There is a natural longing in human nature for an ideal society. We see this longing expressed in the popularity of books through the ages that have depicted societies of peaceful, high-minded citizens living together in friendliness, cooperation, and harmony. The story of the Garden of Eden has ageless appeal. Indeed, the idea of a state where human perfection existed, and where all the people were honest, truthful, innocent, and kind carries almost the suggestion of a racial memory.
In recent centuries, that dream has been pilloried. The exploded myth of Nazism (Hitler’s German National Socialist Workers Party); of dictatorial communism and its brutish “dictatorship of the proletariat”; harsh present realities (so different, alas, from lofty first expectations) in the American “dream,” and the disappointment new societies face everywhere: In these we see justified the growing cynicism that is evident all around us.
We live in an age of social, moral, ideational, and spiritual confusion. Values are often dismissed as “merely relative” and therefore lacking in objective validity. Our basest instincts are paraded before us as the essence of who we really are, as human beings. Beauty in the arts is belittled, and the ugliest distortions of a fevered imagination are defended in the name of honest self-expression.
The purpose of this book is to help you to thread your way past errors that have to a great extent distracted people’s understanding. My aim is not to concentrate deeply on the problems (they are obvious enough!), but wherever possible to look for solutions. I hope, moreover, to offer real solutions, and not merely to nibble away with a few minor objections at the edges of each problem. I’d like, wherever opportunity opens the door, to propose sweeping answers. Ultimately I’ll offer a sort of “unified field theory” of human progress. Will I succeed? or am I being merely presumptuous? That is for you to decide. Many of the writers whose ideas I’ll critique were men of insight. All of them, certainly, were intelligent. Indeed, they are considered geniuses.
Sometimes, however, the questions people address, especially people of keen intelligence, miss issues that touch our lives most closely as human beings. First, an abstraction is proposed; then it is discussed heatedly for decades or even centuries. And then, to everyone’s astonishment, someone comes along and — like the child when he beheld the emperor’s new (but imaginary) suit of clothes — cries out, “Why, that’s the wrong question! What you’ve been saying is interesting, no doubt, but it misses the point. It leads nowhere. And it diminishes our understanding rather than increasing it. Let’s be not only intelligent: Let us be practical!”
Sometimes it is helpful to step back from an argument and ask oneself, “What is this really all about?” Intelligence, when it sets itself up as the only arbiter, can deceive. Important also in the pursuit of truth is the calm, unanswerable impulse within us which says, “Both sides make sense, but this one feels true, whereas that other one doesn’t.” If it should happen that logic supports both sides, wisdom tells us to abide by what, in inner calmness, feels right. Actually, it is not unusual for both sides to be right, each in its own way. In this case, compromise may produce deeper understanding.
My hope is, by avoiding unrealistic “solutions” — like those proposed in books that champion utopia, for example — to show that a way may indeed be found out of the dark labyrinth of cynicism into a sunny world of promise which, so our hearts tell us, surely awaits mankind someday, somewhere, somehow. Indeed, if the future holds nothing better for us than the past, worn to deep ruts as it was by old habits of thinking, then life itself can hardly fail to end up a wasteland. For, despite anything science can do about it, mankind faces the bleak prospect of cities doomed to increasing congestion, increasing tension and anxiety, increasing water and air pollution, and increasing damage of a subtler kind also: mental, moral, and spiritual. Solutions must be found, for mankind is rapidly losing faith in anything except what Ayn Rand praised with childish arrogance as “The great God, Ego.”
Toward the end of the eighteenth century, Thomas Malthus published a book on the improbability that man will ever develop an ideal world. Many people of his day dreamed of a future paradise on earth, where prosperity, brotherhood, and happiness would prevail universally. Malthus titled his book, An Essay on the Principle of Population. It was only 50,000 words long, yet it attacked with crystal-clear logic the hope for social perfection.
The paper’s full title was, An Essay on the Principle of Population as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society, with Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, Mr. Condorcet, and Other Writers. William Godwin in England and the Marquis de Condorcet in France had, along with others, envisioned a golden future for mankind, a world of utter — though utterly unrealistic — perfection. Their rainbow balloons positively invited pricking, and it was Thomas Malthus, finally, who did the job using the sharp needle of common sense. In so doing, to general dismay, he laid bare harsh facts that deeply disturbed many people. With youthful exuberance, but incontrovertibly (within his own context), he pointed out that human nature causes the population of the world to increase by geometric progression, whereas the earth’s capacity to feed its inhabitants can only increase by arithmetic progression. In time, he declared, the first progression is bound to smash head-on against the solid wall of the second, and people everywhere will starve. Only temporary impediments can delay this process: set-backs in the timing caused by such disasters (decidedly unparadise-like!) as war, poverty, disease, and natural cataclysms. In the absence of such miseries, the geometric increase must continue unchecked.
Godwin and Condorcet had invited the ice bath of realism into which Malthus dumped their theories! Indeed, his logic has never so far been conclusively refuted, although science has managed to delay his bleak day of reckoning somewhat.
Other factors, too, have temporarily postponed the disaster owing to another aspect of human nature: man’s lust for committing mayhem. Human beings have annihilated their fellows by the millions. The Khmer Rouge decimated the population of Cambodia on the absurd premise that people’s class, training, and social status wholly defined them as human beings. The communist regimes in Russia and China together are “credited” with having killed over a hundred million of their “comrades.” World Wars I and II did their own bit in the thinning process. And diseases have brought greater holocausts than any horror of man’s doing.
The influenza epidemic of 1918 took more human lives than the entire number of people killed in World War I. The Bubonic Plague of the seventeenth century wiped out a quarter of the population of Europe. And in our own day AIDS, Ebola, and other deadly enemies of mankind threaten to wipe out millions, thereby delaying further Malthus’s day of reckoning.
Contraception has of course helped to curtail population growth. Yet the explosion continues. Indeed, where religion prohibits contraception the fire has spread unchecked.
It is ironic that well-to-do couples, able to support large families, often have fewer children. At present, population in the wealthier nations is either static or diminishing. Even so, elsewhere in the world, as I’ve said, the explosion continues.
The reason for this increase lies, one suspects, in Malthus’s reminder regarding human nature. Poor people have few pleasures besides sex to divert them. Squalor, moreover, imposes an inadequate diet, which draws the energy, and therefore the consciousness, downward in the body, toxically irritating the sex nerves. Other explanations have been given for the relatively large progeny of poor families. It is said that farmers, for example, need children to supply free labor for their farms. (Adam Smith had a fair amount to say about the “free” nature of such labor!) One wonders, however, whether many of the poor reason it all out so deliberately. Sociologists, whose fondness for reasoning induces them to project that predilection onto everyone else, are apt to misread the motives of those less educated than they. Poor people usually have neither the education nor the inclination to view their own future so rationally. Most of them accept what comes, including the children born to them, with a resigned sigh and the rationalization, “If God wants us to have ’em, He’ll help us to feed ’em.” With or without reason, then, they obey the biblical commandment, “Be fruitful and multiply.”
Well-to-do couples, on the other hand, are more likely to plan their future with some care. Financial security gives them a variety of options, and they have many things to satisfy them besides the sex drive. Higher education and a more gracious standard of living provide them with a better diet. These factors all combined help to draw their energy and consciousness upward, instead of keeping them centered in lower, animal drives.
Malthus himself — cynically, one suspects — offered what he must have known was an impracticable solution: He suggested that people either delay marriage until their income rises adequately, or else practice “moral restraint” — that is to say, chastity. Realistically, of course, the poorer classes are the ones least likely to practice self-control of any kind. Few among them would be willing to delay marriage in hope of an unlikely future prosperity, or on the other hand to live together in voluntary chastity. Restraint demands a certain mental equilibrium, which usually is impossible for those whose lives lack outer balance also. It is probable that anyone caught in a tailspin of unpaid bills, screaming children, and the daily trudge between a gray life at home and gray, mindless labor in the factory will not be inclined to exercise any self-control at all.
Fortunately perhaps, Nature does seem to be interesting herself in the problem. Apart from plagues, earthquakes, and other natural catastrophes, the male sperm count has recently measured considerably lower than it once did.
Debates on the issues covered in this book have been pursued with an astonishing degree of anger. One marvels. After all, a proposition is either provable or disprovable. Why get excited about it? Yet, the controversies have raged. Usually, in such matters, that side is the more impressive which answers calmly, with supporting reasons based on solid facts. This consideration alone ought to have had a calming influence on the debate, since facts alone were at issue.
Human nature being what it is, however, calmness has often been swept aside. The outrage created by these ideas has been emotional, seldom or never bolstered by objective reasoning, and intensely biased. Max Planck, the famous German physicist, wrote in his Scientific Autobiography, “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”
Malthus’s essay, though it betrays a certain youthful brashness (he was only thirty-two when his essay was first published), presented known facts, not mere opinions. The storm of controversy it created, however, was based only on opinions, not on facts. William Cobbett referred in writing to “Malthus and his nasty and silly disciples.” Religious writers expostulated that Malthus, a clergyman, was wholly devoid of faith in God. Such, indeed, has always been the outcry against new proposals in every field. Critics, finding they couldn’t respond with reason, decided their only recourse was to shout.
Commentaries on utopia, too — both for and against the ideal — have been more emotional than reasoned. Plato, the earliest exponent of the ideal society that we know of, was at least reasonable in his presentation — indeed, too reasonable! — as he expounded his concept in The Republic.
The word, “utopia,” derives from a book by Thomas More, who lived during the reign of Henry VIII (and was executed by him). His book was published first in Latin with the title, Libellus vere aureus nec minus salutaris quam festivus . . . deque nova Insula Utopia (not unfashionably long for those days, actually!). Appearing in 1516, the book was an instant success. It was published in English in 1551, sixteen years after the author’s death, with a title hardly easier on us today than its Latin version: A fruteful and pleasaunt Worke of the beste State of a publyque Weale, and of the newe yle, called Utopia. Literally, the word “utopia” means “no place” (from the Greek ou, no, and topos, place). More’s book was a satire on English society of his day, and offered suggestions for how its prevailing ills might be corrected.
Since that time, other serious writers have proposed what each one thought might be the ideal society. Always, the focus was on the mechanics of social structure, not on attitudes that might be inspired in people as individuals. Notable among these works were New Atlantis (1627) by Francis Bacon; Voyage en Icarie (1840) by Étienne Cabet; Looking Backward 2000-1887 (1888) by Edward Bellamy, an American; and Islandia (1942) by Austin Tappan Wright.
Columbus’s discovery of the New World in 1492 gave people hope that perhaps a sort of earthly Eden might be found at last. The popular imagination soared in anticipation of news that somewhere on earth a noble race had been found. Was the dream of earthly perfection, just possibly, one that would be realized? The French artist Gauguin awakened fantasies of an island paradise in Tahiti when he sailed there and began painting the simple islanders: Had he discovered the innocence described so touchingly by Rousseau in his concept of the “noble savage”? Many people dared hope so.
Reality, however, soon stepped in and punctured, one by one, all those gaily colored balloons.
Copernicus, the founder of modern astronomy (he began his university education in 1491, the year before Columbus “sailed the ocean blue”) was the first to unseat man from his throne of dignity in God’s universal plan. Until the time of Columbus and Copernicus, people thought the earth was flat and fixed firmly at the center of everything. Columbus, after studying ancient maps, claimed that the world is round, and then proceeded to prove his claim by sailing partway around it to America. Copernicus not long afterward showed empirically that the earth is not stationary, but moves through space. The sun, he said, not the earth, is the center of everything that is. Humanity was demoted in importance, and many people – church dignitaries, notably – didn’t like it. It offended their sense of the fitness of things to have some mere contemporary tell them that man was not so essential in the great scheme of things as tradition had taught them to believe!
After Copernicus there followed other pioneers in science such as Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton. Gradually, amid storms of protest and anathemas, science proceeded to reduce people’s self-esteem to the point where it seemed that man’s place was not really significant at all. Thus, scientific advancement lured thinking minds away from theology and spiritual matters to the more mundane question of how, instead of why, things function as they do. Interest shifted from meaning to mechanisms. With passing time, it became almost de rigeur for intellectuals to belittle non-materialistic ideals altogether while boasting their own scientific impersonality.
Thus, in contrast to persisting dreams of social perfection, there arose a growing cynicism, produced to a large extent by the discoveries of science. The Age of Reason in the eighteenth century; the materialistic bias of the nineteenth century; the growing skepticism of the twentieth century: All these caused a widespread loss of faith in transcendent realities of any kind.
Satires were written on the notion of human perfectibility. Famous among these were Candide by Voltaire, and Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (which suggests “nowhere,” spelled backward). “Utopia” came in time to be equated with its literal meaning: “Nowhere” — an imaginary place. Thus, it came also to suggest any impractical scheme for social perfectibility.
In biology, Darwin’s Theory of Evolution offered the antithesis to the biblical story of creation and to the idyllic existence of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
In political science, Machiavelli, early in the sixteenth century, was already expressing profound cynicism about the human state. In his treatise, The Prince, he offered methods to the rulers of nations for bending the people to their will.
In social theory, Karl Marx proposed, later on, a social order in which the manual laborer is the ideal human being. His “dictatorship of the proletariat” was an emotional reaction against the privileged classes, from which Marx felt that he, too, had been unjustly excluded. What his philosophy did, when stripped to its essence, was present social mechanisms as the entire reality of human existence. Unconscious matter was, to him, the fundamental reality. Genius and high aspiration were fragile superstructures quivering on a bedrock of unheeding Nature. Lofty ideals are, according to his philosophy, mere sentimentalism. Man’s reality is animalistic, not spiritual. As for religion — well! that, in his words, is merely “the opiate of the people.”
Marx’s philosophy was a natural successor to Darwin’s theory of evolution. Marx felt he’d discovered the principle of social evolution.
Not long after Marx, Sigmund Freud entered the fray, emphasizing “unconscious” drives as the explanation for every aspect of human consciousness.
Pandora’s box had by this time been flung open wide. Emotional diatribes against concepts people considered unpalatable tried to slam the lid shut, but all they accomplished was — as in the Greek myth of Pandora — to deny humanity its last remaining “gift”: Hope. (The meaning of “Pandora” is “all gifts”: pan, all, and dora, gifts.) By emotionally rejecting what reason had brought out into the open, Hope itself was left “alone and palely loitering” (to quote from the poem by John Keats: “Ah what can ail thee, wretched wight, alone and palely loitering?”) Hope, belittled and suppressed, grew pale and sickly. What was left, then? nothing but wishful thinking.
What I’d like to do in this book is, briefly, to look at each of those challenges, investigate their reasoning (though not necessarily to proceed from their premises), and then to suggest new, common-sense answers, or alternatives.
Here, for example, is what might be said in answer to Malthus’s dire predictions: Do his statistics really spell doom for humanity? Not at all! They might easily be nullified by worldwide prosperity, as has in fact been suggested. We’ve seen in fact that prosperity results, generally speaking, in people producing fewer progeny. This fact suggests hope, not despair. Through the pages that follow, and fighting off the hypnosis of a priori assumptions, I will ask: Is this challenge really as threatening as it seems? Does it really presage disaster, or inflict upon us a numbing despair? May not those very facts suggest, when viewed in a new light, a future that promises to be noble and beautiful?
Indeed, though utopia may be too much to hope for, isn’t there some reasonable hope, at least, for a better future, instead of the certainty of utter ruin?
Back to that question of worldwide prosperity: Is it possible that it may be achieved? Yes, certainly it is! More than possible: It is probable!
How then, do you ask? Please, dear friend and reader, read on.