One day, if human civilisation ever wipes itself out, aliens or one of our successors will cast an eye on our ruined planet and ask themselves what ever happened to homo sapiens. Their answer might look a little like this.
The root cause won’t be the specific catastrophe, conflict or devastation that eradicates us; the problem will begin with the architecture of the human brain.
This tool will be remembered for being, in part, deeply impressive, containing a 100 billion neurons capable of extraordinary computations and combinations. As aliens will note, a particular part of the mind where our most dazzling thoughts unfolded was known to neuroscientists as the neocortex – a part that in humans was many times larger than that found in any other species. This is what helped the hugely clever ape to produce The Magic Flute, Anna Karenina, Concorde and civilisation.
However, our alien friends will also note that the human mind contained another component, very influential but far less impressive, known as the reptilian brain, an aggressive lustful impulsive section of machinery, with a great deal more in common with what might be found in a hyena or a small rodent.
Because of this reptilian brain, homo sapiens ended up with three grave problems:
– Firstly, tribalism. Humans were always on the verge of developing violent hatreds of foreigners and manifested strong ongoing tendencies to slaughter strangers in vast numbers. They could never reliably see the humanity in all members of their own kind.
– Secondly, homo sapiens was fatefully prone to short-term thinking. Even when confronted by data, it could only imagine the near-term future, a few years at best, viewing the long-term as a chimerical and unreal state. Its immediate impulses were left uncontained and worked to destroy its individual and collective future.
– Lastly, homo sapiens had an especially keen fondness for wishful thinking. Though capable of immense intellectual achievement, its mind hated to reflect on itself, it couldn’t bear to submit its ideas to rational scrutiny, it preferred to act rather than think and daydream rather than plan. Having invented the scientific method, it preferred – in most cases – not to use it. It had a narcotic desire for distraction and fantasy. It didn’t want to know itself.
For many generations, these three flaws were more or less endured. Certain institutions were invented to attenuate them: the law, sound government, education, science. It worked, sort of. Humans kept wiping out swathes of their fellows, but they didn’t scupper the species as a whole. What caused the ultimate destruction was the increasing yet untrammelled power of the neocortex. This mighty tool eventually managed to capture fire, contain the elements, and give homo sapiens a godlike power over the planet – while the animal overall still operated with reflexes as serene and gentle as those of a hyena. The cost of its mistakes grew ever larger, its powers became uncontained while its wisdom remained intermittent and fragile. Eventually, its might outpaced its capacity for self-control; it became a nuclear armed rodent.
There was one thing that might have saved humanity: love, and three varieties of it in particular:
– Firstly, the love of the stranger; the capacity to see the other as like oneself and worthy of the same mercy and charity.
– Secondly, the love of the unborn: the concern for those who do not yet exist and whom one will never know but whose lives one is shaping in the selfish present.
– Thirdly, the love of the truth: the strength to resist illusion and lies and square up to uncomfortable facts of all kinds.
We don’t need to be aliens of the future to understand all this. We can see the disaster scenario only too well right now. The fate of civilisation lies ultimately not in the law courts, at the ballot box or in the corridors of governments. It lies in our ability to master the most short-term, selfish and violent of our impulses active in the dense folds of organic matter between our ears; it lies in learning how fiercely to compensate for the flawed architecture of our minds.
According to a standard heroic secular account, at the start of the modern age and in just a few short decades, science was able to defeat religion through rigour and brilliance – and thereby forever liberated humankind from ignorance and superstition. For centuries, this account explains, religion had essentially been doing some very bad science. It had purported to tell us how old the earth was (4,000 years old), how many suns there were in the universe (one), how evolution had begun (by divine decree) and why rainbows existed (to remind us of God’s promise to Noah). But these lamentable attempts were finally put to an end when science was able to investigate reality with reason, asserted itself against obscurantist priests – and drove religion into the cobwebbed attic it presently resides in. Science didn’t so much replace religion (there was no need) as expunge the scourge altogether from human consciousness. As a result, we can now dwell without fear or meekness and enjoy the fruits of science and its constant, ever more astonishing technological innovations.
The story is highly seductive in its robustness and has a pleasingly victorious feel to it as well. But it may not, for that matter, be entirely true. It willingly (and cleverly) misrepresents the purpose of religion, by positioning it as an entity whose overwhelming focus has been to do pretty much exactly what science does – and by then pointing out that it happened to do it very badly. Whereas science was wise enough to proceed with a battery of telescopes, pipettes, centrifuges, measuring gages and equations, religion tried to understand the whole workings of the universe with the help of one in-passages obviously demented ancient book.
However, this is to miss that, in truth, religion was never really interested in doing the sort of things science does. It might have thrown off the odd theory about geology, it might occasionally have had things to say about meteorology or aeronautics, but its focus was never substantially on explanations of physical reality. It cared about a mission altogether different and more targeted: it wanted to tell us stories to make life feel more bearable. It was interested in giving us something to hold on to – in the face of terror, shame and regret, when there was panic and grief – that could help us to make it through to the next day. It wanted to offer us ideas with which we might resist the pull of viciousness and self-centeredness, it hoped to encourage us to find perspective and lay a claim to serenity in the face of our too-often impossible and tragic condition.
The defenders of science purported to miss all this, simply framing religion as an entirely flawed pioneering version of physics, chemistry and biology. But from the start of the nineteenth century, prescient observers understood that religion had always been something beside this, that it had taken care of the inner life of humanity and that its retreat would therefore have implications for far more than our grasp of physical reality. Though we might benefit from a hugely enhanced understanding of lightning or the features of the night sky, we might simultaneously be in danger of losing our central resource for coping with the agonies of existence. With only science to hand, what would happen to our need for consolation? What would we do with our nighttime terrors? How could we reconcile ourselves to our mortality? Where would we be able to find peace and a semblance of contentment?
Science largely shrugged its shoulders. This was not its business and nor did these questions seem particularly pressing to many in the field. But others – perhaps more tormented and inwardly fragile – disagreed: they knew that whatever the state of scientific knowledge, humans never lose their need for stories that can make life feel more bearable. It isn’t because we know the boiling point of hydrogen (-252.87 °C) that we promptly shed our appetite for consolation or perspective. It isn’t because we understand the structure of the atom that we have any less of a craving for something mature and psychologically soothing to hold on to in the middle of the night.
For a rare period, this double need – for the consolations once offered by religion and for the truths revealed by science – was artfully held together in a way that it has never quite been before or since. In England during three decades around the middle of the nineteenth century, from a variety of quarters, there were a range of highly suggestive attempts to rope aspects of science into the project of ethical and psychological healing pioneered by religion; projects to mine science for its capacity to do precisely what religion had done so well for centuries: namely guide us towards greater self-acceptance, serenity, forgiveness and peace of mind. Rather than dismissing the central functions of religion, science could – from this vantage point – skilfully and intelligently start to replace them.
The highpoint of this unusual approach was the foundation of two new institutions, Oxford’s University Museum of Natural History in 1860 and London’s Natural History Museum in 1881. Both set out to present the public with the latest discoveries of science: they showed off a treasury of vertebrates and invertebrates, rocks and minerals. There were stuffed bears, foxes and lions, bones of whales and megalosauruses, cabinets of rose-ringed parakeets and birds of paradise. One could peer at the preserved bodies of black seadevil fish and stoplight loosejaws (Malacosteus niger). There were fossilised ammonites and the imprints of brachiopods and 22,000 drawers filled with beetle specimens.
Yet what was evident was that the public wasn’t merely being given a lecture. It was being invited to find inspiration – not unlike the kind one might once have discovered in the annals of religion. The architecture made the concept particularly evident; both institutions looked indistinguishable from churches. Both were in the Romanesque style, with elaborate porticos, knaves and richly patterned columns. Both had high ceilings. In London, one could stand in the center of the main hall, gaze up 52 metres and find, in place of depictions of the Apostles or the Holy Family, 162 panels laying out the earth’s botanical wonders, from lemon trees to date palms, irises to rhododendrons, sunflowers to cotton plants. The first director of the Natural History Museum, Sir Richard Owen, put the mission squarely into view: the museum was to be, in his words, a ‘cathedral’ to science.
Ceiling of the Natural History Museum, London, 1881
Main Hall, Natural History Museum, London 1881
Here too one might pursue consolation, inspiration and perspective. Here too one might shed sorrows and cast aside ingratitude and despondency. The soul of modern man, battered by industrialisation, was being offered a new kind of balm. Science wasn’t dismissing our needs and cravings, our loneliness and fears. It was ready to help with similarly structured, but just more rationally-founded, answers.
The move was tantalising and salutary. But it didn’t – for all the beauty of these early ‘cathedrals’ – catch on. As more science museums were opened, they looked less and less like churches and more and more like regular institutions of learning, the sort of places one might come to if one was considering a career in science or educating a child. For its part, science got on with its day to day task of finding out about the workings of the universe, our planet and all its varied inhabitants. It neglected the business of building any sort of bridge between its discoveries and the spiritual cravings of mankind. As a consequence, the alienation and disenchantment of modern life continued. The more desolate voices complained that though science might have turned out to be ‘true’, its victory had left us inwardly hungry and forlorn.
The despair is unjustified. Science – properly viewed – has never been the enemy of spiritual enrichment. Indeed, when we know how to approach it and are encouraged to do so (whether by architecture or art, literature or film) science will yield ideas every bit as consoling and inspiring, and as applicable to our lives and as relevant to our pains, as those found in religion. The revelations of science do not have to mean an end to the project of therapeutic psychology initiated by religion; they can refashion, enhance and amplify it. This may not be how scientists themselves go about their work or present it to the public, but the fruit of this work lends itself impeccably to a mission of ethical-psychological elaboration.
We can, in other words, usefully look to science for the sort of ideas we used to seek in religion – and which could assuage some the ills of modernity. At least seven big ideas can be found:
I: Perspective – The Scale of the Universe
We are at permanent risk – in the conditions of modern urban life – of losing perspective, that is of making more of our troubles, hopes, fears and status than is warranted or indeed is good for us. One of our greatest terrors is to be made to ‘feel small,’ to be reduced in our eyes by the inconsiderate or thoughtless actions of others. But this is to miss that the solution to our agitation does not lie in expanding our importance, but in learning to reduce it ever further. Peace of mind does not come from finding an indisputable way of enhancing our status, it comes from discovering a sufficiently elevated and distant angle from which to look at everything we are and do in order finally to understand that we are blessedly and thankfully irrelevant to everything.
Humanity used to believe that the earth was at the center of the universe – and that we, in turn, were at the center of creation. Slowly and reluctantly, we came to accept that we might be only one planet among a few others and might be being forced to revolve around our sun rather than it around us.
From there, the progress of science has rendered us ever less significant – with enormous theoretical benefit to our psyches and our impatient and overassertive egos. In 1672, the Italian astronomer Cassini made the first measurement of the distance between two planets – Earth and Mars – and found that the Solar System (still understood as equivalent to ‘the universe’) was an astonishing 20 times larger than the Greek philosophers had thought. Ninety-nine years later, Jérome Lelande accurately estimated the distance between the Earth and the Sun at 93 million miles. In 1838, humanity got an indication of the likely scale of the universe when the German astronomer Freidrich Bessel made the first ever correct measurement of the distance to a star: 10 light years.
We had for a long time imagined that the universe might be a relatively empty place. Around 700 CE, the Dunhuang star chart recorded 1,300 stars seen by Chinese astronomers with the naked eye; John Flamsteed’s 1729 Atlas Coelestis mapped 3,000 stars. By 1903, German astronomers had pushed up the number to 324,000 stars. But only by the 1960s did we become fully aware of the true scale of our puniness. We understood that our galaxy, the Milky Way, has approximately 100 billion stars in it, that there are 10 billion galaxies in the observable universe, each of which contains an average of 100 billion stars, which means that there are around 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (a billion trillion) stars at large.
When we lose perspective, as we invariably do in the course of pretty much every day in the frenetic city, we don’t need a philosophy lesson or a Church service. We need to spend one or two quiet moments with a photograph from the Hubble telescope and a reminder that we are – in a glorious and redemptive way – what we always feared: nothing.
II: All is Vanity – The Second Law of Thermodynamics
Many of our efforts are designed to perpetuate ourselves in time. We strive to live on through our work – and to make something more enduring than our biological selves. To release us from this exhausting and vainglorious folly, religions used to kindly remind us, in the words of Ecclesiastes 1:2, that all is vanity – and they would occasionally show us a skull or shattered tomb to bring the point more forcefully home.
With religion in abeyance, science offers us a yet more powerful expression of this Biblical concept: the Second Law of Thermodynamics. First worked out in the nineteenth century, this states that the tendency of all systems – of which the universe is one – will be to dissipate energy over time until it reaches a state of total rest. Given a sufficient span, estimated as 10106 years, our universe and its superclusters of galaxies will all collapse and we will enter what scientists call a Dark Era, in which – after so much excitement, individual and cosmic – nothing will remain except for a quiet dilute gas of photons and leptons
The situation is no better closer to home. The sun’s centre burns, like a giant engine, at 15 million degrees celsius. But our Sun is 4.5 billion years old and the average stable lifespan of a star is a mere 8 billion years. An added complication is that the Sun’s brightness increases by 10 per cent every billion years, gradually heating our planet. In 1 billion years, the sun’s increased brightness will have caused our oceans to evaporate and made all life impossible. In about 4 billion years, when it runs out of hydrogen, the Sun will become a ‘red giant’ star, possibly expanding as far as Mars, at which point it will absorb and destroy Earth. The outer layers will drift into space to form a planetary nebula. The remaining core will be a dense, stable ‘white dwarf’ that will continue to radiate heat for two or three billions of years.
If one needed to repeat the point with NASA’s help: all is vanity.
III: The Resilience of Life – 5 Mass Extinctions
It can be easy to fall into worry about whether we, and most of what matters to us, will endure. The kindest advice is not to imply that all is assured and that a cataclysm can be averted; it’s to understand how common wholesale destruction has been on our planet and to be cheered by the thought that, nevertheless, life has endured, for it is ultimately a far more tenacious process than any cellular being in which it happens to subsist at a specific point. Individuals and species may die; life itself survives (at least until the sun burns out). We are standing on the petrified remains and fossilised bodies of thousands of species which came before us. By extension, many more will come after us. From a sufficient distance, we are not the end point and therefore should not cling so anxiously to what presently exists. We should learn to identify with the long-term direction of the river, and not grasp so tightly to our own fragile vessels bobbing unsteadily in the turbulent eddies of the present.
There have been five mass extinctions afflicting multicellular life in the last 540 million years. Earth is a risky place and has always been so. We’re not living in especially tempestuous times; peace is just an illusory byproduct of short-term thinking. 450 million years ago, the Ordovician mass extinction, caused by a mini-ice age, caused the planet to lose 70% of all its species, including most trilobites, brachiopods, crinoids and graptolites. 375 million years ago, another 70% of species were lost in the Devonian extinction. In the huge Permian extinction 252 million years ago, 95 percent of marine and 70 percent of terrestrial species vanished (among them the fin-backed reptiles called pelycosaurs and the vast mammal-like creatures known as moschops). But life went on – as it always does. Gradually cellular existence built itself up again and a semblance of serenity appeared to reign on earth. But naturally that was an illusion too and 201 million years ago came the Triassic extinction (triggered by the breakup of the supercontinent Pangea) and in the process, gone were the brachiopods, the shelled cephalopods, and the phytosaurs. Lastly and most famously came the Cretaceous extinction, 65.5 million years ago, which did away with the dinosaurs, the flying pterosaurs, the mosasaurs, the plesiosaurs and the graceful ichthyosaurs.
Not to put too fine a point on it, we should not expect our particular life form to endure. We are writing in time in fading ink. We will eventually go, but life itself will stubbornly persevere: within a few hundred million years, a creature comparable to us, but perhaps a little kinder and a lot more intelligent, may replace us and will spend weekends looking at our remains with a mixture of pity and boredom in the display cabinets of a new generation of scientific cathedrals.
IV. Forgiveness – Evolution
It’s deeply tempting to lose our temper with ourselves and our fellow humans: why can we not be more reasonable? Why are we so prejudiced? Why do we worry so much what other people think? Why are we so prone to anxiety? Why do we eat so much? Why are we so interested in pornography?
It’s equally tempting to search for explanations that emphasise our villainous natures and then to harshly condemn our lack of self-command. We end up disgusted with ourselves and intemperate and judgemental towards others.
But science – far more effectively than religion – may teach us the art of forgiveness, and liberate us from our urge to criticise. Of course, we are less than ideally adapted to the civilised and intellectually complex lives we aspire to lead. Of course we are largely demented, prey to powerful impulses, filled with dread and driven by lower appetites. We have had very very little time to do or be anything else.
We are estimated to have appeared in more or less our current form in Africa 200,000 years ago. For most of this time, we lived in small groups, we foraged, we grunted, we didn’t wait for others to stop talking, we fought constantly, we were terrified of everything and understood almost nothing, we didn’t sit quietly in chairs for many hours, we didn’t wear tight fitting clothes, we couldn’t read or write, we got very interested in any fertile human who came our way and we gorged ourselves whenever we found something sweet growing on a tree.
The time since the birth of Jesus comprises 1% of our history; the last 250 years, the period since we became urbanised and began living with technology in scientific culture encompasses a mere 0.1%. Naturally, therefore, most of our impulses are askew and better suited to more basic conditions. It’s a miracle we ever manage to be polite, to explain our feelings, to compromise and to see it from another’s point of view.
We are – from the vantage point of science – doing extremely well indeed. So much of our capacity for calm depends on our sense of what people should be like – and how well they succeed in measuring up to prior expectations. Given our evolutionary history, humans should be a lot worse than they are. Humanity is rushing to catch up with its ideals and we can afford to be gentle towards its constant but inevitable lapses. The wonder isn’t that we’re so uncivilised but that we ever even manage, now and then, to have a few moments of civilisation.
V: Beyond the Ego – Mind and Body
The human animal is a proud creature. We puff ourselves up, we exaggerate our competence and integrity. We imagine ourselves enduring. At the heart of our misplaced assurance is a particular concept of the self. We imagine it as an integrated ego that can understand most of what it is, that is radically separate from the world beyond – and that may have an immaterial essence that will endure after the body has expired.
Science flatly contradicts us on all such assumptions. The ego emerges from its analyses as something far closer to what Buddhism has long suggested: an artful illusion, a flickering unsteady flame unaware of most of what it is, an entity thoroughly merged with and traversed by the world beyond it, an ‘I’ bathed in otherness destined to dissolve after a brief span and to be reabsorbed by a cosmic totality from which it should never have imagined itself to be distinct.
To listen to the neuroscientists, our impression of being a coherent ‘I’ is only a clever trick performed by a narrative capacity lodged somewhere within the cerebral cortex, and which weaves our scattered memories and intermittent sensations together into an ongoing sense of being someone in particular – rather that just a rough assemblance of random impressions, pain and pleasure signals and conflicting wishes. Our conscious awareness compromises only a fraction, as little as 5%, of our overall cognitive activity. Most of what we do in our brains is housed in faculties from which our day to day understanding has been barred; we both somewhere know and yet actively don’t know how to make our hearts beat, grow fingernails, digest sugar, walk up the stairs and extract oxygen from the air. We don’t have the keys to our own house. Rather than one unitary brain, we are an assemblage of different brains that evolved in separate millenia, each with its own set of priorities and agendas kept private from our pilot selves; the cerebellum wanting one thing, the hippocampus another, the medulla a third. The sense of being ‘a person’ is a simplification kindly designed to keep us steady, and whose invented nature we sometimes get a sense of as we fall asleep or when we are discombobulated by illness or start to be fragmented by age.
As evidence of how much otherness we bear within us, we need only consider that our gut is host to over 10,000 alien microbial species, single-celled eukaryotes as well as helminth parasites and viruses, that entered our bodies in the early years of life (as we licked the carpet or kissed our parents) and that now help us to digest dietary fibre or synthesize vitamins B and K. How quiet we tend to keep, when introducing ourselves to someone else with the use of a single name, about the symbiotic relationship we are currently conducting with trillions of wholly foreign bacterial cells pullulating within us a few millimetres from our waist band.
As for our sense of being continuous, this too has little basis in our biology. We may think of ourselves as a unitary person who survives through time but pieces of us are constantly dying and being remade. 30,000 cells are lost every minute; the average cell is seven years old. Our external surface layer is replaced once a year; every decade, our whole skeleton is remade, every two years, our liver is fashioned anew. We’re not so much a person as an instruction manual for a person who keeps dissolving and having to be laboriously put back together again.
At our deaths, the fictional nature of our egos can no longer be denied, our sixty trillion cells become a feast for maggots, bacteria and fungi. A part of us will end up in the stomach of a beetle. A slug will feast on a part of our liver. A bit of us will provide a nutrient for a hawk. The carbon in our bones will end up inside the trunk of a conifer tree. Some of us will come down as rain. We were never really an ‘I’; we just borrowed some bits of the universe for a few moments and will go on to be many other things, just as valuable, in time. Like every living thing, we were made from tiny shards of stars; we have travelled through supernovas. We’re as old as the universe; ‘I’ was just a passing phase. What was lent to us by the earth will animate new life in time.
None of this should panic us. Scientific reality may inspire a far more consoling philosophy than any book of prayer. We don’t need to clasp so tightly onto life. We are never quite whole and will soon enough be in pieces again. There is no use expecting to be remembered by the name our parents thoughtfully gave to a small assemblage of cells – all now long dead – many years ago. The woodlice and the pigeons will be grateful. We aren’t strangers to death: section by section, we’ve been falling apart and being remade for just over 13 billion years.
VI: Scepticism – Sensory Frailty
Though we may strive to look powerful and to be in the know, to impress and to dominate, in truth we are at our most endearing when we are strong enough to reveal our vulnerability – when we can admit to all we don’t understand and are blind to.
Aspects of science work to make us more human in this regard because they constantly enforce the message that we are fragile and easily-confused beings who have no option but to misunderstand most of what is going on around them.
Our touching humanity is nowhere more evident than when we consider, through the perspective of science, the unreliability of our senses. We may think we know what is happening in the world, and for centuries we were very sure indeed of our verdicts, but modern science has served to reveal the scale of our day to day ignorance.
We might be inclined blithely to trust our eyes – but how little of what exists is ever natively captured by them. Only a narrow band of electromagnetic waves ever registers on our retinas. We miss infrared light at one end of the spectrum and X-ray light at another. For most of history, we couldn’t guess what a fearsome and noble creature a flea might be, until in 1665, the scientist Robert Hooke showed us one from under his microscope at two hundred times its real size.
Robert Hooke, A Flea, from Micrographia, 1665
We miss that a single drop of seawater – casually tossed off our bodies after a dip – might contain 10 million viruses, a million bacteria and a thousand small protozoans and algae – among these the cyanobacteria prochlorococcus, 0.6 micrometres long, collectively responsible (there are 3 octillion of them in all) for releasing 20 per cent of the oxygen in the atmosphere.
A drop of seawater magnified x25, showing tiny crustaceans, larvae, plankton, worms, fish eggs and brown-gold coils of cyanobacteria, one of the oldest life forms on Earth.
On a clear day we can see objects 5 kilometres away at best – which is why it has been conceptually so hard for us to grasp that Proxima Centauri, our nearest star, might be 39,900,000,000,000 kilometers from us – just as it has been hard for us to imagine that there really could be 43 quintillion atoms in a grain of sand, each like a miniature planetary system, with electrons orbiting a nucleus of protons and neutrons, inside of which dwell smaller hadrons, inside of which reside even smaller quarks.
We trust our ears and fail to realise that there is no such thing as silence, just the limitations of what we can hear. We only register sounds between 20Hz and 20,000Hz and so miss all that is above (infrasound) and below (ultrasound). We can’t detect the sounds of the Sumatran rhinoceros (3 Hz) or of air passing over the tops of mountains. We miss the noise emitted by lightning above us and by the harmonic tremor of pressurised magma deep in the earth below us. ·
Likewise, our understanding of time, anchored as it is within units of 24 hour days and the year it takes for the earth to orbit the sun, starts to collapse when asked to comprehend that it might have taken 250,000 generations – or a quarter of a million years – of genetic mutation for vertebrates to generate their eyes or that it’s been a mere 84 generations since Julius Caesar walked the earth 2,000 years ago.
Only 5 per cent of what we call the observable universe is in fact ever captured by our senses. We depend on clever theories for the other 95 per cent.
We are – unaided – humblingly out of touch with, and perplexed by, pretty much everything occurring around us. We should go easy on ourselves.
VII: Our Existence – Cosmic Gratitude
It may not at first glance be entirely evident how a discipline as reserved and sober as science could lead us to an intense appreciation of all that is good in our lives and a wonder at the benevolence and beauty of our surroundings. But it turns out that science is supremely capable of nurturing feelings of gratitude because of a basic truth about the way gratitude works: that it arises from a sense of contrast, from an awareness of how much more awful things might have been, of how dreadful things can get – and of how lucky, all things considered, we have turned out to be.
There are, naturally, a million things that we have missed out on and areas of pain that continue to scar us, but science bids us to look up and at points remember some of the larger reasons we possess to be thankful. When our psyches allow us a moment of respite, we can be grateful:
– that 13.8 billion years ago, something smaller than an electron chose to swell within a fraction of a second like an expanding balloon into a zone permeated with energy 93 billion light years in size that we now clumsily call the universe
– That some of the energy from this swift expansion was able to coagulate into particles, which grouped together to form the light atoms of hydrogen, lithium and helium – which then assembled into galaxies, which gave birth to stars, inside whose molten burning cores all the elements necessary for the nucleic acids essential to life – carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, sulphur and phosphorus – were forged.
– That gravity drew the stars together to create galaxies (a hundred billion of them), including – fortuitously – the Milky Way, a small corner of the universe containing just 400 billion stars, in which our sun was born out of a giant, spinning cloud of dust and gas 4.5 billion years ago.
– That around the same time, swarms of debris collided to form our Earth – a lava-washed, uninhabitable rock, that gravity happened to throw into orbit as the third planet from the Sun – the exact right distance away (0.38 to 10.0 astronomical units) for life to develop.
– That another planet, Theia, collided with Earth, gifting us our Moon, which slowed the Earth’s rotation, stabilised atmospheric conditions and created the 24-hour day and caused the Earth to tilt, forming the seasons, without which we would have permanent regional extremes of heat and cold, drought and floods.
– That ice particles leftover from the collisions of hundreds of comets melted, water vapour condensed and oceans were formed.
– That comet collisions delivered another chance cosmic gift, the essential components of life and DNA like ribose, carbon dioxide, ethanol, amino acids and phosphorus.
– That underwater hot springs released the right amount of energy and the right mix of chemicals to allow the first single-cell organisms, prokaryotes, to form four billion years ago.
– That Earth’s toxic atmosphere of methane and carbon dioxide slowly became sweetened by the release of oxygen from cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) – the first creatures to photosynthesise – and gradually oxygenated 85% of the atmosphere.
– That 2.7 billion years ago, a random, chance event known as ‘the fateful encounter’ meant that two single cells merged, and procreated and then after about a billion more years, developed sexes.
– That 500 million years ago, plants – at first algae and lichen – spread from the oceans to the land before animals did and slowly developed into more complex vascular plants, whose seeds could be dispersed by wind, creating the grasslands and forests in which different species could evolve.
– That 245 million years ago, a rise in oxygen levels led to the Cambrian explosion, which saw the greatest diversification of life in Earth’s history, starting with ocean-dwelling hard-shelled invertebrates, leading to new fish species, the first land-based insects and large vertebrate ocean animals that developed four limbs and went ashore to lay eggs – which hatched and evolved into amphibians, reptiles and later mammals.
– That an asteroid 15 kilometres wide happened to hit Earth 65.5 million years ago and destroyed most terrestrial organisms including all non-avian dinosaurs, but created ideal conditions in which some small, furry mammals, our close ancestors, were able to thrive with less competition and evolve into primates.
– That the Earth remained stable enough for long enough that the first apes could appear in Africa, 25 million years ago, the first hominids 7 million years ago and our frightened clever brilliant homo sapiens a mere 200,000 years ago.
– That your genes managed to pass safely through an unbroken 10,000 generation chain, despite the best efforts of cyclones, predators and a constant barrage of viruses.
– That an average, fertile woman will have 100,000 eggs, and a man will produce a trillion sperm, each of these very different, but that – nevertheless – you have have managed to emerge from the options as you are.
– That there are days of balmy sunshine and lemons, that there are olives, figs and hazelnuts.
– That this moment exists within a 13.799±0.021 billion year span of cosmic time.
And to all this, as they used to in the churches, one might cry (or whisper): Hallelujah!
There is enough in science to give birth to twenty religions – so much to worship, to be awed by and to be consoled through. How poor the old religions were by comparison, how paltry an invention a god is next to the mysterium tremendum of dark matter, string theory or quantum wavefunctions. The curse of modernity is not to have invented science; it’s not yet to have understood all that one might do with it.
We are, a lot of us, a great deal sadder, more anxious, more incomplete and more restless than we really need to be because of something very large that is missing from our lives. What’s worse, we don’t even know what this thing is and how much we crave it, because we don’t have the right concepts, experience or encouragement to help us locate it. What we long for and are slowly dying without is: community.
They tell us that we are suffering for all sorts of reasons: because we’re afraid of intimacy or are low on serotonin, are beset by anxiety or trauma or are chronically dysfunctional around attachment or trust.
These may be accurate enough descriptions of our symptoms but they arguably leave the real causes of our miseries untouched. To come to the point, it’s worth holding on to a basic historical insight: for most of our time on this planet (by which one really means, for 99% of homo sapiens’s evolutionary existence), we lived in communities. That is, groups of 20 or 30 people who worked together, cooked communal meals, and lived and died around each other. For most of history, we’d watch the sun going down with the same people we knew deeply, trusted, sometimes bickered with but overall felt overwhelmingly connected to. We’d shoot the breeze, we’d comfort each other when we were sad, we’d drop in unannounced on one another’s quarters, we’d chat over our pains and stresses and at special moments, we’d dance together and occasionally fall into ritual ecstatic states where the normal barriers between egos would dissolve.
It’s only very late on in history that we’ve started living in condominiums, commuting to work in offices with people whose values we don’t share and eating for one in cities of ten million strangers. Of course, arguments from evolutionary history aren’t always useful. For most of history we suffered from chronic toothache and didn’t have access to hot baths – but no one would argue against our abandonment of our natural state in these areas. Nevertheless, holding on to the idea that we were once tribal and now most definitely are not can help us to put a finger on something that we may legitimately miss and urgently need to recover a semblance of.
What happens to us outside of life in a tight-knit community? Firstly, we get very concerned – far too concerned – with falling in love with one special person who (we’re told) will end our customary sadness and provide an answer to all our societal needs. Unsurprisingly, this enormous pressure on what a relationship should be is the single greatest contributor to the collapse of unions that might, with more manageable expectations and a more close-knit friendship circle, be entirely viable. We end up having to throw a lot of people away when we want them to be that most cruel of things: everything. Secondly, the very pressure to be in a couple means we bolt into relationships that should never have started and stick far too long inside toxic situations out of terror of singlehood. Thirdly, in our alienated condition, the desire for connection can morph into a longing for extreme success, fame and reknown: we grow materially wildly and insatiably ambitious out of an unquenched emotional need for nothing more esoteric than some good friends. Even if we do have some, they’re liable to be scattered around the world, cocooned in their own relationships or unavailable to us most of the time: we’ve let our terror of intruding on one another scupper a yet more precious need for an atmosphere of near-constant mutual assistance. Finally, our picture of what that nebulous category ‘other people’ is like grows very sombre because we meet one another not in person, but via the media, which constantly gives us cause to believe that other people are fundamentally mad, extreme, dangerous and cruel.
Even though we collectively pride ourselves on living in highly innovative times, we remain absurdly traditional in thinking about social set ups. We have a million new apps a year, but no one ever seeks to reinvent how people might live together. Sadly but understandably, communes don’t have a good reputation: one thinks of religious extremists, weird fanatics and messianic leaders. None of the genuine advantages of bourgeois life or simply of reasoned existence seem compatible with communal living. Furthermore, everything legal and commercial seems set up to frustrate any wish to live together: land costs a fortune, building is only for the very brave or the naive, how would one work, who would do the laundry, what would everyone think…?
Nevertheless, it’s worth pushing the imagination a little, and sidestepping some of the practical hurdles for long enough to get the mind working (the material questions can always be solved once an idea properly takes root).
Imagine, for a moment therefore, what it would be like to live in an ideal kind of community. It might be an elegant set of buildings in a desert or on the edge of a forest. Everyone would have a room, twenty or thirty in all, modest but dignified, laid out amidst an array of charming communal areas. Breakfast, lunch and dinner (simple and nutritious) would be eaten in company at long tables. There’d be a commitment to look after one another, and fellowship based around shared ideals and values. The craving to ‘get ahead’ would subside: it would be enough just to be accepted by this group. This would be one’s tribe – to whom one would open one’s heart and entrust a substantial part of one’s life. We’d have a joint sense of what meaningful labour was and some of the most important work would be offering one another reassurance. We might have partners, but we wouldn’t expect them to be everything; a chance to share thoughts and emotions with others would take a lot of the pressure off couples. We’d have a daily impression of mattering to people. Our impulses to addiction, power and paranoia would lessen. We’d rarely go online.
The point isn’t, right now, to have an exact blueprint for a commune but to wake ourselves up to our desire for one; after which everything can flow. Our ancestors were unfortunate in a thousand ways, but they may well have had something we’re unknowingly dying for: their own tribe.
We used to believe that life would always go on more or less as it is. It might have been grim, but it had always been thus and would be so forever.
To be modern is, however, to know that – with time and a bit of luck – things will improve. And they will do so because of science, because clever people are eventually going to unpick all the problems that we can’t as yet master. That’s what a backwards glance at history from our vantage point proves unquestionably. With time, they sorted out tooth disease; they worked out how we could fly; they learnt how to conquer distance. And so we know – without a doubt – that other problems will also be solved. With time, we’ll learn how to live on different planets, grow a full head of hair, cure cancer, explain consciousness and figure out how to make energy at next to no cost. If we are in a fanciful speculative mood, we can go much much further: there will be a machine that will tell us who we should marry and how to read other people’s thoughts. There’ll be a way to determine what we are capable of and how we should therefore direct our careers. There’ll be a way to download all the world’s knowledge in minutes via a cable at the nape of the neck. And we’ll never have to die.
Back at the dawn of modernity, science fiction writers knew this way of projecting into the future. They pictured a world with submarines, mobile phones, space flight, mass prosperity and television. They were also particularly interested in flying cars.
Albert Robida, Coming out of the Opera in the year 2000, 1902.
We might chuckle at some of their ambitions, but to dream of future solutions is a natural state of mind in modernity – and not so foolish either. Most of our technological dreams will come true. The question, and it’s a very big and very painful question indeed, is when.
We may be advancing towards a better future, but we also have to recognise that we ourselves are stuck in what can generously be called a transitional period: the old cyclical world has been abandoned; the future is not yet here.
In the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence is one of the most poignantly honest maps ever made. The Salviati planisphere was drawn around 1525 by a civil servant in Seville. He had a good grasp of Europe, Africa and the Middle East but by the time he reached America, his knowledge was patchy in the extreme. He knew the rough outlines, but he didn’t know the topographical features or the names. He was stuck in a transitional phase of map making. One day it would be figured out: one day someone would reach the Pacific coast and send back precise information on the elevations of the Baja peninsula; one day a satellite would orbit the planet and send in microscopically precise information on every last square centimetre of the town of La Rinconada in the Peruvian Andes. But for now, in 1525, there was no option but to dwell in tantalising semi-ignorance.
Salviati world map of 1525
In so many areas of knowledge, we are like the Salviati map maker. Our understanding of the human brain is eerily akin to our grasp of the world in 1525. There are countries and coastlines that we have explored fairly well, zones of the occipital lobe and the postcentral gyrus that match our understanding of the Bavaria Alps or the Loire in the early sixteenth century – but other areas are as remote as Alaska and Chile once used to be.
The Human Connectome Project, showing the connections of the brain we understand and have mapped. The rest is in darkness.
When it comes to neuroscience, we are at the canoe building stage. We haven’t yet sent our first proper seaworthy vessel into the oceans. We can have fun daydreaming like Jules Verne but none of our most exciting projections spare us the deeper, more painful insight. If we are reading this today, it will all come too late for us.
There will eventually be fully completed maps of the mind, there will be ways of manipulating our neurology and optimising our intelligence; we will figure out why love is so difficult and how we should lead our lives; we’ll discover how to reverse cell damage and the best way to prevent the aging process. We’ll learn how not to have to die.
But it will be too late for us. We’ll be long gone. We’ll be like the unfortunates who died of measles before the vaccine was ready, who had a fatal crash before airbags, who had to do sums before calculators and who got shipwrecked on the Cape of Good Hope before Airbus. Others will feel as sorry for us as we feel for those medieval paupers who died in extraordinary agony of a disease that could now be vanquished with a pill worth $1 from the supermarket. Our present suffering will – in time – come to seem utterly avoidable – and in its way pitiful.
What modernity denies us is the comfort of knowing that what we’re suffering through is ‘necessary.’ It isn’t fundamentally, our species simply hasn’t had quite enough time to figure it out. It’s as necessary as toothache once was, that is, not very. We just haven’t done the sums and run the experiments yet. We can see what is coming but we also know – with sad certainty – that we won’t be around to enjoy it. We won’t be there for the plug-in education tools and the career guidance implants. We’ll miss the hair regrowth creams and the pills for eternal life. We’re in our own Middle Ages in multiple areas, except that, unlike those in agony in the 13th century who saw themselves as enduring a Biblical curse, we know we’re in a transitional period while we wait for the laboratories to build their prototypes. The particular agony of modernity is to see the shape of a better future, to understand that our pain isn’t fundamentally justified, to spy the rescue ship on the horizon – and yet to be sure that we will be dead by the time help arrives.
The world needs to be changed in many urgent ways: the great question is how this change might best occur.
The Romantic view is that the world is sick because of a lack of good ideas. Therefore, the most prestigious and urgent move to make might be to withdraw and write a book or start a think-tank: and thereby work out what justice is, where climate change comes from, why relationships don’t work or why there is so much inequality.
Immense prestige has surrounded the gestation of new ideas for helping humanity for the last 300 years. And yet the world has continued to change a lot less than it should, remaining surprisingly committed to its familiar wicked ways, despite the existence of so many revolutionary and truly wise plans.
This is perhaps because we have missed an insight. The world is not principally in the state it is in because we lack good ideas. We know almost everything we could ever need to know about justice, beauty, wisdom, truth and kindness. Our problem isn’t a deficit of good ideas; it’s a stubborn inability to act upon and correctly implement the many very good ideas we already have.
The world is not (though this the professional error of intellectuals) held together simply by ideas: it is made up of laws, practices, institutions, financial arrangements, businesses and governments. In other words, improvements cannot be made lasting and effective until legions of people start to work together in concert and begin the unglamorous and deeply boring task of wrestling with tangled issues of law, money, long-term mass communication, advocacy and administration.
In the single greatest book of philosophy ever written, The Republic, Plato articulated a provocative understanding (gathered from bitter experience) of the limits of intellectuals, when he remarked that the world would never be set right until, in his words, ‘philosophers became kings, or kings philosophers’. He was advising us that thinkers should stop imagining that ideas alone can ever change reality and urging us to recognise that it is only ever through the command of institutions, ‘kingship’ in this context, that we have any chance of working a proper influence on the world.
The reason why philosophers have found it so hard to become kings comes down, very often, to issues of temperament. Those with the good ideas have been bad with money, they have grown tetchy around details, they have not liked to campaign or team up, they have had spiky characters, they didn’t like going to the office or sharing a platform. They were wary of popularisation and diffusion: they secretly rather liked embattled exclusivity. They may even have been rather proud of their inability to read a balance sheet. It is such Romantic prejudices that have kept the status quo reliably unchanged.
Sole authorship and sporadic individual impassioned action cannot be a logical long-term way to address the complexities of the most significant global issues. Changing the world requires patient and impersonal team-work: it calls out for the collective efforts of entrepreneurs and product managers, accountants and media strategists, lawyers and activists, members of parliament and social workers. Change takes years, it is made up of many very small victories, it involves compromises at every stage and it is accompanied by countless humiliating reversals.
It all sounds very un-Romantic – and that’s the point. The only way to bring about the change we need is to alter our sense of how change really occurs; away from exclusivity, intellectualism and spontaneity and in the direction of modesty, patience, rigour and collaboration.
Although our societies have, in theory, a very high regard for the idea of community, it is telling that, in practice, ‘community centres’ are often the most uninspiring and unlovely of all buildings. They can be architecturally very undistinguished, they may have been vandalised and not patched up properly, they can be home to desperate or intimidating figures – and they may offer little for people who don’t have an interest in table tennis, bingo or snooker.
By being less than inspiring, our current community centres unwittingly imply that there must be some form of conflict between an investment in ‘community’ and our deeper hopes for fulfilment for ourselves. Instead of countering individualism, the centres may paradoxically spur on more private forms of ambition, hinting that the drive for personal success should be paramount, for we might otherwise have no option but to spend our days in compromised surroundings. Rather than bolstering community, these centres whisper to us that communal enthusiasm would be something to lean on only when other, better hopes had already failed.
Whatever their many doctrinal and institutional flaws, religions have been experts at building a properly inspiring sense of community. Even those who lack any interest in the faith-based aspects of religion tend to feel a degree of respect, even nostalgia, for the way in which religions have attenuated loneliness, brought together people from very different walks of life and framed the idea of being in a group in the most dignified and ambitious terms. The example of religions opens up a richer sense of what community could be – and in particular and very concretely, it offers us a set of ideas about how we might go about constructing new kinds of community centres, which would capture the highest hopes for a more collective way of life.
i. Outstanding Buildings
The great religions have in general spared no expense in building their community centres. For many centuries, these centres – temples, mosques, synagogues, churches and cathedrals – were simply the most impressive structures in existence, whether private or public. Nothing could rival them in magnificence, grace and intelligence. To walk inside their high beamed ceilings, carved colonnades or painted porticoes, was to feel awed and moved by the majesty that underpinned them.
The Golden Temple, Kyoto, originally completed 1397
One’s home might be very comfortable and in its own way accomplished, but it could never be as visually delightful as the centres of communal worship. The finest architects would compete to work on them, the pride of a whole society would be directed towards them and the wealthy would be largely unresentful about helping to pay for them. There was, the architecture hinted, to be no conflict between the demands of the individual ego and collective pride. Dominating the skyline of pre-modern cities, the religious community centres proclaimed the superlative importance of collective life.
Any attempt to build on the legacy of religions would have to begin with similarly outstanding architecture; the community centres of the future would need to be unquestionably among the most attractive buildings in their districts. Rather than utilitarian sheds put up with maximal economy and minimal inspiration, they would need to leave users astonished at their refinement, comfort and artistry and different neighborhoods would engage in the healthiest kind of competition to ensure that theirs stood out among rivals. There would have to be pretty much nowhere else a person with options would rather spend their time in.
Religions have always taken care not just to bring us together, but also to introduce us to one another. They have sensed our otherwise dominant proclivity to stand next to people without ever opening our hearts to them, to inhabit the same space for a while but never to reveal our humanity. This explains why, at the start of a Catholic Mass, priests (or to give them their proper and telling designation, ‘hosts’) encourage the congregation to turn left and right and share a blessing with their neighbours (and perhaps later invite them for refreshments in the garden), or why at the festival of Purim, rabbis will suggest that the entire community drink and eat together in an atmosphere of sympathy and kindness. In the Zen Buddhist tea ceremony, the tea master or mistress will suggest conversation topics for the assembled company, and steer them towards themes of sincerity and meaning.
The modern secular world is not without a theoretical interest in communal spaces. Our cities abound in bars, clubs, cinemas and theatres. But what is striking is that such locations almost never facilitate meetings between people. They bring us together without for that matter helping us to throw off the inhibitions which hold us back from speaking (at least with any degree of honesty and profundity) to strangers. We eat together in large restaurants, but remain anonymous to all but the select group of individuals we came in with. We watch the same plays or films, but without any opportunity to share our emotions with those around us. We wander the cavernous halls of museums, carefully pretending that we are entirely alone.
The community centres of the future would take care to ensure that community is not simply a concept or an aspiration, but a lived reality. They would frame the rules of how we interact in their spaces – and insist that, once we were over the threshold, anyone could be approached without fear of intrusion or judgement. They would help us to feel that we were in a zone of safety and kindness and they would give us tools and rituals with which to express our desire for mutual support and self-revelation. There would be shared meals and special moments where we would be be able to ask questions with which to lever open our shyer, deeper selves. We would no longer be just physically together but also, an infinitely trickier yet more important proposition, psychologically together as well.
iii. A gathering of equals
At most gatherings in the secular world, the most common enquiry we field is around what we ‘do’ and according to how impressive our answer is, we will either be welcomed and feted – or else silently abandoned and ignored. The currencies of the social world are overwhelmingly financial and professional. No one is especially interested in whether we happen to be kind or nice.
It is this set of worldly priorities that religions have traditionally subverted in their community centres. Zen Buddhism insisted that all nobles leave their weapons (richly decorated markers of status) at the entrance of tea halls. At Friday prayers, Muslim congregations would deliberately mix up their members, so that a mule driver might be kneeling besides a doctor.
The community centres of the future would, in an analogous way, work at foregrounding a value system that differed from the dominant one in the world beyond their doors. Here what would count would be sincerity, kindness, imagination and a commitment to emotional connection. It would – for a little while – no longer matter so much ‘what one did’ so long as one knew how to acknowledge vulnerability and invest in fellowship.
iv. Beyond snooker
Modern communal spaces tend to gather us together in order to eat, shop, watch or play sport. These may be important priorities at points, but they are only the start of what we might want or need to do while around other people.
What distinguished religions was that their community centres were places where one could perform psychological activities as opposed to merely material ones. Here one could – in the company of others – express one’s sorrows, celebrate beauty, give voice to longings for transcendence and offer and receive sympathy. Psychological needs were not relegated (as the secular realm now encourages) to so-called private life. Meaningful moments were not reserved for the home and relationships between couples or parents and their children. One’s heart might be touched to the core in a vast crowd.
In Catholic churches, even confessional boxes were placed in public view. The boxes might give privacy, but they were themselves conspicuous, signalling that an admission of our brokenness wasn’t shameful or strange – but was an admirable and noble act that everyone should regularly partake in.
In the community centres of the future, we wouldn’t merely be invited to swim and play badminton together, but also – at points – to have psychotherapy in beautifully designed adjoining booths.
v. Beyond the news
Religious buildings of old were, by their nature, in touch with the transcendent themes of existence: here one would gather to remember the lessons of someone who lived a thousand years before, or dwelt high in the heavens above. One’s mind would be drawn away from the concerns of the present moment by the sight of graves in the grounds outside or by plaques and scrolls detailing weddings and births from long ago. The grand language, the light filtering in from a distant oculus, and the relative quiet or background sound of water would all serve to still the mind and clear away its pettier present obsessions.
A visit to a community centre of the future should likewise broaden our psychological horizons, separating us from the concerns of the media-driven present and reconnecting us with time past and time future. The building would contain memorials to individual and collective tragedies and joys: a son lost at sea, a wedding ten summers before. The more resonant dimensions of existence would be kept in view and set up as worthy subjects of contemplation. The precise and often dismaying details of our own lives would matter less, we would be released from an ordinary preoccupation with ourselves – and immersed in the great cyclical truths.
Our societies are infinitely richer than those that built the great community centres of old. But our imaginations are – insofar as an interest in what is collective is concerned – a great deal more limited. We know how to build communal sports facilities, shopping centres, libraries and schools, but we are as yet unsure as to how to give public expression to a yet more significant longing in us: to make ourselves at home in the world and to open our hearts not only to kin (family), but also – to use a word that has almost dropped out of our vocabulary – to kith (acquaintances, neighbours, associates) as well.
Seduction is the attempt to get any set of tricky ideas into the mind of another person using the arts of charm. Though we know the concept of seduction well enough in romantic contexts, the manoeuvre is of huge relevance far beyond this. Managing employees requires seduction; instilling discipline in children requires seduction; leading a country involves seduction.
Unfortunately, the idea of ‘seduction’ has acquired a bad name. If a book is charmingly written, if a song makes people want to dance, if a product is well-marketed, if a person has a winning smile and sweet manners, a suspicion only too easily develops.
© Edgardo Balduccio/Flickr
And yet the idea of seduction is vital to any educational mission, for the ideas that we most need to hear are almost always the ones that we would in some ways like to ignore – and therefore need maximal help in absorbing.
We need the toughest lessons to be coated in the most subtle and inventive honey. We need an alliance of education and seduction.
At certain historical moments, the point has been well heeded. The central philosopher of the Renaissance, Marsilio Ficino, wished to teach the population of Florence to live according to the highest principles of virtue and intelligence. But he also knew the human mind well; he understood that it was no use delivering lectures if genuine change on a large scale was required. And so he persuaded his patrons, the wealthy Medici family, to harness the seductive skills of Italy’s finest artists to a broad and subtly concealed educational programme.
Magnificent buildings and sensuously appealing works of art were allied to the noblest lessons of classical and Biblical authors. Madonnas on altarpieces became not only kind and gentle-looking, but also – plainly – rather sexy, for – as Ficino knew – we have a habit of listening a little more closely when the person speaking is someone we might subliminally want to undress.
When Michelangelo (Ficino’s pupil) placed his David in front of the government building in Florence, it was the sexiest, most alluring statue Europe had witnessed since the fall of Rome. David looked irresistible but he was also the carrier of a key intellectual argument, derived from Cicero, about how the independence of a state must be founded on courage and sacrifice.
Similarly, in 18th-century Bavaria, moralist preachers wanted to promote compassion for the suffering of strangers, sorrow for our own selfishness and the spiritual significance of Jesus’s view of existence. But they were deeply conscious of how easily we might ignore such ideas in already busy and tricky lives. So, very deliberately, they set out to seduce.
Vierzehnheiligen church, Bavaria
With the help of the finest of what we nowadays term Baroque architects, they constructed ornate and richly carved churches that provoked admiration, awe and love. It became a little easier to believe in the ideas that had sponsored these architectural masterpieces after a few hours under their magnificent domes.
The urge to nag is very understandable, especially when a lesson is important. But sadly, nagging – the insistent, urgent, graceless repetition of a message – will only ever work for a small number of people who are almost on side anyway. It cannot change humanity.
This sets up a tragic situation: what naggers have to say may be supremely important, but their manner of delivery will ensure it will never be heard.
Seduction can always be used in the service of nefarious ends. But in the Utopia, there would be strategic alliances between the deepest, most sincere thinkers and the most seductive voices and creators. Seductive techniques would be carefully deployed to make sure what really mattered reliably worked its way into the hearts and minds of pretty much everyone.
To be accused of ‘utopian thinking’ is a particular insult in our times. We pride ourselves on being grounded, realistic and sober.
Insofar as we dare to imagine the future, we do so with one peculiar tic: we cautiously ask ourselves what the future will be like on the basis of current trends; we almost never ask the one big philosophically-minded question: what should the future be like? We proceed as humble futurologists, viewing the future as something to be deduced, rather than as bolder and more directive philosophers, viewing the future as something to be imagined – and thereby in part, summoned into being.
To think in a utopian way is a prime political act. It involves a refusal to be limited by our current obsession with the here and now in order to focus on the world as it could and should be in order to maximise human flourishing.
The most famous utopia ever produced in the West was Plato’s Republic, written in Athens around 380 BC. The work lays out how the society of the future should be arranged: with definitions of the ideal system of child-rearing, diet, education, law and government. This tradition of utopian writing deserves a renaissance.
In our day, much utopian thinking has gone into science fiction writing. This is one of the least prestigious of the literary arts, frequently dismissed as a subgenre consumed primarily by young men obsessed by the goriest or oddest possibilities for the future of our species.
Yet science fiction is in reality a much underestimated tool, for in its utopian, as opposed to dystopian, versions, it invites us imaginatively to explore what we want the future to be like – a little ahead of our practical abilities to mould it as we would wish.
Science fiction may not contain precise answers (how actually to make a jetpack or a robot that loves us) but it encourages us in something that is logically prior to, and in its own way as important as, technological mastery: the identification of a particular issue that we would like to see solved. Changes in society seldom begin with actual inventions. They begin with acts of the imagination, with a sharpened sense of a need for something new, be this for an engine, a piece of legislation, an idea of how people should marry or a social movement. The details of change may eventually get worked out in laboratories, committee rooms and parliaments, but the crystallisation of the wish for change takes place at a prior stage, in the imaginations of people who know how to envisage what doesn’t yet exist.
In 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, published in Paris in 1870, Jules Verne narrated the adventures of the Nautilus, a large submarine that tours the world’s oceans often at great depth (the 20,000 leagues – about 80,000 kilometres – refer to the distance travelled). When writing the story, Verne didn’t worry too much about solving every technical issue involved with undersea exploration: he was intent on pinning down capacities he felt it would one day be important to have. He described the Nautilus as being equipped with a huge widow even though he himself had no idea how to make glass that could withstand immense barometric pressures. He imagined the vessel having a machine that could make seawater potable, though the science behind desalination was extremely primitive at the time. And he described the Nautilus as powered by batteries – even though this technology was in its infancy.
‘Wouldn’t glass shatter at that pressure?’ Keeping certain questions at bay for long enough to shape a vision. Original illustrations by Alphonse de Neuville and Edouard Riou.
Jules Verne wasn’t an enemy of technology. He was deeply fascinated by practical problems. But in writing his novels, he held off from worrying too much about the ‘how’ questions. He wanted to picture the way things could be, while warding off – for a time – the many practical objections that would one day have to be addressed. He was thereby able to bring the idea of the submarine into the minds of millions while the technology slowly emerged that would allow the reality to take hold.
In his earlier story of 1865, From the Earth to the Moon, Verne had explored the notion of orbiting and then landing on the moon. He let himself imagine such a feat without getting embarrassed that it was entirely beyond the reach of all available technology.
It could become real in part because it had first been imagined. Illustrations by Henri de Montaut for the original edition.
Verne imagined that the United States would launch a mission to the moon from a base in southern Florida. He fantasised that the craft would be made of the lightest metal he knew (aluminium). He assigned what seemed an unspeakably large price tag to the venture; the equivalent of more than the entire GDP of France at the time – which turned out to be a very respectable guess at how much the Apollo programme would cost. It was a truly prescient imaginative description. His vastly popular book may not directly have helped any engineer, but it did something that in the long run was perhaps equally important to the mission: it fostered an aspiration. It explains why NASA named a large crater on the far side of the moon after Verne in 1961, and the European Space Agency followed suit with the launch of the Jules Vernes 2008, a rocket that travelled to the International Space Station carrying the original frontispiece of the 1872 edition of From the earth to the Moon in its cargo bay.
The projectile, as pictured in an engraving from the 1872 Illustrated Edition.
The key mental move in science fiction – ‘what would we want life to be like one day?’ – has traditionally been focused on technology. And yet there is no reason why we would not perform equally dramatic thought-experiments in quite different fields, in relation to family life, relationships – or capitalism itself. That is the task of philosophical utopian thinking.
Asking oneself what a better version of something might be like, without direct tools for a fix to hand, can feel immature and naive. Yet it’s by formulating visions of the future, that we more clearly start to define what might be wrong with what we have – and start to set the wheels of change in motion. Through utopian philosophical experiments, we get into the habit of counteracting detrimental tendencies to inhibit our thinking around wished-for scenarios that seem (in gloomy present moments at least) deeply unlikely. Yet such experiments are in truth often deeply relevant, because when we look back in history we can see that so many machines, projects and ways of life that once appeared simply utopian have come to pass. Not least, Captain Kirk’s phone.
The Communicator, from 1966
We all have a utopian side to our brains, which we are normally careful to disguise, for fear of humiliation. Yet, our visions are what carve out the space in which later patient and real development can occur.
The School of Life is committed to Utopian Thinking and the envisaging of the world as it should be.
At the centre of our societies is a hugely inventive force dedicated to nudging us towards a heightened appreciation of certain aspects of the world. With enormous skill, it throws into relief the very best sides of particular places and objects. It uses wordsmiths and image makers of near genius, who can create deeply inspiring and beguiling associations and position works close to our eyelines at most moments of the day. Advertising is the most compelling agent of mass appreciation we have ever known.
Because advertising is so ubiquitous, it can be easy to forget that – of course – only a very few sorts of things ever get advertised. Almost nothing in the world is in a position to afford the budgets required by a campaign; advertising is a form of love overwhelmingly reserved for those wealthy potentates of modern life: nappies, cereal bars, conditioners, hand sanitisers and family sedans.
This has a habit of skewing our priorities. One of our major flaws as animals, and a big contributor to our unhappiness, is that we are very bad at keeping in mind the real ingredients of fulfilment. We lose sight of the value of almost everything that is readily to hand, we’re deeply ungrateful towards anything that is free or doesn’t cost very much, we trust in the value of objects more than ideas or feelings, we are sluggish in remembering to love and to care – and are prone to racing through the years forgetting the wonder, fragility and beauty of existence.
It’s fortunate, therefore, that we have art. One way to conceive of what artists do is to think that they are, in their own way, running advertising campaigns; not for anything expensive or usually even available for purchase, but for the many things that are at once of huge human importance and constantly in danger of being forgotten. In the early part of the twenty-first century, the English artist David Hockney ran a major advertising campaign for trees.
David Hockney, Three Trees Near Thixendale, 2007
At the start of the sixteenth century, the German painter Albrecht Dürer launched a comparable campaign to focus our minds on the value of grass.
Albrecht Dürer, Great Piece of Turf, 1503
And in the 1830s, the Danish artist Christen Kobke did a lot of advertising for the sky, especially just before or after a rain shower.
Christen Kobke, Morning Light, 1836
In the psychological field, the French painter Pierre Bonnard carried out an exceptionally successful campaign for tenderness, turning out hundreds of images of his partner, Marthe, viewed through lenses of sympathy, concern and understanding.
Pierre Bonnard, Woman with Dog, 1922
In an associated move, the American painter Mary Cassatt made a pretty good case for the world-beating importance of spending bits of one’s life with a child.
Mary Cassatt, Mother Playing with her Child, 1899
These were all acts of justice, not condescension. They were much needed correctives to the way that what we call ‘glamour’ is so often located in unhelpful places: in what is rare, remote, costly or famous.
If advertising images are to blame for instilling a sickness in our souls, the images of artists are what can reconcile us with our realities and reawaken us to the genuine, but too-easily forgotten value, of particular bits of our lives. Consider Chardin’s Woman Taking Tea. The sitter’s dress might be a bit more elaborate than is normal today; but the painted table, teapot, chair, spoon and cup could all be picked up at a flea market. The room is studiously plain. And yet the picture is glamorous – it makes this ordinary occasion and the simple furnishings, seductive. It invites the beholder to go home and create their own live version. The glamour is not a false sheen that pretends something lovely is going on when it isn’t. Chardin recognises the worth of a modest moment and marshalls his genius to bring its qualities to our notice.
Jean Siméon Chardin, Woman Taking Tea, 1735
It lies in the power of art to honour the elusive but real value of ordinary life. It may teach us to be more just towards ourselves as we endeavour to make the best of our circumstances: a job we do not always love, the imperfections of age, our frustrated ambitions and our attempts to stay loyal to irritable but loved families. Art can do the opposite of glamourise the unattainable; it can reawaken us to the genuine merit of life as we’re forced to lead it. It is advertising for the things we really need.
One of the things that separates confident from diffident people is their sense of how feasible it might be to change the status quo. Broadly-speaking, the unconfident believe that history is over; the confident trust that it is still in the process of being made – one day possibly by themselves.
The way we enter the world carries with it an inherent bias towards an impression that the status quo has forever been settled. Everything around us conspires to give off a sense of fixity. We are surrounded by people far taller than we are, who follow traditions that have been in place for decades, even centuries. As children, our understanding of time hugely over-privileges the immediate moment. Last year feels, to a five year old, like a century ago. The house we live in appears as immutable as an ancient temple; the school we go to looks as though it has been performing the same rituals since the earth began. We are constantly told why things are the way they are and encouraged to accept that reality is not made according to our wishes. We come to trust that human beings have fully mapped the range of the possible. If something hasn’t happened, it’s either because it can’t happen – or it shouldn’t.
The result is a deep wariness around imagining alternatives. There is no point starting a new business (the market must be full already), pioneering a new approach to the arts (everything is already set in a fixed pattern) or giving loyalty to a new idea (it either exists or is mad).
When we study history, however, the picture changes sharply. Once time is speeded up and we climb up a mountain of minutes to survey the centuries, change appears constant. New continents are discovered, alternative ways of governing nations are pioneered, ideas of how to dress and whom to worship are transformed. Once people wore strange cloaks and tilled the land with clumsy instruments. A long time ago, they chopped a king’s head off. Way back, people got around in fragile ships, ate the eyeballs of sheep, used chamber pots and didn’t know how to fix teeth.
We come away from all this knowing, at least in theory, that things do change, but in practice – almost without noticing – we tend to distance ourselves and our own societies from a day-to-day belief that we belong to the same ongoing turbulent narrative and are, at present, its central actors. History, we feel, is what used to happen; it can’t really be what is happening around us in the here and now. Things have – in our vicinity at least – settled down.
To attenuate this insensitivity to the omnipresence of change and, by extension, the passivity it breeds, we might turn to some striking lines in T. S. Eliot’s cycle of poems, the Four Quartets:
So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.
Winter afternoons, around 4pm, have a habit of feeling particularly resolved and established, especially in quiet English country chapels, many of which date back to the middle ages. The air in such chapels is still and musty. The heavy stone floors have been slowly worn away by the feet of the faithful. There might be a leaflet advertising an upcoming concert and a charity box hoping to catch our eye. Over the altar, a stained glass window of the saints (Peter and John, holding a lamb each) glows from the last of the light. These are not places and times to think about changing the world, everything hints that we would be wiser to accept the way things are, walk back home across the fields, light a fire and settle down for the evening. Hence the surprise of Eliot’s third line, his resonant: ‘History is now and England.’ In other words, everything that we associate with history – the impetuous daring of great people, the dramatic alterations in values, the revolutionary questioning of long-held beliefs, the upturning of the old order – is still going on, even at this very moment, in outwardly peaceful, apparently unchanging places like the countryside near Shamley Green, in Surrey, where Eliot wrote the poem. We don’t see it only because we are standing far too close. The world is being made and remade at every instant. And therefore any one of us has a theoretical chance of being an agent in history, on a big or small scale. It is open to our own times to build a new city as beautiful as Venice, to change ideas as radically as the Renaissance, to start an intellectual movement as resounding as Buddhism.
The present has all the contingency of the past – and is every bit as malleable. It should not intimidate us. How we love, travel, approach the arts, govern, educate ourselves, run businesses, age and die are all up for further development. Current views may appear firm, but only because we exaggerate their fixity. The majority of what exists is arbitrary, neither inevitable nor right, simply the result of muddle and happenstance. We should be confident, even at sunset on winter afternoons, of our power to join the stream of history – and, however modestly, change its course.