Nature vs Nurture: is a skill acquired or inherent?

It’s an infamously controversial topic that’s been debated upon by a plethora of thinkers, philosophers and just people in general. 

In some way or another, we’ve all thought about this.  How often have you wondered about a certain skill you possess, whether you were born with it or if you acquired it through learning and practice?  For me, I always thought whether writing was something that naturally just came to me or whether I developed a knack for it because of the amount of reading I began to do at a young age.

Although many people claim that geniuses like Mozart or Michaelangelo were born with the innate ability to create musical and artistic masterpieces, it turns out that neither one of them would have been able to do so had they not gone through rigorous training and practice of that specific skill.  I mean, if Michaelangelo had instead been forced to become a clergyman by his father and not allowed to do apprenticeships with established artists, then it is very likely that many of his works would have never come into existence at all.

A skill is acquired, it is developed through the interaction with people and an environment that provides the opportunities for the cultivation of that skill.  It is not innate or contained within the genetic code of man, for if that were the case, there would be no such thing as the downfall or decline of empires and civilizations because progress and development would be neverending.  Certainly, the genetic code of a person may play a partial role, but the dominant position is taken up by that of practice.  It is not simply within the NATURE of man to become accomplished at something, but mostly through the process of NURTURE in a specific environment that enables him to do so.

In that case then, it seems that it could be possible for every single person to become a great singer if given the right amount of vocal training.  There are, of course, exceptions in the form of those who have physical impairments, but every single person definitely possess the potential to become a singer.  Each individual has a unique set of vocal chords and, if developed properly, they can enable a person to become the next Madonna.

I realise that writing was not something I was born to do, it’s not an ability that is inherent in me.  It did not naturally come to me, but it was a skill that I learned through practice.  I used to read A LOT as a kid, whether its a 300-page novel or a magazine or the daily newspaper, and this exposure to words and sentences became embedded in my mind so that when the time came to me form sentences myself, I was able to do so in a manner that surpassed the level I should have been at for my age. 

I remember being really interested in science and specifically chemistry when I was in grade 8, but in grade 9, I had a fantastic English teacher who appreciated my essays and my stories and made sure I knew that I definitely contained the potential to become a great writer.  She made me rethink my choices and made me aware of an alternative path that was available to me.  Had it not been for that, I think I probably would’ve continued on with my interest in chemistry. 

I made my decision then to study Art and Literature rather than the natural sciences and I have never looked back since.  Writing is something I enjoy doing and I definitely love it alot more than learning the chemical compounds of different substances.

Love, life and the meaning of it all

So the semester’s almost over and it marks the end of one of the most amazing courses I’ve had the opportunity to take at university so far.  A brilliant 4 months of intense philosophy with one of the most brilliant and maverick professors here, and I feel like nothing I could say would do justice to everything that I’ve learnt thus far.

From Viktor Frankl, al-Ghazali and St Augustine to Descartes, Tolstoy and the daddy of them all, Friedrich Nietzsche, we’ve covered a little fraction of all the big names, just enough to get an idea of how they viewed life and the legacy they left behind for those who choose to adhere to their views. 

Despite their big names and even bigger controversial ideas or reputations, what’s really surprising is that there’s one thing that plagues them all: philosophers always require you to CHOOSE, and make an either/or distinction between 2 opposites.  It begs the question, why must that be the case? Utilitarianism or Kant-ianism, utopia or reality, faith or rationality: its either one or the other, but why?  Why is it that an individual HAS to choose to adopt one specific extreme and not in any way be within the ambit of another?

I suppose it’s also quite relatable to the dischotomous bond shared by science and religion: either you’re a man or reason and science and objectivity or you’re a ‘mullah’, who believes in revelation and all the ‘irrationality’ of the scriptures.  I don’t see how one can’t strike a balance between the two and maintain both positions.  Ibn Khaldun certainly managed to do so, he transformed the realm of historiography, was one of the founders of sociology and a presursor to many of the ideas propounded by Adam Smith, Marx and Durkheim 5 centuries after his death.  Yet, at the same time, he was a religious man, not a fundamentalist as we would call him today, but a man of firm faith who believed in prophetic wisdom and the omniscient power of the Divine. 

The meaning of life is also another subject that’s dominated much of this course.  It seems that the common conclusion between all the thinkers has been this: in order to find a ‘why’ for your existence, you must submit to the something larger than yourself.

Nietzsche talks about this in ‘Beyond Good and Evil’ when he describes that the TRUE philosopher is one that trailblazes through the terrain of thoughts, constantly risking himself and upholding a principle that goes beyond just the man; in a sense, this is the ubermensch.   He also relates this to artists who become completely submissive to their creative side, they let themselves flow out in order to create something and do something that surpasses their own selves. Frankl discusses this as well in Man’s Search for Meaning, and that’s something I’ve already discussed before on here in detail.

But there is something that’s actually been bothering me, it has to do with Leo Tolstoy.  He was an artist, in the true sense of the word, because his writing was his art.  He’s written masterpieces, Anna Karenina and War and Peace and absolute tomes brimming with brilliance.  Yet, it wasn’t enough for him, it didn’t quite add meaning to his life the way one would expect.  In Confession, he admits that he did it simply to earn more money, garner more fame, etc. but surely it meant more to him than that?  I find it really difficult to believe that a writer like Tolstoy could not find satisfactory prupose in his writing, and this puzzles me, because if it wasnt enough for Tolstoy, then what chance does someone like me have?

Sure, Tolstoy went through a great conversion, and became a preachy-preachy Orthodox Christian, and much of his writing was affected by his austere religious views, but his words have a point.  If things like art and family are merely distractions that keep you from realising the true reason for your existence, then it’s a pretty miserable state we all live in because for most of us, those 2 things really are what life is all about.

Last but certainly not least: love.  This topic was one that evoked A LOT of giggles in the class, but it’s one that is universal and truly about everyone.  Many of us have Disney-inspired notions of love or we talk about love as if we really know what it’s all about, but in actuality, it’s something that’s completely beyond a layman’s comprehension.

For Frankl, love was the source of salvation; for St Augustine and Tolstoy, there was a difference in worldly love and divine love, with the latter outweighing the former; for Nietzsche, love is something a man could not do justice to, it is only a woman whose love is what love is meant to be. 

We’ve all said ‘I love you’ at some point of our lives, but what we fail to realise is what we really mean is ‘I want to possess you’.  This is not love as love should be. 

‘I allow you to possess me’ is love.  This is the selfless, the brave, the kamikaze, the absolutely absolute form of love that (if you listen to Nietzsche) only a woman can give.  In the absence of such love, there is no submission, no passion of struggle, and certainly no greatness.