On the Frailty of Human Nature in “Measure for Measure”

David Anthony Lewis and Cindy Im
David Anthony Lewis and Cindy Im

The Atlantic is currently running a series in which selected authors share and discuss their favorite passages in literature. Linguist and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker chose to discuss a passage from Measure for Measure that served as an epigraph to a chapter called in Inner Demons in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature.

            But man, proud man
Drest in a little brief authority
Most ignoratnt of what he’s most assur’d’
His glassy essence, like an angry ape
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven,
As make the angels weep

Pinker takes apart the passage line by line to probe how Shakespeare (much like a modern psychologist) captures the flaws of human behavior, yet does it with such poetry.

This particular paragraph of Pinker’s caught my attention given the atrocities we’ve been hearing about in the news lately:

History is replete with Angelos. If you were to add up the number of killings by people in pursuit of what they think are moral aims, whether it’s personal vengeance, implementing justice, or hastening a utopia or messianic age, the body count would surely be higher than the victims of amoral predation and exploitation.

Pinker’s exploration is worth the read if only to be reminded how Shakespeare, again and again, is a writer for all ages.


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