University of Illinois, Chicago, Illinois, United States (Winter 2011)
This article was previously published in Social Justice Review, Vol. 101, No. 5-6, May-June 2010, pp. 89-90
The human condition is the “totality of the experiences of being human and living human lives.”1 The exposition of this idea has occupied philosophers from the beginning, but more recently has been examined as an aspect of existentialism. Heidegger, and to a lesser extent Husserl, the phenomenologist, are credited with popularizing existentialism in the 1920’s and 30’s. Highlights of the movement were André Malraux’s novel (1933) La condition humaine,2 René Magritte’s paintings of the same name, and Kobayashi’s Human Condition film trilogy.3
Perhaps most notable was Hannah Arendt’s book of the same title: The Human Condition.4 Dr. Arendt, in that classic book, posits “labor, work, and action” as the three fundamental human activities. She defines labor as “the biological process of the human body,” work as providing the “artificial world of things,” and action “as the condition of political life.”5 These bear only a remote resemblance to St. Thomas’ four human needs (preservation, reproduction, truth, and society6) or Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (physiological, safety, belonging, esteem, and self-actualization).7 But are any of these the ultimate conditions or needs that separate us from all other creatures?
Perhaps more fundamental concepts, inherent in the human condition, make us unique in all creation, including: 1. foremost, an awareness of the inevitability of suffering and death, or more generally, our material contingency, 2. an understanding of evil and sin, and 3. the recognition of a transcendent intelligent being who intervenes in human affairs. Moreover, increasing recognition of the human condition as we age often prompts reflection upon, and an examination of, one’s life.
As each of us, as human individuals, become aware of these three concepts, we grow in our understanding of the human condition. Self-awareness is said to begin at about age 3 to 4. We are aware of pain first. The “ouch reaction” is universal. We fall and scrape our shin. It hurts. Mom calls it an “ouch” event and gets out a band-aid. These resolve, but more come. Pain is acknowledged and skills to avoid it are learned. We learn about the death of pets, older relatives and friends. A realization of contingency dawns on us. We see the movies and have frightening dreams. We realize we could die and what then?
Next, about ages 5-7, a sense of right and wrong develops. We are told that hitting a sibling is wrong and we are punished. Our will desires something, say to steal a toy, but we are told no. We learn about good and evil. Finally, we become aware that there is a power in nature and in life (plant and animal) beyond what can be explained in material terms. We have developed a vague sense of the transcendent. It is more powerful than ourselves, and we sense that we are related to it in some way. Most humans accept this and are religious in the broadest sense, but some reject it and intellectually embrace atheism.
Sickness and material contingency
We are imperfect material beings who are subject to sickness and disease. There are inexplicable and untimely deaths that we experience through our loved ones, which remind us of our own impending demise. Even in our culture of TV and endless material distraction we seem ever more lonely, isolated and alienated. As humans we search for an explanation to these ultimate human realities.
We live our profane lives, and we acknowledge suffering, be it a headache a cold, or a broken bone. But we usually don’t consciously obsess upon our origins, a supreme being, or even death and the existence of an afterlife. Most, however, as a part of the human condition, reflect at some point, to a greater or lesser degree, on these.
The human person is unique as a thinking active individual. We are self-centered and proud, but there is also a pervasive anxiety in our lives. We don’t articulate it quite as starkly as did Kierkegaard, Sartre, and the Great Books, but it’s there. Generally defined, anxiety is a “state of strong concern often with no clear justification.” Existential philosophy describes anxiety as “a state of despair arising from the contemplation of dissolution and nothingness.”8 This pervasive concern waxes subtly and wanes in most individuals, but nonetheless permeates their lives. It is the human condition.
The classics aside, on a more mundane plane, everyone realizes their contingent materiality. As children, we are beset by childhood diseases: measles, mumps, chicken pox with their attendant fevers, malaise, nausea and vomiting. True, they’re transient and not life threatening, but they’re not pleasant either, and even a young person senses that they can get sick again in the future. Adolescents might see their friends stricken by accidents and cancer, and realize, “That could have been me.”
As we get older we more fully realize how fragile life is. Responsibilities as a mother or father make us understand the dangers of a hostile world not only to ourselves but also for our children. Finally, as we age, the syndrome of frailty becomes all too evident as arthritis creeps into our joints and those chest pains, real or imagined, have to be reckoned with.
Another major aspect of the human condition is a sense of personal responsibility and the concept of evil. Some things are OK to do, and other things are wrong. This brings us to perhaps the most troubling aspect of the human condition, which is sin, both communal (original sin) and individual (personal sin). The idea of sin is unique to humans. Animals are incapable of sin.
This ubiquity of a sense of sin, or having done wrong, has several implications. The first is that humans have intelligence. We can deal in abstract concepts, whereas animals cannot. Ethics is the study of the knowledge of right and wrong behavior. Only humans can intuit this rightness and wrongness. Everyone knows willful murder is intrinsically wrong. People also realize that there are sanctions for unethical behavior.
We all have a sense of guilt. Guilt is an acknowledgment of responsibility for having done wrong. It in turn implies an innate human ethical sense that we know right from wrong. And guilt, by definition, presumes the existence of right and wrong, or moral order.
The most universal human impulse is to acknowledge the existence of an uncreated, immaterial, intelligent power. All societies recognize this and have ceremonies and rituals to recognize and respond to this power. Creation myths are also universal, as are efforts to explain the origins of nature and ourselves. Eliade writes that there are two modalities of experience: a sacred and a profane.9 The profane is our everyday activity and experience. The sacred is our sense of, and relationship to, the transcendent. This has been well described by William James10 and Randolph Otto.11
The manifestation of Homo religiosus (as Eliade likes to characterize it) is universal. There is general agreement that there is a higher power and that humans are dependent upon, and subservient in some fashion to, this higher being. The Aristotelian supreme intelligent being is also the God of the religions of the book (Christianity, Islam, Judaism). In each of these traditions, Earth and mankind are created by and dependant upon a supreme being. Moreover, even though there are pantheistic overtones to much of Eastern religion, transcendent powers are very much an aspect of their beliefs.
The Judeo-Christian tradition shares many elements with other faiths, including a belief in the creation of the world by God. Some calculate the date of creation from the ages and generations of the descendants of Adam. How this is derived is not so important as the notion that God created and continually sustains the world in existence. The Judeo-Christian notion of creation gives rise to as a sense of history, freedom, and destiny—that the human condition is one which is directed toward a future of our own making—an activity that indicates our relation to God.
The most important principle of the human condition is the recognition of this transcendent power. All of human history has been a record of our reaction to it. Less important concepts are our responses to pain and suffering and our reflections on death, our own and that of others.
The record of human history and thought is one long effort to explain the human condition. All creatures have groped for answers and most have settled on the great religions, both monotheistic and pantheistic, for answers. While not completely satisfying, they at least provide some answers.
Since the Enlightenment, a movement has arisen in the West to deny anything beyond the material. The aforementioned existentialism recognized the anxiety of meaningless existence. The more current atheism (Gould and Singer) provides an even more hopeless answer. DNA and evolution are said to explain it all. This is contradictory because it takes intelligence to appreciate evolution, which logically denies intelligence and logic, unless intelligence is basically reducible to neuropsychology, which it is not. In any event, Hannah Arendt grasps some aspects of the human condition, (labor and action), but being human is much more complex.
There is, inherent in the human condition, an uneasiness as we search for peace and calm. As James says, “There is something wrong about us as we naturally stand.”12Material possessions, no matter how plentiful, cannot make us happy. This spiritual search, or the “urgent quest to transcend the given limits of the human condition,”13while agreed upon in religious traditions, is even more confused in the writings of the idealists (Kant and Hegel) and their successors: the sociologists (Durkheim and Weber), the structuralists (Saussure and Levi Strauss) and the latter day atheists (Dawkins and Hitchens). All of these epigones of modernity see man as an end, and the transcendent is denied. Modern culture remains uneasy.
Earlier, I asked whether further efforts are required following acknowledgment of these three fundamental human inclinations. The basic common denominator would seem to be transcendence. An honest, intelligent person would seem obligated to explore the source and purpose of transcendence.
For my money, this answer lies in the Greco-Judeo-Christian tradition.
- The human condition. Accessed December 22, 2010 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/human_condition
- Malraux, André. La condition humaine, 1933.
- Kobayashi, Masaki (1959-1961)
- Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition, University of Chicago Press, 1958.
- Ibid, p. 9-10.
- St. Thomas, Summa Theologica, Q94, A2.
- Maslow, Abraham. Motivation and Personality, 1954.
- Anxiety. New Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica Inc, Chicago, 1982.
- Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane, Harvard Books, 1959, p. 14.
- James, William. Varieties of Religious Experiences: A Study in Human Nature. Longmans, New York, 1902.
- Otto, Rudolf. The Idea of the Holy, 1917.
- James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience, 1902.
- Torrence, Robert. The Spiritual Quest, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1994. p XII.
PATRICK D. GUINAN, MD, MPH is a 1962 graduate of Marquette University Medical School. The author went on to obtain a graduate degree in Public Health from Columbia University in 1965. He is presently a Clinical Associate Professor in the Department of Urology in the College of Medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago and serves as Chairman of the Board of the Hektoen Institute of Medicine.