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IS HUMANITY PERFECTABLE?
I was once accused by a friend of being a "utopist"-that is, someone who believes in the perfectibility of mankind and that it is possible to create a truly utopian world free of strive, crime, war, and the other unpleasantries sentient beings are prone to. Of course, he meant it as an insultimplying that I was living in a fantasy world completely devoid of reality or, at a minimum, practicality. Human beings are deeply flawed entities, he assured me, incapable of even being entirely civilized, much less sanitized. They are born with an inherent defect built into the very DNA of their existence which precludes them from ever rising very much above the law of the jungle.
Of course, he could point out example after example to support his premise: the crusades, centuries of warfare, the Inquisition, the Holocaust, Islamic extremism, terrorism, skyrocketing homicide rates and on and on and, of course, he is quite correct. Humans have demonstrated a marked tendency towards brutality throughout its history and continues to do so to this day. There's no denying that. However, that's a little like saying that because slavery has always been a part of the human experience, it must by default always remain an integral part of our society. Clearly, society can rise above its own wickedness if it collectively decides to do so, I countered. I also noted that human beings occasionally demonstrate selflessness, compassion, and mercy, and queried as to how defective human beings could be impelled towards any acts of selflessness if they are already hard-wired to be selfish. His rebuttal that such are aberrations from basic human nature and not typical of it, to which I asked then why it is that I know far more kind people than serial killers, suggesting that irredeemable humans appear to be decidedly in the minority. He was not impressed, and the debate ended in a stalemate, as most of my debates are won't to do.
However, the discussion did have an affect on me, for it got me thinking about just what it is I do believe about human beings. Do I really believe a utopian world is genuinely achievable? Can humanity really rise above its own selfishness, pettiness, greed, and personal ambition to forge a truly just and peaceful world? And even if we could, how do we get everyone on board and, most important of all, what of those who don't want to go along for the ride?
Of course, when most people imagine such a world, they usually see it as being a product of some great political or social movement that sweeps across the globe, creating a uniformly just and peaceful world. Unfortunately, history is littered with the corpses of such idealistic philosophies: the architects of communism, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, for instance, dreamed of a utopian state in which no one owned anything and freely shared all they had with each other. Attempts to implement that fine dream, however, resulted in catastrophe. The problem was that not everyone shared Marx and Engel's philosophy, resulting in force becoming necessary to implement their utopian vision. This inevitably resulted in some of greatest genocides in history that left millions dead, imprisoned, and impoverished. The necessity of using force, then , has always been the Achilles heel of communism, suggesting that such a system is not only impractical, but outright detrimental to human enlightenment.
Of course, hard-core leftists counter this unfortunate fact of history by maintaining that those who called themselves communists misapplied it, turning it from a one-for-all, all-for-one system of shared wealth into an excuse to justify the seizure of private property and the nationalization of key industries as a means of enriching a tiny cadre of elitists and, in some cases, pure thugs, while leaving the people with nothing but food lines, forced labor camps, and despair. I grant that this is a possibilityindeed, perhaps even a probabilitybut I suspect it's a moot point. Even if communism was "correctly" implemented, it would still fail because it is built upon a foundation of presumption and erroneous beliefs about what humanity wants. In effect, it would fail because it badly misreads human nature. People by and large don't want to be taken care of and live in a predictable world in which everyone is the same and individual accomplishment and achievement is frowned upon. They want to pursue their personal ambitions and be recognized for their abilities and efforts, which is something that is dangerous to the "collective"with its emphasis on community and equality. As such, while communism may work on a small scale-in a commune setting in which everyone is participating by choiceon a national level it always ends in disaster. This is because the only way to make it work without unanimous consent of the populace is through the systematic destruction of its opponents or by expelling those who do not wish to share in the utopian "dream", resulting in mass murder, forced displacement and ultimately economic collapse. Obviously, when a country has to construct walls, machinegun towers, and lay minefields to prevent its own people from escaping their "worker's paradise" that is a good indicator that somewhere along the line something is broken.
So clearly the case can be made that communism does not work, at least on a large scale, but what of its kinder and gentler cousin, socialism? Can't government make for a more equitable and fair society, redress the wrongs foisted upon the poor by the wealthy, and otherwise forge a safer and more peaceful world and do so without entirely destroying the free market system in the process?
It can be argued with some success, I believe, that government has a valid role to play in humanities' progression. Clearly laws need to be in place designed to protect us from each other and from the excesses of the greedy, the unscrupulous, and the purely ambitious. Government also has a role to play in protecting us from external forces as well as provide relief in the event of natural disasters, making it essential during times of crises. A society without a functional government tends to break down very quickly into anarchy, so government involvement is necessary to prevent the planet from being populated by a growing collection of little Somalias. The problem, however, has always been in determining how much government is excessive and to what extent its role should be in our day-to-day existence, and this is where socialism frequently fails. It has a tendency to over regulate, manipulate, and generally try to govern in such a way that it destroys incentive, entrepreneurship, and personal initiative. In effect, countries enamored with socialism tend to end up creating a society in which the people end up serving the government rather than the government being a servant of the people.
The great problem with socialism is that it falls into the very trap it's trying to prevent: in the effort to prevent any one person or company from acquiring too much power, it requires considerable regulatory power, meaning that in order to be successful in curbing individual and corporate abuse, it has to become even more powerful than the forces it is attempting to control. This has traditionally resulted in government becoming too powerful in the process, with the inevitable result being an abuse of that power and a tendency to over reach its authority. In the end, while socialism might be effective in preventing the people from becoming enslaved to the whims of big business or greedy financiers, it frequently results in them becoming subjected to the whim of a comparative small group of politicians and government bureaucrats instead. In effect, it is a simple exchange of power as one group snatches it away from another and keeps it for themselves, which is really nothing more than an exercise in exchanging jailers. No one wants to be under the thumb of greedy industrialists and cold-hearted financiers, but does any one instead want to be under the thumb of ambitious politicians and idealistic social engineers? Neither prospect is very appetizing.
So we return to our original question as to whether a utopian world is possible, given what has happened in the past and how things are structured currently. Clearly, if we assume that such can only be realized through the political process, the answer must be no. Considering humanities' dismal track record and the equally dismal record of government itself, there is no way that a truly utopian world is capable of being realized now or any time in the foreseeable future. Even an optimist like myself cannot see how our world might become that which I wish it could be under the current circumstances, seemingly making my friend the winner in our debate.
But here's the rub: who said that this upward progression must be political in nature? What if, instead, I'm speaking of a spiritual revolution which leads us to a truly utopian world and not some political movement or social theory? In effect, what if this upward progression is a result of internal changes we wrought within ourselves and not some social reform implemented from outside and forced upon us by well meaning but usually clueless politicians?
I believe that that's the key to utopia: based upon what I've seen, human beings are-if not perfectible (however one wishes to define the term)at least capable of considerable improvement. There is something in the human spirit that longs to return to its divine source and put the world of fear and selfishness behind it. Even communism and socialism harkens to that desire, even if they are incapable of realizing it themselves. In fact, just as hunger is evidence that there is such a thing as food, it is the very recognition that things are not right that is the best evidence that there is a better way, even if we are not yet capable of realizing it.
I'm not talking about a perfect world here, or a perfected humanity; such a prospect would be a fantasy. But if it gave us a world in which a person could live out their life with a reasonable expectation of safety and comfort, it would be a passable utopia. It would not be the socialist world of cradle to grave security in which every need is met by some government program nor would it be some type of hedonistic Garden of Eden where everyone spends their days lounging about a pool drinking Mai Tais; instead, it would still be a world in which each resident would be expected to provide for their own welfare to the best of their abilities, nor would it be a world free of consequences and risk; a person could still fail in such a world. But it would also be a world of challenges and opportunity in which a person would be free to pursue their passions and interests-assuming they did not harm another person-without judgment or limitation.
But how would such a world be realized? How would it function? Who would run it? For that matter, who would clean the streets, take out the trash, bathe the infirm, and bury the dead? Wouldn't some degree of government still be necessary to protect us from the inevitable disputes living in close proximity to other human beings frequently produces, and wouldn't some form of currency-based capitalism also be necessary to provide the incentive required to get people to clean those streets, take out that trash, bathe those infirm, and bury the dead?
Not necessarily. We need to envision a world in which each person sees themselves as an integral part of a greater whole and a stake holder in their own society. Imagine a world in which rape was non-existent, not because there are laws to forbid it and prisons to house those who do it, but because the very concept of forcing oneself upon another is inconceivable. Consider a planet upon which the idea of intentionally hurting others or stealing the fruits of their labors would be unthinkable, or one in which no one is comfortable if their neighbor is hungry or destitute. Finally, envision what this planet would be like if the thought of using armed struggle to settle disputes were considered unconscionable.
On the other side of the coin, visualize a world in which everyone takes personal responsibility for their lives and for the livelihood of others. Would we need someone to clean the streets if we were unwilling to litter them with our waste? Would we need to pay people to take care of others when we are perfectly capable and willing to do so ourselves?
Impossible? Perhaps, but I think we are being presumptuous to assume such is not at least a possibility. After all, we have all met people in our lifetime we consider truly "good"-people who would do anything for others and who truly care about people; scrupulously honest people who often go out of their way to help and bring comfort to those in need, or who can always be counted upon to donate to a worthy cause. Such men and woman are rare, I admit, but unless you come from a brutal society or hang out only with thieves and cutthroats, you have too. You might have thought of them as naive at the time or even foolishly optimistic, yet you couldn't help but admire them and, in a small way, even desire to emulate them. They are not perfect people by any means-a point which they will readily admit-but they are good people, kind people enlightened souls.
They demonstrate to us that individual enlightenment is possible. They are people for whom laws and regulations are unnecessary because they have transcended their own nature and have touched upon the face of the divine. Such people are aberrations to be sure, but they exist as surely as do the wicked, and I believe their numbers are growing each day, both numerically and as a percentage of the population. Maybe they're small now: no more than one or two percent of the six-and-a-half billion people on the planet and as such, they are frequently overlooked, but they are a powerful force which has the potential to usher in the very golden age philosophers, New Agers, and social engineers have long dreamed of but never had the means of achieving.
But can these people really make this paradigm shift as I suggest? I don't know why not. We have seen that it is possible for wicked men to create a wicked world, so why do we imagine it impossible for enlightened men and women to create an enlightened world? It's simply a numbers game: when enough people become conscious of who and what they are, an enlightened society will inevitably result. It can't fail to, any more than light can fail to exist beneath a sunny sky.
But wouldn't such a society still require government, a police force, courts and justice, laws and regulations? Perhaps some, but only to the degree necessary to offset the actions of those who remain unconscious to their own divine nature. The key to understanding spiritual enlightenment is to understand that the more enlightened a society grows, the less it has needs for laws and a government infrastructure. Laws are needed to keep a spiritually immature people safe; they are useless in a highly evolved society simply because they have outlived their usefulness. Government is like the training wheels on a bicycle; once the child has mastered control over the vehicle, the wheels must come off or the child will never be able to push the limits of what their bicycle is capable of doing.
Of course, such a world is centuries-perhaps even many centuries-away from being realized, nor will it happen overnight. It will be a process, an evolutionary transcendence from the law of the jungle to the law of spirit, but I do believe we have within us the means necessary to realize this. I suppose that's why I remain one of those foolish optimists at heart; it's not that I have so much confidence in humanity; it's that I have so much faith in the divine aspects of ourselves to overcome the pettiness of that frail humanity, and I am convinced that if we can survive the next few centuries, we will come to realize that divinity that resides within us.
That may be naive in some people's books, but I don't see what value there is in this human experiment if we don't possess the capacity to overcome our own base nature. It's like imagining that an athlete has no capacity to break his own record, or that the last song has been written. There is always more lying ahead, which is what makes us unique. To imagine that we lack the capacity to evolve spiritually is like imagining that a toddler can never learn to walk or the weather will never be other than what it is today; it simply isn't the way life works. Everything grows; anything that doesn'teven imperceptibly sois dead, and humanity may be many things, but dead is not one of them.
So in the end I think I can say to my friend that yes, I do believe in utopia, because I believe that the universe is, at its heart, essentially a place of love and light. We may not shine that light very brightly today, but I see evidence that it burns brighter than it once did and that it will continue to grow even brighter in the future. We are a great divine experimentjust as are other sentient races scattered throughout the universe. It strikes me as short-sighted for the cosmic consciousnessthat force we call simply Godto turn its back on the results just when they're starting to get interesting. That may not be good theology, but it works for me.
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