So you’ve seen or heard this term pop up at some point recently or before. In literature, school, scientific research, bible study, or possibly in simple, casual conversation, the mystery begins to haunt you upon coming across this phrase through whatever context you may have seen or heard it used in: The Human Condition.
What the heck is that? How do I understand it? How do I put it into perspective? Why am I getting so many different answers to this? These questions and many more will be answered as you read forward. Hopefully I can shed some light on this otherwise very ambiguous topic for you.
I’m going to be very up front here and make it clear that there is no one meaning or definition of “the human condition” that properly describes any and all uses of it, regardless of whatever online dictionaries say what the definition is. It is a very broad and abstract term with a wide range of different meanings which depend on one’s own perspective, much like the words “love” or “happiness.”
To get a general understanding, you should first think of the human condition as like “what it means to be human” or “the essentials of human life and experiences” –– basically, whatever you think defines your humanity physically and mentally. (Emotions, intelligence, morality, subjectivity, etc.)
Now, whatever you came up with, think of that as being akin to that of some kind of illness, disorder, defect, or disease to every single living person (hence the “condition” part).
And that’s basically what the human condition is. (The general concept of it anyway…)
It is almost universally viewed with a negative connotation. This is due to the simple fact that there are many conflicts and difficulties that come with being human. From social relationships to biological necessities, the human experience is characterized by many to be one of turmoil, adversity, dysfunction, and despair.
Because of this, the human condition is seen by many as something people should strive to either change or get rid of. Something about our humanity makes it seem inevitable for us to face both internal and external struggles in life, and this conflict between the hardships of human nature and our understanding of it leads people to feel that humanity needs to be altered in some way that abolishes the difficulties we all face just for being a member of this species.
I’ll be going over several of descriptions of it from various topics of interest. Please keep in mind, however, that this is not an exhaustive list and there are still many different subjects of thought and study which carry their own explanations that I have not mentioned.
Pretty much all of the major religions carry strong beliefs that are centered around the human condition.
Christianity, for example, teaches that all human beings are inherently born with a sinful nature, filled with lust, hatred, impiety, and all sorts of other morally offensive characteristics. Christians believe that they must overcome these natural dysfunctions of humanity by attaining salvation through Jesus Christ, or they are doomed to suffer in Hell for all eternity.
To get a better idea of this view, here’s an excerpt from a treatise written by the Italian author, Lotario dei Conti di Segni (later known as Pope Innocent III), in the late 12th century. The title translates to English as “On the Misery of the Human Condition”:
Man was formed of dust, slime, and ashes; what is even more vile, of the filthiest seed. He was conceived from the itch of the flesh, in the heat of passion and the stench of lust, and worse yet, with the stain of sin. He was born to toil, dread, and trouble; and more wretched still, was born only to die. He commits depraved acts by which he offends God, his neighbor, and himself, shameful acts by which he defiles his name, his person, and his conscience; and vain acts by which he ignores all things important, useful, and necessary. He will become fuel for those fires which are forever hot and burn forever bright; food for the worm which forever nibbles and digests; a mass of rottenness which will forever stink and reek.
From another perspective, Buddhism teaches that human life is inherently full of suffering, perpetuated by the endless cycle of life, death, and rebirth, to which all human souls are confined to. They believe that such a condition can be escaped by following what they call “The Noble Eightfold Path” in order to achieve a spaceless, timeless, eternal state of existence known as Nirvana.
Similarly, Hinduism also teaches that humans are perpetually stuck in cycle of life, death, and rebirth. They call it Saṃsāra, which can be escaped by following a four-step path that can be completed over the course of numerous lives: Dharma (the obligation to act morally and ethically), Artha (The pursuit of wealth, riches, and prosperity), Kāma (The fulfillment of lust, pleasures, and enjoyment), and Mokṣa (The achievement of enlightenment, self-realization, and freedom from Saṃsāra).
These ideas about human suffering heavily influences many other religious belief systems as well, including, but not limited to, Islam, Judaism, Jainism, Shinto, ancient Greek and Roman religions, and even ancient Egyptian religions, dating back thousands of years B.C.E.
As scholars in the various fields of psychology and neuroscience continue to discover more about the mechanics and operations of the brain, our understanding of the relationship between the brain and consciousness becomes clearer.
There are certain psychological characteristics that are exclusively and universally shared by humans which uniquely determine our behavioral patterns towards ourselves and other people.
There are various theories in psychology for why human minds are constantly at odds with themselves and one another, but many of them involve our emotions, egos, socially conditioned views, and individual understandings about the world around us.
Psychology attempts to address the issues of the human condition by breaking down the inner workings of the mind, decipher the physiological causation of thought patterns and behaviors, and figure out how to control and adjust them accordingly for a better human experience. This is especially apparent for those working as therapists and psychiatrists.
University Professor and neurobiologist António Damásio believes that the center of control of our thought patterns and decision-making abilities lies with neurological factors in the brain called “somatic markers” which are associated with common physiological responses to physical and emotional stress (sweating, changing heartbeat, heavy breathing, etc.). His theories and hypotheses have been tested by numerous scientists throughout the world and have been heavily cited by many scientific institutions and research studies.
Many biologists associate the struggles of human nature and intellect with that of evolutionary and genetic factors. Certain human characteristics, which have been obtained through biological conditioning, may be greatly contributing to human conflict. Examples of this include survival instincts, visible genetic differences, acknowledgment of said differences, the need for social interactions, and reproductive processes.
From a Darwinian perspective, natural selection may be the root cause of all humanly problems. As our evolutionary nature strives to bring us to our best physical state for the circumstances we live in, we are genetically programmed to oppose that which gives us any sort of hindrance to what we interpret as the normal expectations of living.
When something doesn’t go our way, we actively seek to go back to the normal state we were used to. This leads to various problems between people, as we do not all have the same view of what a normal living experience looks like.
On top of that, our natural Darwinian desire to be “the very best” also puts us in a difficult situation socially, as we cannot all be “the very best” at any one thing. As a result, we are at constant competition with one another to get to the same end goal. Rivalry in businesses, political offices, and prospective mates are examples of this.
Some, however, believe it has to do solely with the evolutionary development of consciousness and intelligence. Australian biologist Jeremy Griffith published a book titled FREEDOM: The End Of The Human Condition, where he explains his theory that the conflicts of human nature stem from the contradiction between our natural instinctive inclinations and our conscious ability of reasoning and rational judgment.
Griffith believes that, as humans evolved to become conscious, their instinctive tendencies started becoming questionable to them, but they still felt they needed to adhere to them. As time went on, people became in further disagreement with which side of their own minds they should listen to, instinctive or rational, and thus, the conflict began. He then later explains how he thinks humans can resolve the disagreement and be at peace with themselves.
All works of literature contain a story with a situation which challenges the human condition in some way.
The ways in which this is done varies greatly, but the situation in the story always directly or indirectly proposes some kind of question about human life which begs for an answer from within the story and/or from the audience. As some examples, questions could be things like “What is good and evil?”; “What is love?”; “How should we treat others?”; or “How should we view life?”
German novelist Gustav Freytag developed a general structure for the plot of any dramatic work or story, now commonly referred to as the Dramatic Structure or Gustav’s pyramid. It outlines the sequence of events by which the plot of many famous dramatic works follow:
- Exposition (introduction)
- Rising action (build up)
- Climax (revelation or turning point)
- Falling action (resolving conflict)
- Dénouement (conclusion).
In this structure, the rising action, climax, and falling action are all represented by a conflict(s) of interest with regard to human interaction and/or human nature. This is very representative of real life, as any and all problems with people arise from such conflicts.
This is not exclusive to dramas, as many, if not all, story genres follow this pattern of writing, including comedy, horror, thriller, tragedy, and silce-of-life.
There are so many theories in philosophy about this that it honestly deserves an article all on its own. But for the sake of this one, I’ll sum it all up the best that I can.
As you can imagine, philosophers have thought about the turmoils of human nature for millennia, and there are dozens of theories on it.
Many of them involve our own different perceptions of ethics. In a world where atrocities and tragedies are constantly happening, it’s very clear that the varying concepts of good and bad are a significant contribution to social disorder. Because this, many philosophers have questioned the very nature of morality.
In one of his most well-known works, the Republic (One of the Five: Dialogues), Plato asked the question “What is justice?” where he explained his view of the various meanings of “justice” which he believed formed a consistent view of virtuous behavioral attributes.
We often like to accuse other people of being “bad” or “in the wrong” about something without considering that they, just like us, have their own justification for doing whatever they do/did, and therefore don’t/didn’t see anything wrong with it. As one of the things that makes us human, assigning morality to actions is a way in which people try to give meaning to their lives. (See “What is a Philosophy on Life?“) Unfortunately, those “meanings” often conflict with one another, and thus disagreements happen.
Philosophers like Albert Camus believed that human conflict and the issues with human nature lies with what is called The Absurd, a philosophical paradox between the human lust to find inherent meanings in life and the lack of any known meaning or purpose in an otherwise undefined universe.
René Descartes, commonly referred to as the “father of modern philosophy,” proposed that the human mind is the first and only truth which can be verified in an otherwise confusing and uncertain reality, and that the mind and body are closely joined to one another. To him, the condition of humanity was that of uncertainty which he thought could be made clear with deduction and reasoning.
I’m sure some of these concepts and theories appeal to some of you, and some not so much. I find it very interesting to know that there are so many different thoughts and viewpoints on such a fundamental aspect of our lives and existence.
Like I said at the beginning, this is mostly seen and spoken about with a negative connotation. But that’s not to say that there aren’t some positive things that come with being human as well. We all have the ability to feel, think, experience, interact, love, care, and have a sense of unity and happiness. It would be extremely boring if there was no conflicts or problems in our lives whatsoever, right? Or maybe one would argue that boredom itself is another problem of the human condition.
There’s many different things which make us human, depending on which way you want to look at it. But I think we can all understand that the overall concept of it is the fact that we are not perfect and we try to do whatever we can to cope with that fact. And the fact that you’re reading this out of genuine interest tells me that you’re doing that just fine.
Your ability to assign meaning to things is what allows you to have and share opinions of different topics. Even if you don’t like the thought a topic, I hope you can at least appreciate the very fact that you can even have such a thought. (And considering how I only profit from you reading this, I can honestly say that I greatly appreciate both your opinion AND your ability to give one on this, so thank you.)
So, the bottom line of understanding the human condition ultimately relies on whatever it is that you think makes us all human and whatever significant characteristics that may come with that (its “condition”), be it positive or negative.
I know this is not an easy concept to grasp quickly, especially considering all the various fields, studies, and viewpoints of which all have their own “spin” to it. So I hope I made it slightly easier for you to understand now. If you at least got the gist of it, then I’m satisfied.
What is the human condition to you? What’s your outlook on it? Please let me know in the comments down below!
Until next time,