Lord Monboddo and the Quest for Human Nature

With a medieval dedication to the writings of Aristotle and Plato, James Burnett (1714 – 1799), the Lord of Monboddo was considered a living anachronism in his own day and age, and his thoughts on human nature were often derided as ridiculous, if not outright insane. Unlike many of his contemporaries, such as the acclaimed economist Adam Smith, Lord Monboddo did not believe in the innateness of language, bipedal motion, or even meat eating, but instead thought that they must have been formed as a product of historical development. In his own circuitous way he developed a system of philosophy and human nature in his two substantial works, Of the Origin and Progress of Language and Antient Metaphysics which laid down his thoughts on God, man, and history. The secondary literature on Monboddo is scarce, tending to be more descriptive than analytical, and of that, very little deals directly with his thoughts on human nature.

In the third volume of his Antient Metaphysics, Monboddo distinguishes between two meanings of the conceptual “state of nature” of humankind: its origin, and its final stage of development. He claims that his discussion focuses on the origin of humanity, yet it is evident that the teleological second meaning he attributes to the idea is never far from his thoughts on the matter. This is in part because of his largely Aristotelian notion of man as a potentially rational animal. The blurring of the distinction between origin, potential and highest stage is reflected in his staunch support for the reality of the state of nature, and reaches its most interesting form in his consideration of feral-children and the humanity of the orangutan. It begs the question: To what extent is the quest for human nature really a rephrasing of the quest for human purpose, and in this way an artifact of teleological reasoning that has been carried on to the present day?

There are familiar echoes of the modern distinction between nature and nurture in Monboddo’s reasoning behind favouring the study of man in the state of nature. For, as he says, “the state we are in at present is so mixed of Nature and Art, that it is exceedingly difficult to say what is Nature in us, and what is Art”. Having decided to ground his philosophy of man in this state, however, he then makes an important distinction.

And here it is proper to explain what I mean by a state of nature; for it is a term that may be used in two senses, very different. It may denote either his [mankind’s] most perfect state, to which his nature tends, and towards which he either is or ought to be always advancing, I mean the perfection of his Intellectual Faculties, by which, and which only, he is truly a Man: And this is the most proper meaning of the natural state of Man; for the natural state of everything is that state to which, by nature, it tends, as the natural state of an Animal is its full growth and strength; […] Or it is the state from which this progression begins. It is in this sense that I use the term, denoting by it the original state of Man, before societies were formed, or arts invented. This state, I think, may also be called a state of Nature, in contradistinction to the state in which we live at present, which, compared with it, is certainly an artificial state.

Interestingly, while intending to focus on the second meaning of the term, and stating that the two are very different, he considers the first, teleological view, to be its “most proper meaning”. There is also the normative imperative that man is or “ought” to be progressing along these lines. As we shall come to see, while not a stated axiom of his position, Monboddo does believe that morality is a criterion for humanity.

Monboddo’s Aristotelian definition of man rests at the heart of this ambiguous double definition of the state of nature. As he says, Aristotle has defined man to be: “‘A creature of Intellect and Science only in capacity,’ marking in this way the progress of man, as well as of every thing else on this earth, from capacity to actuality; for every thing here has first the capacity of becoming something, before it is actually that thing”. It is this emphasis on capacity and potential that leads Monboddo to draw from the example of children and feral children as a vindication of his theories about human nature. However, aside from shaping the kind of evidence he uses to make his case for the learned nature of things previously taken to be natural, he also blurs the double meaning of the state of nature through this definition. This is because a discussion of the original state of a creature whose essence rests in potential will invariably also involve a discussion of its end state, or purpose. Monboddo, despite his keen distinction between the two meanings of the term state of nature, nevertheless seems to support this reading in his praise of Aristotle’s understanding of humanity. As he comments in the fourth volume of his Antient Metaphysics:

Now this wonderful progress of man, so much more wonderful than that of any other animal, Aristotle knew: For he has told us, that in his natural state he has not the use of intellect, but only the capacity of acquiring it. […]. [H]e has not only properly defined man, but in his definition given a kind of history of the species, carrying it on from the first beginning of it, to its completion and perfection in intellect and science: And, in my opinion, there never was a better definition given of any thing.

From this understanding of mankind, Monboddo received his impetus to study children of all kinds, and to emphasize their education. This is because it was exactly in those groups that were undoubtedly human in which things like language or bipedal motion did not inherently occur that best demonstrate them as potentials.

However, it is also apparent that Monboddo makes an addendum to Aristotle’s definition of mankind, for in his argument for the humanity of the orangutan, as well as for the naturalness of Peter the Wild Boy, he appeals to their moral qualities as definitively setting them apart from animals. Worth and goodness are “natural” to man. Furthermore, morality was common in earlier stages of human development, and thus more primeval that vice, as he says: “Many […] examples might be given of the good disposition of men in the first ages of civil life”. This only began to change when physical necessity, such as starvation, forced humanity to acquire habits against its nature. Chief among these depravities was the consumption of meat, “which changes the natural character of man, and makes him not only more cruel and ferocious, but also more cunning and deceitful than he would otherwise be”.

It is also apparent that he wished to establish this as a key facet of human nature by his disagreement with Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) on the characteristics of man in state of nature:

I would not have it understood, that I believe, as Mr. Hobbes does, that man is naturally the enemy of man; and that the state of nature is a state of war of every man against every man. This is such a state as neither does exist, nor ever did exist, in any species of animals […]. [Hobbes] did not know what man was by nature, divested of all the habits and opinions that he acquires in civil life; but supposed that, previous to the institution of society, he had all the desires and passions that he now has.

Having set the definition of mankind in terms of potential intellect and moral imperative, in his study of its origins Monboddo was compelled to ground his arguments in an actually existing state of nature. In order for potential to be able to express itself as part of human nature, it is vital that there be a time in which it had not yet been made manifest, for otherwise it would not be potential at all. It was this view of potential and progress that led him to his consideration of human nature in this state, for, as he said in the first book of his Origin and Progress of Language:

Wherever there is progress, there must be a beginning; and the beginning in this case can be no other than the mere animal: For in tracing back the progress, where else can we stop? If we have discovered so many links of the chain, we are at liberty to suppose the rest, and conclude, that the beginning of it must hold of that common nature which connects us with the rest of the animal creation.

Thus we see further evidence for the interconnectedness of Monboddo’s two states of nature, insofar as his consideration of progress (potential) led him to a consideration of origins, and we begin to see how this quest for an actually existing state of nature led him to his consideration of feral children.

Unlike Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712 –1778), for whom it was a tool of reasoning, Monboddo needed to demonstrate that the state of nature was a historical fact. He did this by emphasizing the mutability of mankind, by analogy with “uncivilized peoples”, and through the development of children and feral children. From the evidence of the orangutan and Wild Peter, for instance, he concludes “that men are not, nor have not been always the same, in all ages, and all nations, such as we see at present in Europe”. Not only is man capable of change, but, as history and the uncivilized demonstrate, this change can be a dramatic one. However, the mutability of the human animal is brought out in greatest detail in Monboddo’s discussion of child development. He takes this process of development to be representative of the growth of the species as a whole, for there “is a progress in the species as well as in the individual. Drawing from the example of the development of an individual, Monboddo observes that:

“While in the womb he is no better than a Vegetable […]. By degrees he becomes an Animal, but is an imperfect Animal even when born. After the Animal Nature is perfected in him, comes the Intellectual part, by slow degrees even among us, but by degrees infinitely slower when he could not be formed […] by example and instruction. But even here there is not an end of his changes: For, after he is [sic] become both an Intellectual and Political Animal, and has invented arts and sciences, he is far from continuing the same; and a man in the first ages of society is exceedingly different from a man in the later and declining state of it.”

Thus humanity itself has gone through much the same process as an individual child, and by analogy an understanding of the process will allow an understanding of the nature, origin and purpose of humanity as such.

The belief that the growth of an individual reflects the growth of a species deserves some further attention, for some modern commentators wish to use it to demonstrate Monboddo’s role as a proto-evolutionist, having in some ways prefigured the recapitulation theory of Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919); however, a consideration of Monboddo’s own reasoning shows that this idea had much more in common with ancient and medieval notions of the microcosm and the chain of being than with modern evolution, and further highlights the importance of feral children to his project. In the first book of The Origin and Progress of Language, Monboddo presents a similar account of the development of a child from vegetable to intellectual as we have already seen. However, here, unlike in some later references, he justifies his notion by appealing to ancient authority, for, as he says: “man being a little world, as the antients [sic] called him, has in his frame a portion of every thing to be found in nature”. This little world is a translation of the Greek microcosm, a doctrine in which everything in nature has a representative in human beings. If the microcosmic origin of Monboddo’s thought is fully understood, it stands in stark contrast to what we now hold to be the evolutionary view of nature. For man, seen as a mirror of the entire universe, is nevertheless removed from the natural order of things, even as it is present within him.

Furthermore, this microcosmic understanding of human development is supplemented by the medieval notion of the chain of being. In this conception there is a place in nature for every intermediary being from the lowest of inanimate substances, to metals, plants, animals, people, angels, and God. This notion, as well as the variability of man’s place in the chain of being, was particularly developed among the philosophers of the Italian renaissance, such as Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494). As we have already seen in Monboddo’s desire to track down “so many links of the chain” towards the “animal” origin of man, and as I hope has been made apparent from his microcosmic understanding of the move from the definitive “links” of vegetable and animal nature to the intellectual nature of human beings, the stratified, yet anthropocentric background of his thought should not be mistaken for a kind of proto-evolutionism. It does, however, help to explain other elements of Monboddo’s writings. This understanding of the chain of nature and the microcosm further contributes to the importance of feral children and orangutans to his system. Not only must the chain of human progress be filled with representative examples of all of its various stages, but these stages must likewise contain within themselves varying degrees of animal nature. The feral child is then, quite literally, a missing link in the development of human potential.

Adriana S. Bezaquén observes in her excellent study of the history of feral children that:  “Although, as we have seen, wild children inspired, assisted, and resisted the thinking of many Enlightenment philosophers and naturalists, in no other case were they so crucial to the very foundation of a philosophico-scientific universe as in Monboddo’s”. Feral children are the most definitive modern evidence of his views, and serve as proof of his theories on the learned condition of society, language, diet and bipedal motion. Two feral children in particular stand out as his primary examples, Peter the Wild Boy and Marie-Angélique Memmie Le Blanc; however, to complete his system’s chain of progression, between the developmental stages of Peter and of Marie-Angélique he places the orangutan, and it is not possible to explore the case of these two children without also considering their simian intermediary.

Peter the Wild Boy (?-1785) was discovered in the woods of Hannover in 1725, and after his capture was taken to England where Monboddo visited him twice, and subsequently had a college of his visit him again at his behest. Peter represents the first stage of human development, ranking even lower than the orangutan. However, this only increased his importance to Monboddo, for when found Peter did not possess any of the faculties that he believed to be learned, rather than innate. He was a herbivore, a quadruped, not sociable, had no idea of God, and, although he appeared to have all of the “organs of pronunciation”, was unable to speak. Yet when introduced to society he took to eating meat, he learned to walk upright and interacted with other people. His language skills, however, did not fully develop, and he learned only a few words in his lifetime. Since Monboddo rejected the idea that Peter was an idiot, this emphasized the difficulty and art of language. For, if Peter the Wild Boy […], who certainly is of parents that had the use of speech, has learned, in so many years, to articulate so few words, what must be the case of a perfect savage, who is come of savage parents, through a descent of I don’t know how many thousand years?” It also demonstrated the importance of human community to the development of the intellect, and served as a humbling reminder of how close to the animal state mankind was in the state of nature, stressing its potential, and the need to develop that potential further.

The key faculty of sociability separates the orangutans from Peter. Orangutans represent “[t]he next step of this progression” from animal-man to intellectual-man, since having through necessity formed into groups they have laid the groundwork for the development of language, even though they do not yet possess it themselves. As Monboddo says: “they are so far advanced towards the political life, as to herd together, and to communicate together, by a chattering guttural noise, which […] led the way among all people to articulation and the use of speech”. Again, as we have already seen with Peter, it is the effects of learning that realizes the potential at the heart of human nature, for with time and training Monboddo believed that orangutans could be taught to speak, and that some had already been taught, such as the one that worked as a servant for the collector Sir Ashton Lever. This manifest potential guaranteed their membership among humankind.

The potential for language was not everything, however, for it is also interesting to note that in almost every argument Monboddo makes for the humanity of the orangutan he points to its moral qualities. They are “mild and gentle”, and possess a sense of honour that is so pronounced that they can die when it has been shamed. This view is in keeping with Monboddo’s unstated definition of man as a potentially rational and inherently moral creature. At least this much seems certain from his assertion that: “If, I say, such an Animal is not a Man, I should desire to know in what the essence of a man consists, and what it is that distinguishes a Natural Man from the Man of Art?” Potential, manifest or otherwise, leads to a man of art and of intellect, but morality is the common bedrock upon which this quality rests.

One of the final stages before “civilization” was represented by the French feral child Marie-Angélique Memmie Le Blanc (1712–1775), who, like Peter, Monboddo interviewed in the course of his studies. Also, like Peter and the orangutans, Marie-Angélique served as an important example of the validity of his claims about learning. As he says:

The last step of this progression I likewise saw, and it was a great one. It was the wild girl, or Fille Sauvage, […] who came from a country where the people had learned to articulate very imperfectly indeed, but sufficiently to communicate their wants and desires.

Her original people were Native Americans, and unlike Peter or orangutans, she learned how to speak fluently in her lifetime. Rather than focusing on her feral nature, however, Monboddo was more interested in the customs of her people. He took her claim that they could only sing like birds as evidence of the fact that learning is a form of imitation, and that the rudeness of her people’s way of speaking suggests the difficult, but gradual progression to modern, European, languages.

When considered cumulatively, the effect of these three cases serves to demonstrate Monboddo’s methodology, and his underlying assumptions about the unity of his two definitions of the state of nature. Wild Peter, orangutans and Marie-Angélique are simultaneously demonstrative of individual human development, and the development of their species, trapped in amber on the chain of being, they represent successive stages of the unfolding of human potential. In this way the focus on the move from some original nature (in this case Peter) is constantly underpinned by the second meaning of the state of nature. For if the core of human nature is potential, and the moral imperative which Monboddo tacitly attaches to this core, its historical manifestation must and should lead to the gradual unfolding of that potential to some ultimate end. By tracing this unfolding through the first three stages of man-the-animal, Monboddo draws a dotted line leading towards his perceived goal of humanity, and thus reveals how he believes that humanity’s origin contained within itself the eventual manifestation of everything that was to come after it. Feral children, and their ability to learn, were crucial tools in his teleological reading of human history. Their importance was further supplemented by Monboddo’s microcosmic understanding of individual development and the linear chain of being that made it possible to use them as a way back to some original state, suggestive of some final end.

Yet what is the end of Monboddo’s teleological line of reasoning about human nature? This is a difficult question, for in some ways it was the adult European, in others it was the Ancient Greeks, and in others still it was not to be found on earth at all, but in heaven after the extinction of the species. Hinting at possibilities he says in the beginning of the Origin and Progress of Language that: “there is no doubt but that human nature may, by such culture, be so exalted, as to come near to what we conceive of superior natures, and perhaps even to possess the rank of such as are immediately above us in the chain of being”. E.L. Cloyd observed that Monboddo had little hope for humanity’s continued survival: “Among the arts and sciences discovered [as mankind develops its potential] are those which degrade man as well as those which uplift him, and thus, man will ultimately bring about his own destruction”. Yet, strangely, there are some hints in his writing, which indicate that this too would represent a manifestation of human potential. For instance, in the third volume of his Antient Metaphysics, emphasizing both the mutability and potential of the human, he comments that: “Man appears to me to undergo as many changes as any Animal we know, even as many, and as different from one another, at least with respect to the Mind, as caterpillars and butterflies; and, if we believe in a future state, we must suppose that the changes will not cease with this life”. Furthermore, Cloyd summarizes the argument of the fifth volume of Antient Metaphysics with the observation that: “As man has achieved in this middle, civilized state the intellectuality which was God’s purpose for him, it is time that he moved on to the next stage”. If anything can be concluded from this puzzling array of statements it is this: that Monboddo seems to have so believed in progress and the manifestation of latent human potential that the final purpose of its development reached a kind of event-horizon, or singularity in heaven, beyond which the philosopher could speculate no further.

The quest for human nature is more befitting of a Quixote than a Galahad, of a Don Juan than a Dante, for normative and teleological interests are inscribed into the question itself. It is my hope that like the antiquity of Monboddo’s apparently modern insights, the reader will see that his case, despite its age, also has some bearing on the present day. Monboddo’s distinction between the two states of nature is a canny one, and does much to reveal the ambiguity of the concept, yet nowhere does it do this more compellingly than in his subsequent abandonment of that very distinction. From his understanding of the Aristotelian potential and moralistic imperative to manifest that potential, Monboddo presented a definition of human nature that could never be free of teleological considerations, whose sense of origin and purpose were one and the same. All of his subsequent arguments are directed towards this point, in his defense of an actually existing state of nature and the malleability of the human through culture, in his use of the chain of being and the microcosm, and especially in his view on the parallel between individual development and the development of the human species. Wild Peter, orangutans, and Marie-Angélique were the paragons of this position, for from their initial inability to perform many of the basic functions thought natural, and their subsequent education, they served as living arrows pointing to the future of mankind. However, once civilization had reached its peak, be it in the adult European or Ancient Greek state, Monboddo could not accept that as the end of human progress. One of the most damning problems of teleological reasoning is that despite the structuring guidance lent to it by a definitive purpose and end, if rigorously followed to that end it invariably leads to a singularity, a point at which all things are leading, but whose qualities cannot be defined with any certainty. For Monboddo that end was heaven.

Like Monboddo, many modern commentators on human nature confound questions of origins with questions of purpose and of progress, whether through the emotion pull of pointing to a better world to come, or through the need for a guiding structure from which to make sense of the present. Yet my own contention is that this question has no end, or no end that can be distinguished from the faith of the individual investigator. It is thus informative that in the case of one man, the Lord Monboddo, what began as a creature resembling Peter the Wild Boy ends in the mysteries of God. For all of its quaint antiquity, I have come to doubt that any of us can hope to arrive at a better solution, given the nature of the question asked.

For More Information:

Bezaquén, Adriana S. Encounters with Wild Children: Temptation and Disappointment in the

Study of Human Nature. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006.

Burnett, James. Of the Origin and Progress of Language: Vol. 1. 1st Edition. (The Scolar Press

Limited; Menston, 1967.

—. Of the Origin and Progress of Language: Vol. 1. 2nd Edition. A. Kincaid & W. Creech;

Edinburgh, 1792.

—. Antient Metaphysics: Vol. 3. 1st Edition. Garland Publishing; New York, 1977.

—. Antient Metaphysics: Vol. 4. 1st Edition. Garland Publishing; New York, 1977.

Cloyd, E.L. James Burnett: Lord Monboddo. Clarendon Press; Oxford, 1972.






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