If we take a long view of human civilization and history, it is hard not to be impressed by how far we have come. Sure, we could always do more, and yes, I’m as impatient as you for the next steps forward. But it doesn’t hurt once in a while to pat ourselves on our collective backs for what we’ve accomplished over the last few thousand years.
When I was in high school, way back in the late 1960s, the pleasant little prose poem titled Desiderata, composed by Max Ehrmann in 1927, became popular among the love generation.
I won’t reprint the entire thing here, but if you’re one of the few people who’ve never heard or read it, you should. Let me just offer these stanzas to begin today’s sermon:
Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
The universe as a whole may or not be unfolding as it should (I rather think it is unfolding as it must), but if we take a long view of human civilization and history, it is hard not to be impressed by how far we have come.
Sure, we could always do more, and yes, I’m as impatient as you for the next steps forward. But it doesn’t hurt once in a while to pat ourselves on our collective backs for what we’ve accomplished over the last few thousand years.
We invented philosophy and used it to make logical sense of our place in the universe.
We invented the scientific method and used it to begin understanding the natural world.
We invented technology and applied science to improve human lives and human communities.
We dramatically decreased infant mortality and increased human life expectancy in many places around the world.
Poverty once was the lot of all but a tiny percentage of humans; today the large majority of people in the developed world live far better than the kings and queens of the past.
Education, literacy, and rationality have been on the rise for centuries (even if it’s easy to forget that sometimes).
Many, many fewer people die today as a result of war, crime, and other conflicts than in the past.
More people are living lives of (relative) freedom than at any time in history.
To what can we attribute all this success? What are we doing right? Can we expect it to continue?
Although the challenges we’ll encounter in the 21st century are daunting, to say the least, we clearly have reason to be optimistic, assuming the past can be taken as any indicator of future potential. As I like to say, the playing field is tilted in our favor.
Throughout the history of human civilization—and especially since the invention of modern democracy—those who favor making the fruits of progress available to everyone and proactively expanding the protection of human rights have had a nearly unbroken string of successes. Of course, there have been setbacks, and far too many people have suffered during the struggle, but overall, the engine of progressiveness keeps puffing away and pulling the mass of sluggish inertia along behind it.
Conservatives (nearly all of whom are genuinely and understandably motivated to avoid sudden jolts that might cause more harm than help) never cease trying to slow or prevent the gains of progressivism. They often succeed in keeping the center from moving as quickly as many of us would like, but with the playing field tilted away from them, they must inevitably continue losing ground.
For this we should be grateful, but never complacent.