Two broad approaches to human nature found in early modern writers are discussed. The first approach, descriptive, focuses on identifying and describing the key properties of human nature, and frequently aims to use this description as grounds for ethical norms (as in the Aristotelian and Stoic traditions). La Bruyère’s Les Caractères takes this approach, but his characters are as much social as psychological types, and their behaviour is interpreted in terms of relationships rather than individual dispositions. His ‘essentialism’ is a vehicle not only of moral but of social critique. Finally, there is a discussion of how far women and children are incorporated into this vision of human nature. The second approach, problematic, emphasizes the difficulty of identifying the intrinsic properties of human nature. This is sometimes linked to a stress on the difficulty of self-discovery. But the contribution of Augustine’s theology is also crucial: original sin has transformed and corrupted human nature.
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