Mini-Feature: The Direction of Humanity

We need a change in direction

Is humanity moving in the right direction?

There are two prevalent false extremes: first, that the arc of history is a glorious progression to earthly paradise by means of technology and "social justice"; second, that we are in the midst of inevitable decline leading to annihilation. Both are false even if, like all life, human life does indeed ebb and flow in any given community as well as globally. Yet I think it is true to say that while we have progressed and regressed in various ways, we are wrestling with two threats: 1) we have created technology at a rapid pace with effects we do not fully understand and cannot control and 2) without agreed upon wisdom about what we are and what we ought to be aiming at in common. Humanity suffers now from a crisis of meaning and purpose. And thus we see the nation and the nations that lead the globe flagging and faltering. Does this lead to a rebirth or a destructive cataclysm? Or both? Ours is but the trying...

In light of this and yesterday's question, consider the following quotation:

The modern project was originated as required by nature (natural right), i.e. it was originated by philosophers; the project was meant to satisfy in the most perfect manner the most powerful natural needs of men; nature was to be conquered for the sake of man who himself was supposed to possess a nature, an unchangeable nature; the originators of the project took it for granted that philosophy and science are identical. After some time it appeared that the conquest of nature requires the conquest of human nature and hence in the first place the questioning of the unchangeability of human nature: an unchangeable human nature might set absolute limits to progress. Accordingly, the natural needs of men could no longer direct the conquest of nature; the direction had to come from reason as distinguished from nature, from the rational Ought as distinguished from the neutral Is. Thus philosophy (logic, ethics, esthetics) as the study of the Ought or the norms became separated from science as the study of the Is. The ensuing depreciation of reason brought it about that while the study of the Is or science succeeded ever more in increasing men's power, one could no longer distinguish between the wise or right and the foolish or wrong use of power. Science cannot teach wisdom. There are still some people who believe that this predicament will disappear when social science and psychology catch up with physics and chemistry. This belief is wholly unreasonable, for social science and psychology, however perfected, being sciences, can only bring about a still further increase of man's power; they will enable men to manipulate man still better than ever before; they will as little teach man how to use his power over man or non-man as physics and chemistry do. — Leo Strauss, Introduction to The City and Man, 1963.

-Matt Peterson, founding editor of The American Mind


Unquestionably humanity is being pushed in a wrong direction—who can deny this? The difficulty is there are so many wrong directions in which to go, and even among those who discern better versus worse directions, there are deep disagreements and uncertainties about how to proceed. On top of this, who can deny that even the best of intentions often lead to bad results?

Tocqueville said marching everyone along the same path toward a single end is a sterile human idea, while opening the doors to a multitude of different paths toward the same end is a generative divine idea. He claimed that only by forcing people into facing up to the details of their own and shared lives together could leaders ensure liberty in an age of equality. Who wants to accept that burden today? Who wants to impose it?

The great wrong direction of humanity is an evasion of responsibility, whether through indolence or hyperactivity, ignorance or hyperintelligence... or both of each pair. But a great embrace of responsibility promises so much discomfort that to many it now feels wrong.

-James Poulos, executive editor of The American Mind

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I don't know and no one really knows. But people sure make a lot of money prognosticating. 

-David Bahr, managing editor of The American Mind


Notions of progress and bending arcs of history bore me. The eschatology of the thing is obvious: we are not marching toward some great final triumph but slouching in a rather ungainly fashion toward a salvation that will not be of our own making.

We are making progress of various kinds, of course—technological progress, though not as much as we should—and regress of much more important kinds—we are becoming much stupider, for example, about the soul, justice, metaphysics, and nature.

On these topics the most uneducated Medieval serf knew more than we do, and it’s not even really a competition. We must hope for a renaissance—those periodically happen, because for what it’s worth my model of overall human progress is more cyclical than anything. Things lie neglected for some years—the manuscripts of Aristotle, for example—and then are recovered and built upon. The fruits of that subsequent labor—the plays of Shakespeare, for instance, or the modern republican form of government—may in their turn soon be left to gather dust for a time.

Therefore on some level our task is as Whittaker Chambers put it to William F. Buckley:

It is idle to talk about preventing the wreck of Western civilization. It is already a wreck from within. That is why we can hope to do little more now than snatch a fingernail of a saint from the rack or a handful of ashes from the faggots, and bury them secretly in a flowerpot against the day, ages hence, when a few men begin again to dare to believe that there was once something else, that something else is thinkable, and need some evidence of what it was, and the fortifying knowledge that there were those who, at the great nightfall, took loving thought to preserve the tokens of hope and truth.

I am not quite so morose as all that: I live in hope that our revival will come more suddenly, more immediately, and more forcefully, from among the many ferocious and lively young people I call friends. But progress? No. We do but recover the old truths, and those only sometimes, until Truth itself will descend from on high and dwell among us.

-Spencer Klavan, associate editor of The American Mind