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Two Cheers For Optimism
One man measures his life-span against the length of recorded history and finds tidings of comfort and hope
December 1982 | Volume 34, Issue 1
Individual members of the human species will revert to type on occasion and then, because of greater ingenuity, outdo in mayhem anything ever perpetrated by the hummingbird or, for that matter, the shark. But the overwhelming mass of men and women prefer even lives of quiet desperation to murder and mayhem. They have resigned themselves to channeling their atavistic urges to kill and cripple into mere expressions of desire, sometimes confided to a psychiatrist, sometimes, in the case of writers, to a typewriter. In spite of the daily recitation of murder, arson, and hijacking on every evening news program, extremely few who read this—except for those connected with the law—will ever have met with a murderer, an arsonist, a hijacker, or even a lowly mugger. And statistically there is not a chance in ten thousand that they ever will. What this gets down to is that a creature that started off by killing to live has evolved—in a breathlessly brief time—into one that may still kill on orders from his rulers but, exceptional assassins notwithstanding, is otherwise prepared to grumble, curse, pray, and let live.
Indeed, man is the only animal that has actively tried to change his own nature; that has consciously worked at evolving. Tigers are the same tiger-natured creatures now as they were in their early saber-toothed days, while man has come along at a rate, considering the speed of the centuries and their inconsequential number, that gives the lie to the prophets of despair. Monsters we may have with us, but in even moderately advanced societies these are, like Manson, drug-produced dregs; or the demented, accorded a moment of glory by the media; or ghastly atavists like Hitler, brought to power by a concatenation of terrible events and revealing in a flash what the human animal was as a rule in the not distant past.
In what are called underdeveloped areas, the Idi Amins and Bokhassas come readily to power, but the societies they impose upon are often three or four centuries behind the rest of humanity. It was only that long ago—five of my lifetimes ago—that an English Queen could have the head of a man like Raleigh lopped off with as much ease as a Third World tyrant can dispatch him with a bullet today—or as Stalin could finish off a critic only two decades ago. It is only yesterday that slavery and lynching were the rule in this headquarters of the free world. And in the eminently civilized circles of Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin, it might be remembered, there was the lively fear that the price of revolutionary failure might be the same penalty that was even then being imposed on His Majesty’s traitors in Ireland: to wit, incompleted hanging followed by disemboweling and beheading. As far as I know, they don’t do that sort of thing today even in Uganda.
It has been said that optimists are those who haven’t heard the news. Nonetheless, as one who has not only heard it but witnessed a bit of it—and without embracing blindly the onward-and-upward faith of the Victorians—I do think there may be some support for their attitude. Just as most individual infants manage, in spite of insistent flirtations with danger, to survive the follies of their years, so the brash human species may well manage to keep from blowing off its collective head long enough to outgrow the danger and reach a rewarding maturity. In short, I’ll take Pangloss over Cassandra at odds of, say, five to four.