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Signposts

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Why does reciting the litany of our crimes and misfortunes feel so good?

Every age declares it to be worse than what came before. 

Why does it feel so good to assume the worst? What draws us to the most miserable descriptions of ourselves and our neighbours?

No doubt there’s an element of self-protection involved here: Optimists may spend their lives being disappointed, whilst pessimists spend theirs being surprised. 

But the answer may go deeper than that, and history can give us a clue. In 1762, it was Rousseau’s works denying original sin that were consigned to the bonfires, whereas his rivals, Thomas Hobbes’, were not. 

It is Hobbes’s view that has stuck. Humankind is corrupt and liable to corrode whatever it is near. Better to have something to blame than to feel the universe is senseless – even if the blame falls on us. If it has meaning, almost anything can be borne.

 

Original Sin

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But since we do not know the future, shouldn’t we choose the view most likely to improve it? Original sin may feel comfortable, but it leaves us with no prospects save despair or grace.

Yet whether sacred or secular, original sin is not an object of knowledge. We cannot know.

What we are is beside the point here, for nothing we do will reveal our real essence. What matters is what we should be. Hence we ought to uphold whatever view of nature, and progress, best supports that.

We needn’t consider humankind to be essentially benevolent. We need only see that the alternative to acting as if it could improve is a belief in original sin.

If we accept that, then nothing can help us but grace. If we don’t, we may be able to help ourselves.

 

Why struggle?

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This is an argument of reason. Reason tells you to work for ideals whether or not you see your hopes take shape in reality. 

But if reality never answers, you will one day resign. Why struggle? What for? 

None of your hopes has yet borne fruit; reality remains as impervious to reason as it was before. Science may advance, but humankind seems set in its cycle of destruction and woe. You may go on anyway, perhaps for decades. There will likely come a point when you cannot.

At that point, German philosopher Kant says, it’s no longer enough to tell yourself progress is possible; you need to see a sign. 

Not a promise, or even a guarantee that you’re on the right road, just something concrete enough to prevent you from giving up and turning back. 

 

The French Revolution

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Kant wrote about progress in 1794 at the time of the French Revolution. His idea of a signpost was minimalistic.

Not the revolt itself, but our response to the idea of the revolution, said Kant, is unequivocally good. The fact that disinterested spectator’s around the world look to the revolution with a feeling of hope for progress was a sign of progress itself. Not the revolution itself; just the hope that it might work. 

Kant’s confidence in progress had no more rational ground than that. It’s a sentiment that should be appreciated in the aftermath of the recent Arab Spring.

 

Look around

Protesters opposing Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi wave flags in Tahrir Square in Cairo on Wednesday. Shortly afterward, the military staged a coup, ousting Morsi and suspending the constitution.

Hope isn’t knowledge; it is always precarious, and the courage and cowardice of individual men and woman make and break history. 

Still the poverty of Kant’s example should forever give lie to the myth of Enlightenment optimism. If the only sign of hope he could find to sustain him was the hope felt by distant observers contemplating the French Revolution, Enlightenment expectations were slight indeed.

Yet, look around and there are signposts everywhere. 

Read an eyewitness account of a man being drawn and quartered and note that the same person whose stomach turns upon reading it today might have taken her children to watch the event in any of the capitals of the civilized world. Indeed, she would have paid good money to get one of the better seats. 

This is a change that’s deep and commonplace, and it’s not three hundred years old. 

Denying the reality of progress is just denying reality.

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Real

If you begin by finding a sexist joke embarrassing you are likely, eventually, to stop finding it funny. Most kinds of progress come in increments. Three centuries ago the very word democracy  was a term of abuse. Is it any wonder we haven’t gotten it right yet?

Is it time to stop and wonder at the changes we take for granted, and remember how extraordinary they are?

There is nothing about them that is cosmetic or trivial, although there is always the danger they could be transient. All the more reason to cherish them and make their conditions clear.

Whatever else they’re the result of, they’re the result of the efforts of men and women who were moved by ideas they were prepared to live and die for.

And the same impulses that abolished slavery in America and established social democracy in Europe; are the same forces that made executing by torture internationally abhorrent and led to the establishment of the International Criminal Court.  

These are hopes that are not ungrounded, for their signposts are real.

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This Essay draws on work the by philosopher Susan Neiman, particularly her book Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists. If you’re interested in learning more click here.

 


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