The world seems like a precarious place right now. It feels like we could jump very quickly from slinging mud to slinging missiles. Or, I should say, more missiles by more people, and for a very confusing array of reasons. It is hard to know where the truth lies; a sentence that can deliberately be read two ways. Who are the truth-tellers and whose ‘truth’ is a lie? I don’t know, but I suspect many of the truth-tellers are on the margins, speaking quietly (or not at all), without much of a platform, not many followers. Meanwhile, our world leaders throw around ideas and accusations and stories like teenage participants in an old-style balloon debate at school, except the debate doesn’t end with juice and biscuits in the assembly hall, but with dire consequences.
Philosopher John Gray is making me think. Actually, the more he makes me think, the more he gets me down. It’s his critique of the doctrine of ‘humanism’ that has set me wobbling. He suggests that humanism, with a focus on doing good, living well in the here and now, and leaving the world a better place for those who come after (and who wouldn’t sign up to that?) is inherently utopian in its outlook. Instead, Gray proposes that, often, new generations busily undo advances in ethics and politics that might otherwise be cumulative in improving the human condition, in the same way that advances in science and technology have altered or improved living standards. Gray contends, in opposition to this view, that history is not progressive, but cyclical. In other words, humanity takes two steps forward, then one step back. Alternatively, viewed from this morning’s news backdrop, it would take the sunniest optimist not to conclude that we’re stuck in reverse: one step forward and three steps back.
And that’s what he is making me think, and wonder: is there something in our human nature that is an obstacle to cumulative ethical and political progress? Is there something in us whereby we sabotage improvements; cut off our proverbial noses to spite our own faces? Are we building a stairway to heaven or a stairway to nowhere? The shortness of our collective memory is startling. We seem to have to re-learn with each new generation and the women and men who might best advise with their wisdom, hindsight and first-hand knowledge about the ignominy of war and the pain of suffering, have long since left this world. I realise I sound terribly pessimistic. I’m not. I don’t fully buy into Gray’s philosophy; I’d rather cling to some idealism. The world is full of movers and shakers and dreamers and music makers; those not forsaking the future, those bringing peace to birth.
‘Ode’, by Arthur William Edgar O’Shaughnessy
“We are the music-makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams;
World-losers and world-forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world forever, it seems.
We, in the ages lying
In the buried past of the earth,
Built Nineveh with our sighing,
And Babel itself with our mirth;
And o’erthrew them with prophesying
To the old of the new world’s worth;
For each age is a dream that is dying,
Or one that is coming to birth.”