“Human Condition And Human Nature”
by MeaningsOf Life
“For in fact what is man in nature? A Nothing in comparison with the Infinite, an All in comparison with the Nothing, a mean between nothing and everything. Since he is infinitely removed from comprehending the extremes, the end of things and their beginning are hopelessly hidden from him in an impenetrable secret; he is equally incapable of seeing the Nothing from which he was made, and the Infinite in which he is swallowed up. We burn with desire to find solid ground and an ultimate sure foundation whereon to build a tower reaching to the Infinite. But our whole groundwork cracks, and the earth opens to abysses.”
- Blaise Pascal
”The more one analyzes people, the more all reasons for analysis disappear.
Sooner or later one comes to that dreadful universal thing called human nature.”
- Oscar Wilde
“Man remains largely unknown of himself. What are we, in our innermost recesses, behind our names and our conventional opinions? What are we behind the things we do in our lives, behind what we see in others and what others see in us, or even behind things science says we are? Is man the crazy being about whom Carl Gustav Jung spoke ironically, when he demanded a man to treat? Is man the Dr. Jekyll that contains in himself a criminal Mister Hyde, and more than a personality, and contradictory feelings? Are we the result of our dreams, as Prospero, in the Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” asked?
Are we able to raise our nature and become the dignified beings evoked by Pico de la Mirandola: It’s the seeds a man cultivates that “will mature and bear fruit in him. If vegetative, he will become a plant; if sensual, he will become brutish; if rational, he will reveal himself a heavenly being; if intellectual, he will be an angel and the son of God”?
Almost two centuries ago, Spencer characterized the contradictory features of natives from the African east coast: “He has at the same time good character and hard heart; he is a fighter, conscientious, good in a precise moment, and cruel, pitiless and violent in the other; superstitious and rudely irreligious; brave and pusillanimous, servile and dominator, stubborn and at the same time fickle, relied to honour views, but without signs of honesty, niggard and economical, but careless and improvident.”
It’s probably a good definition of a certain primitive man, to whom we are undoubtedly connected. But we are also cultural and ethic beings. We are able to change our values and behaviours. As William James says, human beings can change their lives through their mental attitudes. We can grow ethically. We can dominate part of our own instincts. And that’s why we can be different from the indigenous African described by Spencer.
More: our thought dignifies us; “All the dignity of man consists in thought,” says Blaise Pascal. We are, in many senses, the conscience of the Universe, and its utmost elaborated product. As Edgar Morin said, “In the core of our singularity, we carry not only all the humanity, all the life, but also all the cosmos, including its mystery, present in the heart of our beings.” We are creators, creator beings, and, in a sense, we can create, or recreate ourselves. All goes through our mind. It is our mind that constructs our truths and errors, and also the most sublime things in the Universe.
And yet evil and stupidity exist in us. Sometimes we fall, we are stroked, and life reveals its cruelty, and we may think as Mark Twain, and say that it was a pity that Noah hadn’t arrived late to the ark. In our innermost recesses, there is also the cruelty and the inhumanity of life. Charles Darwin showed that we are descendants of inferior life forms: we have been long ago a “bush and a bird, and a fish silently swimming in the waters,” to use the poetic terms used by Empedocles in its “Purifications”.
From a genetic and evolutionist point of view, we contain in us the survival reflexes and the aggressiveness of the life forms that preceded us: “All that threatened the cave man- dangers, darkness, famine, thirst, ghosts, demons– all has passed to the interior of our souls, all troubles us, grieves us, threatens us from inside.” – Morin
Besides, we are also beings that can differ significantly from each other. We are equal, but also different. “The awake involve a common world, but dreams deviate each one to its own world,” Heraclites rather enigmatically declares. He thought we can’t help sleeping and living in illusory worlds, even when awake.
For all these reasons, Blaise Pascal’s celebrated definition of the human being, despite the hard language, not exactly agreeable to our ears, is undoubtedly one of the most powerful that can be applied to the rather unknown being that we can’t help being to ourselves: “What a chimera then is man! What a novelty, what a monster, what a chaos, what a contradiction, what a prodigy! Judge of all things, imbecile worm of the earth; depositary of truth, a sink of uncertainty and error; the pride and refuse of the universe! Who will unravel this tangle?”
Life Is Too Short to Waste
We can’t avoid thinking of our existential condition, of the shortness of our lives, of the transitory nature of everything. We do it all the time we exist, in all societies. The brevity of life torments the human spirit. As Edgar Morin said the proximity of death is “a source of grief during all our life.”
Let us meditate on the superior way with which Homer expressed our condition as human beings: “Insignificant mortals, who are as leaves are, and now flourish and grow warm with life, and feed on what the ground gives, but soon fade away and are dead.”
Let us list the sad music springing out of the words of Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor, who was also a philosopher, reflecting on the shortness of our lives: “Life is a campaign, a brief stay in a strange region.” “Time is a violent torrent; no sooner is a thing brought to sight than it is swept by, and another takes its place, before this too will be swept away.”
Or the music and poetry of the verses of Psalm 103: “As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourishes. But the wind passes over, and soon all disappears; and his place will no more exist.”
These thoughts reach beyond epochs and frontiers, they plunge into the depths of our soul; they are imbued with a serene controlled sadness and poetry, associated with the awareness of our inability to overcome the brutal force of an unjust reality that crushes. In them lives the dignity of our conscience, our capacity of seeing beyond the present, of overcoming our humble origins, of assuming ourselves as the conscience and the poetry of the living universe.
In them is also consubstantiated the strength of human art, of poetry, of beauty. They are a way of nullifying the smallness and insignificance of human beings, of raising us to a much higher level. They are well above the world that condemns human beings to death. In them we claim against the injustice present in the heart of life. In their way, they immortalize us.”