The Definition of Man (Understanding the Human Condition via “Nacho Libre”)

What exactly is the “human condition”? 

When we think of the human condition, or use it as a reference in why we think the way we think (or, do the things we do), it is something that we understand as something that every human goes through. 

The blood in which we can all find within every single being … is the unending suffering that is the human condition.  It is what separates us from the blissful and ignorant life of an animal, or even a plant. And so, of course, we think, therefore we suffer

While we can understand and accept this as a fact, it doesn’t exactly answer the question. And if we can answer the question, can we better understand ourselves and suffer less?

So, once more: What exactly is the “human condition”?

Well, personally, my favorite protein answer comes from literary theorist Kenneth Burke wrote Language as Symbolic Action in 1966, and in this, offers a very clear-cut “Definition of Man” (also sometimes called the “Definition of Human”). 

Burke’s “Definition of Man” can be seen as five elements that all branch from one to the next:

  1. “Man is the symbol-using (symbol-making, symbol-misusing) animal, 
  2. inventor of the negative (or moralized by the negative), 
  3. separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making, 
  4. goaded by the spirit of hierarchy (or moved by the sense of order), 
  5. and rotten with perfection

All of these together point to our drive for perfection, which is the heart of our suffering as we want to achieve perfection, just as we see our own potential for greatness, and this is unfortunately quite literally impossible. 

Perfection does not exist. And while drive and a will to power is necessary for life (living life). Our drive toward absolute perfection often leads to our going to the extreme ends of things. And at the same time, our idea of “perfection” is what leads us to ethnocentrism, racism, sexism, ageism, or anything that leads us to an “us vs. them” mentality. 

But above all, this sense of “perfection” is also what makes us want to be like everyone else and feel insecure in what we have. 

Before solving the answer to moving being our need for perfection, or our tendency to let it rot, it is important to understand all five elements within the “Definition of Man” first. 

In keeping things fun, let’s go through each aspect as they can be found within the movie Nacho Libre (2006)!

Burke’s “Definition of Man” within the film Nacho Libre (2006) 

1. “Man is the symbol-using (symbol-making, symbol-misusing) animal, 

Symbols are both everywhere and everything (man-made). Even non-things that are more metaphysical are labeled and have symbols. And every day new and different words are being created to make symbols or to shorten the old worn out ones. 

But above all, we have an idea of what everything is. We have symbols for these ideas, sometimes many for one thing. And just like shortened words, acronyms and abbreviations, we have simplified symbols that are more and more simplified every year because we understand what they are. 

The movie Nacho Libre portrays two communities that both heavily use symbols: the Christian church and Lucha Libre wrestling. Very different in their meanings, yes, but both of these communities highly regard clothing and accessories to be symbols of their beliefs and/or achievements in the very same way. 

From the opening credits: tearing away Nacho’s clothes that represent wrestling, rather than Christianity, and points directly toward the symbolism throughout the entire movie, as well as the meaning,  use, and misuse of symbols themselves. What we wear says a great deal about us, and this goes doubly so within professional and/or religious settings. 

Because of this, as an adult and mentor, is it now even more of a risk for Nacho to get caught in wrestling clothes. The two communities (wrestling and the church), carry vastly different values and the symbol of each (clothing-wise) will carry over to your moral dress as well. You aren’t supposed to “wrestle on sacred ground”, but at the same time, you are supposed to visually support violence when you are a man of the cloth, and above all … celebrities promote a “false pride”! 

Largely our clothes, or moreso the specific clothes in this movie, shows our sacrifice and devotion to a certain lifestyle that requires work and effort. The symbolism within the clothes is supposed to be respected in the same vein. 

2. Inventor of the negative (or moralized by the negative)

This point could be taken in many directions as we have negatives all around us. Firstly, most words have an opposite, and if they don’t we can still make it it’s opposite. Second, man has created measurements, painting grids across nature to design a math structure, including negative numbers. Largely, we have created Good and Evil (or bad), and with this, we have labeled everything as one or the other.

Churches and religions themselves create binary modes of thinking with the good (positive) and the evil (negative). Even creating quasi-negative concepts with the classic “I shall not …” statements, which are positive mantras toward a negative

But even within this, Nacho is actually King of the Grey Area. You aren’t supposed to back-talk, wrestle, walk and talk sexy to ladies, let alone nuns! But with all of his lies and deception, in the end, Nacho does care a lot about the children and seems to thoroughly understand the morality of caring for the orphans … or not.

Largely, man has created negatives where nature has not. And whether or not you like it, there is wrestling in nature. And I’m sure even lions know when someone wins or loses. But as both winners and losers get paid in wrestling, it really is just all fun and games. So once again, Nacho’s happy as the King of the Grey Area!

3. Separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making,

Amazingly enough, Nacho Libre is a very close-to-nature kind of character. But of course, he cannot get away from using tools and tools for those tools.  Admittedly, every THING is a tool, and so the entire conversation on the clothing within the movie can be copied and pasted here. 

Tools are largely used as symbols. Whether we like it or not, everything portrays us towards society in a certain way. And from within the rules of lucha libre wrestling, it is incredibly dishonorable and disrespectful to take off another wrestler’s mask.  

The tools for the tools Nacho uses are the initial creation of his wrestling outfit, drawn as a prototype for what he wants as his adult costume. This drawing is used as a tool for the sewing pattern, and in the total process, there are a lot more tools for tools that are used. 

Above all, all the way down to the first hammer or wheel, the tools we create from our imagination are what separate us from animals. And it’s our ability to see things as tools for tools that feed our creativity, innovation, and truly our ability to grow as a species. 

4. Goaded by the spirit of hierarchy (or moved by the sense of order)

It is no secret that humans like order. But it’s also no secret that humans naturally arrange themselves in an order, a societal, hierarchical, casted order that defines groups above and below others. Some understand this as the Iron Law of Oligarchy, but others simply understand it as the shittiest fact of life. 

There is a hierarchy within the church as well as in the wrestling community. And in each one, Nacho tries to climb higher on the ladder, or at least to gain more respect in his current position. First, we see that Nacho has been in the same position for nearly his entire life. But what we don’t realize is that Nacho really don’t enjoy his job because his job is to make everyone food and he isn’t able to make good food. 

It may not be that Nacho wants a higher position in the church, but it can be seen that with his crappy food, no one really respects him. With infinitely better food, in the same position, Nacho would at least be happy making good food for everyone, which will lend him the respect that he deserves. It is not his fault that he isn’t able to make better food, but the church does treat it like it is his fault, making him feel worse about the position he is in. 

Within the wrestling community, there is also a very obvious hierarchy. Namely, Nacho is a huge fan of the most famous wrestler, but he turns out to be the bad guy of the film. It is not that Nacho wants to beat him in order to be higher on the social ladder … but he does want to gain the mutual respect of what is now his peer. There is a party scene in Nacho Libre, where he and his partner in crime, are denied entry because they’re “not on the list” … and I get that. But it’s the community that they want to belong to, and are starting to get into (with some popularity and everything). But alas … after finding their way in, our boys are publically humiliated, each in their own awful way. 

5. And rotten with perfection

In Burke’s essay, he shows clearly that even bad things can have a perfect form, such as villains, fools, or even problems. And as nature does not see Good or Bad, the most perfect tornado can also be the most deadly tornado. It is for this reason that “perfection” does not mean Good or Bad, it means that it is hit the maximum in whatever effort it is attempting. 

Within the communities of both the church and wrestling, I believe it would be Greed that would be the ultimate Bad perfection. You wouldn’t think Nacho Libre would have shown signs of greed, as he is very spiritual, but of course, the fame does get to his head and he tries to use it to his advantage.

For instance, after gaining his first bit of riches, rather than buying delicious meats for the church and the orphans (which he seemed to desperately want to do before), Nacho buys himself a new outfit to show off his buns to the hot new nun at church. Greed deprives us of our rational thinking and simply feeds our need for a higher social order and rotten perfection.

But even the ending of the movie is rotten with perfection!! But in a Good way, of course. Not that we completely get the girl, but we win the match, we buy the orphans a bus for trips, and then take the greatest vacation of all time in a beautiful new outfit with the girl and the orphans (aka we’re back in the church), everybody wins!!! 

Life hardly ever works out like this: where we win almost completely. And this is something that we truly have to accept in life in order to build the correct expectations for the future. Leaving our hopes too high is the core of our suffering because all we want to see is the fruit of our perfection. 

The conclusion of Kenneth Burke’s “Definition of Man” essay articulates the concepts with the use and reimagination of an old Mother Goose Rhyme, If All The Seas Were One Sea: 

First, the original goes as thus: 

If all the trees were one tree
What a great tree that would be.

If all the axes were one axe
What a great axe that would be.

If all the men were one man
What a great man he would be.

And if all the seas were one sea
What a great sea that would be.

And if the great man
Took the great axe
And chopped down the great tree
And let it fall into the great sea

What a Splish-Splash that would be!

And for Burke, “modernized [and] perfected,” the poem goes like this: 

If all the thermo-nuclear warheads 
Were one thermo-nuclear warhead 
What a great thermo-nuclear warhead that would be. 

If all the intercontinental ballistic missiles 
Were one intercontinental ballistic missile 
What a great intercontinental ballistic missile that would be. 

If all the military men 
Were one military man 
What a great military man he would be. 

And if all the land masses 
Were one land mass
What a great land mass that would be. 

And if the great military man 
Took the great thermo-nuclear warhead 
And put it into the great intercontinental ballistic missile 
And dropped it on the great land mass, 

What great PROGRESS that would be!

You know the game Risk? Risk is a game where 2 to 6 players can roll the dice and try to take over the entire planet

You may be surprised to hear this, but the game uses a map of the earth and is largely just 

  • A symbol for war
  • With winners and losers, (sometimes just good and bad luck)
  • But truly, it’s a tool to learn about … combative strategies and tactics 
  • And in the end, the winners win and the losers lose
  • Leaving just one man standing 

The game Risk and Burke’s poem are really one and the same/ A perfect game has 1 ruler over the entire world, annihilating 1 to 5 other players. Applying the same line of thought to Capitalism, this is why building a Monopoly is illegal. But this is a game too!! 

By our truest nature, we want to grow our perfection to its utmost rottenest!! And this will always be our undoing if we don’t take a minute to realize what perfection we are gearing ourselves up for. 

In the end – by knowing more about our human condition, can we better relieve our suffering? 

I’ve said it a thousand times before and I can’t say it enough: we truly have to rewrite our brains to redefine what suffering is. In this instance, we have to redefine what perfection looks like. Of course, we still have to have a drive, a will to power, and a vision of our potential! But we also have to have an understanding of what reality looks like. Building the right expectations in life is what relieves our suffering. 

Lastly, I do want to mention this: Burke is a literary theorist with a large focus on language. 

And so his “Definition of Man” is written from that point of view. In consideration to our human condition, much of our suffering also comes from our being mortal (or limited), which also adds to our drives, motivations, and our will (to power). 

This is not to say that Burke’s answer is wrong, it could just have a 6th element: 

  1. “Man is the symbol-using (symbol-making, symbol-misusing) animal, 
  2. inventor of the negative (or moralized by the negative), 
  3. separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making, 
  4. goaded by the spirit of hierarchy (or moved by the sense of order), 
  5. and rotten with perfection”
  6. And limited by time and himself

But let’s be honest, this would have taken it from a 25-page paper to a 3000-page novel.

Now, before I go, I want to leave you with an example that I heard from my professor when I was learning all of this in school. 

The rotten perfection of an acorn … is an oak tree. 

However, the rotten perfection of your (hypothetical) daughter on a date with a guy … is your daughter ruining her life completely with drugs, sex, and rock and roll. 

Extreme perfections can only go one way in nature. 

But within the minds of humanity, taking perfection to the extreme can go any which way.