I am always disappointed by the apathetic but I distrust the overzealous. And it only seems that the deeper we slide into apathy as a society, an increasingly yawning gap stands between those who feel and do nothing and those who feel that they have all of the answers. It is certainly understandable why a radical and proportionate certitude would seem to be a necessary answer to the contagion of indifference, but I am not convinced that an apathetic or willfully ignorant society is any better off in the hands of zealots than if left to its own devices. And I sometimes wonder if we can tell any more the difference between a right wing and a left wing zealot, each preferring a society in the mind rather than the ordinary, messy, and complicated neighborhood that is our world. If the zealots share one thing it would be their utter intolerance for the existence of real and persistent difference, difference in worldviews, difference in values, difference in tribal interests.
At the risk of contradicting myself, I must make it clear that I admire the believers, the dreamers of better worlds, those who are not satisfied with the status quo. Without them we are doomed. But there is a difference between the dreamers of possibility and the idealists; it is the difference between seeing possibility in the actual practice of life in the present and believing categorically that what the world offers is and can never be good enough. It is the difference between being willing to risk judgment instead of simply reverting to the kneejerk negation of what is before us. To insist, as Plato did, that all forms of life are fallen, hopelessly distant from the ideal, is to despair of the world. I am with Aristotle: we find truth by working through the messiness of this life and all of its manifestations, teasing out the possibilities from the ordinary actions of men and women.
What kind of intellectual work does it take, really, to simply opt for a formula that always renders the same verdict, that insists that the world is wrong, that it is the worst of all possible outcomes? This is the philosophy of negation, which is as morally superficial as Voltaire’s Pangloss who insisted quite absurdly that this was, is, and always will be the best of all possible worlds. Neither judgment is, in fact, judgment at all. It is ideology, pure and simple. The fact that the overzealous critic ultimately craves the despairing narrative at all costs ought to lead to asking some hard questions in the mirror. Is there a reason why one prefers the going-to-hell-in-a-handbasket narrative and ignores evidence to the contrary? It is the same reason some prefer the panglossian approach to life. It is because a position of categorical interpretation allows those who subscribe to such philosophies to bypass the great burdens of our species: what to do with our free will, how to judge, and the precarious question of how to make good use of the unprecedented and unassimilable amount of information before us. No philosophy can be considered moral if it denies the possibility that the world can ever be really in trouble. But it cannot be considered any more moral if it doesn’t know how to recognize real possibility in the evolution of events.
I mean to say that the world is open-ended, subject to chance, and seemingly without pattern, and yet it is also always potentially about to coalesce into what might be considered providential purpose. And it calls us to action as much as it asks of us a certain patient resignation. The glass is half full and it is half empty. What sense does it make to insist on one or the other? Both are true, since they are descriptions of perspective. St. Paul says that “every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need” (Philippians 4:12). Which means we must acknowledge that perspective brings insight as much as it blinds us. So we need each other and we need to learn trust in providence if we hope to resist the narcissism of despair.
We are a species that is woefully inadequate to the freedoms, intellectual capacities, and the availability of knowledge that we have inherited from our ancestors. I don’t say this merely because we are guilty of moral turpitude. I say this because we have more freedom than we know what good to do with it; we have just enough capacity to understand how little we truly grasp; and we have more knowledge at our fingertips than we can process and properly assess in a lifetime. And meanwhile the clock is ticking, the poor multiply into the millions, racism and sexism have not left us, the earth grows warmer and more unpredictable, biodiversity is taking a harrowing nosedive, and we don’t seem any more capable of working with each other, let alone with other nations, than we were in our past.
And yet. And yet it seems that we have caught glimpses of the possibility that we are a more compassionate species, that we have provided more food and shelter to more of us than ever in our history, that we are learning to imagine and protect the inalienable rights of all human beings, and that we are finally seeing ourselves as the environmental agents we always were.
That we are capable of such self-reflexivity and can see our own inadequacies as well as some of our progress is itself a miracle of possibility and a reason for profound gratitude and wonder, not despair. I say this because I trust that it is in seeing our weaknesses that we are made strong. We must see ourselves, however, and not just others in their weakness, if we hope to put our judgments to good use. Which means we must be as determined to identify the failings of society as we are to identify them in ourselves. Otherwise, we treat the human experiment with the detachment of a lab technician and imagine ourselves standing apart from the problems we see. Our hearts should be filled with compassion for humanity, not self-gratified pity for the poor and ignorant sots who are our brothers and sisters. The fact that we can see our inadequacies at all is a witness to our partiality, that is, to our limited and human perspective, and is evidence that we are incomplete without one another and, I would venture to say, without God.