8 November 2017


David Benatar. The Human Predicament. A Candid Guide to Life’s Biggest Questions. Oxford University Press 2017

Please note the book title: it’s not the human condition or the human problem but The Human Predicament. To have a condition or a problem suggests a coming to terms with things, an answer and even an optimistic outcome. Predicament infers something more difficult, final, unanswerable and pessimistic.
There’s certainly no escape from the gaunt facts of our existence as laid out by Professor David Benatar of The University of Cape Town. Life is too short, badly compromised and that’s all there is.

In this beautifully written, persuasive (almost) and lucid work the search for meaning exuding from those many, half-read sometimes spurious, self-help books on how to affirm your life is pulped into an uncaring void by Benatar’s elegant reasoning. I am on the side of affirmation (from art, music, philosophy and good friends) but rarely from the text book bestseller. Yet the unflinching pessimism of Benatar’s counter-arguments, in relation to life’s big questions, although not reassuring, isn’t a position resulting in absolute despair.

“My own view is that a deep pessimism about the meaning of life is entirely appropriate, but this should not be confused with total nihilism about meaning in life.”

“Life’s big questions are big in the sense that they are momentous. However, contrary to appearances, they are not big in the sense of being unanswerable. It is only that the answers are generally unpalatable. There is no great mystery but there is plenty of horror.”

For that “plenty of horror” I immediately think of Marlon Brando, as the monstrous Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, exhibiting his sweaty bald head and muttering, “The horror…the horror!” Yet whereas that was cinematic rhetoric amplified from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, David Benator is for real and true in a profound, salutary and philosophical sense. For though I often rejected his stark conclusions they have a thoughtful honesty that’s impressive and moving.

The Human Predicament consists of an introduction on life’s big questions, and what they mean for us from an optimistic or pessimistic viewpoint. Chapters 2 and 3 concentrate on meaning and meaninglessness. 4 covers the quality of life. 5 brings us up front with death (Asking the intriguing question, Is Death Bad?). No. 6 questions ideas about immortality. 7 examines suicide – for and against. Finally the concluding chapter 8 attempts to sum up the human predicament.

In the chapter on the quality of life is a section called Why is there more Bad than Good. Here Benatar lists all the physical and mental pain we might endure and the discomfort of simply getting through everyday life (The horror of trivia covers whether we are too hot, too cold or after eating and drinking we can have distended bladders or bowels, did feel like a rational exaggeration of the low quality of being).

If there is a daily imbalance towards the negative over the positive, then I think a constant shift of perspective is a necessary to get through things and not go under, though that may not be possible for all of us if we are chronically ill.

On death, Benatar says, “We want long lives, but the longer we live, the more reason we have to fear that less life remains.” A quandary that can only be tolerated by living life fully, in good health, mentally and physically, whilst coming to terms with the ageing process? That’s my half-way house solution, not Benatar’s, but I am a cautious optimist by nature.

Perhaps Benatar’s most impressive chapter is on suicide. I have always recoiled at the idea of taking your life – for it’s not simply an end to your mortality but an act of irresponsibility – what of the consequences for those closest to you after your death? Yet when you introduce the thought of being in a vegetative state or terminally ill, and in great pain, can suicide, involuntarily or not, be justified? Is it right and more importantly is it rational?

“Suicide is not an effective means to every end. However, it should be equally clear that suicide may also often be entirely rational under the ends-means conception of rationality. If one’s end is to avoid those of life’s burden’s that can only be avoided by the cessation of one’s life, then suicide is rational.”

This doesn’t make me believe in suicide but Benatar’s case is powerfully made for suicide not be morally condemned, allowing us, despite our overwhelming urge to hang onto life, still resist the visceral shock of the act from clouding our judgement.

The Human Predicament is an uncomfortable book. It doesn’t give you any kind of workable solace or applicable hope. Yet in its confrontational way there is much valuable insight here and finally compassion. David Benatar is a pessimist yet more importantly he’s a probing and deeply caring writer.

Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra bears the sub-title, “A book for everyone and no one.” The Human Predicament is more accessible than Zarathustra though probably another work that’s not for all but definitely for the few whom, in Benatar’s words, “…might describe this book as a work of unpopular philosophy”. It is and ought to be explored. – Alan Price

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