innocent – and telling.

Although Brooks surveys the latest research on the human mind, he doesn’t teach Catholics anything all that new. What he does is confirm a lot of what generations of undergraduates were once taught about the human person at Catholic universities in their Thomistic philosophical psychology and ethics courses (it would be interesting to know how much this is still the case).

Aquinas and Aristotle take for granted that man, by nature, is a social and rational being. We are substantially different from any other creature and have the ability to achieve, to build, to write, to joke, to love because we possess that God-given spiritual power – the reflecting mind.

Sense powers can never reflect because they are material. The eye cannot analyze sight. The mind, however, can re-flect – it can know a fact, be aware of it, and judge the fact. Reflection is the ability of the mind to bend back upon itself. The mind’s ability to reflect means it cannot be material but spiritual. Therefore, the mind is distinct from the brain because the material brain is unaware of its own acting.

The unity of a material body and a spiritual mind (both intellect and will) has long been known in the tradition as the virtual definition of the human. Thus, we straddle two kingdoms: the angelic and the animal. Like any other animal, we have a sentient nature: both sense knowledge and sense appetites. The conflict between reason and lower appetites is part of human nature due to original sin.

We can control passions, however, because the mind permits us to know the natural law. According to Aquinas, “the natural law contains the precepts related to man’s drive to preserve himself, which he shares with all things; those related to his animal drives such as sex and the rearing of children; and those which make him specifically human – his need for society, his desire for knowledge and for God.”

The standard formulation of natural law is this: do good and avoid evil. From culture to culture and from person to person, variations may occur in what is meant by “good,” but there has been utter consistency in the imperative to seek the good. And because we have a conscience (the functioning of the intellect in making moral judgments), we can choose to avoid evil.

Brooks basically agrees that we have an intuitive moral sense and effectively explains how people can be taught to control irascible passions. It’s good that a columnist for The Times has surveyed recent scientific studies and reached that conclusion. But it’s best to recognize that his solid work, which some see as opening previously unexplored territory, is really a clearing of the way for a return to some of the oldest traditional truths.


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