George MacDonald

“A beast does not know that he is a beast, and the nearer a man gets to being a beast, the less he knows it.”

The Echoes of Our Inner Beasts: Literature and Philosophy on Human Nature

In the realms of literature and philosophy, the metaphor of the beast serves as a profound exploration into the depths of human nature. This duality – the civilized being versus the primal instinct – has been a subject of fascination and reflection for centuries, providing a lens through which we can examine our own behaviors, instincts, and societal norms. Through the words of renowned writers and ancient philosophers, we delve into the concept that our wild nature, if left unchecked, has the potential to cause destruction, yet it also holds the key to our authenticity and vitality.

William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” offers a chilling portrayal of the descent into savagery, encapsulated in the words, “Maybe there is a beast… maybe it’s only us.” This stark realization by the stranded boys on the island reveals the inherent savagery within human nature, a theme echoed across time and literature.

Joseph Conrad, in “Heart of Darkness,” uses the dense, uncharted jungles of Africa as a metaphor for the untamed aspects of the human psyche. The wilderness acts as a dark mirror reflecting the primal instincts that drive mankind towards inhumanity in the absence of societal constraints.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” delves into the internal struggle between the cultivated self and the inherent beast within. Stevenson’s observation, “Man is not truly one, but truly two,” articulates the duality of human nature and the perpetual conflict between our enlightened and primitive selves.

William Blake, in “The Tyger,” muses on the coexistence of innocence and ferocity within creation. His questioning of, “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” suggests an intricate balance within the universe, where both gentle and fierce forces are essential to the whole, mirroring the complexity within human beings.

D.H. Lawrence’s contemplation in “Snake” about the natural instincts suppressed by societal teachings reflects a yearning to reconnect with the primal, instinctual part of our nature that civilization often teaches us to fear and suppress.

The theme of the inner beast is not confined to modern literature; it resonates deeply within the echoes of ancient philosophy. Plato, for instance, in his depiction of the soul in “The Republic,” describes a charioteer (reason) trying to control two horses: one noble (the spirited aspect) and the other unruly (the appetites or desires), symbolizing the eternal struggle to balance our higher reasoning with our basic instincts.

Aristotle, in his “Nicomachean Ethics,” discusses the concept of the “golden mean” – the desirable middle between two extremes, one of excess and the other of deficiency. This balance is crucial in managing the beast within, suggesting that virtue lies in moderation and the mastery of our more base desires.

The Stoic philosopher Seneca offered insights into the destructive potential of unchecked emotions in his letters. He wrote, “Wild animals run from the dangers they actually see, and once they have escaped them worry no more. We, however, are tormented alike by what is past and what is to come.” This observation highlights the human tendency to be consumed by our base fears and desires, a trait that distinguishes us from other animals and demonstrates the complexity of our inner beasts.

These perspectives, both ancient and modern, converge on a singular truth: the beast within is an integral part of the human condition. It is not something to be eradicated but understood, balanced, and harmonized with our higher aspirations. Literature and philosophy alike invite us to reflect on this aspect of our nature, suggesting that in acknowledging and mastering our inner beasts, we can navigate the complexities of life with wisdom and grace. The journey towards understanding and integrating our wild nature is not just about taming it but about recognizing its value in making us wholly human.