Understanding of human nature

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The writings of Edward Taylor, Benjamin Franklin and Nathaniel Hawthorne represent the continued struggle of the human soul with sin and demonstrate a deep faith in the power of the human spirit to overcome its burden of sin to emerge as a renewed being. In his poem, “Meditation 39”, Edward Taylor portrays the essence of human nature as being akin to a convicted person who must seek the services of the divine advocate – Christ, to be washed clean of his sins. Man’s nature is such that it is always tormented due to its burden of sin, which can only be mitigated by Christ. Therefore Taylor views man purely in a spiritual sense, as a sinner, who needs redemption. Hawthorne on the other hand, while similarly highlighting the sinful nature of man, deals with this sin in a different way. Having been raised in the Puritan tradition which was often too harsh and hard, Hawthorne focuses upon the effect that this sin has upon the mental and emotional state of man and the constant state of conflict it generates. In the story “Young Goodman Brown”, the nature of man is portrayed as one that is constantly tussling with the devil (as portrayed in his over harsh ancestors) and struggling to overcome this evil. The same sentiment is echoed in “The Minister’s black veil” where the black veil symbolizes the separation that is created between God and man through the agent of sin. Hawthorne highlights the isolation and alienation that are the result of society’s condemnation of sin. Franklin on the other hand, represents the nature of man as that of a thinking, rational being who could be perfected through scientific and political progress. He believes that it is possible for man to attain moral perfection through the practice of virtue.

In his poem, Taylor portrays human nature and its needs as follows: “My sins make Thine; Thy pleas make mine hereby. Thou wilt me save; I will Thee celebrate. Thou’lt kill my sins that cut my heart within; And my rough feet shall Thy smooth praises sing.”[Taylor] Hawthorne on the other hand, portrays this eternal conflict that goes on in man soul thus; “Once [Brown] fancied that he could distinguish the accents of townspeople of his own,” but “the next moment, so indistinct were the sounds, he doubted whether he had heard aught” until “then came a stronger swell of those familiar tones.”[www.onlineliterature.com]. In this way, Hawthorne reveals that this is an inner conflict raging within man’s mind. Franklin’s book praises the virtue of humility and other good qualities as the means to best develop the positive side of man and elevate him as a rational being, setting him on the path to moral perfection, but he emphasizes man’s propensity to sin as follows: “While my care was employ’d in guarding against one fault, I was often surprised by another; habit took the advantage of inattention; inclination was sometimes too strong for reason. I concluded, at length, that the mere speculative conviction that it was our interest to be completely virtuous, was not sufficient to prevent our slipping.”(Franklin 1909). Therefore human nature as portrayed by all three writers, is linked to man’s sinful nature.

However, while all three writers seek perfection and man’s release from sin, they all acknowledge the lacunae in actually achieving it. Franklin states; “But, on the whole, tho’ I never arrived at the perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet I was, by the endeavour, a better and a happier man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it”(Franklin 1909). Taylor bemoans man’s inadequacy in dealing with his sin; “My sin! My sin, my God, these cursed dregs, …..I frown, chide, strike and fight them, mourn and cry To conquer them, but cannot them destroy.” Hawthorne also demonstrates the inadequacy of man to remain as morally pure and virtuous as the Puritans would have wished, portraying the burden of sin as a black veil, accepting the inadequacy of man to escape from it as articulated by the character of Father Hooper; “I look around me, and, lo! on every visage a Black Veil!”

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  1. Franklin, Benjamin.(1909). “The autobiography of Benjamin Franklin” New York: P.F. Collier and Son Company. [Online] Available at http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/modeng/modeng0.browse.html; accessed 10/20/05
  2. Hawthorne Nathaniel: “The Minister’s Black Veil” and “Young Goodman Brown” [Online] Available at: http://www.online-literature.com/hawthorne/158/;
  3. accessed 10/20/2005
  4. Taylor, Edward: “Meditation No: 39 (First Series)” In “The Literature of Colonial America”
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