Advent and Hope

A recalling of hope via “Humankind: A Hopeful History” by Rutger Bregman (Bloomsbury, 2020)

Nov 23, 2021

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By Francis Lim, SJ
Advent is a season of waiting and hope. During this pandemic time, most people, if not all, have kind of lost hope in the human race. The prolonged challenges of coping with the Covid-19 virus, after about two years or so, have been overwhelming, and thus can cause us to lose hope, especially in other human beings.

I found this book hopeful because Rutger Bregman argues that the survival of human beings is not due to survival of the fittest (as with Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution), but survival of the friendliest. Indeed, as the secondary title of the book suggests, “A Hopeful History,” it gives hope to those who read this book who may have somehow lost hope in the human race.

Rutger Bregman is a Dutch historian and writer. He has written on history, philosophy, and economics which have been featured in The Washington Post, The Guardian and the BBC. His first bestseller on the idea of work and world economy, “Utopia for Realists: How We Can Build the Ideal World,” has been translated into 32 languages. His new book, “Humankind” is written originally in Dutch and translated into English by Elizabeth Manton and Erica Moore.

In “Humankind,” Bregman argues that most people, deep down, are pretty decent and friendly. He contrasts the opposing philosophical ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Hobbes. For Rousseau, humans are naturally nice, and it is the institutions of civilisation that have corrupted us; whereas Hobbes was of the opinion that civil society alone could save us from our baser instincts of hate and violence.

Bregman also introduces the term from biologist Frans de Waal, “veneer theory” which is the view attributed to Hobbes that civilisation is a thin skin of decency barely concealing the savage ape underneath. Humans only show they are friendly on the outside, but deep inside they are hateful. Throughout history, he argues that we have been fooled by this veneer theory. Bregman puts forth his evidence in his book that basically human beings are kind and friendly, sociable and willing to work together. Evidently, Bregman is pro-Rousseau.

I found this hopeful because it resonates with the Christian notion that all of us are created good by God from the very beginning. We are all inherently good, and are geared towards kindheartedness and the common good. Only through our human weaknesses and limitations that we become bad. Most of the time, we tend to forget that we are friendly, kind, helpful, generous, loving, others-centered, etc when we give in to our human imperfections. We have to be reminded ever so often of our natural and God-given goodness, especially during the season of Advent.

Some book reviews have disputed that the evidence attested by Bregman are not sufficient to argue his case, and that he chooses those facts that are in his favour. Bregman also boldly reassesses several classic researches on human nature, including those of Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo, whose influential psychological studies have provided some of the scientific basis that human nature is inherently self-interested. Milgram’s controversial research was on administering progressive stronger electric shocks to human test subjects, while Zimbardo’s research utilises the simulation of a hostile prison environment with test prison guards and prisoners.

Besides that, Bregman even takes the debate into the literature-cultural sphere with William Golding’s well-known novel, “The Lord of the Flies.” Golding tells the story of a group of young boys stranded on a deserted island. Even after developing a system of organisation to survive on the island, the boys eventually become violent and brutal. Bregman labels Golding’s story as fictional because he contrasts that with a real-life example, that is, six Tongan boy-castaways on the remote island of ‘Ata in the Pacific Ocean, which ended with them looking out for each other and becoming good friends even after their shipwreck experience.

My take on this – we have hope despite the reality of many human atrocities throughout history and in our present experiences, even though there are some setbacks in Bregman’s ideas. For example, Bregman falls into the restriction of only addressing a Western, elite and predominantly male narrative. He does not delve into the Eastern notion of community and good ethics; and the nurturing hopeful aspects of women and motherhood. One critic even says, “Bregman’s work is less a history of humankind, but rather mankind.”

Since he is a secularist, he also does not dwell in the Christian understanding of hope in spite of pain and suffering. Even though we are constantly bombarded with negativity, we believe nothing can separate us from God’s love which has manifested itself in the Incarnation. This is Christian hope. Every year during Advent, we celebrate again and again, this hopeful arrival of Christ, our Saviour. At the same time, we can also hope that the prophecies about Jesus’ second arrival will also be fulfilled.

The Second Person of the Holy Trinity deigned to take on weak human flesh, to become like one of us in our weaknesses, in order to save us. Jesus is one of us through his Incarnation and we can identify ourselves with him. Just as Jesus suffered during his earthly life, we too can bear through our own sufferings because of this.

Despite its flaws, this book presents an optimistic alternative to our current reality. Bregman acknowledges that a monumental shift is needed for humanity to move towards kindliness. Hopefully this book will inspire many to view the world slightly less cynically. For those of us who hope in Christ with the theological virtues of faith, hope and love, we trust this shift is made smoother.--Today's Catholic

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