Today you will hear many presumably learned people say that there is no such thing as human nature, or that human beings do not have a nature. Now, there is a long historical development back of this view, which we cannot deal with here, and it is not entirely without an important point. But that point is mis-made in the statement that human beings do not have a nature. It then becomes a part of the unchecked political and moral rage against identity that characterizes modern life. This is a rage predicated upon the idea that identity restricts freedom. If I am a human being, as opposed to, say, a brussels sprout or a squirrel, that places a restriction upon what I can do, what I ought to do, or what should be done to me.
According to Willard, this shows that, among other things, the confusion surrounding what human beings are is characterized by deep, knee-jerk prejudices that (it is thought) do not need to be defended, nor can they be challenged.
We especially have in mind opinions to the effect that a human being is purely physical, just an animal -- basically, just the human brain. Or the opinion that human beings are, as such, good, or not to be forced to do anything they don't want to do. Or the opinion that human beings do not actually have a nature and that all classifications of them -- male/female, black/white, and so on -- are "social constructions" with no reality apart from the judgments and motivations of social groups or cultures. At present, governmental and social institutions are heavily invested in such opinions favoring the social construction of the human being.
This current state of affairs may prevent otherwise thoughtful people from seeing the value of what has traditionally been regarded as the best of "common sense" about life and of what has been preserved in the wisdom traditions of most cultures -- especially in two of the greatest world sources of wisdom about the human self, the Judeo-Christian and the Greek, the biblical and the classical.
This wisdom saw expression in the cardinal virtues. Another book by Steve Wilkens and Mark Sanford entitled Hidden Worldviews: Eight Cultural Stories That Shape Our Lives briefly mentions this in their chapter on individualism.
In classical thought, the four cardinal (or basic) virtues were identified as prudence, courage, moderation and justice. The idea was that a person became free when she lived according to such virtues. In other words, the limitations to our freedom were viewed as internal, moral obstacles that could be overcome by developing and internalizing these virtuous characteristics.
This brings us back to Willard. His point in discussing this "rage against identity" is its relevance to spiritual growth, and spiritual growth -- as he repeatedly points out -- is an internal affair.
Often what human beings do is so horrible that we can be excused, perhaps, for thinking that all that matters is stopping it. But this is an evasion of the real horror: the heart from which the terrible actions come. In both cases, it is who we are in our thoughts, feelings, dispositions, and choices -- in the inner life -- that counts. Profound transformation there is the only thing that can definitively conquer outward evil.
The cardinal virtues are there to liberate us from the inner restrictions to our freedom. By mastering them, we become free. But contemporary culture focuses on external restrictions to our freedom, which, being external, cannot be treated by internal transformation. They can only be treated by changing the external conditions. But since a great deal of the external conditions involve other people, this means that changing other people takes priority over changing ourselves. That is, changing what we do not have direct control over takes priority over changing what we do have direct control over. This is bound to fail.
One conclusion to derive from all this is that the "rage against identity" -- the refusal to accept that there is a specifically human nature and that our inner lives can be more or less in consonance with it, with the implication that we should try to make our inner selves more consonant with this nature -- can easily become the attempt to bypass having to change the self in favor of trying to change (that is, manipulate or force) others to do what we want them to do instead of what they want to do. Note that I do not say that the rage against identity just is such an attempt to control others, although perhaps that case can be made.
And before you ask, I am no better than anyone else in this regard. I often see my problems as primarily about external conditions. I often want to solve problems by trying to control the things I do not have control over instead of trying to control what I do have control over. This inevitably leads to deep frustration and hopelessness. I'll even give you a poignant example: part of my motivation for writing this post is the social/political situation in the United States where ethnicity and gender are treated as if they were completely fungible concepts. We are told that if a white person decides she's black, or a man decides he's a woman, well then that's what they are, and any reticence on our part to acknowledge this is immoral prejudice. But this attitude only makes sense if there is no internal reality that dictates their identity. If there is such an internal reality, then they have to acknowledge it in order to achieve genuine freedom by pursuing the cardinal virtues. But insofar as making this point is part of my motivation, I'm more concerned about addressing this external (social/political) issue than the internal issues that are the real causes of my frustrations. I'm focusing outward rather than inward. Yes, focusing inward does not preclude addressing external issues, but in this case I'm trying to tell other people that they should accept the inner reality of human nature. I'm trying to control them, to get them to do what I want them to do, although in this case it's through genuine argumentation rather than through manipulation or force. Regardless, my focus has not been on changing myself but on changing others. So, if you'll excuse me, I have some work to do.