In an endeavour to understand human nature, thinkers and philosophers debate its changeability. Historical ac-counts of different nations show that although customs, traditions, culture, religious practice and law may control human behaviour, the reaction and attitude of a nation towards the society is influenced by economic and political progress.
As long as political institutions are stable and the economic system is strong enough to provide basic needs to people, societies sustain moral values. But when political and economic systems collapse, morality and legal systems also degenerate, resulting in chaos and disorder.
Greek historian Thucydides, in his book The History of the Peloponnesian Wars, compares the Athenians during peace and prosperity with the crisis they confronted during the plague.
Prior to the epidemic, the Athenians valued their freedom, democratic reforms and their victories in war. Their leader Pericles delivered the famous funeral oration and honoured those who were kil-led in the battlefield while defending the Republic of Athens. He praised the virtues of the city and its traditions and customs, creating a sense of pride among the audience.
Culturally superior to others, the Athenian society was a paragon of virtue and honour.
According to Thucydides` account of the war, the situation changed dramatically in the fifth century. Soon after the famous speech by Pericles, Athens was struck by a plague. This was when the Peloponnesian war refugees from the neighbouring villages and towns took shelter within the city of Athens. The overcrowding, hot and humid weather conditions, poor water supply and no sewerage led to the spread of the deadly virus.
Pericles himself died in the epidemic along with thousands of people, leaving behind a chaotic city.
In the absence of preventive measures and remedies, the disease rapidly spread through the city.
Dead bodies lay everywhere and people would throw corpses in the burning funeral pyres of other dead people, violating the tradition and custom of funerals.The plague destroyed the entire fabric of society which according to Thucydides, was the worst aspect of the plague. People abandoned the dead along with their sick friends and family. As self interest overpowered the feelings of fraternity and brotherhood, the sense of honour and sharing with others disappeared.
Some people took full advantage of the plague and the suffering and violated all social norms. They plundered, pillaged and accumulated wealth, enjoying the revelry and debauchery.
This account of events shows that human nature changes according to changing circumstances.
People behave differently in times of peace and prosperity as compared to times of war, famine, drought and pestilence.
History shows that when a nation progresses, the people are dignified.
But when the nation stagnates, so does the character of its people.
In view of this historical background, when we study the history of Pakistan we find that the behaviour of its people has changed with political and economic vicissitude.In its early history, the moral situation of the society had not degenerated so much as it has presently.The institutions worked efficiently, bureaucrats were not (that) corrupt and the politicians, although ac-cused of inefficiency, were not utterly venal. This is of course a generalisation, but a somewhat accurateone at that.
Repeated military interventions, wars and political in-fighting completely changed the structure and values of the society, resulting in disorder and chaos. The decline and failure of society has affected the behaviour of people. Moral values have lost their impact while self-interest has become the leitmotif for success.
The behaviour of people can only change for the better with economic and political stability.
According to the English philosopher John Locke, human nature is like a `tabula rasa` or a blank slate.
He believed that human nature is dependent on a good or bad environment. So if the state provides basic needs to people, the pleasant environment will reflect in the improved behaviour of the people.
They will respect moral values and preserve their dignity and virtues.
Based on this philosophy, the Western states have reformed education and health, thus positively impacting the lifestyle of people.
The ruling classes of Pakistan should also introduce reforms for education and health for the common man. This would change the human nature positively across the country. Failure to do so means the existing rate of decline will only pick up pace.
By Mubarak Ali: http://epaper.dawn.com/DetailImage.php?StoryImage=27_10_2013_424_003