Changing the Human Condition
20 April 2012
The very idea of the “human condition” is one that we might call an “existential idea,” since in the best existentialist fashion it tries to get to the root of existence. When thinkers engage with the idea of the human condition they often enter into an existentialist idiom, wittingly or (more likely) unwittingly. And it’s not just philosophers — or moderns. Pope Innocent III devoted a whole book to the misery of the human condition, in which he wrote:
Who therefore will give my eyes a fountain of tears so that I may bewail the miserable beginning of the human condition, the culpable progress of human behavior, the damnable ending of human dissoluteness. With tears I might consider what man is made of, what man does, what man will be. Man is indeed formed from earth, conceived in sin, born to pain. He does depraved things that are unlawful, shameful things that are indecent, vain things that are unprofitable. He becomes fuel for the fire, food for worms, a mass of putridness. I shall show this more clearly; I shall analyze more fully. Man is formed of dust, of clay, of ashes: what is more vile, from the filthiest sperm. He is conceived in the heat of desire, in the fervor of the flesh, in the stench of lust: what is worse, in the blemish of sin. He is born to labor, fear, sorrow: what is more miserable, to death. He does depraved things by which he offends God, offends his neighbors, offends himself. He does vain and shameful things by which he pollutes his fame, pollutes his person, pollutes his conscience. He does vain things by which he neglects serious things, neglects profitable things, neglects necessary things. He will become fuel for the inextinguishable fire that always flames and burns; food for the immortal worm that always eats and consumes; a mass of horrible putridness that always stinks and is filthy.
Pope Innocent III (Lotario de Segni, before he was Pope), De miseria condicionis humane
This passage reminds me of Sartre’s analysis of slime in Being and Nothingness. It is difficult to be optimistic about the human condition when it is phrased in terms like these.
Recently in Banishing Despair I wrote the following:
In order to “cure” the episodic and transient melancholia that is native to the human condition, and which everyone feels in those moments when their vital energies are at a low ebb, we would need to change the human condition itself, and there are definite limits on the extent to which we can change the human condition.
Indeed, in order to eliminate the possibility of existential despair one would have to eliminate the very possibility of Miserable and Unhappy Civilizations, which might well come about as a result of what comes after civilization, but these latter concepts constitute civilization as an historical idea; civilization as a political idea is problematic. Human agency has its limits, and in fact the same limits to human agency that make it difficult if not impossible to alter civilization by political fiat also are the source of transient despair and despondency. After all, did not Alexander the Great cry because he had no more worlds to conquer? (Or, in the alternative version, because, of the infinity of worlds, he had not conquered even one?)
The latter part of this quote invokes a distinction that I recently made in Globalization as Political Idea and as Historical Idea. I haven’t yet arrived at an elegant formulation of this distinction between the historical and the political, but even in its nascent and inchoate state I find that I can make use of it to bring a little analytical clarity to my thoughts, and in the above I have used it to distinguish between the historical and the political senses of civilization. One might also think of these as, respectively, the descriptive and the prescriptive senses of civilization. Civilization did not come about as a consequence of an explicit decision and action taken, yet the idea has a certain usefulness to describe what in fact human beings have done, even if they didn’t know what they were doing as they did it.
We can also distinguish the historical and the political aspects of both human nature and the human condition — or, if you like, the descriptive and prescriptive aspects of human nature and the human condition. This latter formulation immediately clarifies one source of disagreement over human nature. In several posts I have discussed skeptics of human nature, Sartre chief among them. The subtext of many skeptical accounts of human nature is that, if there is a human nature, this limits our freedom. Furthermore, if the limitation of human freedom is a bad thing, then assumptions about human nature that limit freedom are undesirable. Therefore, we must deny that there is a human nature in order to defend human liberty.
Please note that I am not defending this reasoning; I am only observing that this seems to be a common subtext of critiques of human nature, and even here the reasoning remains implicit, and therefore retains the philosophical equivalent of plausible deniability. Nevertheless, I believe I am right in this, and if I am right in my analysis I need only to further observe that one can explicitly deny a prescriptive human nature that constitutes an aim toward which human being inevitably converges while accepting a descriptive human nature based only on what humans beings have been in actual fact. Even then, it is obvious that the dedicated human nature skeptic may well continue to maintain that even a descriptive account of human nature implies a continuing condition that ought to be fulfilled in the future, but if such an objection is made, it becomes even more obvious that the motivation of the objection to human nature is not based on logic or ontology, but upon a moral objection.
In another context (Human Nature and Homo Economicus) I have managed to refine my formulation of the human condition into a few (six, to be precise) reasonably clear theses:
● Human nature is a function of the human condition.
● The human condition is a function of la longue durée.
● Therefore, human nature is a function of la longue durée.
● La longue durée endures, but is not permanent.
● Therefore, human nature endures, but is not permanent.
● Human nature, as a function of la longue durée, reflects the paradigm of metaphysical history within which it takes shape.
In these theses I have attempted to show that way in which human nature and the human condition are inextricably linked, but returning to the problem of human nature from the perspective of the distinction between descriptive and prescriptive concepts, we need to separate the two again in order to ask four questions:
1. What is human nature descriptively? (What is human nature in fact?)
2. What is human nature prescriptively? (What ought human nature to be ideally?)
3. What is the human condition descriptively? (What is human nature in fact?)
4. What is the human condition prescriptively? (What ought the human condition to be ideally?)
While these are very large and very general questions that could not be satisfactorily answered short of several treatises, we can, however, get a sense of what is usually assumed by these modalities of human life, and we can do so in one or two words each, as follows:
1. moral corruption
2. moral perfection
Some immediate observations can be made about this rather schematic summary. If the misery of the human condition follows from the moral corruption inherent in human beings, we call this original sin. If, on the other hand, the moral corruption of human beings follows from the misery of the human condition, then we have a position more or less like that of Rousseau, which is sometimes identified with the perfectibility of humanity. Further, if a utopian human condition would follow from the moral perfection possible for human beings, this is an affirmation of individual agency, and thus, in a sense, the antithesis of the idea of original sin and of the doctrine of salvation through grace alone. If, on the other hand, the moral perfection of human beings would follow from a utopian human condition, then we have something like behaviorism.
Now, of course I realize that by using “loaded” religious terminology like “original sin” that I am inviting misunderstanding, but I am willing to take this risk in order to place these concepts in historical context, which is to say, to place them in a larger context than that of our immediate concerns today. I want to get at the root of the idea, and sometimes the quickest way to the root is to use the term that will he instantly understood and which has the strongest emotional impact. From my point of view, the idea of original sin is just one of many exemplifications throughout human history of a conception of human nature as essentially evil. Many have believed this, but many also have believed that human nature is essentially good.
Similarly, there have always been those who believe that human beings are utterly at the mercy of circumstances (this position could be identified with what I have elsewhere called the cataclysmic conception of history) and who may therefore be considered behaviorists, since they believe that individuals and human nature are shaped by larger forces. Similarly again, there are always those who believe in the power of individuals not only to change their own lives, but also to change the lives of others. In its pure form, I have called this the political conception of history. There are all, then, differing conceptions of human agency, and therefore exrpessions of agent-centered metaphysics.
Whether or not you think it is worthwhile to attempt to change the human condition will have a lot to do with your attitudes to these questions, which I strongly suspect is largely a function of temperament. If you instinctively believe that human beings are at the mercy of forces we do not control, then you are more likely to believe that the human condition changes us than that we can change the human condition. But further complications arise, since the world may not be uniformly open to change; there may be things that we can change, and things that we cannot change, and so forth.
A distinction must be made between that which is amenable to change and that which can be changed. The difference here is the difference of agency. That which is merely amenable to change may or may not be changed as the result of the intervention of human agency (or the agency of any sentient being, human or otherwise, including successor species). That which can be changed is susceptible to human agency and admits of definite results. The future is amenable to change, but anything that we do to change the future may or may not have the intended consequences. topography can be changed; human agency can devise and carry out changes to the landscape in which intentions are concretely realized with a high degree of accuracy. These two examples are not picked at random: history and geography together are the unavoidable concomitants of political science; history is merely amenable to change, while geography (at least in some instances) can be changed.
We can and do change topography every time we build a highway or blast a tunnel. This changes our relationship to the land, but it does not change the arrangement of the world’s land masses. However, the combined effect of our construction of a transportation infrastructure may have the practical consequence of annihilating distance and thus making geography nearly irrelevant to the further development of human affairs. In this sense, even geography changes. Certainly human geography changes as rapid transit and mass transit moves populations. Here we have effected social change as a result of our ability to nullify geography.
With history, we are much less free, much less in control. History is infinitely flexible and highly amenable to change, but we cannot change history and walk away, expecting everything to remain the same. Even when we remain continuously and constantly engaged in the process of history (i.e., even when we don’t walk away), unintended consequences may pile up to the point that we simply cannot sustain our effort and we must surrender before the forces of history, allowing ourselves to be changed by it, rather than effecting the intended change. Here we have failed to effect social change as a result of our inability to nullify history.
Implicit within the idea of social change in the interest of social justice (and this is usually how the idea of social change is framed) is the idea that effecting a change in the human condition will effect a change in human nature. The possibility that the human condition might be changed and human beings would persist in stubbornly acting out their human nature regardless of circumstances is incoherent from this point of view. In other words, the idea of social change is antithetical to that of original sin.
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