Four responses to the human condition

By Thomas V. Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Feb 19, 2016

"Every great moral system...is in reality an effort to ask man, in one manner or another and to one degree or another, to go beyond his natural condition in some way." So writes Jacques Maritain in his 1964 book Moral Philosophy. In the concluding remarks of this work, he examines four possible responses to the human condition, the first two of which are ultimately impossible to carry out, and the latter two of which come from the Indian and the Christian philosophical traditions respectively.

1. The first option is to attempt to refuse the human condition entirely. It is most likely to occur to those who have gained some degree of awareness of the spiritual nature of human suffering. Maritain describes the attempt in a classic passage:

To refuse -- in one's innermost heart -- the human condition, is either to dream of leaving our limits and to wish to enjoy a total liberty in which our nature would expand through its own powers; or else to play the pure spirit (what I once called the sin of angelism); or else to curse and try to disown all that presents an obstacle to the life of the intellect, and to live in a state of interior revolt against the fact that one is a man; or else to flee by no matter what frenzy, even if it be in the folly of the flesh, this situation of a reason everywhere at loggerheads with matter which is a permanent challenge to the demands of the spirit in us. It is hardly surprising that those who devote themselves to the life of the intelligence, the poet in particular, and the philosopher, are more or less exposed to this temptation. The ancient sages of Greece succumbed to it when they said that the best thing for man is not to have been born.

2. The second option is to accept "purely and simply" the human condition. This is to deny the demands of man's spiritual nature, which calls him to surpass himself and to transcend his own condition. To accept the human condition could include the call to heroism which is inherent in it, but to accept it purely and simply would mean to accept "the misery of sin as well as...the misery of suffering." It would be to "live on the edge of animality"; on the edge, only, because it is impossible for a human being to "accept fully subjection to moral evil."

3. The last two responses both involve transcending the human condition, but in different ways. What Maritain calls the answer of Indian spirituality (broadly speaking) is to transcend the human condition in such a way as to refuse it. Both Hinduism and Buddhism involve a spiritual effort to attain some form of absolute Selfhood, either in transcendent Being or in nothingness. In both, one is to be totally detached from one's illusory material surroundings and thus from the human condition. A sage is one who no longer belongs to the species of men, and while he pities them, he does not enter into solidarity with their condition. And yet even the sage is incapable of escaping the greatest misery of the human condition, death.

4. The Gospel response to the human condition is one that transcends it while accepting it. This transcendence comes by means of a second nature which is grafted onto the first without replacing it. The Christian surpasses himself not by a supreme effort of concentration but by the grace of God. He accepts the evil of suffering while rejecting moral evil, and while he continues to experience suffering as a true evil, he not only accepts it but embraces it for its redemptive value. He does not worship a God aloof from the human condition, and so his goal is not to escape it.

Thomas V. Mirus is an administrative assistant and writer at CatholicCulture.org. A jazz pianist with a music degree, he often takes the lead in our commentary on the arts. See full bio.

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