human condition

Book Review: Is There a Human Nature? by Leroy S. Rouner (ed.)

The contributors to this book explore the subjects of what it means to be human (the first part) and what it means to be humane (the second part) from a variety of perspectives. Each has the goal of discerning whether there is indeed a human nature and, if so, what that human nature consists of. The end result is a fascinating study in the variety and complexity of human existence.

Among the themes explored are the nature of humanity, a primarily Western question, from the perspective of the religions and philosophies of the Orient; the questions of human equality and dignity in relation to race and gender; what uniting factors exist among all human beings; and whether there is some defect inherent in human beings. Each subject is explored in relationship with others and from an unique standpoint.

While I disagree with much of the analysis, all of it makes for fascinating reading and each essay provides some insight one of the most important questions a person can ask: what is a human being?

I recommend this book for anyone interested in philosophy and/or anthropology.

The West, the rest, and the universal human condition

One of the most ironic features of intellectual life in the modern world is the use of key Western concepts to undermine Western culture. One particularly outstanding example of this irony is the use of the concept of diversity by the critics of Western Civilization. In their emphasis on diversity and their acceptance of the idea that diversity is a good in itself, these critics are continuing a long Western tradition of accepting what is best in other cultures and grafting those elements onto itself. In their use of the concept of diversity, however, these same critics of Western Civilization are seeking to displace and usurp the authority and importance of the great minds of the Western tradition.

Western Civilization is itself an amalgamation of the Jewish and Greek cultures within the context of Christianity in Roman and northern European cultures. In addition, several of these cultures were themselves amalgamations of other earlier or contemporary civilizations. The Jews, for instance, borrowed heavily from their Babylonian, Persian, and Egyptian neighbors while adding their own uniquely Hebraic elements to form their culture. The Greeks also borrowed frequently from their neighbors and showed an interest in the ideas of other nations. Herodotus, for example, dedicates a significant portion of his Histories to explaining the customs, religions, and histories of non-Greek peoples, including the Egyptians (Book II), the Persians, Indians, Arabs, and Babylonians (Book III), and the Scythians and other peoples who lived to the north of Greece (Book IV). The Romans, similarly, borrowed heavily from each nation which they conquered, assuming its gods into their pantheon and taking a stance of toleration and even accommodation toward any unique customs. In particular, the massive Roman borrowing from the Greeks permanently reshaped many of the most important aspects of Roman culture and forced Romans such as Vergil, in his Aeneid, to attempt to discern a place for the Romans in the ancient and venerable history of the Greeks. The Aeneid in part represents an attempt to demonstrate through artistic anachronism an earlier marriage of the Greek and Roman civilizations than the actual historical events indicate.

In his book Guns, Germs, and Steel, geographer Jared Diamond has convincingly argued that one primary reason for the success of Europe in the development of the technological and scientific knowledge which would enable it to exert its power and influence over the rest of the world for centuries was its geography, which facilitated the rapid transmission of new ideas very quickly. Because of its geography, says Diamond, Europe essentially acted like a sponge, taking in what was best in the developments of all surrounding civilizations and cultivating them to even greater development through the combination of ideas of divergent origins. While Diamond’s theory borders too closely on environmental determinism, there can be little doubt that Europe, through its openness to foreign ideas and its unique ability to bring those ideas together, found the strength that made Western Civilization uniquely powerful in a variety of ways. A telling point of comparison is ancient and medieval China. While Chinese civilization flourished and was admired, even if only from afar and certainly while only partially understood, by Europeans of the Middle Ages, it was quickly surpassed by Europeans in both content and influence. The clear reasons for the eventual floundering of Chinese civilization are the relative geographic isolation of China in comparison with nations of equivalent stature and an internal conservatism which forbade organic development and greeted outside influence with xenophobic hostility.

The result of these differences in attitude towards and ability to engage in a meaningful exchange of ideas on the intellectual lives of Europe and China respectively is indicative of the great strength of the Western position. The result of China’s resistance to change and influence was the maintenance of an antiquated governmental and cultural scheme which collapsed in the years before World War II at the hands of insurgents advocating philosophies, such as democracy and communism, which originated in the West. Confucius’s Analects, for example, while interesting as a relic from the past and, in certain elements, as an example of the universality of the human experience, is of less applicability in China today than is Plato’s Republic in a country whose official name is the People’s Republic of China and whose official economic ideology, communism, originated in the mind of Karl Marx, a German-born Jewish atheist who lived in Great Britain and borrowed heavily from biblical (especially New Testament) eschatology.

If this is true even in modern China, it is all the more true in the modern United States. If the critics of Western Civilization wish to give other civilizations their due, the place to start is with the classics of Western Civilization, which, because of their embrace of diversity, contain the most complete expression of the universal human condition. It is only when this universal human condition is first explored that one can begin to appreciate and understand the particularities of human experience in all of its varied forms.

Satisfaction, Distraction, and the Human Condition

One of the most remarkable features of the age we live in is that the most meaningful and important things in the lives of individuals and societies — things like religion, ethics, and education — must struggle for relevance against a tide of nihilism. The comfort which has come with the satisfaction of all of the basic material needs of humans in the modern world along with the various distractions that have been invented to occupy and pacify the human mind have made the task of educators, missionaries, and anyone else who still believes in the importance of ideas perhaps more difficult than it has ever been. Whereas Christians of earlier generations had to confront the passionately held beliefs of those with rival philosophies and religions, Christians today must confront an enemy which is far more destructive, a sort of passion for apathy, or what might appropriately and simply be called nihilism.

It is a universal truth of the human condition, elucidated by St. Augustine of Hippo in his Confessions, that “the human soul on earth is always restless.”1 The combination of satisfaction and distraction in the modern world, however, has provided a seemingly endless string of temporary alleviations for this restlessness, preventing the restless human soul from ever finally reaching a point of satiation or boredom with worldly things. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter heaven,” not because there is anything intrinsically wrong with wealth but because the rich man is so entrapped by his wealth that he fails to search after something higher and more ultimately satisfactory.2

The rich man of Christ’s statement, who is nearly synonymous with modern man generally, has separated himself from the human condition and so, in a sense, from his own human nature. He does not “redeem the time” by seeking to live a life of meaning and significance but instead merely passes the time.3 As Henry David Thoreau pointed out already about those around him in the middle of the nineteenth century, “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. … A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work.”4 Most of these “games and amusements” have assumed a nature that is unrelated to the life of man in the truest sense of that phrase. As Fr. William F. Lynch has pointed out, modern man has “create[d] a night-time culture, and a kind of time within it that has no relation to the day or to the work we do during the day.”5

One of the oldest forms of play, and the most essential, is the communal play of religious ritual. Religious ritual, however, is not a mere amusement, unlike the play of modern man. Just as the play of children, such as the care little girls give to their baby dolls or the war games of boys, is a kind of preparation for the sorts of tasks they will have to encounter as adults, liturgy is a form of pure play for the soul. Fr. Romano Guardini, a Catholic priest and thinker, once wrote, “it [the soul] must learn not to be continually yearning to do something, to attack something, to accomplish something useful, but to play the divinely ordained game of the liturgy in liberty and beauty and holy joy before God.”6

Even when modern man does find himself, usually through accident or coercion, confronting something of significance, such as one of the great books, he refuses to confront it with his whole being. He confronts it as if he were a neutral observer. As Michael Vander Weele writes, there has been an “attempt to defuse reading by separating it from the rest of life.”7 We must, however, “read with our lives.”8 Modern man has forgotten the fundamental truth enunciated by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, that “God and the devil are fighting … and the battlefield is the heart of man.”9

The first and most basic question, then, for the Christian, for the educator, for anyone interested in a life of thought and meaning, is what to do to overcome this indifference to the great existential questions. The only really viable answer to that question is to live such a life oneself. Mahatma Gandhi perhaps more than any other well-known figure of the last hundred years embodied and most succinctly stated this principle: “We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. … We need not wait to see what others do.”10

1 Michael Vander Weele, “Reader-Response Theories,” in Contemporary Literary Theory: A Christian Appraisal, eds. Clarence Walhout and Leland Ryken (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company), 128.
2 Matthew 19:24 (King James Version).
3 Ephesians 5:16 (KJV).
4 Henry David Thoreau, Walden, ch. 1.
5 Fr. William F. Lynch, Christ and Apollo: The Dimensions of the Literary Imagination (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2004), 55.
6 Fr. Romano Guardini, The Spirit of the Liturgy, http://fdlc.org/Liturgy_Resources/Guardini/Chapter5.htm (accessed 12 November 2013).
7 Weele, 128.
8 Ibid.
9 Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, Book III, Chapter 3.
10 Mahatma Gandhi, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, vol. 12 (New Delhi: Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, 1964), 158.