The Human Prospect

I: The Mood of Our Times

There is a question in the air, a question so disturbing that I would hesitate to ask it aloud did I not believe it existed unvoiced in the minds of many: “Is there hope for man?”

In another era such a question might have raised thoughts of man’s ultimate salvation or damnation. But today the brooding doubts that it arouses have to do with life on earth, now and for the relatively few generations that constitute the limit of our capacity to imagine the future. For the question asks whether we can imagine that future other than as a continuation of the darkness, cruelty, and disorder of the past; worse, whether we do not foresee in the human prospect a deterioration of things, even an impending catastrophe of fearful dimensions.

That such a question hovers in the background of our minds is a proposition that I shall not defend by citing scattered evidence. I will rest my case on the reader’s own response, gambling that my initial assertion does not generate in him or her the incredulity I should feel were I to open a book whose first statement was that the prevailing mood of our times was one of widely shared optimism. Thus I shall simply start by assuming that the reader shares with me an awareness of an oppressive anticipation of the future. The nature of the evidence on which this state of mind ultimately rests will be the subject of the next section. But the state of mind itself must be looked into before we can proceed to examine the evidence, for our initial perspective enters into and colors the assessment we make of the “objective” data. Let us therefore open our inquiry into the human prospect by taking stock of our current anxiety.

I think we can find three main sources, or perhaps three levels of explanation, for the pall that has fallen over our spirits.

The first of these I will call topical, to refer to a barrage of confidence-shaking events that has filled us with a sense of unease and foreboding during the past decade or so. No doubt foremost among these events has been the Vietnam war, an experience that has undermined every aspect of American life. But the Vietnam war was only one among many confidence-shaking events. The explosion of street crime, race riots, bombings, bizarre airplane hijackings, shocking assassinations, government intrigue at the highest levels, has made a mockery of the television image of middle-class American gentility, and brought home with terrible impact the recognition of a barbarism hidden behind the amenities of life.

Perhaps even more important has been yet another development of the recent past—the failure of the present middle-aged generation to pass its norms and values along to its children. The ubiquitous use of drugs, the extreme sexual relaxation, the defiantly unconventional modes of dress, the unprecedented phenomenon of “dropping out,” especially among the children of the most successful classes, all…

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