15. The human condition
The deepest tragedy of the human being is, I think, that it craves to transcend human mortality and the confusion and fragility of life but thereby gets lost in absolutist, i.e. universal and immutable, ideas concerning truth and morality, which have led to suppression, in theistic religion (religion with a God) and political ideologies.
Theistic religion, not in the last place Christian religion, has produced tempestuous violence in persecution, torture, and extermination of infidels, heretics and Jews, in inquisition, pogroms and crusades. With the advent of the Enlightenment, humanism, and modernity, with human rights and democracy, emerged the hope that the violence would be over. The philosopher Kant dreamed of ‘eternal peace’. But since then there has been unprecedented violence, in the French Revolution, the First World War, the Holocaust, the communist Gulag, to mention a few. The shock of it lies not only in the extent and intensity of the violence but most of all in its being systematic, in reasoned design, as part of grand, idealistic projects to improve mankind. Where does that come from? How can what presents itself as virtue produce so much evil, in religion and political ideology?
Is the human condition inevitably and drastically vulnerable, variable, diverse, subject to uncontrollable and unpredictable conditions, or can humanity obtain a rational grip, with fixed, universal, abstract concepts and rules, that apply always, everywhere and for everyone, with which humanity can control its destiny and its environment? That question is as old as philosophy. It goes back to a contrast between the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle.
Plato despised the relativism and rhetoric of the sophists of his time, the spouting of mere opinion, gossip and slander, mystical evocation, the manipulation of truth and the fabrication of falsehood. The Platonic tradition seduces the human being to the higher, the pure, eternal, immutable, in which we reach for the divine. He reached for absolute, universal, timeless concepts, in a ‘heaven of ideas’, beyond the chaotic world we perceive. The soul is liberated from the body. In politics the platonic tradition has offered a breeding ground for disasters of totalitarianism, fundamentalism and extremism.
Aristotle, who for 20 years was a disciple of Plato, continued to share a few ideas with his teacher. However, for Aristotle thought must be turned into action, and relations with others are part of the good life. And in such relations one is inevitably vulnerable. In his practical wisdom Aristotle moves far away from Plato. For Plato the individual, non-universal is a lower form of being; while for Aristotle it is the beginning of all insight. In human choice of conduct there can be no universal that goes beyond a principle or guideline that in each situation requires an adjudication matching the specific conditions, not rigidly, and is always in development, ready for surprises, because of the mutability, indeterminacy and particularity of conditions. Not all relevant aspects and options can be surveyed, and situations are often unique, unrepeated.