Chapter 8 Pausing the Cosmos
A Dream of Enlightenment
Americans felt confidence in their world at the birth of the 20th century. The decades ahead would be unperturbed by the uncertainties of international politics, for America still adhered to the Monroe doctrine of 1823, which declared the Western hemisphere closed to further colonization and expressed the US policy of non-intervention abroad. An international peace conference had been held in The Hague in 1899 and a year later the US adopted the gold standard so that its paper money would always be backed up with something tangible.
In that same period British children were taught that all those red areas on the map of the world were British colonies and protectorates. The British Empire, they were told, was much vaster than any Empire in the history of the world. It literally spanned the globe, so that the sun would never set on its boundaries. How could such an Empire, based on trade and paternalistic administration, ever falter?
Americans and Europeans alike were inheritors of the great Enlightenment dream whereby people could be improved and society bettered through knowledge and education. The 18th century Enlightenment philosophers had expressed their confidence in the power of reason and the value of progress. They believed it would be possible to eliminate extremes of poverty and inequality. Cities would be orderly, rational places. And, once they had been freed from want, human beings could be counted on to act in the best interests of those around them and treat others as they would wish to be treated themselves. If crime and antisocial behavior were the result of poor housing and faulty social conditions then such ills would be eradicated by rational social planning. With a well-educated and properly informed public, true democracy would be possible.
This dream was based on a set of collectively held certainties, values that everyone espoused - the common good, maximum happiness, reason, free will, good government and the rule of order. It had its seeds in the city states of the past, from Athens of classical Greece, to Florence and Venice of the Renaissance. (That is not to say that other peoples, from the Shang of Ancient China to the Blackfoot and Iroquois confederations in North America, did not also organize themselves wisely).
City states were small enough, and sufficiently compact, for a vibrant democracy to be practiced (although suffrage was by no means universal). A small group of elected officials, responsible to the whole society, could act in an enlightened and responsible way, and make wise and sensible decisions to give society its internal stability and protection from outside disturbance. The citizens of such states were both content and creative. Not only did they practice trade, but they had a love for art, music, literature, and beautiful public buildings. The artist Piero della Francesca, for example, drew up plans for an Ideal City, for, after all, rational people should live in rational spaces. In turn, a city founded on mathematical principles would induce harmonious and orderly behavior in its citizens.
Even the Dionysian elements of human nature were not ignored by such rational societies. Room was made for them so that they did not erupt in an uncontrolled way to threaten peace and order. Venice, and other city states, had their periodic, during which sexual license was permitted, but always within a framework that would contain rule-breaking. By hiding their faces behind masks, for example, anonymity was preserved so that family relationships would remain uncompromised. When, in the 16th century, Venice experienced a rise in the number of male prostitutes, the city avoided any confrontation with the rules of the Church regarding homosexuality by decreeing that a man wearing a female mask was officially a "masked woman" and therefore free from arrest. The forces of human desire were thereby contained though the exercise of wisdom.
The Enlightenment had turned its back on superstition by stressing that "man" is a rational animal. Then came the Utilitarians, John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham, who argued that it was possible to maximize human happiness, just as it is possible to quantify and maximize any other commodity. The eighteenth century also saw the rise of science and an increased faith in the power of knowledge. Its logical outcome was the belief that science and its associated technologies could solve the outstanding problems faced by society. Such problems would be approached in a "scientific way" using logic, knowledge, and the ability to predict the future through mathematics.
The faith in a scientific future reached his heights with such technological optimists as H.G. Wells (although Wells could also see science and the future of human society in a pessimistic light). Human beings would discover inexhaustible sources of free energy; they would live longer; disease and famine would be eliminated; all knowledge would be revealed to us. Thanks to rapid communication and ease of travel we would realize that we inhabit a single world and wars and conflicts would be things of the past. Poverty and inequality would be eliminated and there would be a world government of benevolent technocrats. This was the image of the future at the dawn of the twentieth century.
The Sleep of Reason
Yet in the years that followed two world wars erupted, along with countless other armed conflicts, mass repressions, ethnic cleansing, the holocaust, germ and chemical warfare, environmental devastation, and the threat of nuclear annihilation. Such events left many thinkers in a state of shock. Artists, composers, and writers asked how it would ever be possible to make new works in the shadow of such horrors. How could they express beauty, joy, confidence, and hope in the light of everything that had happened? Even science had become tainted. In the words of Oppenheimer, with the exploding of the atomic bomb science knew "original sin." Supposedly decent people- , physicists, chemists, engineers, and psychologists, have devoted their talents to the production of weapons of mass destruction - nuclear bombs, rockets, poison gases, germs and viruses - as well as the means to brainwash, torture, and destroy the human personality. Politicians, bureaucrats, and generals had drawn up plans for mass annihilation, the destruction of entire populations, and ethnic cleansing.
The greatest horror is that, after the devastation of two world wars and the constant threat of nuclear annihilation of life on earth, the old patterns of thought continue. Disputes are still resolved by violence and war. In some cases violence is brutal and direct, as with the rape and butchery of populations, in others it takes advantage of high technology to deliver death at a distance with rockets and electronics. It seems that even our most sophisticated science and technology is being put to the service of our most primitive drives and reactions.
Despite all our new knowledge, our science, our international courts, the United Nations, and our ability to communicate globally so that "nation shall speak peace to nation," the terrible mess still continues. Does this mean that reason and science are insufficient? Is the human race an evolutionary experiment that is now failing to the point where it could well destroy both itself and the environment that supports it? Did human consciousness develop too rapidly to deal with the technologies it created? As moral beings, are we doomed to lapse again and again? Is there any way we can be saved?