There’s this idea at the heart of daily life that’s so ingrained that it’s easy to forget it’s there at all—this feeling that the story of human history is the story of an almost inevitable progression toward a more perfect existence.
In the extreme, this ideological view of life leads to eugenics—to using science and medicine not to heal what we are, but to alter or abolish what we are. In its more common variations, this view leads us to rob the present of its joy in pursuit of a more perfect future.
It’s utopianism, basically.
Best to remember that “utopia” means “nowhere.”
I’m on the way to New York, thinking briefly about these things after my Megabus passed what I think was the house where Thomas Jefferson lived while in Philadelphia.
If you can’t tell, it’s the one on the left.
At some point in time, some brutalist architect created the nuclear bunker on the right. No doubt it was built with the feeling that “this is the future.” An architect’s attempt to get on the right side of history by building some of it himself. Of course, it’s the classical architecture that again is treated as sacred—for now.
Times change. As they do, maybe it’s worth ingraining in ourselves the notion that history isn’t progressive any more than human beings are. No matter how much wisdom or greatness any generation achieves, our children emerge from the womb like we did, with the same capacity for greatness and proneness to error. We can learn from the past, but only if we’ve cultivated a capacity to care for the past and the experience of those who once lived. But their having lived, and whatever visions and beliefs they held dear, don’t shape the genome as obviously as our devices’ operating systems. We’re not mechanistic, and we’re not machines. We’re mysteries.
Like life itself, history is the story of experience and experimentation. There’s certainly progress in there, and just as much failure.
The best day to day default we can have is to savor the present, the only place that really exists.