Paleophobia and Futurophilia

I came across this quote by Robert Heinlein, the Dean of Science Fiction.

“The future is better than the past. Despite the crepehangers, romanticists, and anti-intellectuals, the world steadily grows better because the human mind, applying itself to environment, makes it better. With hands…with tools…with horse sense and science and engineering.”
―Robert A. Heinlein, DOOR INTO SUMMER (1956)

The Heinlein quote is pure hooey, of course. Even he would not say that Communist Russia was better than Czarist Russia just because it came later, or life in Dark Ages Britain of the Sixth Century was better than Roman Britain in the Fourth. I doubt he would say that living after the Space Age, in an era of failure, was better than living during the Space Age, an era of triumph.

Mr. Heinlein’s little bit of shoulder-dislocation-risking-self-back-patting was written during one of the few eras of human history, in one of the few places (namely, the postwar years in America) when life was growing steadily better by every possible measure.

This is because the Nazis were dead and the Europeans were crippled, and the sick ideas of the Left were in a decade-long lull. The devastation of war left American manufacturers with no competition on the world stage, and wealth as never seen before or since poured into our coffers. Meanwhile the scientific revolution was going forward unhindered. These were the years when NASA could still put a man on the moon, something beyond our reach now.

The Dean of Science Fiction does not mention in this quote what happens when the human mind applies itself to the environment to make things worse. I would assume in that case the world gets worse.

I would also say that the human mind applying itself to its environment to build a hospital or a cathedral leaves the world better, whereas the human mind applying itself to its environment to build a casino or strip joint (the kind of place Mr Heinlein glamorizes in his books) leaves it worse.

Does this make me an anti-intellectual romanticist crepe-hanger to point out that men often busy themselves in making the world worse? Romantic I am, but I romanticize the future and not the past. And, if any man dare call me anti-intellectual, I will say only Interdum stultus bene loquitur.

There are several dramatic ways in which life over the last two hundred years has improved, but these are also the years in which genocide became a household word. The slave trade was abolished by Christian nations worldwide during those years; and now we hear of it again as ‘human trafficking.’ Piracy was wiped off the high seas. Now it is back.

The Church was once the supreme and unquestioned center of life; then the worldly matters became the center of life; now distraction and mass media and drug abuse and sexual perversion is the center of life, the one thing absorbing our public attention and interest.

It is clearly not a universal human trait to look at the past as inferior. Much more common is glamorizing the past. The memory of some Eden or some Golden Age, or some high and pristine time when life was good is at the back of all myths, from the maudlin meanderings of Rousseau about the noble savage to the tales of Arcadia among the pagans, and at the back of all history, as in the Books of Moses.

Myself, I disagree with those who thing the future will get better in all ways, just as I disagree with those who says it will get worse in all ways, or, indeed, those who say things will remain about the same in years to come as they have in years past. The first is optimism, the second is pessimism, and the third is a nameless opinion equally as simplistic and foolish which deserves its own name: I propose Medianism.

Allow me to suggest the seeming paradox that, if present trends continue unaltered, what is bad in modern life will become rancid and terrifying, reaching to depths we can hardly imagine, and at the same time what is best in modern life will stride forth in blazing glory, clad in gold and purple, marching to the roar of trumpets, and soar on mighty wing to heights lost in the high dazzle of upper, unimagined space; and that the eternal things, the miseries and joys of the human condition, despite what modern prophets wish, will remain unchanged. I am making no radical or risky prediction, merely noting that the present is, in the same paradoxical way, worse and better than what our fathers predicted, and their days were likewise worse and better than their grandfathers predicted.

Where will it end? Ah, but I am a Christian, and indeed a Catholic, so I have cheated by reading the end of the book and seeing how it all turns out. The trend I predict will continue until the advent of the Antichrist, the reign of the Beast, the final triumph of Michael and his angels, and the Millennium, at which point the worse will become infinitely bad, a bottomless abyss fitliest called Hell, and the best will become infinitely blessed, pure, shining, and glorious, a realm of light rightly called Paradise.

So, yes indeed, the future will be better than the past, but this will be despite, and not due to human science and engineering and horse sense. Human hands, left to themselves, dangerously armed with whatever tools are at hand, whether provided by science or not, will rivet the chains more tightly around human necks, no doubt for reasons which will seem quite practical and rational at the time, and appeal to the sense of every rational horse.

Speaking of rational horses … While you contemplate that, I shall be in conclave with my fellow Houyhnhnms to debate whether and how to castrate and exterminate the yahoos, ere they overrun the Earth. Why the yahoos regard cold Reason as their ally, when Reason coldly commands the elimination of so vile and noisome a brute, is a mystery that puzzles my narrow, equine but utterly rational head.