Macrocosmos and Microcosmos

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Two Concepts of Human Nature

There are, stylistically speaking, two classes of responses to the question of human nature today. Either human behavior is determinate and can be explained by a single monolithic force — say mimetic desire in the case of Girard — or the question of human nature is deemed intractable and thus irrelevant.

Both camps land on something critical. The camp that claims it has the singular answer to human nature is partially right. Though these answers tend to overemphasize one element of human nature, in doing so they call attention to deep and important patterns in our actions. The camp that claims that human nature does not exist is also right: human agency has thus far doomed the attempt to pin down human nature.

Yet there is something deeply unsatisfying about the options available to us. Either we retreat into reductive formulas of human nature that provide certainty but not nuance, or we retreat into hedges that acknowledge the complexity of human behavior but make no attempt to resolve it. In the former case, we are tempted into ideology. In the latter, we are invited to explain history in terms of ambiguous, abstract "systems" rather than the actions of actual people.

Must we choose between monism and nihilism? Is there a middle path?

Hayek's Macrocosmos and Microcosmos

If so, it must reconcile complexity with consistency. A good place to start would be to acknowledge that there are different social contexts in which people operate, each of them with vastly different rules. Can we — if only coarsely — define human nature in the context of a specific social world? Instead of attempting the insurmountable task of explaining our behavior across all social worlds under a single overarching pattern, perhaps we can do better by delineating the individual worlds we belong to and understanding our behavior within those worlds.

A powerful example of a framework that takes this middle path is Hayek's distinction between micro-cosmos (microcosm) and macro-cosmos (macrocosm).

Man's instincts, which were fully developed long before Aristotle's time, were not made for the kinds of surroundings, and for the numbers, in which he now lives. They were adapted to life in the small roving bands or troops in which the human race and its immediate ancestors evolved during the few million years while the biological constitution of homo sapiens was still being formed. These genetically inherited instincts served to steer the cooperation of the members of the troop, a cooperation that was, necessarily, a narrowly circumscribed interaction of fellows known to and trusted by one another. These primitive people were guided by concrete, commonly perceived aims, and by a similar perception of the dangers and opportunities - chiefly sources of food and shelter - of their environment (Hayek 1988, 11-12).
Part of our present difficulty is that we must constantly adjust our lives, our thoughts and our emotions, in order to live simultaneously within different kinds of orders according to different rules. If we were to apply the unmodified, uncurbed, rules of the micro-cosmos (i.e., of the small band or troop, or of, say, our families) to the macro-cosmos (our wider civilization), as our sentiments and sentimental yearnings often make us wish to do, we would destroy it. Yet if we were always to apply the rules of the extended order to our more intimate groupings, we would crush them. So we must learn to live in two sorts of worlds at once (Ibid, 18).

Hayek's account reconciles apparent contradictions in human behavior by drawing a distinction between the different social contexts, or worlds, in which such behavior occurs. The dichotomy between the micro-cosmos and the macro-cosmos explains how a businesswoman can relish in profiting off of the financial demise of a competitor during the day and then return to her neighborhood at night to serve as a volunteer for a local nonprofit. Or how a soldier can plunder civilian homes in enemy territory but later leap on a grenade to save his comrades. Though these behaviors would seem inconsistent in a monolithic theory of human nature, they are made tractable by a recognition of two distinct sets of rules operating in human organizations: that of micro-cosmos and macro-cosmos.

Deciphering Social Worlds

When we apply the standards of one cosmos to the domain of the other, we end up drawing flawed conclusions. If we apply the familial standards of microcosm to the world of macrocosm, we would wrongly judge society to be an experiment in brutality at scale. Markets show no correlation with empathy and legal contracts bear no trace of generosity. Yet a world without free markets or laws would be a world in which neither empathy nor generosity could survive. Similarly, if we apply the standards of macrocosm to family life, we might say that nuclear families are socialist, which is in fact true, but as a matter of analysis utterly meaningless. Some members of the family do no work whatsoever, yet others in the family are obliged to provide for them? In the logic of macrocosm, this is intuitively unjust. Yet it is perfectly correct in the logic of microcosm for parents to provide for their children with no expectation of return.

Though distinct as abstract concepts, microcosm and macrocosm are in practice often tangled. Attempts to thrust the values of one world into the domain of the other are common. One of the most enduring human practices rests upon the foundation of a universal family: a macrocosmic microcosm. Many religions, particularly universalizing ones, can be understood in this light. It is probably no coincidence that Christians call each other brother and sister and their priests fathers. Christianity projects the love and sacrifice that is natural to the microcosm into broader society. It is an effort to establish an enduring macrocosm with the values of the microcosm.

If many religions can be seen as microcosmic values being extended into the macrocosm, then liberalism can be seen as projecting the macrocosmic into the microcosm. Liberalism treats the individual and not the family or community as the fundamental unit of agency, desire, and dignity. Many families and communities today are not only Bowling Alone, but are in fact torn apart by disputes over money, politics, or power. When we define ourselves foremost as individuals, it is easier to imagine the detached self-interest that marks the macrocosm seeping into family dynamics.

Knowing Ourselves Through Nuance

It is not a slight against Hayek to say that the idea of microcosm and macrocosm is a dramatic simplification. It is by distilling the many renditions of human organization into two stylized archetypes that we can begin to reason properly about whether there can be such a thing as human nature, and if so, how any attempt at an answer might begin to capture the inherent complexity of human behavior. Hayek's simplification, then, is actually a means towards making complexity tractable. It offers us a way out of monolithic theory.

Most institutions, communities, and organizations are at different points in what is ultimately a spectrum between the microcosm and the macrocosm. And this analysis is made more difficult by the fact that so much of culture is the attempt to bring one world into the other. The nuclear family is probably the most pure microcosm. And global markets and international relations are probably the most pure macrocosms. In between sit political parties, churches, interest groups, and all the other associations that make up social life. Understanding where an organization sits on the spectrum can probably be a great boon to analysis.

I do not mean to claim that we can arrive at stable definitions of human nature via an ultimately crude dichotomy. I do not even believe that human nature can be exhaustively encapsulated. But I do think we can combat some of the nihilism — and its close cousin, unwarranted certainty — that currently pervades the dialogue about the question of human nature. I hope that we can be more optimistic about what we are able to know about ourselves. Hayek's model is one tool that can usher us forward.