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  • Writer's pictureAlexander M. Wegner

The Specter of Progress

(C) Tesla

THROUGHOUT MOST OF THE SHORT SPAN OF HUMAN EXISTENCE, life was akin to an arduous struggle. Good health and worldly comforts alike were recognized as blessings with which few had been endowed. The world amid which we dwelt was one of vast mystery, always far larger than any single person.

The space we now inhabit is one freed from context and boundaries, all-encompassing and seemingly certain. Life has been reduced to the ins-and-outs of everyday, no more significant than the involuntary movements of ants. Civilization has, as Rousseau foresaw, soaked man in simplicity.

This is, of course, no news to all those fond of revolutionaries of the likes of Marx and Engels, and sentiments of the bitter masses who on occasion found the courage and opportune moment to arise from their slumber. At present, the stakes are, however, much higher, and its implications more dire.

Though often unnoticed by the casual observer of world affairs, technology continues to proliferate worldwide, suggesting both unprecedented promise and unparalleled dangers. Lured by  material might, to what extent can mankind recognize its interests and responsibilities?

Two distinct streams of thought seem to revolve around this question. On the one hand, there are those who think of history as the unfolding of fate; on the opposite end of the spectrum are those convinced of man as homo faber. As so often, the truth may rest in the middle, but may not emerge triumphant.

The question which of these paradigms will come to determine the thoughts and actions of man is critical. If we subject ourselves to the idea of fate, there is not point in organized life; if the final days have long been written, why struggle in the ever-fluctuating here-and-now? If the road ahead, in contrast, remains ours to shape, why not pursue what is within our means, betting on a future of our wildest dreams?

Either of these perspectives likely represent ideology: compelling in its own way, but an insufficient roadmap for an intricate cosmos. Hope, so it seems, rests in the kind of uncomforting realism for which Reinhold Niebuhr was known, and of which conservatives–though ever fewer in number–are still fond.

Yet a world drenched in all things material, has a palate hardly suited for the sobering taste of realism; instead, it overestimates its potential, and slips into the pitfalls of consequences that could not been foreseen. The challenge of our time then is no other than cultivating hearts and minds.

Education, whether in formal or informal settings, is an intuitive point of departure in mastering this challenge, but an equally difficult one. How do you raise the sight of the young beyond the horizon of careers and prestige, toward what matters in a finite world of time-bound existence?

The answer, it appears, may be found beyond the contours of this planet, in the vastness of outer space, within and far beyond the observable universe. As mankind navigates empires of its own, it has long lost sight of its non-human neighbors, and its own status as one of many species.

By letting our imagination wander past the shores of this planet, we may, in fact, begin to retrieve our own identity, and recognize the preciousness of our existence on this Pale Blue Dot, as Carl Sagan pointedly put it. Of course, we may as well overestimate ourselves, causing further havoc.

Tales of distant lands, of worlds we cannot even yet imagine outside the elaborate mathematical constructs few scientists comprehend, may have to nurture the passion of coming generations, setting them into motion. Like religion in days of old, the frontier of space could bear vital epics.

In the end, what reminds man of the values that have inspired him during the restless march of history? Arguably, extraordinary accounts of worlds and men unlike the ordinary, with their exemplary commitment to virtue, honor, hope and the possibilities of both their kin and kind.

Absent a retrieval of the very imagination that is not satisfied with fads, products and shallow conveniences, the End of History may not entail the dullness Francis Fukuyama had in mind, but the downward spiral the Middle East witnesses, and from which neither Europe nor the US is immune.

Progress, whether for the better or the worse, has always troubled the minds of men, but will continue to be an inevitable component of history. What form it will assume will depend on how lucky we are, and whether our will guides us into a beneficial direction. Perhaps the rediscovery of epics will be of help.

A society which is harassed with the urgent political and economic problems, which confront our contemporary world, is inclined to be scornful of any life-expression, which is not immediately relevant to its most urgent tasks. Reinhold Niebuhr in Moral Man and Immoral Society(1932)
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