Confronting Human Frailty

A man carries within him the germ of his most exceptional action; and if we wise people make eminent fools of ourselves on any particular occasion, we must endure the legitimate conclusion that we carry a few grains of folly to our ounce of wisdom.”                                                                                                               

                                                                                     ― Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot), Adam Bede


In his book The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker borrowed a concept from the conservative scholar Thomas Sowell, who argued that there were two “visions” of human nature (Pinker, 2002). Pinker referred to these as the Tragic Vision and the Utopian Vision, and he spent several pages placing famous historical thinkers into one of the two camps.  

According to Pinker, the Tragic Vision suggests that “humans are inherently limited in knowledge, wisdom, and virtue, and all social arrangements must acknowledge those limits” (p. 287). On the other hand, in the Utopian Vision “psychological limitations are artifacts that come from our social arrangements, and we should not allow them to restrict our gaze from what is possible in a better world.”

These groupings are not perfect, but Pinker argues that they work better than trying to categorize people as left/right or conservative/liberal. For some examples, in the Utopian camp, Pinker placed people like Bobby Kennedy, Rousseau, and Thomas Paine. For Tragic Visionaries, he chose – among others – Friedrich Hayek, James Madison, Edmund Burke, and Hobbes.

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