The Heart of Humanity
By Josiah Elledge
What if the nature and history of mankind give us grounds for hope?
Since the dawn of the internet, people have become more and more connected to one another by something like a collective mind. We are constantly exposed to the lives and opinions of people we will never meet. What is curious is that we actually care about these strangers’ lives and opinions. Why? Because this capacity is advantageous to us as a species. Empathy is the driving force behind our cultural evolution.
Think back to hunter-gatherer days. A single hunter might go days without finding food. When he finally made a kill, there would often be too much meat for his family to eat before it spoiled. When people instead hunted in organized groups, the likelihood of a daily meal would increase, while waste would decrease. This means that societies who were willing to trust others and share their food would be more prosperous than recluses. This was the beginning of community.
As these hunter-gatherer societies grew into nations, interactions between individuals grew more complex. In order for people to develop the specialized skills necessary for successful societies, they would need to supply their basic needs indirectly: a blacksmith, for example, would not have the time to hunt, but he could sell weapons to hunters. This led to the establishment of trade, and eventually to money and property rights. It became understood that if someone owned something you wanted, you would need to convince them to trade it for something you possessed. Those who disagreed with this sentiment (i.e., thieves) would be punished. This means that, generally, people who were willing to respect others would be more prosperous than raiders and thieves. (The caveat here is that class systems became more robust during this period too, and the upper classes frequently abused and disregarded the rights of the lower, as most countries were supported by large populations of serfs and slaves.)
Philosophers began seriously challenging this class system during the Enlightenment. They dreamt of a world of self-government, equality, and liberty for all men. These ideas inspired political movements like the American and French Revolutions; these countries blazed the trail that led to the democratic republic becoming the standard form of government in the West. This devotion to equality eventually sparked the abolitionist and women’s suffrage movements as well: one by one, the democratic nations of the West freed their slaves and granted women the right to vote. Individuals could explore their own talents and abilities regardless of the class or sex into which they were born. The road was longer for some nations than for others—but at least there was a road.
The adoption of these values opened the floodgates of innovation. George Washington Carver revolutionized agriculture; Henry Ford brought the automobile to the middle class; Marie Curie discovered radiation, which powers much of our world today. What could have inspired philosophers to be concerned with the plight of the common man, if not empathy? What could have fired the hearts of abolitionists and feminists, if not the weight of the struggles of their fellow humans? And who could have built these revolutionary technologies, if not geniuses who possessed freedom? We find, at the root of humanity’s greatest achievements, a tender care for the pain of others.
And this is still true today. The path forward for society is not through power; coercion only results in further division. In the United States, it took us a civil war to be rid of slavery, and it remains the bloodiest war our nation has ever fought. In Europe, it took World War II to bring down the Nazi regime. If the world goes to war again, it could very well be much worse. Though we are all connected by the internet, we still tend to isolate ourselves into echo chambers and demonize all who disagree with us. Progress will only be achieved if we can manage to see through the eyes of those who oppose us. Through empathy, we have already advanced in respect for human liberty, equality, and innovation. Where could it lead us next?
Josiah Elledge is a sixteen-year-old high school sophomore; he was born in Tennessee, raised in Texas, and now lives in Florida. He is currently interested in Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Taylor University, Hillsdale College, MIT, and the University of West Florida, and is considering a variety of majors, including astrophysics, astronautical engineering, biology, philosophy, and music production. He enjoys discussing philosophy and history, reading about astronomy and evolutionary biology, and producing electronic-dance music.
Every time we administer the CLT, a selection of the highest-scoring students from that test are invited to contribute an essay to the Journal. Congratulations, Mr. Elledge! If you’d like to see more from our top students, or other essays on topics of classic education, you might like these posts on fresh ways to think about how we teach, examining just war theory through the Iliad, this series on “the four loves” in the history of thought, and the life and work of George Orwell.
Published on 24th June, 2022.