In my July 2021 essay here in The Montreal Review titled ‘The psychological rehabilitation of the human race’, I gave a summary of biologist Jeremy Griffith’s book Freedom: The End Of The Human Condition in which he presents, what I have no doubt is, the holy grail of breakthroughs in science of the reconciling, redeeming and rehabilitating explanation of the human condition.
Like no other thinker I know, Griffith confronts the issue of our species’ angry, egocentric and alienated existence head on. He describes how the agony of being unable to truthfully answer the fundamental question of why we are the way we are — divisively instead of cooperatively behaved — has been the particular underlying burden of all human life. It has been our species’ particular affliction or condition — our ‘human condition’. Good or bad, loving or hateful, angels or devils, constructive or destructive, sensitive or insensitive: WHAT ARE WE? Throughout history we have struggled to find meaning in the awesome contradiction of our human condition. Our endeavors across philosophy, psychology and biology have all failed, until now, to provide a truthful, genuinely clarifying explanation. And while religious assurances such as ‘God loves you’ may have provided temporary comfort, they too failed to adequately explain why we are lovable. It seemed an inexplicable question: what caused humans to become divisively behaved and, more importantly, how is this divisive behavior ever to be brought to an end? This, the issue of the human condition, is the realquestion facing the human race.
In this sequel, I want to emphasize that the importance of Griffith’s work is that it finally solves this great riddle of human life, of how we humans could be considered good and worthy when all the evidence of our brutally competitive, selfish and aggressive behavior seems to indicate that we are a bad, unworthy, even evil species. As the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote, “man is the only animal which causes pain to others with no other object than causing pain…No animal ever torments another for the sake of tormenting: but man does so, and it is this which constitutes the diabolical nature which is far worse than the merely bestial” (Essays and Aphorisms, 1970).
Certainly we have been a diabolically angry and distressed species, but Griffith’s explanation provides the biological rationale that enables us to at last understand the very good reason why we have been like that. It explains why, despite our horrors, we are lovable, bringing dignity to the life of every human and finally lifting the so-called burden of guilt from the human race forever. It represents the proverbial ‘judgment day’ — the time when the truth about our corrupted or ‘fallen’ condition finally arrives — but it turns out to be not a time of dreadful condemnation but a time of compassionate, redeeming and relieving understanding.
Best of all for me as a psychiatrist is that being able to understand the reason we have been so divisively behaved ends the need for such divisive behavior. As I summarized in my first essay, Griffith explains that when humans developed a self-managing, understanding-based conscious mind some two million years ago, a battle unavoidably developed between this newly established mind and our already established dictatorial, non-understanding instincts. The result of this conflict between our instinct and intellect was that we became psychologically defensive, angry, egocentric and alienated — the upset state we refer to as the human condition. But now that we can explain and understand this conflict, all those insecure, defensive behaviors are resolved, obsoleted, brought to an end, and we at last free ourselves from the human condition.
This liberation from the human condition is obviously a desperately needed, fabulous breakthrough for the human race, however, there is an associated hurdle to overcome, which is our deep resistance to this all-relieving but at the same time all-exposing truth. The human condition is the underlying cause of all our crippling problems (such as wars, inequality, prejudice, violence, polarized politics, corruption, refugee floods, environmental degradation, anxiety, depression, drug addiction, and family breakdown), and to finally have that source issue identified and solved is the quantum leap in self-understanding we have needed, but it does inevitably produce a massive paradigm shift from living in denial of our corrupted condition to living with the truth about it. The truth that sets us free is also the truth that exposes all the dishonest denials we have been employing to protect ourselves from unbearable self-confrontation. When the ‘curtains are drawn’ on all the truth about our psychologically distressed condition, that exposing light of understanding cannot but be a great shock, which our minds naturally initially resist. ‘Judgment day’ is compassion day, but it also is exposure day or truth day or honesty day.
What the arrival of this relieving but exposing truth does is release a veritable avalanche of what have hitherto been heresies in the denial-based paradigm that we have been living in; which the reader of Griffith’s synthesis needs to be prepared for. While we can finally understand why every human is actually equally worthy and good, inevitably there are going to be many previously denied truths about our species and ourselves for us to confront. These profound heresies include that we suffer from a psychologically upset condition not a genetically predetermined one; that our distant ancestors were not competitive and aggressive savages, rather they lived in a state of cooperative, loving innocence which mothers’ extended nurturing created; that we have been living in an increasingly psychologically upset state since consciousness emerged some two million years ago, which is now able to be healed through understanding its cause; that consciousness in humans developed because of soundness, not from needing to manage complex situations; that men and women have had different roles in humanity’s heroic journey to enlightenment; that God is not a deity that lives in the clouds with angels; that prophets are not deities either, just exceptionally nurtured individuals; that races differ in their degrees of alienation; that the left-wing has actually been regressive not progressive because its dogmatic imposition of the cooperative ideals hindered the corrupting search for knowledge; that adolescents suffer from ‘human condition blues’ not ‘puberty blues’; that human sex at base is about attacking innocence; that the neotenous beauty of women is the image of innocence men sought for sexual destruction; that, at base, the purpose of hunting was not for food but to kill innocence, and so on, and so on.
The greatest of all philosophers, Plato, fully anticipated that just such a revolution of insights would occur when someone is finally able to explain the human condition truthfully. In his seminal work The Republic, Plato described humans as living in such fear of the “human condition” that we have had to metaphorically hide “a long way underground” in a dark “cave” so none of the “painful” “light” outside the cave can reach us, because that light would make “visible” “the imperfections of human life”. Plato then said that when someone is finally able to look into human behavior from a truthful position outside that cave of denial and from there is able to find understanding of the “human condition” and then tries to help the cave prisoners escape “into the sunlight” of that truthful understanding, that “the process would be a painful one, to which he [the cave prisoner] would much object, and when he emerged into the light his eyes would be so overwhelmed by the brightness of it [so frozen with fear] that he wouldn’t be able to see a single one of the things he was now told were real. Certainly not at first. Because he would need to grow accustomed to the light [of all those out-of-cave, denial-free, truthful understandings]”.
And further, Plato actually predicted that “if anyone tried to release them [the cave prisoners] and lead them up [out of the cave of fearful denial of all the truths about our corrupted human condition], they would kill him if they could lay hands on him”! Such a ferocious defensive reaction clearly reflects the massive scale of denial of all the truths about our corrupted condition that has been going on. This explains why there has been so much resistance to Griffith’s work; and also why his rehabilitating understanding is so incredibly unique and precious and important.
So I do urge the reader of Griffith’s synthesis to be patient and give themselves the time to, as Plato advised, “grow accustomed to the light” of the truth about ourselves. Our species’ future depends on it.
As a quick way of assessing Griffith’s synthesis, I strongly recommend watching an interview in which he summarizes his ideas at www.humancondition.com. Electronic copies of Freedom are also available there free of charge.