The twentieth century was hard on the human race. The previous century had been, in general, one which built us up and provided us with an outlook that seemed to promise great things. Evolution was a concept applied to more than biology, it ruled every aspect of life. Mankind, as we were known, was going somewhere: progress was the ruling principle of all society. The spread of democracy, the Industrial Revolution, the expansion of education and literacy, the abolition of slavery and child labour, the rise of the Nation state; all of these things, happening through the century, and capped off by Darwin’s theory that we were on an upward journey – the Ascent of Man – made people believe that things were becoming more civilized, more advanced. The negative aspects of this progress were seen as inevitable and temporary transitions on the way to Utopia.
Long before Hippies and love-ins, communes and communal living were attempted in the 1800’s. Poets like Walt Whitman and William Blake prefigured the Beats and the troubadours of the Folk scene, like Dylan and Phil Ochs. Society believed that progress was inevitable, a sign of evolutionary inevitability, of its own personal and national, even ethnic, superiority over the past. Philosophers and academics began to believe that God was dead, because Man no longer needed him, no longer was tied to superstitious belief in the transcendental. Some believed, in fact, that Mankind was the true transcendental element in the Universe. Most believed that Mankind itself was on the way to divinity.
But the world of the Utopians collapsed about a hundred years ago, most effectively between 1914 and 1918. The reason the Titanic disaster in 1912 was, and is, such a traumatic event, is that it had seemed an impossibility. Science and technology was supposed to have got beyond that kind of thing in the progressive West. But the statesmen of Europe were in tears as they declared war on each other in 1914, because their technology and schedules were forcing them into devastation. Or else they rejoiced that their technology was going to be used in a triumphant proof of their nation’s superiority.
The Twentieth Century brought us world wars, depressions, holocausts, genocide. And it seemed that, for every incredible advance in science, there was a dreadful price to pay in unanticipated side effects. Possibly the bloodiest century in human history revealed that we were not, perhaps, as civilized as we thought. Religion could not be blamed, after all, for every war and injustice. Progress was beginning to poison our atmosphere and choke our rivers, lakes and oceans. We were forgetting how to grow our own food. Food itself was less real and more damaging to our systems which were developing allergies and illnesses to blight our longer lives.
The Sixties seem, in retrospect, to have been a time when younger people reacted, looked for something more than the material Utopia of the post-war world. Peace and love and freedom seemed like fresh, new ideas, no matter how many times they had been “discovered” in previous generations. It was not naivety, or mindless idealism: it was hope. But two Kennedys and a King later, after Vietnam, Watergate, Iran-Contra, and so many other disillusions, came the Great Distractions: video games, the Internet, Apple and Microsoft, to insulate us, isolate us, allowed us to retreat into a personal universe where we no longer knew the names of our neighbours, no longer allowed our children to play outside, no longer believed that schools were actually educating, or that governments were really interested in our concerns.
The prevailing philosophy of our society, and one with which we were indoctrinated, was that all that mattered and was real was whatever we could see, touch, smell and hear. Everything was relative now, no more absolutes to fail us, no more truth applicable to all. God was whatever you decided he/she/it should be. In fact, everyone could have their own god, lots of gods, or no god. It didn’t matter, because none of it was ultimately real. As a result, we live in a society that is falling apart because, if everything is relative, if truth and values are what you want them to be, then nothing has real value. If everything is equally true, then nothing is truly true. Words lose their meaning. But what if this is all wrong? What if there is a point, a purpose, a design even, that we seem to fail to grasp? We can look at that next time.