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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: A Book on the Bus

From Washington Lawyer, September 2008

By Jacob A. Stein

spectatorAs I leave my house in the morning to take the bus to the office, I take a book with me. The bus is a good place to read. There is isolation. There is no need to fight the traffic or watch out for pedestrians. The bicyclists entertain with their twists and turns, all done with the skill of a Spanish toreador.

The book this morning is Ten Theories of Human Nature (Oxford University Press, 2004) by Leslie Forster Stevenson and David L. Haberman. The sales slip tells me I purchased it four years ago. I never opened it. I am tempted to buy any book whose title includes the words Human Nature. Whether I will read it is another question.

The title, Ten Theories of Human Nature, is followed by a list of 10 experts and philosophies on human nature: Confucianism, Hinduism, The Bible, Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Marx, Freud, Sartre, and Darwinian.

The authors could have added the common law theory of human nature. It is the belief in free will and the reasonably prudent man. Those who elect to depart from this standard must face a variety of sanctions. In short, we must behave ourselves in accordance with the res gestae.

As I read, I am distracted by raindrops collecting on the bus windows. I had hoped to get to the office without taking an umbrella—I hoped wrong. Although the sky is dark, there are breaks in the clouds. Will the rain stop before I get off at Connecticut Avenue and K Street? That is the big question at this moment in my life. The bus driver has not yet put on his windshield wipers, which is a comforting sign.

Now back to the book. It says any respectable theory of human nature must deal with these four areas:

  • The nature of this world and our place in it
  • What is so distinctive about us as compared to the other things in this world
  • The ills of humanity
  • The way to cure these ills

In considering the ills, the authors bring up, for example, the fact of human selfishness. I have thought about selfishness many times over the years. A substantial part of the litigation I see turns on the selfishness of the litigants, especially in cases involving wills and estates. Each related survivor wants what the other has. Is selfishness a constituent element in our makeup? Is it in our DNA, as scientist, researcher, and theorist Mr. E. O. Wilson suggests, and if it is, how do we cope with it?

It’s still raining. I see people on the bus who were sensible enough to bring an umbrella starting to gather them. Some of the umbrellas are small enough to be carried in a briefcase. They will offer little protection. Other passengers have the big, widespread, gaudily colored golf umbrellas. They offer protection against a real rainstorm.

I see one passenger who has the English gentleman’s style umbrella, which is black with a curled bamboo handle. An umbrella like that, the genuine article like the one carried by Sherlock Holmes, would cost a couple of hundred dollars at today’s prices.

I have left good umbrellas on the bus more times than I can remember. However, I have never called Metro’s Lost and Found Office to inquire about my umbrella. That is not part of my human nature. However, I cope by telling myself the umbrella will find its way to someone who needs it.

We are now at 21st and K, and it is still raining. Finally, the bus driver has put on the wipers. Traffic has been stopped for 10 minutes. The driver is letting people rush off before reaching the next designated bus stop.

I am in no rush. I keep the vain hope that the rain will stop before we reach my stop at Connecticut and K. Even if the rain doesn’t stop, I only have to run one block to get to my office at Connecticut and L.

I turn again to the book on human nature. So far, I only have read 10 pages. I decide to skip to page 244 where the authors give their concluding thoughts:

Besides naming and opposing evil, we can do something more positive by putting forward and upholding standards of goodness, expressing our ideals of how human life ought to be. Again, ‘preaching’ can be objectionable, and the first duty is to try to embody or emulate those ideals ourselves: as the old saying has it, ‘actions speak louder than words.’ But, given our social nature and our individual fallibility, there is a need for some attempt at institutional, permanent, or ongoing presentation of ideals and some kind of spiritual practice to help people rise to them. …

While drying off in my office, I think it appropriate to any consideration of human nature to locate H. L. Mencken’s January 22, 1925, letter to Sara P. Haardt (whom he later married), who was in a sanitarium under treatment for tuberculosis.

Perhaps I should send a copy of Mencken’s letter to the authors of Ten Theories of Human Nature. Mencken is all for cynicism as “the most comforting of philosophies. You [Sara Haardt] will get over your present difficulties only to run into something worse, and so on, until the last sad scene. Make up your mind to it—and then make the best of it.”

Mencken closes the letter by saying that life remains livable despite its troubles. “Biological necessities keep us going. It is the feeling of exerting effort that exhilarates us, as a grasshopper is exhilarated by jumping. A hard job, full of impediments, is thus more satisfying than an easy job. . . . But I run on à la Polonius.

“Please excuse poor pen.”

Reach Jacob A. Stein at jstein@steinmitchell.com.