The Human Condition

The Human Condition

(Le Condition Humaine / La condición humana)

What makes us human? Do all humans have something in common?

Is there any part of the human being that is inherent, universal, common across cultures and countries, and is not a function of age, gender, race, class or other particular factors? Or is the human condition contingent? As Bill (William) Simon, sociologist and co-author of Sexual Conduct: The Social Sources of Human Sexuality said about human sexuality: "… there are no fixed points in the geography of sexuality, merely an ever-changing terrain that has less to do with biology than with accidents of history.” Despite all our attempts at control through knowledge and understanding, is the human condition more accidental than intentional?

What makes human lives and what makes the human live?

Absurdity which emerged as a strong literary and dramatic force around the middle of the 20th century saw human existence as essentially meaningless and human action as an attempt to transcend this. Existentialism has tried to identify common human concerns such as a search for the meaning of life in the face of the inevitable inescapability of death, the search for gratification and a sense of curiosity, or our essential isolation.

Or are some other unpalatable things commonly shared by all humans such as: the near-universal human capacity to tolerate violence, the constant quest for happiness outside of ourselves, and the ability to never take responsibility for our actions towards nature?

Can one human - scientist or artist - or one discipline - genetics or philosophy - claim to provide the answer to the question of the human condition? Perhaps the vain human attempt to describe the human condition is the human condition?

Whatever the human condition may be, it definitely requires different views, multiple lenses, contradictory perspectives; including at the same time the disciplines of science, art, literature, history, philosophy, sociology, and others– all trying to help us understand it.

A Film – A Painting - A Book

The three articles in the July (2013) edition of The Essayist try to capture this human condition.

Three in particular – one that examines domestic violence in the backdrop of a world that condones war asks whether violence has become our way of life; the second questions why humans look for love everywhere else except in themselves – and the third shows how adult’s attitude toward the environment are like that of a child making excuses when asked to clean his room. Will we ever grow up and take responsibility for the public commons?

Although it may not have been intentional, and maybe just one reader’s imaginative interpretation, the articles accidentally reflect the essence of three intellectual/cultural products of the 20thcentury. As they say, nothing is original. Human life may just be a series of replications of biological nucleic acid or cultural memes (as long as we acknowledge the source).

A Film (The Human Condition by Japanese Film maker Masaki Kobayashi)

A Painting (Le Condition Humaine by Belgian artist Rene Magritte)

A Book (The Human Condition by German-American political theorist Hannah Arendt)

The different versions of violence today from the domestic to the streets, and the schoolyard to the failed states, resonates with the film -The Human Condition (Ningen no joken) –a Japanese epic film trilogy, 9 hours, 47 minutes long, directed by Masaki Kobayashi between 1959 and 1961. Based on a six-volume novel by Junpei Gomikawa, it follows the life of one person – Kaji – and the existential dilemmas of his life’s journey as he battles a corrupt and decrepit system against the backdrop of a world at war (World War 2) and the war-time mentality of his own country. Kaji- a pacifist - battles with his morals as the wartakes himfrom supervisor in a labour camp, to soldier in the Imperial Army and finally Soviet prisoner of war.


How do I become a more loving human being? It seems difficult in a society that constantly force-feeds us to believe that happiness can be found only on the outside- in the arms of that perfect partner in the world outside. And so we keep shopping, staring at windows and searching for the best deals, cutting out coupons from newspapers, when it is the love inside that may be more important.

The perfect match on the outside may simply hide what lies underneath our own skins. Or a reflection of what is inside us. It brought us to Rene Magritte’s 1933 painting Le Condition Humaine.

One of Magritte's most common artistic devices was the use of objects to hide what lies behind. Magritte was supposed to have said that: “Everything we see hides another thing… There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us. This interest can take the form of a quite intense feeling, a sort of conflict, one might say, between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is present.”

In The Human Condition, the cover-up appears in the form a painting within a painting. Magritte had this to say of his 1933 work: “In front of a window seen from inside a room, I placed a painting representing exactly that portion of the landscape covered by the painting. Thus, the tree in the picture hid the tree behind it, outside the room. For the spectator, it was both inside the room within the painting and outside in the real landscape.” Does that say something about our search for happiness?


Onearticle in this issue argues we are playing hot potato (pass the parcel) with the environment and focuses on action. In fact it proposes we go beyond communication about environmental problems to communi-Action for the environment.

Action is also the theme of Hannah Arendt’s most influential work, The Human Condition (1958), which distinguishes between the concepts of political and social, labour and work, various forms of action, and explores implications of those distinctions. Arendt contrasts between - labor, action and work - three kinds of activities that human beings engage in. Labourhelpsthe human to survive andthis belongs to the private sphere. The human is never free of labour. Action, however, has the potential to set humans free; and belongs to the public sphere. In this book Arendt presents her theory of political action, corresponding to the existence of a public realm. While Arendt relegates labour and work to the realm of the "social", she favours the human condition of action as the "political" that is both existential and aesthetic.

Hannah Arendt also used the phrase banality of evil in the title of her 1963 work “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.”She arguedthat the great evils in history generally, and the Holocaust in particular, were not executed by fanatics or sociopaths, but by ordinary people who accepted the premises of their state and therefore participated with the view that their actions were normal.

Perhaps today we are doing the same with the environment.

We do not want to change. We say we are blindly following orders: orders to consume excessively, orders to burn fuel wantonly, orders to wrap ourselves in plastic. Today the orders do not come from some madcap general; they come from – the Joneses – our neighbours, they come from advertising billboards, they come from our selfish, consumerist greed.

And although we are taught or told to think that it is natural to be selfish and greedy, it is perhaps, as Arendt would argue, our ideology that makes us blind. An ideology of development, neoliberal economics and consumerism which, to paraphrase Bill Simon"… may haveless to do with biology than with accidents of history.”

And just like the generals who executed masses of innocents under the pretext of simply following orders, we continue to slaughter species after species of innocent trees, insects, animals, lakes, rivers and mountains under the pretext of maintaining our lifestyle and preserving our way of life.

Is that what we want our human condition to be?

© The Essayist, 2013



Masaki Kobayashi

Image reference:

Rene Magritte

Image reference: The Human Condition, 1933;

Quoted in Harry Torczyner. Magritte: Ideas and Images. New York, 1977

Hannah Arendt

Image reference:Book Cover: The Human Condition