"La plupart de jeunes gens croient etre naturels, lorsqu'ils ne sont que mal polis et grossiers."
La Rochefoucauld's caustic observation on the false simplicity of young people who mistake crudeness for nature tells us that the cult of the primitive antedates both Rousseau and the Romantic writers who wrought so much mischief.
Society and civilization, say these nature-lovers, are artificial, and only savages in a state of nature are real and authentic. To discover this reality, one has to find an old knife-grinder with wisdom to impart or go live in the woods, as Henry David Thoreau actually did not: Thoreau built his cabin on the village pond and made the short walk home to eat his mother's supper any time he liked. Better still, one could follow Gauguin to the South Seas, but, again, Gaugin found the life miserable and invented a myth about his experiences that helped him sell his paintings.
We have all known the type, and many of us have been the type: the hippie, the beat, the bohemian, the footloose vagabond going down that long and lonesome road who leaves his sleeping bag rolled up behind her couch, who dares to break the commandments made for lesser men, the free and easy guy or gal who stays until it is time for you to go, the true American individual, Captain America and Billy who make the big score in order to live free. Yes, I have at one time or other known all these types and as a dumb teenager pretended to be one and might have been, if it hadn't meant wearing really stupid clothes and hanging out with the high school Harries who switched from beer and sit coms to smoke dope and read Hermann Hesse. Some of the girls were amazingly cute, until they opened their mouths and recited their bubblegum philosophy of life. "You know, man, like we're free, etc. etc." Even the SDSers were less boring, though, God knows, they were boring enough.
Naturalism is an affectation, and it is an act, in which success does not come easily or cheaply. French courtiers got it right, when they dressed up as shepherds and enjoyed an afternoon's frolic in the gardens of Versailles. "Man's nature is artifice," as an obscure scribbler observed not too long ago, and nothing is more phony--or more costly-- than the affectation of naturalness. Chesterton once conceded that he would have loved to lead the simple life but he just couldn't afford it. Only the very rich have enough money to pretend to go native.
Real primitives are generally ugly and dirty, and, unlike courtiers, students, and other animals in captivity, they do not have time and energy for endless fornications. To go native is not to live like primitive natives, who have to spend a good deal of their time and wits finding subsistence. No, in going native, one actually has to turn feral, like a junkyard dog. The ambition of the natural man is to unlock the beast that has been enchained by morality, manners, and custom. Alcohol, drugs, sex, extreme sports—they all have their uses in stupefying any finer impulses we might retain. This was understood by one of the deepest writers of the 19th century:
Enivrez-vous sans cesse!
De vin, de poésie ou de vertu, à votre guise.
Only when drunk (or drugged) can we be deaf to reason and decency, only when drunk are we free to be "natural," not natural as an Apache, but natural as an intelligent man with a brain injury that makes him fit only for playing with children. This is what Dr. Henry Jekyll understood. Dr. Jekyll had two natures, one mild and charitable, the other filled with enthusiasm for the seamier side of life. He was, he assures us, not worse than other men who like to blow off steam occasionally by drinking spirits and bedding women, but his moral side was always repenting for the follies of his wild side. As a scientist, he hit upon the brilliant scheme of dividing his two selves:
"If each, I told myself, could but be housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable; the unjust might go his way, delivered from the aspirations and remorse of his more upright twin; and the just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path, doing the good things in which he found his pleasure, and no longer exposed to disgrace and penitence by the hands of this extraneous evil."
When Dr. Jekyll did succeed in liberating the beast, Mr. Hyde did not turn out to resemble a Nordic god but something more like a Randian or Rand herself: short, dark, and ugly, a leering goblin too stupid, really, even to savor the evil he did. "Evil…had left on that body an imprint of deformity and decay. And yet when I looked upon that ugly idol in the glass, I was conscious of no repugnance, rather of a leap of welcome.
Since anyone even vaguely literate has read Stevenson's brilliant tale, I need go no further. In unlocking the unnatural natural man, Jekyll now had a dependable ally. "Men have before hired bravos to transact their crimes, while their own person and reputation sat under shelter. I was the first that ever did so for his pleasures," but inevitably the degraded servant seized power and enslaved his former master.
The rational individualism of the Enlightenment, like Dr. Jekyll, had its wilder side. Voltaire and his collaborators lived it up—imagine a more nearly human Hugh Heffner with above average intelligence. In the end reason had to be overthrown, if the party was to continue and reach even lower depths. The trends set by the Duc d'Orléans (aka Philippe Égalité) and his PR man Choderos Laclos (author of Les Liasons dangereuses) culminated in the life and works of Sade, who for all times epitomizes the fulfillment of the Enlightenment dream of individualism and the pursuit of happiness. Sade was to Enlightenment France what Charles Manson is to modern America: the mirror in which we can see ourselves, stripped of hypocrisy and affectation.
The natural man is the Old Adam. He is not man as God created him, but a fallen creature who has failed, as my grammar school teachers used to write on my report cards, "to live up to his potential." He is not simply someone who enjoys his physical existence but a degraded being who rejects the higher aspects of human life. He despises not just good manners and decent clothes but any form of art that requires cultivation. He has a tin ear for any music that does not arouse his appetites, and, if he finds himself in a church, he scoffs as Lincoln did. Only a fool or a hypocrite would aspire to either the life of the mind or the life of the spirit. "The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him."
Thomas Fleming is the former editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of The Politics of Human Nature, Montenegro: The Divided Land, and The Morality of Everyday Life, named Editors' Choice in philosophy by Booklist in 2005. He is the coauthor of The Conservative Movement and the editor of Immigration and the American Identity. He holds a Ph.D. in classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Before joining the Rockford Institute, he taught classics at the University of Miami of Ohio, served as an advisor to the U.S. Department of Education, and was headmaster at the Archibald Rutledge Academy. He has been published in, among others, The Spectator (London), Independent on Sunday (London), Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Chicago Sun-Times, National Review, Classical Journal, Telos, and Modern Age. He and his wife, Gail, have four children and four grandchildren.