Notes on the Human Condition and Its Expression

Earth is a human planet (for now – it wasn’t always one), home to the human condition, of which there is (as far as we know) only one. There may be other human heavenly bodies, but it seems unlikely, given the diversity of life and the size of the universe. Life elsewhere probably won’t appear like life here. Anyway, on Earth, humans enjoy symbiotic relationships with other forms of life, animal and plant. It’s a lively place, teeming and seething and awash with plasma and chlorophyll. Not all the symbiotic relationships are necessarily mutually beneficial. Things feed, often giving nothing back. Nothing new here.

The human condition remains hidden under cakes of cosmetics. Born with no name, it hides from its own ignominy. It can’t show itself except through indirect expression. It cancels itself out, no remainder.

Humans spend vital energy and expense denying themselves and others their human condition. Denying oneself the proper fit of one’s human condition seems to be its X factor. One opposes others their human condition in an effort to abjure any knowledge of it in oneself. “Then began he to curse and to swear, saying, I know not the man. And immediately the cock crew” (Matthew 26:74 KJV). That rebuttal is how metaphor is created – language at all, really. We never quite seem to know what something actually is, only what that something is like. What is it like to be human, and why do we go to such pains to avoid it?

An electrician I brought in to help on a project, working along side him, pigeon-holed me as some sort of believer, when the subject of the human condition came up, and said he doesn’t believe in anything he can’t see or measure. Fair enough. Seems an odd line for an electrician to hold, though. I seem to be a magnet for these kinds of discussions.

There is at least one absolute fact of the human condition: we are not alone. Try as we might, we can’t get rid ourselves of others. And, no matter how much we might try to get away from ourselves, we always wind up where we started.

Look a little closer and you’ll see the human body a planet plays host to billions of myriad creatures, inside and out, enough bacteria in the big bang of a single sneeze to begin a new universe. And we swap spit. Begin the Beguine. The human condition is a merry-go-round dance.

Scarcity – Musical Chairs. After losing his daughter, on the brink of suicide, Buckminster Fuller proves scarcity a fallacy solvable through technological evolution and equitable distribution (see “Operation Manual for Spaceship Earth”).

Scare City, politics of fear, your other is out to get you. Better out them before they out you. Fuller offers examples of the difference between mind and brain. Mind is a characteristic of the human condition. Mind is universal; brain is local.

Jesus was a perfect naked expression of the human condition: nakod, nudus, nagna: unadorned, vulnerable, reckless, and rash. The Church has kept itself in business for 2,000 years dressing him up, confusing virtue with penance and desire.

“Take, eat; this is my body” (Matthew 14:26 KJV).

The expression of the human condition is found in sacrifice and altruistic behavior, in non-competitive endurance. What is called character, as in ethos appropriate to its subject, by which is meant integrity, honor, or right values, is yet another dressing for the human condition, a dressing of privilege. Character wears a suit and tie; but it as often wears motley.

Samuel Beckett expressed through text and drama the human condition in a bare form. And Beckett showed that a sense of humor is an important characteristic of the human condition, as he helped develop the tragicomedy, where literature becomes a striptease down to the human condition.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 I was a kid listening to the adults talking things over. My parents and their friends, mostly other parish members, were teenagers during World War Two, or a touch older and had served in the military or had watched others leave and knew some would not come back. They remembered listening to the war news evenings on the radio, in newsreels at the movie theater, weekend matinees. They experienced shortages, rations, and new factory jobs. They knew what atomic weapons were, heard when they dropped. They read about Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the newspaper. It was not reasonable to deny the possibility of their use again. Someone said we were lucky to be in Los Angeles, about as far away from Cuba as you could get in the US. Someone else said the spreading radiation could be worse, first like a sunburn that doesn’t show up until you’re back from the beach, then your skin is on fire, then more than skin, deep dark blistering blubber oozing juice and falling off the bones like a pig just out of the rock pit. It might be better to have the bomb land right on top of you. Out like a popped zit, a local teen quipped, for which he got a smack, but the adult with his pig went free. Being working class Catholics, they had all of course voted and prayed for Kennedy. One of them mentioned the US missiles in Italy and Turkey and a good old fashioned argument erupted that ended with beers and barbecued burgers and dogs and beans and hugs all around and the women and youngest kids inside praying the rosary while the men and older kids sat out with beers and smoked and talked about work for the week. I was an age where I could have stayed for the rosary or hung out with the men, but I was not invited to comment either place. I could wander off for an hour or two and no one would notice. A long seven years later I would reluctantly be wearing an Army uniform.

A uniform is another disguise of the human condition. When two opposing soldiers wearing different uniforms meet, they still share the same human condition, but they wear different masks of it, show different expressions of it. The human condition then becomes the universal code by which we accept our commonality, or shared features and attributes, our shared similar virtues.

Virtues are unlike values. Values are locally defined and ritualized. When a particular value is removed from the locality of its origin, it may cease to be of much use. (The poet Robert Creeley said, “Ritual removed from its place of origin loses meaning.” Values may also be fake or faked, as in “Good Country People,” or “Good Family Values,” platitudes or propaganda that when examined closely and all assumptions and presuppositions exposed are found to be hollow terms or labels of disguise.) Virtues are universal. Kindness, humility, love, forgiveness, patience, endurance – these are virtues. They transcend the local masks and express the human condition found worldwide. In virtues we recognize the human condition as a universal reality. It is on the basis of that recognition that rules of engagement and war are created and adhered to. It is on the basis of that recognition that torture is made universally criminal. It is on the basis of that recognition that cooperation, the same cooperation that is seen functioning on the altruistic cellular level (see E. O. Wilson, who has now suggested the gene is not characterized by selfishness, but by cooperation, thus questioning ideas based on survival of the strongest, the populist, or the nativist) is understood to be more important than competition.

There is no guarantee the human condition will endure. It could morph into something new and different. It could be destroyed completely.

There are incentives and rewards to living a life of values, membership in a group, for example, even if one only makes a pretense to sharing the values of the group, or misuses or reinterprets the values in a way that undermines their original purposes. There is no incentive to live a virtuous life.

Tolerance is not a virtue. Tolerance may be a value, in as much as it’s better than intolerance, but to tolerate is not to accept. Tolerance anesthetizes, as intolerance attempts to persecute or destroy differences. Acceptance is the virtue, and is far more difficult than tolerance.

It’s not enough to acknowledge the human condition in another. One must recognize the human condition of another as the same as one’s own human condition. No differences. We must continue to search for ever lower common denominators than are indicated in a comparison of values.

The Golden Rule is subverted by self-loathing. How can one love another as one’s self if one does not love one’s self? Loving one’s self means accepting one’s human condition, and accepting one’s human condition means accepting that one shares that condition with everyone else, whether or not you feel you share the same values, beliefs, or goals as the other. Yet, paradoxically, it might be possible to hate one’s self while loving another? Enter, unrequited love.

Is self-loathing simply a severe form of poor self image? Vices pander to the poor self imaged. Vices are masks, escapes from self loathing, medications. Virtues are the outward expression of the human condition. The virtuous accepts that self-loathing may also be a characteristic of the human condition in the sense that all masks show a human in hiding, a fugitive from self truth.

Is there a need for virtuous living? No. And, as said, there is no guarantee that the human condition will endure. Maybe it will continue to evolve or morph into something that doesn’t at all recognize virtue, but we could scarcely then call it human as we now define humanity (humanity as in, “Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!”).

It’s difficult to agree upon values, what’s of value. It can be difficult adhering to one’s values, even as one embraces them as right. Anyone can be virtuous, at any time. Virtues are often worthless, no exchange, no stock value. The Church’s idea of indulgences makes a mockery of virtue, tries to capitalize on the essential worthlessness (in the existential sense) of the human condition.

Virtue requires action. Virtue is a verb. Value does not require action. One easily plays one’s values close to the vest. Value is desire. What we want. Even when it’s not good for us. Values are never satisfied.

Cruelty is a mask of self-loathing. If you would torture another, you are simply a sadist. Cruelty is a vice.

Character as a value has local limits. Masks are local. If virtue is character, it must be universal.

How to build a universal character?

We may think we love the human condition, but it does not reciprocate. The human condition is the lipstick on the toilet paper. Value is the lipstick on the lips.

Metaphor is often not helpful, but what is the lowest common denominator of the human condition? Are there virtues, selfless acts of sacrifice that ask for and indeed achieve practically nothing? Where do these virtues come from, and where are they going? How are they expressed, if at all?

Some Bibliography

Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, Kwame Anthony Appiah, 2006; 2007, Norton paperback. For Appiah, cosmopolitanism is the effort to learn to live together in a global society that recognizes and accepts differences while working on a shared basis of a universal sense of right and wrong that works toward the benefit of all. Appiah writes as a philosopher, which means he insists on logic, reasonableness, the unpacking of what we might do separated from why we might do it (because, as he points out, we might often agree to do the same thing but for different reasons). I am not a philosopher, and in my writing, I make no such distinctions. I’m afraid I’m a packer, not an unpacker, at heart, or by temperament. Likewise, Appiah is a scholar and academic, and follows the conventions of academic argument. As a rule, I do not follow any such conventions.

A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues, Andre Comte-Sponville, 1996 (Petit Traite des Grandes Vertus); First Owl Books Edition 2002 (with the added subtitle, “the uses of philosophy in everyday life”). Comte-Sponville describes, defines, and discusses the following virtues in this order, a chapter devoted to each: Politeness, Fidelity, Prudence, Temperance, Courage, Justice, Generosity, Compassion, Mercy, Gratitude, Humility, Simplicity, Tolerance, Purity, Gentleness, Good Faith, Humor, Love. Readers might find it difficult distinguishing between values and virtues, or how being polite somehow might compare with being in love.

E. O. Wilson: I’ve written several posts with references to Wilson. I was initially more interested in the questions of peer review, but I’ve since given up hope there – as far as peer review establishing or ensuring any kind of so-called scholarly credibility. Though I still recognize the importance of following conventions in order to participate in practical, fruitful argument, the throwing off of certain academic conventions opens a door to more free and creative pursuits. Anyway, here is a lively post on Wilson and altruistic behavior. The implications of his turnabout are huge, and, in turn, speak to the value and legitimacy of research, scholarly, and academic work.

17 thoughts on “Notes on the Human Condition and Its Expression

  1. The tragic comedy … we can’t rid ourselves of others.
    I tweaked a quote by Alice Rayner earlier on Twitter to fit the limited format:

    ‘A being that has so self-division cannot encounter itself as other … it cannot stand outside itself and therefore cannot resist its own power.’

    Maybe a precondition for becoming human is the acceptance of darkness – and unrequited love. There is no rational incentive to live a virtuous life – the impulse must emerge from within, like the butterfly from its dark cocoon.

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    • Thanks for reading and comment, Ashen. I wrote this post in response to a suggestion on FB that I might need to “unpack” a comment I made. If any single word describes my writing style, if it can even be called a style, it’s “cryptic,” which Dr. Jordain at CSUDH gave me, but while insisting I had no writing style to speak of. Apparently, crypticism can’t be considered a style. Of course it can, but not from a student or an amateur. Still, I loved Dr. Jordain, and learned so much from her. She taught writing and Shakespeare, and was delightful. I only mention her now because you mentioned that idea of “self-division,” which Shakespeare and Violet Jordain understood. But I’m still not sure I do. Dr. Jordain also said I comprehended literature without understanding it. I didn’t argue that then, and I still don’t.

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      • Your mind is lively, you synergise. I get that. My thoughts branch out wide. When getting entangled in contradiction I must make peace with the surreal experience of it all and trust that the loose ends will find a form. It’s uncomfortable to have no label, not being able to stuff one’s ideas into a prescribed box, or express them in traditional styles. Then again, minds that synergise are most needed in this fragmented time. Buckminster Fuller, whom you grok, had this vision.

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  2. Call me shallow Joe, but I thought your comment on the electrician was hilarious. I have read “Bucky” though, so perhaps I may have resurrected my somewhat dubious qualities.
    Great piece of reading there Joe. Thinking words for upcoming busy period.B

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  3. A passionate exposition Joe. The dissection of the distortion and abuse of virtue, the universality of values. I read it to understand you better. I encountered a different you. Somewhat. Peer reviewing? My vision of the vested interests like the pillars of the temple, supporting only the views already created.

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    • Thanks for reading and comment, Philippa. Joyce wrote a story called “An Encounter.” As I recall, there is a counter (table) and a counter (clerk) in it. Two counters. I could be mixing it up with another of the Dubliners stories. And there is his use of encounter at the end of Portrait: “Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” But every time I go to encounter something in the smithy of my soul the forge seems cold. Anyway, I was thinking values are not universal; they are local, ritualized (often beyond any useful meaning), and often biased for the good of one group at the expense of another, while virtues are the universal instructions for the human soul. The Church turned the virtues of Jesus into the values of the Church – not quite the same thing. As for peer reviewing, my interest there was complicated, having to do with support of Open Access as well as having an interest in the debunking of the machinery of much academic writing. You can read about that here. But I’ve for the most part abandoned any concerns or interests I might have had for academic or scholarly writing. It remains quite the business though, and there are many emperors wearing no clothes parading along a route of readers who complement their apparel – the whole array. But I was only an attendant lord, anyway, not even that, a coat holder, a shoe shine boy. (That reference btw is to Prufrock:
      “No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
      Am an attendant lord, one that will do
      To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
      Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
      Deferential, glad to be of use,
      Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
      Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
      At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
      Almost, at times, the Fool.

      I grow old … I grow old …
      I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

      Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
      I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
      I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

      I do not think that they will sing to me.”)

      Another anyway, I’m primarily interested these days (as far as blogging goes) in literary fiction and poetry (and literary non-fiction, which, if you like, might include a broader spectrum of work that it might sound like). Cynicism creeps in and goes back out as sarcasm or satire. But satire is at least a value (in some circles). And farce, poetic farce – I think that is a possibility. The piece (post) here was another election-result motivated work, the third I’ve written in the last month (only two are on the blog). Probably turn the corner and go down some other back road at this point, see what I find.

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  4. Need to re-read your piece of work as it is soooo goooood… Each word counts. You are not only an awesome writer, you have a very unique point of view. I’m saving this re-reading for later in the evening to enjoy it as it deserves. My respects, Joe. Wow.

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  5. Joe, I’ve been keeping this open on my desktop for a time when I could give it the ample attention it deserves. Sorry it’s taken a couple weeks. Thanks for this unpacking. It is both lively and profound. I can see why, as you say in a comment above, that you have been immersed in literary fiction and poetry. They, and you, signify so much more than does analytical writing, which always falls short of its mark, whereas your “cryptic”–I’ll call it evocative style–produces much more while promising less. I, on the other hand, have been immersed in analytics for too long and have strayed too far from Joyce and Eliot (also for too long).
    So, your evocations find in me analytical responses. I hope you’ll indulge. It seems as if you ultimately connect the “human condition” to some notion of “universal character.” That notion of universal character is also connected, then, to universal virtues, not to be confused with values, which you say are more localized and dressed up in masks. I think those distinctions are important and at the same time I am skeptical of the distinction. In Alasdair McIntyre’s treatment of virtues in After Virtue, he draws attention to the way in which different societies produce different virtues. Those societies ultimately have (at least slightly) different definitions of “the good life,” to which virtues are connected. He gives the examples of Jane Austen versus Benjamin Franklin versus Aristotle. Most plainly, the New Testament virtue of peacemaking is not to be equated with the Norse or many warrior-culture virtue of fierceness. In these cases, I think, they are not mere values, but ways of being in the world that are connected to culturally-determined forms of “the good life.” I am more than willing to have push back on that (and to join in the pushing…)
    If that is the case, though, it leaves the question of “the human condition” and any sense of its universality. I like your notion of “least common denominator” and wonder if Haidt’s work on moral foundations helps us in that direction, or at least in our understanding of the universality of certain forms of human morality. His 6 moral “senses” are not all aspirational or even “virtuous” but they are indicative of our humanness and help us, I think, to understand one another’s common predicament. Thoughts?

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    • Luke: I don’t think I know Haidt or McIntyre, but I will check them out. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I’m thinking now about “culturally-determined forms of ‘the good life.’” If we create stipulative definitions for values and virtues, we may be able to prove the “culturally-determined” bias of values as separate and distinct from an unlearned virtue. To build such a structure, we might have to agree that values are always selfish in as much as they meet the desires or needs of a group to a possible exclusion of another. The value might be atavistic, its tail (tale) long lost, or newly created to meet some new perceived or real outside threat to the group. Values may overlap, resulting in a kind of passive peace, or they may create conflicts of interest between groups. Those conflicts may be resolved using relativism or positivism, a kind of “you go your way and I’ll go mine,” but they may also overlap in ways that one or both groups seem not to be able to ignore or accommodate (to “tolerate”). Values are funded by the group. Virtues can’t be funded. They can only be given freely (again, as part of our stipulative definitions). Altruism would be the backing for proof of virtue as a universal code. But let’s consider now the so-called “deadly sins”: pride, greed, envy, lust, gluttony, etc. Are the deadly sins a kind of anti-value, or anti-virtue (using the stipulative definitions above)? We might imagine entire groups driven by one or more of the deadly sins. What we might see common to the deadly sins is that they all are in selfish agreement. They are anti-virtuous, but we might find examples of their being held as values within given groups. But I will need to read Haidt. We are involved in a search for that indicator of human sameness that transcends culturally-determined values, maybe even transcends the “good life.” We might end up stoics or epicureans, I don’t know, and have to begin again. I would add to my brief “bibliography” Mary Midgley’s “The Solitary Self: Darwin and the Selfish Gene.” She, like E. O. Wilson, is looking for proof of an altruistic as opposed to a selfish gene. I think Derick might be contacting folks for something in Jan. I’ll bring these references along. I hope we can meet up. Of course everyone is busy.

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      • In short, Haidt’s work demonstrates that there are six “moral foundations,” which can best be understood and described as sorts of antennae or taste buds. They are the intuitive triggers by which we react to things (and make decisions) morally. He found these by asking series of questions about moral judgments across cultures and socio-economic statuses (including first and third world, tribal and mass cultures). Each of the 6 foundations have certain evolutionary origins for purposes of self- and group-preservation, but they now are, as you say, atavistic in certain ways. That is, they don’t continue to serve their social preservation functions in the same ways, but they are still with us. The 6 foundations are: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, liberty/oppression, and sanctity/degradation. Taken as a whole they don’t explain the specific manifestations in any given society, but that we each have predispositions toward these areas. Some of them are activated in different ways than others. For example, Haidt’s research has shown that political conservatives across societies have more balanced sensitivities across all 6 areas, while liberals tend to emphasize care, fairness, and liberty (in certain forms).
        For a brief treatment of some of this, you can check out: http://democracyjournal.org/magazine/28/of-freedom-and-fairness/

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        • Thanks, Luke. I will check out the link. My initial response is positive, but interesting the political analysis or predispositions. And the either / or set-up might be problematic. And I suppose some might focus on all the “ors” and ignore the “eithers.” People seem to identify as one or the other and then exhibit traits expected of the oppositee – that helps explain maybe the election results. Anyone with grade school teaching experience might say Haidt’s research reflects the world of children, where things should be fair, and if authority oppresses it’s met with subversion, and one can’t betray what one does not believe in. What’s interesting too though is the “manifestations” appear – how? How are they learned, particularly if they are no longer necessary?

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          • I think the Haidt schema is better understood as a spectrum on each foundation rather than either/or. And, like “values,” it would be the case that our self-view is not necessarily what is true of us (unlike virtues, which are habitual responses to situations regardless of what we think about ourselves). My theory about the manifestations of these moral expressions is that they have to do with whatever becomes necessary for social cohesion. In multicultural, pluralistic social circles, like those in cities, things like “loyalty” to a group identity, sanctity for certain taboos, and respect for authority take on much less importance, while care and fairness are much more of the lowest common denominator. The others still operate well in more homogenous settings (read red states/areas).

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