Gray on Secular Eschatology

A very nice piece by the political theorist John Gray on getting over the optimistic hope for the “end” of secular history — a particularly apt reflection for the onset of another new year.  A bit:

In any realistic perspective the idea that a single event – however large – could mark the end of human conflict was absurd. But those who were seduced by the idea were not thinking in realistic terms.

They were swayed by a myth – a myth of progress in which humanity is converging on a universal set of institutions and values. The process might be slow and faltering and at times go into reverse, but eventually the whole of humankind would live under the same enlightened system of government.

When you’re inside a myth it looks like fact, and for those who were inside the myth of the end of history it seems to have given a kind of peace of mind. Actually history was on the move again. But since it was clearly moving into difficult territory, it was more comfortable to believe that the past no longer mattered.

Something similar seems to be happening today. For many people, the idea that the institutions that have been set up in Europe since the end of World War II might be breaking up is too horrific even to contemplate.

European institutions have preserved the peace for more than a generation and presided over a steady growth in prosperity. The very idea that they could now break up challenges the prevailing belief in steady improvement, which is the faith of practical men and women who imagine they have no religion . . . .

For believers in progress it must be a dispiriting prospect. But if you can shake off this secular myth you will see there is no need to despair. The breakdown of a particular set of human arrangements is not after all the end of the world.

Surely we would be better off if we put an end to our obsession with endings. Humans are sturdy creatures built to withstand regular disruption. Conflict never ceases, but neither does human resourcefulness, adaptability or courage . . . .

Without the faith that the future can be better than the past, many people say they could not go on. But when we look to the future to give meaning to our lives, we lose the meaning we can make for ourselves here and now.

The task that faces us is no different from the one that has always faced human beings – renewing our lives in the face of recurring evils. Happily, the end never comes. Looking to an end-time is a way of failing to cherish the present – the only time that is truly our own.

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