I had the privilege recently of obtaining a book entitled “A History of the World”, published by D. C. Heath & Company in 1933. I was interested to see what kind of outlook and world-view a history book published before the second World War would have. I was surprised at the optimism and focus on social betterment:
The “brotherhood of man” was taught by Hebrew prophets, by the Greek Stoics, and by the early Christians, and the medieval Church always preached the natural equality of all men, if not on earth, at any rate in heaven. Our own age, however, is marked by a great growth in humanitarian sentiment. Increased intercourse between civilized peoples not only broadens their outlook but also widens their sympathies. Feelings of human brotherhood, once limited to members of one’s clan, tribe, city, or nation, expand to include all mankind…. There develops a social conscience which emphasizes the obligations of the strong toward the week and protests against the oppression of any members of the world community by any others.”
The perspective of the English, Western world, untainted by World War II and America’s emergence as a world superpower is an amazing insight. Still reeling from the effects of the Great War and nine million dead, the Great Depression, and a lesser importance placed on human life than today, it’s interesting to see that the expression is one of hopefulness, with emphasis on a global brotherhood and tranquility to all nations.
There is a contrast with today’s history books, which, while not pessimistic, also do not feature the same optimism. With the second World War now some sixty years behind us, I have to ask: what happened?
Perhaps it was the discovery of the splitting of the atom. Maybe we weren’t ready for that responsibility. Maybe no one still is. There is an intense subconscious pressure in knowing that humankind has engineered a series of tools so deadly that an accident and fifteen minutes would mean the end of our society as we know it.
Maybe it was the emergence of the superpowers, and the knowledge that with great ambition great wealth could be acquired. Modern technology has brought such convenience that it has become ingrained that with hard work and expense, most things can be acquired (perhaps that’s more of a capitalistic point of view). Pleasure-seeking, self-indulgence is key.
Maybe it was the sixties, and the attitudes that free love is the next spiritual plane. But free love without responsibility is a dangerous thing. Or perhaps the following generations, which have countered free love with popularized hate and isolation. The problem is that that, too, is done without responsibility. Today’s youth in particular, starved by the lack of attention they’ve received from the previous generation’s self-indulgent busy lives, are encouraged by their parents and by each other to be tough, heartless, and without morals.
Then we get to the group of folks generally called ‘the media.’ TV. Radio. Hollywood. Now, YouTube. The media had to meet their own materialistic goals to acquire wealth by becoming a meat grinder, feeding society fear. The news now tells us in subtle ways to distrust our middle-eastern neighbors and that we’re on the brink of new wars, while movies and music are filled with careless violence and sex. (Ironically, it has come to supplant the aggressions missing from our lives, since we’ve all become plugged-in couch potatoes.) As a result, we try in our own lives to replicate part of Hollywood, to feel some of what’s seen in the media. Crime increases. So do the number of rapes. With what else can we fill the empty spaces created from dropping what we were to become what we are?
As a species, we’ve lived in a society dominated by fear for so long that it has stricken the hopefulness from us. What a nihilistic world we live in.