In a historical perspective I want to focus on three major roots of the human condition: an overemphasis of words (language), ideas (reason) and the desire of power and domination that may lead to aggression. I also want to show how the human condition can be transcended.
As I see it, Laozi (Lao-Tzu), the Buddha and other sages in the East and West had profound insights into reality and humanity. Such insights may lead to happiness independent of conditions in the realization that we are beyond the conditions (see, for example, Shinzen Young 1997, Session 2, 2016). Probably some Greek philosophers such as Heraclitus shared these insights at least to some extent. But then came Plato and Aristotle to whom the thinking mind, reason (ideas) and mathematics (including geometry) became the prime virtues. And henceforth we have become conditioned by ideas (see below).
Although "philosophy" literally means "love of wisdom," since Plato it has been mainly love of ideas communicated through language, and thus the nonduality of body, mind, and spirit has often eluded us. Living mainly in one's head to the detriment of the heart and the belly (hara) creates an unhealthy imbalance that may have many harmful and even catastrophical consequences. According to Chinese medicine, health means balance and imbalance means sickness. Hence, degrees of imbalance in our culture indicate degrees of sickness.
Plato's influence on humanity has been enormous. According to Whitehead, "the safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato." And I would add that Plato's influence has been world-wide not only in terms of philosophy but with regard to the human condition. According to a common understanding of Platonism, the material world, including our bodies, is unreal or only a shadow of ideas (essences) that constitute ultimate reality. Giving such prominence to ideas, so much misery has been created, so many wars have been fought in the name of an idea, an ideology, or a religion that has been dominated by an idea or ideas. One could argue that many of Plato's ideas are noble, which indeed they appear to be. But as pointed out in the second chapter of the Laozi, the Daodejing (Tao Te Ching), once we postulate the idea of the good, the idea of the bad, of evil, arises; once we talk about beauty, ugliness arises; and once we extoll truth, falsehood arises. Ideas create their opposites, and if opposites are not understood as a unity (which seems rarely the case), they may create conflict and war, the human predicament, the human condition, which has at least one of its roots in the dominance of the thinking mind (ideas) over the unity of body, mind, and spirit. I think to a great extent we are unaware how stuck we are in ideas and how much we are dominated by them because in our culture we have been deeply conditioned by a common interpretation of Platonism that enormously overemphasizes the importance of ideas and the thinking mind.
Aristotle, Plato's chief disciple, also has had an enormous influence on the history of humanity and the human condition. Thomas Aquinas, who considered Aristotle the philosopher, elaborated a highly influential church doctrine in line with Aristotelian philosophy, and this intellectual orientation has more or less continued up to the present time. As a result, Christian religion - and other religions, especially in the West - have tended to be more concerned with doctrine than religious experience that goes beyond ideas to embrace the unnamable mystery of existence. But Aristotle's influence goes far beyond religion. His either/or logic and hierarchical thinking still remain our predominant ways of thinking in most mainstream sciences and in society (see below). The Daoist wisdom of Yin-Yang thinking has not yet been widely recognized, although it predated Aristotle. The modern form of the Yin-Yang symbol was devised in the middle ages.
During the Renaissance and the so-called period of the Enlightenment – more appropriately called the age of reason – the emphasis of reason and observation (including the observation of experiments) led to the foundation of modern science, especially mechanistic/materialistic science that still dominates modern society (see Chapter 5 on Organicism and Mechanism). To a great extent, materialistic/mechanistic science and technology have become a sacred cow and Aristotelian logic still has a profound grip on the majority of people, although more realistic and more inclusive alternative kinds of logic such both/and logic and fuzzy logic are available. Digital technology is based on binary (either/or) logic and this technology will more and more dehumanize life and lead to the development of increasingly intelligent robots that eventually may dominate us and – as Stephen Hawking and others have warned – possibly lead to the demise of humankind – all this as the result of the dominance of reason and Aristotelian logic at the expense of Buddhist and Jain logic that appear more realistic and much more inclusive because in addition to the "either/or" they include also "both/and" and "neither/nor," the indescribable, the unnamable, the mystery beyond reason that transcends the human condition (see Healing Thinking through Both/And Logic, Yin-Yang, Buddhist Logic and Jain Logic).
As a reaction to the one-sidedness of the age of reason we had romanticism that emphasized feeling and emotion, thus highlighting that we are more than just reason. But romanticism could not curtail the dominance of reason and materialistic mechanistic science. Although 20th century holistic science such as quantum physics, holistic biology and holistic medicine have shown the limitations of Aristotelian logic and mechanistic science, up to the present time mainstream science and medicine remain predominantly materialistic and mechanistic and mainstream thinking still follows to a great extent binary either/or logic, which in its extreme leads to the stance “I’m right and you’re an idiot” (as Hoggan (2016) put it). The consequences of this kind of thinking that to a great extent is perpetuated in schools, universities, and society are well known: exaggerated competition, intolerance, conflict, violence, and war between individuals, groups, organizations, and nations. And "smashing heads, doesn't open minds" (Hoggan 2016), but see "Lessons Learned" (Hoggan 2016: Epilogue).
Besides a profound challenge of mainstream thinking through more holistic approaches, the 20th century has also brought about a renewed appreciation of the wisdom of the Laozi, the Buddha, and other sages in the East and West. Thus we could learn many lessons from the 20th century. Some people have learned them, but mainstream society still seems to be dominated by the mechanistic/materialistic worldview and Aristotelian logic. Korzybski founded a Non-Aristotelian General Semantics that recognizes the unnamable mystery of reality that transcends the human condition dominated by ideas expressed through language. Non-Aristotelian does not mean Anti-Aristotelian. Non-Aristotelian General Semantics includes Aristotelian thinking but goes far beyond it. Teaching this semantics and other great insights of the 20th century in schools and universities seems crucial, but to what extent will it happen?
Many people are looking for or are asserting an identity. They feel a strong urge to identify with something such as an ethnicity, ideology, religion, nationality, etc. But such identifications remain relative or limited and caught in oppositions: my ethnicity, ideology, religion, or nationality versus yours. Such oppositions reinforced by either/or logic may lead to conflict, violence, and war, unless their relativity is recognized, unless we realize that we are not this or that. As Korzybki has so clearly demonstrated through his Structural Differential, whatever you say you are, you are not because what you can express through language implies a relative identification. Mistaking a relative identification with an absolute one may have devastating consequences such as violence and war. We need to recognize that we are infinitely more than what we can say we are. We are the unnamable mystery, which unites us. With this realization, the human condition based on ideas and identification with these ideas can be transcended because the mystery is not conditional.
I think that if Korzybski's insights including his Structural Differential would be widely taught in schools and universities we would live in a much better world, a world with less conflict, violence, and war, a world with more tolerance, compassion, and happiness because we could see the relativity of ideas that my divide us and because we could appreciate the unnamable mystery in which we are united. We would no longer mistake a map of images, words and ideas with the territory of reality.
"La condition humaine" (The human condition) by René Magritte (1935)
In this painting Magritte shows that an image of reality is not reality. When we portray reality through an image or language we may at best capture some aspects of reality but not reality as it is. Images and linguistic representations can be seen as maps. Mistaking maps for what they represent leads to misunderstandings that may have grave or catastrophical consequences. Therefore, Korzysbski emphasized so much that a map is not the territory. Nonetheless, so many people continue confusing the map with the territory. This confusion characterizes the human condition to a great extent.
Needless to say, the human condition and human history are much more complex than can be pointed out in a very short essay or even a whole book. I have indicated some of these complexities in this book on Wholeness, Fragmentation, and the Unnamable: Holism, Materialism, and Mysticism – A Mandala (2016) and its second appendix on Lessons from the 20th Century for the 21st Century (for a complementary account see, for example, Moromisato 2004 and Wilber 2000b). To avoid misunderstandings, I want to emphasize that I am not against mechanistic materialistic mainstream science if it is balanced by holistic science and a recognition of the unnamable mystery (see Science: its Power and Limitations). And I do not want to blame Aristotle and Plato for everything that went wrong in human history. I consider Aristotle and Plato important philosophers who have contributed more than what seems reflected in common interpretations of Aristotelianism and Platonism. For example, spite of the narrowness and limitations of his either/or logic, Aristotle also pointed out the “more or less,” which is captured in modern fuzzy logic. But considering the human being as a rational animal, Aristotle - like Plato - overemphasized reason to the detriment of the heart and the unnamable mystery that transcends the human condition (see Beyond Thinking, Writing and Speaking – The Unnamable).
Too better understand the human condition, we also have to include our prehistory and evolution, which means we also have to recognize “Our Inner Ape” (Frans de Waal 2005). We share much with chimpanzees and to a lesser degree with bonobos whose behaviour is very different from that of chimpanzees. According to de Waal (2005), although chimpanzees practice reciprocal and genuine altruism, help and console each other, mediate and forgive each other, they tend to be power hungry, hierarchical, competitive, xenophobic, patriarchal, and practice at times deadly warfare and infanticide, whereas bonobos tend to be more playful, egalitarian, matrifocal, and do not engage in deadly warfare and infanticide. Bonobos tend to be relatively peaceful, highly sexual and sensual. Although humans can exhibit the typical bonobo traits, it seems that we have more in common with chimpanzees than bonobos. Thus, de Waal concludes that like chimpanzees "we are born with a gamut of tendencies from the basest to the noblest" (de Waal 2005, p. 237). This gamut of tendencies becomes exaggerated positively or negatively through ideas, language and logic as I pointed out above. And it can be transcended through the insight of sages such as Laozi, the Buddha, and others in the East and West.
Being territorial, power-hungry and xenophobic, when a community of chimpanzees encounter another one, they make war and kill. Similarly, human tribes tend to engage in warfare and killing. And nations also have often been involved in bloody conflicts. De Waal (2005, p.141) concluded that "humans share intergroup behaviour with both chimps and bonobos. When relations between human societies are bad, they are worse than between chimps, but when they are good, they are better than between bonobos. Our warfare exceeds the the chimpanzee's "animal" violence in alarming ways [because we can use science and technology]. But at the same time the payoffs from [good] neighborly relations are richer than in bonobos [because they may involve much more than sex].
Contrary to chimpanzees we have not only exploited and killed other members of our species, but to a great extent we have also ruined our environment, which has led to an ecological crisis that according to some authors such as White (1967) has its roots in Genesis 1 of the Bible where we are told (supposedly by God) to subdue the earth and to have dominion over everything. This kind of religious doctrine coupled with the power hungry hierarchical orientation of our inner ape has manifested our lowest potential that, if pursued, might eventually lead to the demise of humanity. But better education and self-inquiry may still bring out more of our highest potential, wells of love, compassion, understanding, wisdom, and reverence for the mystery of existence (see the Quotes below).
According to Ken Wilber (2000b, etc.) and others, human consciousness evolved through stages that form a continuum (see Chapter 2 on Continuum and Discontinuum and Ken Wilber's AQAL Dogma). This continuum of stages seems to be somewhat repeated or implied in individual human development (Wilber 2000b). Transpersonal stages and states transcend the human condition. Thus, William Blake:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
I see three major roots of the human condition: an overemphasis of words (language), ideas (reason coupled with Aristotelian either/or logic) and the desire of power and dominance that may lead to aggression. The desire of power and dominance we have inherited from chimpanzees. The overemphasis of ideas and their verbal representation stems from a common interpretation of Plato's and Aristotle's philosophies that have had an enormous influence on humanity up to the present time. Aristotle characterized the human being as a rational animal. Plato, according to a common interpretation, took ideas as ultimate reality. Henceforth we have become enslaved in ideas and the battle between more or less contradictory ideas: one or the other, according to Aristotelian either/or logic.
To transcend the human condition the desire of power and dominance, words (language) and ideas (reason) have to be balanced by love (compassion), sound (music), and profound understanding (wisdom). We need to cultivate the playfulness and altruism of bonobos (that to a lesser degree is also found in chimpanzees); we need to experience words and language not lonely as meaning but also as sound, as vibration that resonates with and connects us to the universe; we need to understand that words with a meaning and ideas expressed through words and language represent only maps of reality, and maps are not reality, maps are not the territory (of reality) as Korzybski has so convincingly demonstrated through his Structural Differential. Reality remains unnamable or unspeakable as Korzybski put it. And as Wittgenstein concluded his Tractatus Philosophicus, "whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." The Laozi, the Buddha and other sages in the East and West had come to the same conclusion. Reason and language, including mathematics, that were so much extolled by Plato and Aristotle, although useful, can capture at best some aspects of reality, not reality itself. Therefore, "whatever you might say something “is”, it is not” (Korzybski 1958, p. 409; see also Kodish and Kodish 2011 and Healthy Language-Behaviour and Spirituality). Similarly, according to the Heart Sutra, everything is empty (boundless), which means that it has no intrinsic separate existence. Yet so often we identify with one thing, one emotion, or one idea, and thus lose the connection to the unnamable whole that is beyond all fragmentation so characteristic of the human condition.
It has been pointed out that the desire of power and domination as it manifests in aggression may be related to fear (see, for example, Forest 2016: The Root of War is Fear). Hence, it seems important to deal with and transcend fear and other deep-seated emotions such as anger, pride, jealousy, and denial. Besides psychotherapy, various types of meditation such as, for example, mindfulness meditation can be helpful in overcoming these widespread afflictions (see Mindfulness Meditation at the end of Chapter 2 and other types of meditations at the end of the other chapters of this book). In The Book of Secrets, Osho (2010) described and commented on 112 techniques of meditation.
Not only the desire of power and domination but desire in general seems part of the human condition. Desire means desiring something and not desiring something else, in Buddhist terms: grasping (attachment) and aversion. Even apart from biological necessities such as food and water, many might argue that it is impossible to live without desire. But one may be enslaved in it or playful with it. Rajneesh (1984: 329-333) pointed out that the problem is not desire as an energy but desire of objects. Since no object can completely fulfill our desire but rather stifle it as it changes, it seems wiser to focus on the energy of desire instead of its object. This energy connects us to universal energy and thus objectless desire may be the doorway to infinity beyond space and time and the thinking mind, beyond ideas and the names attached to them.
Thus, the human condition can be transcended through the recognition that we need not be completely locked into emotions and thoughts, into desire of objects, name, and form (ideas). We may also dwell in infinity and eternity as children of the universe, realizing that "each moment is the universe" (Katagiri Roshi 2007).
"Roses do not satisfy the longing they enclose" (Rumi)
"Existence is beyond the power of words...From wonder into wonder existence opens" (Lao Tzu, Witten Bynner's translation).
"That is why the sage abides in the service of non doing and practices the teaching without words" (Lao Tzu, Shantena Sabbadini's translation).
"The Truth itself...can only be self-realized within one's own deepest consciousness" (Buddha).
"In Buddhist Emptiness [boundlessness] there is no time, no space, no becoming, no-thing-ness; it is what makes all things possible; it is a zero full of infinite possibilities, it is a void of inexhaustible contents" (D. T. Suzuki).
"Living is life's only purpose" (Sri Nisargadatta).
"Desire and fear: self-centred states" (Sri Nisargadatta)
"Beyond mind there is no suffering" (Sri Nisargadatta).
"In peace and silence you grow" (Sri Nisargadatta).
"Love and Compassion are the true religions to me. But to develop this, we do not need to believe in any religion" (Dalai Lama xix).
"I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures" (Lao Tzu).
De Waal, F. 2005. Our Inner Ape. A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are. New York: Riverhead Books.
Forest, J. 2016. The Root of War is Fear - Thomas Merton's Advice to Peacemakers. Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis Books.
Hoggan, J. 2016. I’m Right and You’re an Idiot. The Toxic State of Public Discourse and How to Clean it Up. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.
Katagiri, Dainin Roshi. 2007. Each Moment is the Universe. Zen and the Way of Being Time. Boston: Shambhala.
Kodish, S.P. & B.I Kodish. 2011. Drive Yourself Sane. Pasadena, CA: Extensional Publishing.
Korzybski, A. 1958. Science and Sanity. 4th edition. The International Non-Aristotelian Library Publishing Company (CD-ROM edition: http://esgs.free.fr/uk/art/sands.htm).
Moromisato, G. 2004. A very short history of humanity. https://www.neurohack.com/earthguide/History.html
Osho. 2010. The Book of Secrets. 112 Meditations to Discover the Mystery Within. New York: St. Martin's Press.
Rajneesh, Bhagwan Shree. 1984. The Book. Series 1 from A to H. Rajneesh Foundation International.
White, L. 1967. The historical roots of our ecological crisis. Science 155: 1203-1207.
Wilber, K. 2000a. Integral Psychology. Boston & London: Shambhala.
Wilber, K. 2000b. A Brief History of Everything. 2nd edition. Boston: Shambhala.
Young, Shinzen. 1997. The Science of Enlightenment. Audiotapes. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.
Young, Shinzen. 2016. The Science of Enlightenment. Book. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.
Latest update of this webpage on November 18, 2017.