January 25, 2010

Dear Colleague:  

     We humans differ from other animals in that we can form images that are no part of our present environment. These images are at times powerful enough to make us yearn for change. Nevertheless, we seldom actually make the change until our present environment has badly deteriorated. In short, more often than not, we are pushed into doing something different. But unlike other animals, we are also pulled—lured by images of a better world.

     These are common observations in geography. Less common—less expatiated on by scholars—is the ordinariness of the better world we imagine. If it can nevertheless motivate us to make a move, it is because we are pushed by the severe dissatisfactions of present life. Without the push of poverty and religious intolerance in the Old World, pictures of the good life in the New World alone hardly suffice to motivate people to undergo the hardship of long-distance migration. Again, without severe economic deprivation and social injustice, people will not risk revolutionary change, when such change is likely to bring about even more extreme suffering; moreover, even if everything goes well, there remains the question, What will be the result? Will the envisaged “promised land” be worth the effort? This would seem an obvious question, yet few people are on record to have asked it. John Stuart Mill did, and his answer caught him by surprise. “Suppose,” he said to himself, “that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you? And an irresistible self-consciousness answered, ‘No!’ At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down.”

     Civilization is premised on a more optimistic view and sanguine spirit than Mill’s. It is, after all, the story of human progress. And progress can hardly occur if we are not constantly envisaging something better. That “better,” however, is almost always a specific object—a better tool or means to an end. As to the end itself, we have not been able to come up with values much different from those articulated by Shakespeare in The Tempest: “Honor, riches, marriage blessing, / Long continuance and increasing.” To think that Homer already said them a couple of thousand years earlier! The good life as pictured by humans would appear to have changed little over time. Which makes me wonder, Why is our power to envisage the good life so limited, so conspicuously lacking the drama and intensity of the horrors we so easily conjure? Just compare our visions of heaven and hell: the one thin and clichéd, the other richly detailed. Actual experiences in life may partially explain this asymmetrical outcome. When we dream, for example, pleasant ones are no match for nightmare horrors. As for life awake, isn’t it true that in any one ordinary day, the irritations (that pebble in the shoe!), the frustrations and disappointments outweigh the spells of contentment and pleasure? Test yourself. Would you want a day—even a good day—rerun in every detail if it were possible?

     “Good,” of course, means far more than just material plenty and sensory satisfaction. It is an ethical term, and human progress may be measured against what we conceive to be its ideals. Civilization has made great strides in conceiving the Good, but unlike the great strides made in technology, they all seem to have been formulated more than two thousand years ago. We don’t have an idea of the Good more sublime than that already given us by the Jewish prophets, Buddha, Christ, and the Stoic philosophers. Technology cannot be expected to yield new ethical insights, though it can provide us with new means of articulation, as, for example, motion pictures. Technology has certainly helped to spread ethical ideals. Think of the role of roads in the diffusion of Buddhism and Christianity, and of the internet in the diffusion of human rights.

     I begin with the idea that change in the human condition has historically depended more on push than on pull. Now that the push, driven by life’s intolerable burdens, has somewhat eased in the world, can we hope that the pull—the lure of the Good—will play a larger role?

     The real challenge for us, then, is not so much retracing our path back to Eden as finding new ways to picture the Good—in art, music, science, and ethics—such that the New Jerusalem is not just human foolishness and vanity.

Best wishes,



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