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Human souls, human systems

Classical Thought for the Day XXIV

I remember once conversing with a fellow graduate student at the start of term party, when we got on to the topic of causation in history. When I came to human nature, a favourite theme of mine in ancient historians, the response was immediately, ‘how can you say that? We don’t blame that anymore. Human nature does not exist.’ I was out of date was the essence of the point being made. Maybe I am. I do delight in the study of literature, history, and philosophy written well over one thousand years ago. Yet, for me it still has a burning pertinence. And I am not the only one to think this. I am not going to spend this blog entry arguing whether human nature exists or not, but I am going to talk about why human beings have a key responsibility and role in causation, and the state of affairs.

This Thought for the Day was inspired by the following marvellous and insightful reflection posted by LinkedIn connection and fellow educator, Florence Okwusogu. Florence is a very wise and perceptive person, as you will see:

Toxic people create toxic cultures. Broken people create broken systems. This was what I was reflecting on this morning after a conversation with my husband. In some ways it's inevitable, humans are imperfect - we create out of our own imperfection, but why is it that some organisations and companies have a different feel and culture to others? What makes some places a happy and healthy place to work whilst in others people can't leave quickly enough? Toxicity and brokenness are HUGE issues within education and there are a number of reasons why:

It attracts a high number of people who are still walking wounded and who are redirecting their own hurts to help heal the issues of the next generation. There is an over-focus on externals and outcomes. What this does is put more pressure on people who are already vulnerable at their core. When people feel pressurised or attacked then there is more chance of the uglier part of humanity to come through.

She makes a shrewd point about the nature of the ills in education. What also resonated with me was how this pattern is applicable beyond education.

· i) That people’s natures and conduct become the manifest character of wider systems and


· ii) People bring their own issues to a group.

· iii) Or people are infected by the group’s existing character (namely, the people around them

and the general flavour of their mood).

· iv) That this problem becomes a self-perpetuating evil.

· v) The internal nature of the problem is either missed or even ignored and external forces


· vi) It becomes a vicious cycle.

After reading Florence’s post and having the above thoughts, my mind immediately flew to the following quotation:

“Society is the human soul writ large.”

This essentially summarizes Plato’s description of the connection between the human soul and the city in book II of the Republic. The soul is where justice (and indeed injustice) begins and its manifestation from the soul of the individual is the city. It is, however, easier to examine the city than the individual human soul. Plato likens this to someone reading a series of small letters at a distance versus someone reading the same letters in larger writing on a larger surface. The city is the magnification of the human soul, just as the bigger letters magnify the smaller ones, but are the same. I was very much reminded of this when reading Florence’s argument. Organisations, systems, and states are magnified reflections of the general state of mind of the people within them.

As situations like this persist, it becomes very easy to blame the system. This, the Roman historian Sallust knew well. At the opening of his work about the Romans’ war against the Numidian Jugurtha:

But the master and commander of the life of mortals is the mind. When it aims for

glory by the path of virtue, flourishing richly and powerful it is bright and has no need of

fortune…but if it is seized by perverse desires and surrenders to the idleness and

pleasures of the body to the point of ruin…the weakness of their nature is blamed, and those

who are the authors of the evil impute the blame to external affairs.

Mired in adverse circumstances that men themselves have created, men blame the circumstances themselves. It is similar to someone saying ‘well, that’s just the way it is.’ The system accounts for the ill-feeling, the stress, the anxiety, not the unquestioning acceptance of ‘the way things are’. Of course, it is not the system. The system is man-made, so the misery is man-made.

This is an important lesson that should urge us to self-help, to break out and remedy such a situation to correct and arrest,

The kind of things that happen and will always happen while human nature remains

the same.” (Thucydides, 3.82.3-4).

It only remains for me to thank Florence for her inspirational post from which, coupled with a few crusty old Greeks, we can and should take a valuable lesson.

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