What are religious and secular views on human nature using thinkers such as Aristotle or Aquinas?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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One of the fundamental starting points in the discussion between religious and secular views on human nature is the presence of the divine.  For those such as the secular humanists, the nature of human beings is something that can be constructed without the presence of a God or overarching divine force.  Secular views of human nature suggest "a form of opinion which concerns itself only with questions, the issues of which can be tested by the experience of this life." For secularists, human nature is a reality that exists outside of the divine. In terms of religious views of human nature, the assertion here is that individuals are images of the divine.  Accordingly, human nature is a construct of this divine force.  In both views of human nature, there is a potential for affirmation and promise, with both seeing the initial causation as different.

Thinkers like Aristotle embraced a secular understanding of human nature. Aristotle recognized that human nature is defined by individual action.  While he does acknowledge the power of transcendent concepts such as rational teleology, Aristotle does not directly attribute this to the divine or a universal notion as God. Rather, Aristotle is able to endow this construction to the human being.  In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle suggests that human endeavor is critical to developing human nature:

Everything that depends on the action of nature is by nature as good as it can be, and similarly everything that depends on art or any rational cause, and especially if it depends on the best of all causes. To entrust to chance what is greatest and most noble would be a very defective arrangement.  

The idea of "chance" is one that Aristotle sees outside the nature of human action.  When he suggests that it is "our choice" which determines "good and evil," Aristotle embraces the secular idea of human nature, one where human agency is vital.  He emphasizes in his philosophical view of human identity:

Now that principle of an act, whether good or bad, is choice and wish, and all that accords with reason. It is evident, then, that these also change. But we change in our actions voluntarily. So that the principle also, choice, changes voluntarily. So that it is plain that it will be in our power to be either good or bad.

In these ideas, Aristotelian notions of human nature embrace the secular understandings of consciousness.

While equally philosophically insightful, Aquinas takes a more religious view of human nature.  Aquinas is direct in his suggestion that within the divine is the end result of human nature.  Aquinas constructs the recognition of God as one “in whom alone true happiness consists.”  Aquinas asserts that the nature of the individual struggles to recognizes this beatific certainty: “...until through the certitude of the Divine Vision the necessity of such connection be shown, the will does not adhere to God of necessity, nor to those things which are of God.”  Aquinas develops an identity of human nature as one where there is a progression through recognizing temporal and transcendent notions of the good.  His discussion of human nature is reflective of the religious understanding because of the need to acknowledge the divine as a significant part of individual consciousness.  How individuals move through this through action and decision is done within this context and framework.  It is here in which a significant difference between secular and religious understandings of human nature is evident. 

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