Monday, June 21, 2010

Human Society in Ethics and Politics, Part Two, Chapter X

Part Two, Chapter X (pages 235-239), “Prologue or Epilogue?”

Man’s earthly existence is quite recent from a geological perspective, and the birth of civilization is even more recent. Progress over the last few thousand years has not been uniform, but sporadic, with little gain between the Ancient Greeks and about five hundred years ago. Change since then has been so rapid as to leave observers with vertigo. But perhaps man’s time on earth is just beginning, perhaps there will be many millions of years in the human future. Presumably our future lies in our own making.

Our intelligence can be put to bad ends. “To describe man as a mixture of god and beast is hardly fair to the beasts [p. 236].” Beasts could not produce a Hitler or Stalin, could not first imagine hell and then create one on earth. Why should we care about the perpetuation of this diabolical species?

But we shouldn’t ignore the other side of humanity, its ability to increase knowledge and create beauty, to generate love and sympathy. Perhaps the possession of these virtues, exceptional in the past, will become the standard for the future, and outstanding people in times to come will be as far above Shakespeare as he is above today’s average person. We have that within us to make life pleasant for virtually everyone, though we must choose wise leaders, not “cruel mountebanks [p. 238].” Human happiness resides in giving scope to our highest potentialities. (Shades here of John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism, as he relates in On Liberty, where he endorses “utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being.”) Full happiness is not now available, because there is so much suffering that sympathetic feelings necessarily undermine contentment – but a future without that suffering, and hence with access to profound satisfaction, is feasible. Do those tiny people in power today, surely in Russia but also elsewhere, sense these possibilities? “I suppose that never for a moment have they thought of man as a single species with possibilities that may be realized or thwarted [p. 239].” But we can hope, perhaps against reason, that leaders of a better ilk will emerge and prevail.

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