Mankind: The Dynamo

[This letter is part of the Little Letter Republic, a project whose purpose is to build community in St. Louis. It is a response to John’s letter “The Prayer to the Dynamo” found here.]

Dear John,

What can human society become? Can human society be improved? Fear and trembling! The Third Reich wished to purify a nonexistent race! The Bolsheviks sought to reshape the conditions of society itself! They brought death and destruction. Robespierre enthroned another Moloch and called her Reason, and the Alhambra Decree sought to improve Spain through the dispossession of Muslims and Jews.

But has society improved? No small feat, yes, in many places all around the world. Rule of law, norms of civility, balance of powers, federalism, the incremental process, standardized production, specialization, high yield agriculture, the end of serfdom, literacy, numeracy, and online booksellers have created a freer, more prosperous, and a more fecund world. But even these little triumphs seem tiny compared to the problems we face as a society.

Society’s norms and technologies can improve, but each individual still suffers the same issues of impulse and weakness, fear and anger, love and death. The essential problem of life for the individual still concerns becoming a full person, even when basic needs are met. We still know the difference between what we wish for and what we have. That gap can only begin to be healed through transformations of the mind and heart, society may help or hinder but it can’t solve this problem for us.

I suppose you grant me all this, and you will even concede that our society can become a greater and grander and freer, more prosperous, and more creative thing than it is today. But you take exception to the idea that our machines will help us achieve this. Surely, though, machines are merely the most obvious outgrowth of the human genius, which has invented many subtle technologies such as the subjunctive and the subpoena.

Numberless are the world’s wonders, but none
More wonderful than man; the storm gray sea
Yields to his prows, the huge crests bear him high;
Earth, holy and inexhaustible, is graven
With shining furrows where his plows have gone
Year after year, the timeless labor of stallion teams.
The light-boned birds and beasts that cling to cover,
The lithe fish, with one fling of his nets
woven and coiled tight, he takes them all,
man the skilled, the brilliant!

Antigone

The Chorus of Antigone goes on to say that man has a mind for law, law which he has taught himself. Without the law, man is a beast. Yet, not even this technology of man always secures a good society. Some laws are beastly. (Hence the play!) Some research programs lead only to destruction. Some technologies surely could destroy us, and in all honestly, the future holds more destructive ideologies and technologies than the past or present.

You say you know the supernatural destiny of man. But, the natural destiny of human societies remains a mystery. Death? Yes, ultimately. But when and where and how? What will we have become by that point? How much better could society become? Perhaps Moloch had us licked a million years before we got here. Yet we don’t know the destiny of society, but we should wish for its constant renewal and progress, even on the purely natural level of Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, Temperance, and victory over chaos.

We feel it is epical when man with one wild arrow strikes a distant bird. Is it not also epical when man with one wild engine strikes a distant station? Chaos is dull; because in chaos the train might indeed go anywhere, to Baker Street or to Bagdad. But man is a magician, and his whole magic is in this, that he does say Victoria, and lo! it is Victoria. No, take your books of mere poetry and prose; let me read a time table, with tears of pride. Take your Byron, who commemorates the defeats of man; give me Bradshaw, who commemorates his victories. Give me Bradshaw, I say!”

G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday
1886 Bradshaw Tables

So I ask, is there any contradiction between a human society which overcomes its troubles and masters more and more of nature and an assembly of people whose souls have been healed? I see none; I want both! Thus we should hope for and work for both, for they will complement and invigorate each other.

Some see a contradiction because their religious instinct says there is only One Good, and that this love of productivity makes an idol of the Amazon Warehouse. (Moloch in the Warehouse pissing corporate profits into a bucket!) But I say, the Amazon Warehouse only exists because it provides goods, true goods to fellow people! Rejoice and thank the delivery person for their service. For this little package in the mail, while but a small good in the grand cosmic creation, truly is a good which one harvest day will be gathered up for the Sower who seeded all the goods of creation. And on that day all the goods created by the heart and mind and voices and hands of our human societies, including the little package that saw a dozen hands made of materials from a dozen countries, He will reckon up as a credit to humanity. He will give us our reward.

Thus, “Produce!” I shout. “Propagate!
Ensoul matter, ye rites rational!” For in utility’s gallant gait
Truth is put to use of soul and matter transubstantiates.

The Child of Generations Responds to Auden

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