HIST 460/560, Winter 2007
Reading and Discussion Questions, Week 2
Ten Theories of Human Nature and The Study of Human
Questions on World Religion
1. What are the major texts involved in the interpretation of Confucianism,
Hinduism, Judaism, and Christianity? Do you think it is significant that
each of these traditions relies on textual authority? Why or why not?
2. What is the “Decree of Heaven”? One of its components
is “Destiny.” What characterizes Destiny for Confucius? What
common mistake do human beings make in regard to Destiny?
3. Why is benevolence such a central value in Confucianism? How is it
achieved? Name several other moral goals and explain the obstacles to
achieving them. What is “filial piety” and why does it matter?
4. Why does Mencius compare human nature to water? Why does Hsun-tzu
constantly emphasize “conscious activity”?
5. Hsun-tzu makes the point that the desire to do good (and perhaps the
existence of religion itself) is evidence that human nature is evil. Do
6. Why do Stevenson and Haberman characterize Confucianism as a conservative
religion on p. 25?
7. What does ontological unity mean? What Hindu concepts represent it?
8. What is the origin story in Hinduism? What does it suggest about the
relationship of parts and wholes, or unity and diversity?
9. What is “atman”? What relationship exists between
the knower and the known in Hindu philosophy? What is the Hindu position
on individual difference? On material struggles? On death?
10. What kind of life is exalted in Hindu tradition? What are the best
ways for human beings to perceive and pursue the divine?
11. How would you compare Confucianism and Hinduism on questions of social
welfare and social engagement? On spiritual matters related to life and
12. What is the Judeo-Christian origin story? What does the excerpt from
Genesis tell us about human nature, the meaning of divinity, and the human
relationship to God? How do the old and new testaments compare on these
13. What choices do Christians and Jews have about their lives? Do you
think the concept of original sin is the same as evil nature?
14. According to St. Paul, does faith in God alter human nature? If
so, how? If not, what is the nature of humanity, and what does faith offer
to human beings?
15. Why does St. Paul contrast law with spirit in his letter to the Romans?
16. St. Paul argues that male and female natures are significantly different.
Why? What implications does this have for both temporal and spiritual
17. Why does Ayatullah Mutahhari make such a point about the difference
between human and non-human animals? How would you characterize the main
18. What relationship must there be between science and religion in Matahhari’s
Islamic philosophy? How does he contrast this with western and Christian
debates about this subject and about human nature?
19. After doing the readings about religion in these books, how would
you characterize the major similarities and differences in the Confucian,
Hindu, Judeo-Christian, and Islamic traditions? How does each define nature?
Nurture? What philosophical differences exist within as well as between
these major religious traditions?
Ten Theories of Human Nature and The Study of Human
Questions on Ancient and Enlightenment Philosophy
1. How does the emphasis in Plato on rational inquiry make his ideas
(or those of other ancient philosophers) different than those conveyed
through world religions?
2. What does Plato mean by logos? What is his theory of forms?
Can you give an example of a form? Why is knowledge of forms more exalted
than knowledge of the material world? How does this theory contrast with
3. What major points is Plato making in the excerpt you read from Republic
about 1) opportunities for knowledge, 2) the responsibilities of
educated people, 2) the organization of the individual mind, the social
order, and the balance between the two?
4. What is dualism? What dualism characterizes human beings, according
to Plato? What were the three main components of the human soul? How were
these expressed socially, and what kind of balance did Plato envision
among them? What was the ideal state for individuals? For societies? Why
do Stevenson and Haberman conclude that Plato’s social vision was
“authoritarian,” or even “totalitarian” (p. 85)?
How does Platonic dualism compare to the dualism explained by Descartes
in the excerpt from Discourse on Method? Why does Descartes single
out language in order to explain dualism?
5. How does Aristotelian realism differ from the Platonic theory of forms?
6. What important contribution did Aristotle make to thinking about causation?
7. Plato and Aristotle both believed strongly in the human capacity for
reason, yet they also believed that there were dramatic differences in
how people exercised this capacity. What social implications did this
8. Explain Aristotle’s concept of welfare, or “flourishing.”
How did he understand virtue? What ideas did he have about socialization
9. Thomas Hobbes was famous for his description of the state of nature
as warlike and brutish. In Leviathan, he argued that sacrificing
freedom was necessary for any kind of social order or progress. How can
you reconcile this pessimistic view of human nature with Enlightenment
optimism about social reform and the conviction (in Rousseau, for example)
that the state of nature is idyllic and civilization corrupting?
10. What do Stevenson and Haberman suggest was most original about David
Hume? What kinds of experiments and methods does he believe are necessary
to establish a “Science of Man”? What is the implication of
his view that selves are “nothing but a bundle or collection of
different sensations”? (p. 107)
11. When was the Enlightenment? Why do we use that term to describe that
12. What relationship did Enlightenment philosophies have to 18th-century
democratic revolutions, such as those in France and the United States?
13. Kant explained that we know the world “as it appears”
and not “as it is in itself.” Explain. Why is this important?
14. What is the difference between hypothetical and categorical imperatives,
and what are the implications for morality?
15. Why is Kant such an important thinker on the issue of free will and
determinism? Explain what he means when he writes that humans act “under
the idea of freedom.” Does he believe that evil (along with virtue)
is a product of choice? What role does religion play in reinforcing or
counteracting human nature?