Thursday, May 9, 2013

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: From Here On Once Again

My readers know I am both a skeptic and an optimist
most of the time, but there are also moments, especially
when surveying the history of our little and brief human
civilization, that darker thoughts arise to give another
view of what lies ahead for our impertinent and curious

One of my favorite historians is the late Barbara Tuchman
(whose The Proud Tower, an immensely rich compendium
of pre-World War I life, I prefer most from her many
books) quotes from a 1909 essay by English sociologist
William Trotter, later published in his book Instincts of the 
Herd in Peace and War:

“The probability is very great that, after all, man will
prove to be but one more of Nature’s failures.”

That’s about as pessimistic a statement about the future
that could be made, and it is interesting that Trotter wrote
it before the outbreak of World War I and the most violent
and destructive century in history.

Since 1909, humanity has not only sunk into moments of
unprecedented depravity and self-destruction, but has, at the
same time, made extraordinary advances in medicine,
communications, transportation, chemistry and physics that
even the self-styled prophets of the turn to the 20th century
 (Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Nietszche, et al) could not imagine.

But I write about politics and culture, and I am struck by the
awareness that, despite so many amazing advances in human
knowledge, science and technology, we seem to have made
such little advance in how we live together sharing our
modest planet. In fact, there are now many more of us, and
in terms of our civilization, we may have, on balance, gone
somehow backwards.

Moreover, depending on how you interpret our available
resources of food and energy, the immediate future could
be increasingly problematic, not even considering the
socio-political challenges and threats we face.

The primary reassuring realization I have, which mostly
comes from reading about the pre-world war eras
(1890-1914) and (1920-1939), is that American and European
generations of those eras seemed to feel about the future
in ways analogous to the ways many of us feel today, that
is to say, with a sense of great impending change and
turmoil.  The change and turmoil did happen, but we survived.

The two pre-world war eras previously cited were also
times when the inner and spiritual lives of men and women
were confronted by hitherto unprecedented forces on a
large scale, violent political anarchism/nihilism and militant
anti-religious secularism. I am not equating the two, but the
former began in the pre-World War I period, and the latter
began in the pre-World War II period, and each of them were
traumatic and disillusioning. I must note that they continue
in our own time.

A civilization without a spiritual underpinning, as the Spanish
philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset wrote presciently in 1929,
is capable of anything. I would add, in light of our recent
technology advances, that includes even the suicide of our

Fortunately, I am naturally skeptical, and that includes
skepticism about the self-destruction of civilization any time
soon; and I am naturally optimistic, knowing that even the
words we write and say to each other mean nothing if there
is no hope.

Copyright (c) by Barry Casselman.  All rights reserved.

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