The Tragedy of Being Human

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players.

They have their exits and their entrances,

And one man in his time plays many parts.

Shakespeare, As You Like It (2.7.I)

Being human is to be an actor in a tragedy that, to date, exceeds our comprehension; a drama in which most, if not all, the actors have inherent character flaws and face circumstances which are beyond their ability to deal with. The question is: have we the time, have we the ability, to turn the drama into a comedy? Or, at the very least, give it a happy ending?

In most classic tragedies, there is a crucial act or scene, somewhere around the middle of the play, which is the pivotal point: a point at which the inherent character flaws of the tragic hero are revealed; a point from which, once passed, there is no return. This act in the drama of human life on Earth is being played out now. It is the act that focuses on anthropogenic climate change.

Converting the drama into a comedy, however, requires us to focus on issues deeper than the subject matter of this particular, yet crucial act. It requires us, at the very least, to understand the nature of our character flaws. Only once we truly understand these flaws can we move on to developing remedial strategies. At the core of the tragedy of being human lie two inherent flaws, two flaws that are intrinsic to being human: Our evolutionary success has been built upon our ability to create meaning and purpose to our existence, even though, ultimately, this meaning and purpose does not exist. We have created it, it has a pragmatic use, but in failing to see it as the fiction it is we elevate it to a status beyond its worth, and beyond our ability to question. Further, those meanings and purposes that we have created and allowed to dominate our lives have failed to acknowledge our fundamental relationship with our planet and the natural world. And in the few cases when they have acknowledged this relationship they have quickly ascended to the heights of certainty and pseudo-religion.

We were first warned of the nature of our existential dilemma by writers such as Camus and Sartre. We have not, however, taken their message seriously. Camus, in The Myth of Sisyphus, notes that most of us, most of the time, follow the path of our daily drama without question. But one day, for no apparent reason, the ‘stage-sets collapse’ and the first signs of absurdity are revealed: We ask ‘Why?’ We look out into the heavens for an answer, for meaning and purpose, and are met with a cold, indifferent stare. It’s not that the world is absurd (it just is what it is), and it’s not that humanity is absurd – the absurdity arises from their presence together. Camus, suggests three possible remedies for this absurdity: we can commit physical suicide (remove the need for meaning), we can commit philosophical suicide (subscribe to some false belief system), or we can carry on regardless, finding comfort in developing a sense of revolt, freedom and passion.

Sartre, in existentialism & humanism, famously explains that the atheistic existentialism that he represents declares that ‘if God does not exist there is at least one being whose existence comes before its essence’, by which he means ‘that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards’. If, as human beings, we create something, we first have some idea of what it is we want to make or achieve, we develop a meaning and purpose in advance of that which we create; we can say that the essence of what we create comes before its existence. However, if we resist committing philosophical suicide, if we avoid believing in a transcendent being for which we have no actual evidence, and restrict our beliefs to concepts for which there is evidence, we have to accept that only human creations have meaning and purpose. Evolution is blind; any meaning and purpose we assign to our life on Earth is of our own creation. So how should we respond to this absurd situation? Camus closes with the line: ‘One must imagine Sisyphus happy’. But what path leads to happiness?

For most of our time on Earth humanity has attempted to resolve the tension created by the absurdity of our existence, and to find some semblance of comfort and happiness, through committing philosophical suicide. If this creation of ‘false gods’ and supernatural belief systems wasn’t bad enough, in the process of creating meaning and purpose for human affairs we have tended to ignore our actual relationship with the natural world, with the planet Earth and life separate from humanity; and we have justified many absurd practices through the creation of myths regarding the importance of our place on Earth. The French philosopher Michel Serres, in The Natural Contract, has argued that over the course of history we have been so focused on our relationships with our fellow humans, have so concentrated on developing various forms of ‘social contract’, that we have ignored our relationship with our planet. This, together with the myths and philosophical suicide, has given us licence to at best ignore the harm we are inflicting on the planet Earth, at worst to plunder it for all its worth. Serres argues that we urgently need a natural contract to sit alongside our social one.

There are many problems with the use of the word ‘contract’ however. Whilst Serres uses it in its root meaning of ‘drawing together’, most people (particularly philosophers) regard it with suspicion, arguing that a contract requires agreement between one or more parties. This creates a problem for any notion of a social contract in so far as no such agreement has ever existed, and makes any notion of a contract with nature an impossibility, if not an absurdity. Rather than ‘contract’ then, I would like to substitute ‘an understanding of our relationships’ with the planet Earth, particularly our ethical relationship (a sense of how we ‘should’ behave towards it). This, in itself, is not a new move. But, where it has been attempted, within movements associated with Deep Ecology or a Land Ethic, there has been a tendency to veer towards transcendent meaning and purposes, to the creation of essences that we have no evidence for the existence of. Once again, the committing of philosophical suicide. Only we can decide on the meaning and purpose of our lives, individually (yes) but more importantly collectively. Only we can create a system of ethics. But to do so, as with anything else we create, we first need to decide why? For what purpose would we create such a system? What meaning would it have? And we cannot create with reference to a non-existent transcendent authority or justification.

There is much wrong with the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, as people are only happy to point out when you mention his name. His acceptance of slavery, for example, his understanding of the role of women, and his elitism, most people find difficult to accept. However, his basic methodology for constructing a system of ethics I think is sound. This method first asks what is the end of all ends of human activity? We always act in order to achieve some good, some end purpose, but these ends are, when examined, usually the means to further ends, further goods. Aristotle simply asks what is the end purpose, the greatest good? His answer is eudaimonia, a word that is often translated as happiness, but which doesn’t contain the same sense of individual subjective pleasure that we usually associate with the word. A better translation is ‘human flourishing’, particularly if our understanding of what it means for humans to flourish is informed by an evidence based understanding of our relationship with the planet Earth.

The virtues or character traits that we need to develop are simply those that lead to the greatest good, that evidence and science reveals provide the greatest probability for achieving happiness and the flourishing of human life. If carefully formulated the development of these character traits should be the remedy to those traits that are fundamentally flawed, that are responsible for the tragedy of being human, that are responsible for our all-out sprint to the cliff-top of irreversible human made climate change. If we wish, if we can find the motivation, we can still turn this tragedy into a comedy. But we need to hurry. The curtain is about to fall.

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