By Douglas Anele
Philosophically speaking, human life is existential. In otherwords, there are some characteristics of the biological species, homo sapiens or human being, which are largely trans-historical and trans-cultural, meaning that these features are inherent in the species irrespective of historical period and culture. Of course, the specific concrete manifestations of these attributes differ historically and within the context of divers civilisations. However, the capacity for self-consciousness or self-awareness, rationality, creative imagination and appreciation of death constitute the essential psychic architectonic of homo sapiens ever since it first emerged in Africa from the hominid family of primates after millions of years of evolutionary progression.
But what is the foundation of these novel characteristics unique to the human species out of the hundreds of millions of species that had evolved on earth after life emerged for the first time about 3.5 billion years ago? Erich Fromm, the noted psychoanalyst, in his book To Have or to Be? provides an interesting answer that throws light on the unique status of the human phenomenon. He states that in the biological evolution of animals,the human species emerged when two tendencies in animal evolution coincided.
One tendency is the ever-decreasing determination of behavior by instincts or organic drives inherent in the organism. In spite of heated debates among experts in biology, psychology and other relevant disciplines concerning the definition and nature of instincts, it is generally accepted that the higher a species of animal is in the evolutionary ladder, the less is the behavior of members of that species determined by phylogenetically programmed instincts.If we plot a graph relating instinct to decreasing determination of behavior, we will find at the zero point the lowest forms of animals whose behavior are wholly determined by instincts. Evidently,determination of behavior by instincts is at the minimum in homosapiens.
The second tendency is the growth of the brain, especially of the neocortex. Same logic that applies in the first tendency applies in the second also. Thus, there is a continuum: at one extreme are the lowest animals with the most primitive nervous structure and a relatively small number of neurons; at the other extreme is homo sapiens with a larger and more complex bran structure, including a neocortex three times the size of that of our primate ancestors and a truly amazing astronomical number of interneuronal connections. Based on scientific data, Fromm defines the human species as the species that came into being at the point in evolutionary process where instinctive determination of behavior had reached a minimum and the development of the brain a maximum. One can see that traditional definitions of humans as homo politicus, homo faber, homo religio, res cogitans and so on can be subsumed neatly and understood collectively within the theoretical framework of Fromm’s analysis.
Moreover, since each species of animals can be, and has been, defined by its specific physiological and anatomical characteristics,Fromm’s definition offers a specific characterisation of humans as psychic beings. The implications of this are obvious after a moment’s reflection. First, a human being, lacking the capacity to act based wholly on instinct while possessing self-awareness, reason and imagination, needs a frame of reference an object of devotion to survive. The myth in all religions of the world about a purported golden era in prehistory when human beings were irreversibly separated from God or Gods (in the Christian Bible the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden) is just a superstitious distortion of the fact of evolution from hominids like australopithecus, and homo neanderthalis etc to modern humans.
Second, after emerging at the critical point of evolution, human beings could no longer depend on nature to satisfy their needs – biological, mental and spiritual. As a result, our earliest ancestors, through countless trials and errors enveloped by worshipful fear of natural forces and superstition, had to gradually appropriate natural resources around them to meet their basic needs of food, shelter, clothing and safety. But human beings cannot live by bread alone: they need a frame of orientation, an object of devotion to live for – and possibly die for – which largely replaces instincts, in other to survive and thrive. This object of devotion is always part of a religion or philosophy of life.
Irrespective of time and place, without a map of our natural and social world, a structured coherent worldview that defines our place in the world, human beings would be thoroughly confused and unable to act purposefully, because there would be no existential guide that would assist them to navigate reality and organise the manifold impressions that bombard the individual from one moment to the next. The earliest existential maps constructed by humans were the mythologies and religions found throughout the world, although with the advancement of science the scientific worldview is steadily challenging, and in some cases displacing, the superstitious religious world- view particularly in the advanced industrialized countries of the world.
It must be pointed out that none of the existential maps constructed by human beings since the dawn of civilization is perfect or without blemish, none has ever been completely right or completely wrong. And even if the map is wrong or inaccurate, it fulfils its core psychological function of making the world meaningful to us and allows consensus-building on the fundamentals of individual and communal life. Fromm argues that only to the extent that the practice of life is freed from its irrationalities and contradictions can the map correspond to reality.
From what we have said thus far, it is evident that human life is not only existential, as a being with the psychic qualities we mentioned earlier, but also inextricably social. In African philosophy, there isgeneral consensus by scholars that most aboriginal communities in Africa were essentially communal in character, a situation grossly misunderstood and denigrated by vicious racist European invaders who not only enslaved most of the continent but partitioned it in the scramble for “spheres of influence” as a prelude to colonization.
Most times, Europe and her cultural colonies in North America are categorised as individualistic, as if there were no communalistic tendencies in those places. Plato, G.W.F. Hegel and Karl Marx, to cite just three examples, articulated political theories that gave primacy to the collective rather than to the individual.Consequently, although Leopold Sedar Senghor, the patron-saint of Negritude philosophy, hyperbolised the Cartesian cogito ego sum as the model of individualism in European philosophy and juxtaposed it with the communal mindset dominant in traditional African setting, every human society has both individualistic and communal elements. It must be pointed out that both individualism and communalism are rooted in people’s attempt to create institutions and structures to serve their needs and desires.
Bertrand Russell, in his What I Believe, correctly criticises the strong individualistic element in traditional religion, notably Christianity. He saw it as the product of social and political crises, mostly political subjection and social alienation, which made believers to conceive of the good life in individualistic terms, rather than social. But the good life, irrespective of how it is conceived or defined, cannot be actualized in isolation, because it depends on a host of social conditions. A good life, in the real sense of that expression, is impossible without knowledge and love, both of which are irreducibly social.
More specifically, to live a good life maximally a human being must have good education, friends, love, children (if she or he desires them), sound health, a sufficient income to protect the person from want and serious anxiety, and work that gives job satisfaction. Each one of these, in varying degrees, depends on the community, and are promoted or hindered by political events. As a result, the good life must be lived in a good society. Christians who on religious grounds distance themselves from political events happening around them on the delusion that they “are in the world but are not of this world” are just deceiving themselves. There is no other world aside from this one.
The quest for the meaning of human existence has been one of the cornerstones of existentialist philosophy, especially after the unspeakable horrors of the Nazi regime during World War II. Existentialists such as Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, after providing brilliant but sometimes unnecessarily tedious analysis of the “human condition” or “human predicament,” ended up by exaggerating what might be called “the tragic sense of life.”
To be continued.