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The Human Condition
This is the second chapter in Scott Shore's book in progress, which argues why the Torah at Sinai is the only universally acceptable basis for restoring values and providing a basis for creating a conservatism for the 21st century.
Chapter Two: The Human Condition
In the Mosaic revelation that we discussed earlier, we are taught that G-d “spoke” and the world or physical reality came into being. Some believe that G-d created the Universe and then either became disengaged or went on to “other business.” We are taught something radically different however throughout the Torah. G-d became intimately engaged in this world and this world maintains its existence only by virtue of G-d's continuing desire that the world should exist. If at any time G-d were to stop willing the existence of the Universe, all would return to the Nothingness out of which it was created.
A world that is created and is infused with a Divine influx puts humanity in a difficult spot. In one sense, our every mundane act has cosmic significance and yet we are not fully in charge. Each person is placed within his or her own unique physical and spiritual matrix of time, place, family, personality, nationality, culture and so on. Our free will gives each person a choice of behaviors, speech and thoughts within a particular matrix. “Free will” suggests that we are not automata and preprogrammed in our every move. Free will suggests that whatever our circumstances –physical, financial, emotional, societal—we still maintain some “still small voice” within that allows us to choose one thought, speech or action over another. We must respond to---and hence take responsibility for every moment of our lives. In one sense this is a truly crushing and awesome human condition. The thoughtful person might easily be paralyzed with the very “heaviness” of our existence. How trying it can be in modern American society which asks us to “lighten up” when faced with the responsibility of the details of our life and this existential issues we face. In Europe, some have forgotten that moral or existential issues really exist at all.
On the other hand, this responsibility gives each individual a grandeur and majesty in the Divine Order of the world which we can hardly fathom. Yet we must not only face but also embrace a whole set of conditions, roles and thus duties not of our own making. We must face the World-As-It-Is.
The Universe has, in a very real sense, been encoded since its Creation. There is a “DNA” of the World and there is a “DNA” for the destiny of mankind. In Judaism this blueprint of the Universe is “The Primordial Torah”, in Christianity it is “Logos” or some Buddhists call it the “Tao.” Even the agnostic or atheist believes that the Universe is run by some incredible order of cause and effect. This code allows for heroism and treachery, responsibility or escapism, wisdom or existential stupidity, the ability to see the Truth or blindly live in Denial. As mentioned earlier the absence of Controlling Good or the “existence” of “evil” allows for the wondrous miracle of choice. Freedom exists but it is limited and restricted not only by external circumstances, but the “DNA” of Human Nature itself. The one thing we most emphatically can not change is Human Nature with both its godly potentials and its ridiculous follies. We can also change very little about our personally and socially inherited matrix in which we find ourselves forced to serve our “mission” in Creation. We can do little about our physical type or our fundamental personality. Certainly we are capable of some degree of improvement but not the kind of pop-psychology “reinvention” often hyped by a plethora of modern snake oil peddlers of self-improvement with which we are inundated. These spreaders of misery create incredible expectations, but the avid “consumers” somehow find they are still “stuck with themselves.” The most essential doubts about their life remain long after the “motivator” has left town.
We can do virtually nothing about the conditions of our birth such as our family, our learned attitudes, or the socioeconomic class of our family at our arrival in the world. As children we are born into a world of “givens.” With adulthood, we gain more “space” to work on our weaknesses and build on our strengths. We also, if we are so blessed, can begin to choose our attitude toward the World and to discriminate between the “givens” and that magical “space” called Choice. With enough wisdom, discipline and ambition, we can indeed broaden those malleable borders our given world. Those unfortunate elements of our World that we can not change, we can accept and, with G-d’s help, eventually embrace. We may choose our attitude and even our emotional and spiritual reactions to our lot. This is amor fati, a very high level of human spiritual development that we may call love of our allotted portion or fate in life.
The tricky part is, of course, to be able to distinguish the givens from the “changeable” and the even trickier part is to know what change is desirable and what is the “spiritually hidden cost” relevant to the presumably obvious benefit. This is the role of Wisdom, as it says in Proverbs, “The beginning of wisdom is the fear (awe) of the Lord.”
This is one aspect of reality that may lead to religious faith. The entire Matrix as we see it is like seeing something in the deepest fog—a near blindness—to the True Matrix of our lives. Our senses- the basis of our perception and the building block of our cognition or intellect—are like tiny peepholes into the real Universe around us. Of course, a true atheist may argue that we see all we need to see and that a “higher” level of perception or understanding is either irrelevant to Man or irrelevant to practical and moral life. Metaphysics abhors a vacuum and soon a “man made” subjunctive philosophy is imagined which explains the world “as if” the whole, unseen Universe obeys certain “laws.” The lonely Self is left to its imagination and a new Subjunctive Philosophy is born.
So what’s the point? In a nutshell, we humans are limited beings—both as created beings and the givens of our unique set of circumstances. A prudent strategy for personal or social action recognizes this stubborn but essential axiom. We must therefore dismiss the Subjunctive Philosophies. Subjunctive philosophies are all the wonderful “As-If” social theories. It is precisely these philosophies or political ideologies that are largely responsible for the incredible human destruction and carnage of the twentieth century.
Let us consider a few of the more prevalent “As-If” theories. The first is that humans can create a society “as if” human nature were not a given but rather had the qualities of moldable clay or elastic plasticity. This theory assumes Human Nature is not a created entity but merely a function of other forces (created or random) such as environment, history, economic or social station or the social or economic system under which a person lives. Needless to say, each of the above does affect behavior but not the nature or essence of man. Since the above factors do seem to effect behavior, would-be social engineers and utopian ideologues believe that they have found the “Holy Grail” to human happiness. The problem is because there is some truth in their observations, they become consumed with the righteousness of their cause. False ideologies depend upon some small grain of truth in order to gain traction.
There are many other “As-If” theories. Consider the idea that we can change society “as if” History did not exist. It may be phrased as “let the dead bury the dead” We shall not be constrained by the thoughts or actions of past generations. We shall not be “enslaved” by the institutions or choices of those now lying “six feet under.” What do we care for social arrangements, customs or traditions established before our entry on the planet? Against this ahistoricism let me paraphrase the great Edmund Burke, “individuals may be foolish but humanity is wiser.” The fact that institutions have withstood the test of time generally demonstrates that they have some positive social utility. This does not argue whatever is old is perfect, but merely that it has served some useful purpose. Longevity must be measured in centuries since evil institutions, laws or traditions can certainly exist for some time but their very evil is likely to create an internal contradiction or “insufferable consequences” which will not withstand the brutal storms of History.
Tradition is not the prison of the past but rather the liberator of the future. Who but a fool would argue that practical or scientific achievements should be scrapped because they deny us the freedom to discover reality anew?(Shall we dispense of the advances of modern technology or medicine because we had no part in their invention?) Likewise, consider the Magna Carta, the wonderful corpus of British law, the unwritten British Constitution or the incredible genius of the American Constitution. This is not to say that any of these human achievements are perfect because they are, after all a product of fallible humans. Nevertheless, these political traditions have served us well and we tamper with them at our own grave danger.
As-If” theory goes beyond questioning political institutions. The
ancient customs or “institution” of marriage and the traditional
family are themselves viewed as mere historical vestiges. Religious laws/customs
or liturgies are up for amendment or some other form of public referendum.
This lack of respect for history, like the premise that there is no Human Nature, is the very definition of the sin of arrogance. Like the mythical Icarus, those who advocate these false ideas are destined to fall to their destruction. The question is whether we should follow this or that modern Icarus and share a common fate.
There are great many permutations of the “as-if” theory such as what if man were not an economic being (a form of the “no human nature theory”) or what if all the conflict are just a failure to communicate (a denial of human nature and history). The list of “as-if” theories is endless as the number of philosophers, political scientists, and dreamy visionaries or alienated people living now or in the past. What comfort and direction can the rest of us take away from the implications of a moral order divinely created and one which places us in a highly defined world matrix for our lives? In some sense the question answers itself. We can know in our very gut that the universe is ultimately a universe guided by Divine Providence.
In the darkness
of the world’s alienation from its Source, we may see what only
appears to be evil and injustice. But what we see through the “peephole”
can not be judged “Bad”. It can be experienced as unpleasant,
oppressive, insufferable, cruel, lonely, destructive and almost limitless
list of negatives. Only a blind man can deny wars, famine, illness and
the other plagues that are very real. Yet we know from not only Mosaic
tradition but by the reasonable premise that Creation was for the Good
that all the trials of our lives and the travails of history are meaningful
in some profound or even mystical sense.
This does not mean that we should endorse the idea that “one man can change the world”. We shall not even have such an arrogant ambition. Changing the world is G-d’s business, we can merely spot the opportunity to do His will in our world (in however large or infinitely small way) and thereby justify human existence on our planet. If we avoid the “as-if” philosophies of self created man, or a world unschooled by history then we can avoid falling into the horrific traps discussed above.Send this Article to a Friend