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.