The Human Predicament – A Reflection on the Meaning of Human Life – Part 4

What is man? He is so strong, yet so fragile, so powerful, yet so weak, so great, yet so miserable. He is so curious to know, and knows so much about the physical universe, yet he is so ignorant about himself. He is in fact a problem a problem to himself, a mystery beyond his comprehension. He cannot answer his own questions about himself.



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The human person is the most marvelous and most complex being in the universe. The marvels of the human person by far surpass those of the physical universe.  The brevity of human life, the vicissitudes of life, man’s power and weakness, his dignity and misery, his joys and sorrows, his finitude, his experience of suffering, sickness, disease, death and decay, his anxieties, fears and worries, are all starting points for reflection and deep thinking. Buddha’s philosophy for instance arose from his reflection on human suffering- old age, disease, death and decay. Reflection on these phenomena of human life gives rise to some fundamental questions about the nature, purpose and meaning of human life on this earth.

What is man? He is so strong, yet so fragile, so powerful, yet so weak, so great, yet so miserable. He is so curious to know, and knows so much about the physical universe, yet he is so ignorant about himself. He is in fact a problem a problem to himself, a mystery beyond his comprehension. He cannot answer his own questions about himself. From time immemorial, man has been preoccupied with questions about his origin, nature and destiny.

What am I? Why do I live? What is the meaning of my life? What, in the final analysis, is the ultimate value of my life? Where do I go from here? Am I heading for nothingness? There are of course many people who do not bother asking themselves such questions about the meaning and purpose of their lives. They just go on from day to day living unexamined lives. They work, eat, drink, struggle for money and wealth, marry and beget children among other desires. They just want to be like ‘others’ and they are submerged in their daily routine, without ever asking themselves what it all means in the final analysis. Man is a being who does not understand himself; and puts his own very being into question.

Man has natural desire for continued existence, his strongest instinct is that of self-preservation and self-perpetuation in existence. Yet his life span is brief and is often terminated contrary to his deepest desire. All his efforts to resist the imposed termination of his life are futile- off he goes whether he likes it or not. He is forced out of this world without even knowing where he is going. He did not choose to come to this world. He simply finds himself in this world without knowing why and sooner or later he will be forced out of it.

What then is the ultimate meaning of man’s existence? What is the ultimate value of man’s life? What is he living for? Has his life any ultimate meaning? We all know that we eat to live, but what do we live to do? Why do we live?

Albert Camus, a renowned French philosopher tells us that there is only one truly serious philosophical question, and that is, is human life meaningful or meaningless? This is also the most serious problem about human life? Albert Camus is quite right. Many people do commit suicide because they find life meaningless. They feel that a meaningless life is not worth living. They therefore terminate it.

Man is great, but at the same time weak and miserable with insatiable desires. Man is the greatest being in the universe, yet he is so fragile that a little thing such as a bullet, for instance can annihilate him. He is wretched but he is great even in his wretchedness because he knows his wretchedness. The fact that he is aware of his wretchedness shows that he knows what he ought to be more than he actually is. He knows that he is not really his true self, that he used to be more than he is at present. In other words, man is conscious of his fallen state. It is only a deposed king that feels happy about his state of not being a king. If he had never being a king at all he will not feel unhappy about he not being a king. Man is a deposed king, a fallen creature, longing to be restored to his former dignity. In a similar way, Jean Paul Sartre describes man as a being who is not what he is and who is what he is not, a being who carries a vacuum, an emptiness within him at the heart of his being. Nothing can satisfy him as long as he carries that vacuum inside him at the heart of his being. No amount of money, no amount of wealth, wine or women can satisfy man’s deepest yearning because nothing can fill that vacuum inside him. This means that all his endeavours in life to acquire wealth are futile. Expressing similar ideas about man’s dissatisfaction and restlessness, Augustine says to God: You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.

Augustine, who in his youth, lived a care free life, later learnt from experience that nothing can satisfy the deepest yearning of the human heart.

In his Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus illustrates in a dramatic way the futility of human endeavours and the absurdity of human existence. He compares human existence to the life of Sisyphus who spent all his life rolling a heavy stone up a hill. He would start early in the morning rolling the stone up the hill and spend the whole day rolling it, exerting all his energy and perspiring profusely all over his body. When at last he succeeded in rolling it to the top of the hill, the stone will roll down the hill, and Sisyphus would come down and start all over rolling the stone up the hill again, exerting all his energy as before. And when again he succeeded in reaching the top of the hill with the stone, it would again roll down the hill. Sisyphus kept doing this every day of his life until he died. He worked very hard, but what did he achieve in the end? What was the meaning of what he spent his whole life doing? What was the purpose? It had no meaning, no purpose. It was totally absurd exercise. He lived a meaningless life. Is human life on earth less absurd than the life of Sisyphus?

We wake up in the morning, brush our teeth, take our bath, take our breakfast, dress up and go out struggling for one thing or another- money, food, wealth etc. We struggle the whole day and come back home in the evening to sleep. The following morning, we wake up to go through the routine again, brush our teeth, take our bath, take our breakfast, dress up and we are out again, struggling till evening. This goes on till we die and it is all over. What have we achieved in the end? What in the final analysis are we going to do with all the money, all the wealth we spend our life struggling to acquire?  We shall leave them behind when we die and go to the grave?

The Problem of Evil

The most disturbing problem that makes human life appear meaningless is the problem of evil. This is the problem that has plagued human life from its very beginning and has disturbed the human mind from time immemorial. It has become an insoluble problem, a puzzle and in fact, a mystery to the human mind. It is natural evil for instance that leads one to ask whether human life has any meaning at all, or any purpose. A visit for example to a home for mentally retarded children or physically handicapped children, disabled people, paralytics, terminally sick people in great pain, or a mortuary, prompts one to ask whether human life has any meaning at all. This was what led Job to curse the day he was born. He wished he had died as soon as he was born.

The absurdity of human existence and the futility of all human struggles dawns on one also at funerals or interment. As the coffin is lowered into the grave it dawns on one that it is all over for the deceased, that this is the final end of all his struggles, all his endeavours, all his wealth, and that the very same fate awaits us all.


Death is the worst evil that happens to man, an evil that makes human life appear purposeless and meaningless.  Sartre concludes that ‘If we have to die, then our life has no meaning’ the strongest instinct in both in both men and animals is the instinct of self-preservation or self-perpetuation. It is the instinct to avoid death, the instinct to continue living. Yet death is the surest thing that will happen to us. If there is only one thing that is unmistakably certain, which no skeptic has ever doubted or can ever doubt, is that death is inevitable. It is certain that we shall all die because we were all condemned to death even before we were born. ‘As soon as a man is born,’ says Heidegger, ‘he is old enough to die’. Some people are not even born before they die, they die in the womb before they are born. Some die just as they as born, some die a few minutes after they are born, some a few hours, others a few days, some are few months, others a few years. Some live to ripe old age. Death can come and does come at any time in a person’s life, at any age, from ante-natal state, to infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood to old age.


Inusah Awuni – MPhil, MA, BA

( Lecturer – AUCC & DUC )


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