Cruelty and Convention: How Human Nature Is Inherently Cruel
It is often difficult for us to evaluate the difference between human nature and human convention. Our nature is the default way of acting in life, while convention is how we as a society have transformed the norms of our actions. Cruelty, causing harm to other living beings, is often seen as an unnatural behavior and is shunned by human convention. This, however, may not be the case. Robinson Jeffers goes as far as to claim that “Cruelty is a part of nature, at least of human nature, but it is the one thing that seems unnatural to us.” This claim can be found in many accounts of humanity, often in literature. Some of the best examples of this claim are in
The Tragedy of Macbeth by William Shakespeare and
All My Sons by Arthur Miller.
Evidence supporting Jeffers’ quote is found all throughout Shakespeare’s
Macbeth represents true, unadulterated cruelty, completely absolved of influence of human conventions. She speaks at one point about how her husband is too full of the “milk of human kindness,” which can be taken as her thinking Macbeth is too affected by human convention. She thinks he is going against the default of cruelty in order to be kind. This shows Jeffers’ idea of true human nature being cruelty. Macbeth, we see, does succumb to human conventions.
Initially, we see him trying to conceal his cruel intentions through a false frame of convention.
Duncan, whom he later murders, goes as far as to say he will “continue our graces towards him,” showing his trust in Macbeth. Once he no longer needs these conventions and has achieved his goal, his true human nature is revealed. He shows cruelty verbally, calling his servant a
“cowardly boy”, and in action, saying “
I will not be afraid of death and destruction until Birnam
forest picks itself up and moves to Dunsinane,” showing how he is willing to kill for his own selfish reasons.
Another example of a piece in which cruelty of human nature is revealed despite human convention is in Arthur Miller’s
All My Sons.
Joe Keller is a fully conventionalized businessman, completely succumbing to social norms. He keeps up friendly relationships with his neighbors, without addressing that they all see him as a criminal. This seeming obliviousness that Keller has to his neighbor’s views on him could be seen as him actually being unaware of his true guilt, thus going against Jeffers’ claim. However, we know