August 26, 2009

The Human Condition

Throughout history, humankind has struggled to find the societal balance between anarchy and tyranny. With anarchy there is no structure, no predictability, no law. With tyranny, everything is controlled; there is no freedom. This eternal struggle is sometimes called "the human condition".

What I find very interesting about the human condition is that societies typically spend much more time under tyranny than anarchy. Historically, anarchy has been very brief, while tyranny can prevail for centuries. In fact, often when anarchy exists, it is quickly taken advantage of by a tyrannical power. One need only look to Africa for several prime examples of one tyranny being taken over by another, with brief periods of anarchy in between.

Perhaps it is that human beings tend to want structure (even absolute) when the alternative is chaos.

I am certain that it is the same with religion; people desire any structure when they feel otherwise threatened with chaos. In other words, people desire some sort of answers to their existence, no matter how flawed, dictatorial, or exclusive, if they believe that the alternative is to have no answers. For example, I repeatedly find that members of the Church feel that if it is not true, if it does not have the answers to life, then there are no answers and life is meaningless.

It may be that deep within these individuals, the faith in a flawed system is at least partially driven by the fear that there may be no system at all. Certainly we all want to believe that life has meaning: that we are useful, valuable beings in a meaningful universe. Unfortunately, throughout history humankind has accepted tyrannical, extremist religious systems to avoid existential chaos. Scarred into history are incidents of human sacrifice, holy wars, slavery, elitism, genocide, and all sorts of oppression and misery brought about by religious tyranny, overzealous leaders, and impressionable followers.

If it is possible to have structure and freedom in society, though, is it not possible to have meaning in our existence while not having all the answers?

I do not know who God is. I have never seen Him (or Her, It, or Them, as the case may be). I do not know what happens after we die. But I believe everyone can have a meaningful life, and not only in terms of what happens after we die, but in terms of life right now, in our specific circumstances. Rich, poor, genius, mentally ill, strong, weak, bond, and free are all capable of discovering this meaning (see an excellent book by Frankl here on the subject). Rather than requiring meaning to come from the top (God) down, what is so wrong with meaning beginning with us?

Just as we do not have to choose between anarchy and tyranny, we do not have to choose between chaos and fantasy. We can explore truth to the best of our ability, and find meaning within the true structure as we examine it.

And so, although it may appear that our only options are meaninglessness or complete acceptance of a flawed structure, I suggest to you that there is much more to this life.


Christopher said...

I think that you made a good point. But don't forget that the sword cuts both ways. The idea of nothingness is very comforting to those who wish to avoid repentance.

Eli said...

Response to Christopher: That's also a good point. I'm sure that goes on as well.