Messiah College history professor John Fea writes about human depravity and its implications for studying the past on The Anxious Bench :
The historian Herbert Butterfield informed us that “if there is any region in which the bright empire of the theologians and the more murky territory of the historians happen to meet and overlap, we shall be likely to find it at those places where both types of thinkers have had to deal with human nature” ( Christianity and History , 1957 ). [George] Marsden adds: “Of all traditional Christian teachings the doctrine of original sin or of pervasive human depravity has the most empirical verification. The modern world, rather than undercutting this doctrine, seems to increasingly confirm it.”
Indeed, he continues,
anyone who studies the past realizes that there are no heroes in history . . . . Historians understand, perhaps better than most, the reality of pain, suffering, injustice, anger, and vice brought upon by sin. They understand the tragic dimensions of life.
Understanding human depravity, Fea argues , may give us a better understanding of history’s worst tyrants, “healthy skepticism” about utopian movements, deeper insight into the human condition, more accurate narratives about our own nation’s history, and a properly modest approach to explaining the past.
The essay by George Marsden that inspired his blog post is “Human Depravity: A Neglected Explanatory Category,” which is part of Wilfred McClay’s collection Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past . (McClay is a member of our advisory council and a frequent contributor to the magazine.) Wide-ranging and insightful, Marsden’s essay touches on everything from original sin and scapegoating to American optimism and the “culture of ‘whatever”’ while arguing with Reinhold Niebuhr, Alan Wolfe, Richard Rorty and others along the way. You can read it in its entirety via Google Books (McClay’s introduction starts on page 15, the essay on page 16).