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Understanding the Dark Side of Human Nature

Explore the dark side of our human nature through the lenses of philosophy, theology, and science, guided by an expert with a global perspective.
Understanding the Dark Side of Human Nature is rated 4.0 out of 5 by 55.
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Rated 4 out of 5 by from Enjoyable, thought provoking course I enjoyed this course, and it gives you several topics to reflect on. It is fairly heavy on eastern religions and philosophy, as a born again agnostic that worked for me. Buddhism as a philosophy talks to me. I did not look it up, buy I bet this is his area of concentration. The professor, Daniel Breyer, is very knowledgeable and a good lecturer, however he is a bit low key… which is fine. Just meant I needed to be careful to pay attention and not drift off worrying about tonight’s dinner. One thing I did not like was having him seated the whole time. I suppose this decreases production costs as a set/ green screen does not need to be implemented. My problem is that Dr. Breyer and many other presenters do not know what to do with their hands when seated or in a static position. This tends to lead do dancing jazz hands which drive me a little more bonkers than usual. I found it worth my time watching as I attempted to maintain my weight by walking on our treadmill for an hour or so.
Date published: 2024-06-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An Excellent, Interesting and Great Course to take This course exceeded my expectations. You will truly learn information that will stay with you and make you want to look in depth at some of the specific topics. Professor Breyer presented it in such an interesting way that I really regretted it when it came to the last lecture. Thumbs up, five stars and thank you Professor Breyer. Please do more lectures!
Date published: 2024-06-06
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good philosophical tour This course is a broad overview of different philosophical topics or existential subjects presented through a series of schools of thought, riddles and the like. Professor Breyer presents views that are sometimes contradictory or controversial without taking a position himself which is something I would have liked to see him do. Some lectures are better than others but in general the course is worthwhile. The name of the course could be better, without the reference to dark human nature.
Date published: 2023-11-30
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Limited Academic Philosophy After getting halfway through the first lecture, I decided to not waste my time. After reviewing the lecture synopses, I realized that the lecturer doesn't deal with the fact that most murders are committed by men and that history is the history of male aggression and domination. I am not saying there aren't women who are evil and who do bad things, but there is no comparison. I don't think his approach is very useful in understanding reality.
Date published: 2023-06-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very thought provoking and helpful. My opinion is that this course is valuable! Period!
Date published: 2023-05-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Exploring Troubling Aspects of Who We ALL Are! This is one of those rare courses that might actually be better absorbed through audio, since the issues explored -- and the explanations or suggested solutions or approaches given -- require attentive listening and thoughtful reflection. The video was well done and I always enjoy seeing the presenter, but I found myself often just closing my eyes so that I could listen better. And there is a lot to listen to! This is not a course on "Why humans are bad," nor does it dwell on "evil in the way that perhaps most of us conjure up images about "evil." Rather, the "dark side" of our nature Professor Breyer explores includes much more than the "bad we do or imagine/wish doing"; it also includes the sorrow and misfortunes that human life inevitably includes, including such things as illness, death, suffering, and just simply at times "feeling bad." It is an extended meditation along the lines of how St. Paul wrote concerning the mystery of why we "do" what we really "don't want to do." So, yes, dreams, impulses, reactions, judgements, all those kinds of things that are inherent in being a human being and with which all of us are probably intimately familiar. I not only find it difficult to praise this course too much, but also to possibly summarize it in a way that would be helpful for persons considering whether or not to purchase it. What I most liked about this course and the way that Dr. Breyer chose to present it are these: 1) A clear introduction each lecture to the topic/question/mystery for that lecture. 2) A lovely exploration that then follows looking at how many persons from many traditions -- principally those from classic Greek and Roman times, Christian theologians, and Buddhist teachers -- understand the "problem" and how they approach dealing with it. 3) Consistently looking for the insights that this issue and how we deal with it can give us about ourselves as individuals as well as part of the human race. 4) And always concluding with a summary statement of the essence of the issue and of the preferred/desired approach to dealing with it. Be assured that this course does not conclude that either we are "evil" at heart or that we are "stuck" in patterns of behavior that we find either undesirable, harmful, or ignoble. Rather, it emphasizes how much human nature not only encompasses feeling such things, but also how it demands that we use our brains to probe, understand, and devise methods of coping with what otherwise can often overwhelm -- or threaten to overwhelm -- us. Beautifully done, and it is fascinating to see how much those three sources most often used to examine issues and resolution -- i.e., classical wisdom, Christian theology, and Buddhist insights -- harmonize with one another. Nicely done!
Date published: 2023-04-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of the Best TGC Courses How we deal with the "negative" elements of life in a large way determines our overall sense of happiness and well-being. As such, I believe that "Understanding the Dark Side of Human Nature" is one of the most valuable course offerings by TGC in terms of real-life impact. Here, Dr. Breyer very thoughtfully and compassionately slogs through most of our worst experiences--evil acts, evil people, evil thoughts, mental anguish, anxiety, overwhelming desires, the fear of death, grief, nightmares, self-deception, ignorance, anger, and vengeance--with a focus on how to best handle each difficulty. Within each lecture he draws upon many sources, both ancient and modern, and both Eastern and Western, in order to get a deeper understanding of each malady. He also devotes a lecture near the end of the course to "Being Peaceful in a Troubled World" to help end on a positive note. Due to the extremely high quality and great utility of this course, I am truly puzzled why it has received so many bad reviews, resulting in an unfair overall score of 3.9. In my opinion, it rates at least a 4.9. In particular, those reviews that focus on Dr. Breyer's hair or clothing or arm movements or even speaking style seem trivial to me. Ditto for those reviews which complain about incorporating Buddhist or Hindu ideas. Perhaps the most confusing bad review to me is by a gentleman who complains that Dr. Breyer didn't simply spoon feed him the "right" viewpoint for each topic. To me, the whole point of a course like this is to take a deep dive into our own minds to find our own answers. To this end, Dr. Breyer could not have given a better presentation. I hope that many TGC and Wondrium customers give this course the chance it deserves.
Date published: 2023-03-02
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Interesting but frustratingly unfocused Few of the many "Great Courses" I've purchased sounded as exciting excited as this one. I've long been fascinated by questions related to the nature of evil and relevant psychological and philosophical issues. While this course touches, often briefly, on many topics that are somewhat related to these questions, I found it insufficiently coherent and some lectures inconclusive or requiring background (particularly from various philosophical perspectives) thatI, as a scientist who reads philosophy as a hobby, simply do not possess. I completed the series, which I watched twice, more frustrated than enlightened. It starts promisingly enough, the first few lectures posing interesting and highly relevant questions about the nature of evil. I began to feel I might be in trouble when the answers to all these questions were, essentially, "we don't know" or "there are lots of different points of view: take your pick." Well, I lack the background to choose; that's why I bought the course. From there we launch into a series of 21 lectures the topics of which seemed all over the place; after most my notes were akin to "peripherally related, if at all to this topic," "interesting but tangential," or "incredibly frustrating." The last two lectures try to bring together the preceding 22 and present a coherent view of the dark side, but by then all the material we've been presented with is too scattered for this to be possible. (Very many of the lectures present a lot of material from various Eastern religions, especially Buddhism, but don't always connect the material to the main topic of the course. By contrast, there is no discussion of Jung's theory of the shadow, surely crucial to understanding the dark side of human nature.) On the plus side, Professor Breyer is a charming, personable, very knowledgeable presenter who is a pleasure to listen to and, more often than not, is clear and interesting. Still, I cannot recommend this course except to those who are interested in the very broad range of seemingly unrelated subjects indicated in the detailed course descriptions; such people will probably find much of value in it. I, regrettably, did not.
Date published: 2023-01-26
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In Understanding the Dark Side of Human Nature, Professor Daniel Breyer takes you on a fascinating cross-cultural philosophical journey into many of the deepest and, indeed, darkest questions that plague our souls. By looking carefully into these darkest aspects of ourselves and the human suffering in our world, we can better understand ourselves and appreciate our deep desire for meaning and purpose in our lives.


Daniel Breyer

The realm of ethics presents some of the most intriguing thought experiments to challenge our sense of what’s right and wrong, what we should do and what we shouldn’t.


Illinois State University

Daniel Breyer is a Professor of Philosophy at Illinois State University, where he also directs the Religious Studies program. He earned a PhD in Philosophy from Fordham University. He has received many accolades, including the Outstanding University Teacher Award, the highest instructional honor at Illinois State University. His research often explores thought experiments, and his articles have appeared in journals such as Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, and the Journal of Buddhist Ethics.

By This Professor

Understanding the Dark Side of Human Nature
The Power of Thought Experiments
Understanding the Dark Side of Human Nature


What Do We Mean by the “Dark Side”?

01: What Do We Mean by the “Dark Side”?

Most of us think of ourselves as good people—reserving the concept of the “dark side” only for science fiction or psychopaths. But that’s not really the truth of human nature. We’ll begin to explore how the dark side relates both to our tendencies toward immorality and evil and to some of the most problematic aspects of the human condition.

31 min
Our Fundamental Nature: Good or Evil?

02: Our Fundamental Nature: Good or Evil?

Are people fundamentally good, fundamentally evil, or neither? To develop a sophisticated answer to this basic question, we reach back to a more than 2,000-year-old debate between great Confucian philosophers. Do you agree with optimism, pessimism, dualism, indifferentism, or individualism? Which theory of human nature speaks to you and frames your view of the world?

32 min
What Is Evil?

03: What Is Evil?

You probably have some ideas about what it means to be “evil.” But in order to fully examine the dark side of human nature, we need to go deeper—questioning both whether evil actually exists and what it means to call an action evil. Referencing a wide range of thinkers, some ancient, some contemporary, you’ll explore the ontological and conceptual aspects of evil.

32 min
Moral Monsters and Evil Personhood

04: Moral Monsters and Evil Personhood

Most of us have done something “bad” or immoral in our lives, although we wouldn’t consider ourselves evil. But where exactly is that line? What does it take for us to label a person evil? By considering four models of evil—the Evildoer, Dispositional, Affect, and Moral Monster models—you’ll begin to develop your own views of when an individual is, and is not, evil.

32 min
Evil and Responsibility

05: Evil and Responsibility

Are psychopaths responsible for their actions? You might be surprised to learn that many psychologists and philosophers think they are not, due to their inability to recognize important moral facts. Guided by a variety of philosophers, you will consider how much responsibility evil-doers can and should accept for their crimes—and in what ways they might not be so different from the rest of us.

30 min
Sin: Original and Otherwise

06: Sin: Original and Otherwise

How would you know if you had committed a sin, and what would its consequences be? From the words of Jesus to Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, and modern theologians, you'll explore the Christian concepts of sin and how they relate to a secular notion of evil. Is it even possible to sin without a divine lawmaker? Indian Buddhist philosophers say that it is.

34 min
Dark Thoughts and Desires

07: Dark Thoughts and Desires

Have you ever daydreamed about doing harm to another person? If so, studies show you're certainly not alone. Are our darkest thoughts and desires simply a fundamental part of our human nature? Why can't we seem to suppress or eradicate them? Explore potential answers to these fascinating questions with help from 6th-century Tianti Buddhist philosophers and modern-day evolutionary psychologists.

34 min
Suffering and Its Causes

08: Suffering and Its Causes

Why do we suffer, and how can we avoid it? The Buddha addresses these questions directly in his Four Noble Truths. Although sometimes erroneously condensed into the pessimistic “all life is suffering,” you’ll learn about the Buddha’s optimistic path forward. But do the Buddha’s teachings carry truth for us in the 21st century? An evolutionary psychologist provides a fascinating answer.

31 min
The Problem of Expectation and Desire

09: The Problem of Expectation and Desire

We turn to the 2,000-year-old Hindu Bhagavad Gita to study the roles played by our desires and expectations, and why we are so often disappointed in our lives. But how could we live without desire and expectations? One path provided by the Gita—being so absorbed in an activity that we lose our sense of self—leads to the experience we know of today as “flow.”

32 min
The Fear of Death

10: The Fear of Death

We are all going to die. How do we respond to that knowledge? Learn why the Roman philosopher Lucretius believed that our fear of death drives us to act against our best interests. And why the Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi wondered if our negative view of death even makes sense. Either way, fearing death seems to be part of what it means to be human.

32 min
Existential Anxiety and the Courage to Be

11: Existential Anxiety and the Courage to Be

Have you ever wondered whether life has any meaning at all? Given the immensity of the universe, how could we be anything more than an inconsequential blip? Learn why so many philosophers who've grappled with this existential anxiety conclude that our lives do have value, and how one theologian finds meaning specifically in our courage to face ourselves in the world as it really is.

32 min
The Goodness of Grief

12: The Goodness of Grief

Could grief ever have a good side? If you've ever suffered its agony, you know grief can feel like the very darkest side of human nature. But as you explore the many ways in which philosophers and psychologists have grappled with this issue for millennia, you'll learn that grief just might be one of our most important opportunities for self-knowledge and connection to community.

29 min
Homo necans: Why Do We Kill?

13: Homo necans: Why Do We Kill?

Is there something in human nature that drives us to kill others or is it a biological aberration? Watching the news would certainly make you wonder. And if a drive to kill does exist, is it activated by nature or nurture—is it genetic or situational? Studies have supported both points of view. The shocking truth we do know is just how much we all have in common with those who kill.

30 min
Nightmares and the Dream Self

14: Nightmares and the Dream Self

Who are we in the worst of our dreams? Explore why Freud believed our dreams reveal important aspects of ourselves—both the conscious and unconscious. Learn how Augustine coped when he dreamed of actions that went against his most profound beliefs. Even when we have no idea how to interpret a particularly disturbing dream, it still becomes an opportunity for learning about ourselves.

28 min
Varieties of Self-Deception

15: Varieties of Self-Deception

When we hold two contradictory thoughts in our minds at the same time, have we become liars, lying to ourselves about something we know cannot be true? Or are we just harmless wishful thinkers? Is self-deception an adaptation that has given us an evolutionary advantage? Learn what you can do to try to avoid deceiving yourself about your own life.

31 min
Varieties of Ignorance

16: Varieties of Ignorance

Explore the concept of ignorance through the writings of two Indian philosophers who lived centuries apart, Shankara and Ramanuja. Is ignorance a lack of knowledge, or is it wrong knowledge? Learn why some modern philosophers describe ignorance as a complex social phenomenon with the potential to bring out the dark side of our nature—and what we can do to counteract it.

31 min
Weakness of Will

17: Weakness of Will

Have you ever eaten a donut when you knew you shouldn't? Socrates would have been shocked! He didn't think it was possible for people to act against their own best interest. Explore many potential explanations for why we sometimes do what we said we never would. Is it a question of a simple failure to follow through on our intentions, or could we be suffering from ego depletion?

28 min
Luck and the Limits of Blame

18: Luck and the Limits of Blame

Two people go to a party, become legally drunk, and drive home. One kills a pedestrian, the other encounters no one. Should we judge them differently, or the same? Many philosophers have addressed the role of luck and its moral implications in our lives. As you explore their various perspectives, you might not find any easy answers. But you might think twice before placing blame.

30 min
Victim Blaming and the Just-World Hypothesis

19: Victim Blaming and the Just-World Hypothesis

In the Old Testament Book of Job, his friends blamed Job for the tragedies that befell him. After all, if the world is a fair and just place, then victims always get what they deserve, right? Explore whether or not we can eliminate victim blaming while maintaining that the world is, in the end, a fair and just place.

30 min
Retribution and Revenge

20: Retribution and Revenge

We’ve all heard of people who decide to take the law into their own hands to exact revenge on a perpetrator who harmed them or someone they love—even if that person had already received society’s punishment. Why do we so often feel that need for vengeance? Uncover what we can learn today from the Greek dramatist Aeschylus, as he struggled to reconcile the tension between retributive justice and revenge.

30 min
Forgiveness and Redemption

21: Forgiveness and Redemption

What was your reaction when members of the Charleston, SC, church publicly forgave Dylann Roof, the young man who had murdered nine of their members? Could you imagine yourself forgiving him? Did that forgiveness seem morally right or wrong to you? Explore how Christian and Buddhist philosophers explain forgiveness and the redemption of human sinners. Do you believe anyone is truly beyond redemption?

30 min
The Elimination of Anger

22: The Elimination of Anger

If you could eliminate anger from your life, would you? Should you? Anger can be dangerous, but righteous anger can also be motivating. What if you could eliminate anger, but replace it with the motivation of compassion and loving-kindness? You'll examine and broaden your thoughts on this powerful emotion by learning from the Buddhist philosopher Shantideva, the Stoic philosopher Seneca, and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, among others.

28 min
Being Peaceful in a Troubled World

23: Being Peaceful in a Troubled World

How can we find internal tranquility and remain peaceful in the midst of such a troubled world? It isn't easy, but it is possible. Brain science has discovered that we mirror the behavior of others, and anger can beget anger. But kindness can beget kindness, too. Explore some Christian and Buddhist guidelines for confronting the dark side of human nature without spiraling into the darkness of violence, rage, and fear.

29 min
The Allure of the Dark Side

24: The Allure of the Dark Side

Have you ever been morbidly curious about death, violence, or evil? Do you have a fascination with horror movies and love being terrified on roller coasters? Explore how psychologists and philosophers describe the benefits of our fascination with the dark side. As you grapple with death, anger, fear, and dark thoughts, you’ll learn a tremendous amount about yourself—and what it means to be human.

33 min