The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

None of This Had to Be: The Two Paths

There are broadly two views of the situation we humans are in.

The first is that what is happening is just a result of human nature. It is who we are. We are stupid, short-sighted, and profoundly cruel to each other and to other living beings. Our history is one of war, rape, and torture. In Tudor times, we would cut open a person’s belly and burn their intestines while they were still alive. Crowds would gather, and turn the occasion into a celebration.

Environmental destruction is old, too. Mesopotamia was not a desert once, but we made it into one.

There are those who look to the time before agriculture made possible the rise of kings and nobles and see it as better (and there is some truth to that), but there was violence then, too. The kings domesticated us, turned us into sheep, and except when they turn us on each other, there is less violence now. But, then a shepherd doesn’t want his animals to fight each other; they exist to be shorn, and die to feed the shepherd.

Humans are, in this view, too stupid, mean, and short-sighted to be considered more than animals. No smarter than bacteria in a petri dish, who expand until we choke to death on our own waste.

It may be that this view is correct.

There is a second view, however, which says that humans might be able to learn wisdom, foresight, and kindness — that we might be able to make that scale in both space and time. That we might be able to avoid the generational cycles of rise and fall; that we might learn to shape ourselves into a race which isn’t stunningly cruel, stupid, and foolish.

This isn’t a utopian view. It doesn’t pretend that the demons of human nature don’t exist. It says that we may be able to control them; that we may learn not to let predators and parasites run our societies, and that we might understand that what happens to the least of us, and to the least of the animals and plants, matters most, because whatever we do those without power is what we will do, in the end, to ourselves.

In prisons, rapists get raped, and those who do so become rapists. Those who laugh and consider it part of the punishment are rapists by proxy; their approval makes them monsters. When we say “this person deserves it,” we indict ourselves.

The penalty for abuse of power, in this view, is only to be permitted no power. To abuse the abusers is to become abusers, and those who are abused, themselves abuse later.

We live in cycles of abuse and powerlessness, and have given away our responsibilities to the worst among us. No serial killer is as evil as a President, or the CEO of a major bank or oil company. They have not killed nearly as many people, after all, nor hurt as many. But a serial killer’s killing, their cruelty, is that of a sheep against other sheep, and the sheep cry out that only the shepherd is allowed to kill and indulge in cruelty.

We are faced, today, with our the power we have created through technology, science, and our own domestication. We have become instruments of a few people — the cruelest and worst of us. But they rule because we have been made tame, and we have learned to see the world they way they do: that their power is legitimate and that we must acquiesce. They could enforce none of it if we did not acquiesce, and if they did not have their sheepdogs.

In this second view, we took the wrong path a long time ago, and followed it to self-destruction, misery, and powerlessness. We let the first kings and the first warrior castes rise, and we let the scribes become their servants, who turned into our modern scientists and engineers, forever crying out that what is done with their creations is not their fault.

When we take the wrong path, we must first recognize that we have done so, and that where we are is not where we want to be. We must understand how we came to walk that path, why it seemed reasonable.

Then we must change and find new ways of navigating.

In human society, this means a new culture. A new way of interacting with each other and with the animals and plants with whom we share the world.

Because we have gone so far down the path of (forgive the word) “evil,” almost everything will have to change.

Is that possible?

The second view claims that it is — that human nature possesses a range of possibilities, and that range emphasizes choice, and as we have choices, we can choose.

Is the second view true? Is the first? Are we evil because of an invariant human nature we will never be able to shape into something wiser, kinder, and longer-sighted?

The answer is, for now, unknown.

I choose to work for the second view, that what we have now is not the only possible expression of human nature at a global level, and that we can change, that we can be better.

It’s not the easy path because if it’s true, we’re going to have to have to give up almost everything we believe and are; everything we have shaped ourselves into over the millennia. Simply shrugging, living one’s life, and dying is easier.

And, perhaps, it is better. False hope is a sickness, not a blessing.

So I’ll not condemn those who shrug and say, “This is just who we are. Cruel, stupid, and short-sighted. The masses are nothing but sheep, the sheepdogs are the masters’ self-congratulatory tools who make serial killers look like children.”

We’re here now, just past the peak of our civilization (a cursed word, for almost all have been worse than the savages they scorn). This is the time we, you, must decide which of the two views you hold, and if you will work for the second path.

Is there a way to the good, or are we doomed to evil, for evil it is?



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  1. Eric Anderson

    I don’t know about you, but I’m nothing more than a complex microbiome evolutionarily forced to amass scarce resources in an instinctual race to make more complex microbiomes sharing traces of me — and which complex microbiome accomplishes this task by tricking it’s own executive processing machinery into assigning “meaning” to events that randomly occur outside the bounds of my existing experience.

    Or, so the cynical me often rationalizes anyway.

  2. Joan

    I loved this post! It’s taken me years but I believe in the second path these days and work for it myself.

  3. bruce wilder

    “ That is the real issue. That is the issue that will continue in this country when these poor tongues of Judge Douglas and myself shall be silent. It is the eternal struggle between these two principles — right and wrong — throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time; and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity and the other the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says, “You work and toil and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.” No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.” Abraham Lincoln

    I would say the past is a series of cycles, cycles within cycles even. Progress and regress, rise and fall, tides ebbing and flowing, founded ultimately on the passing of generations. It is never enough for one person in one lifetime to learn; what do subsequent generations retain and how do they apply it?

    The life and learning of a society and a culture is in its institutions, features and social mechanisms organizing the life of a society that few apparently understand or are even fully aware of.

    Even when human societies have been galvanized to reform fundamentally, the enthusiasm seems to melt in the passing of generations.

  4. Eric F

    Thanks Ian.

    I think I subscribe to the second view, more or less.
    The trouble comes when we begin talking about how to work toward a better society.

    Struggle begets struggle, and even something as vague as deflecting an asteroid orbit will have unpredictable results.

    So maybe shrugging and waiting for evolution to form future generations (or not) is the best tactic.

    Personally, I’m doing my best to ignore authority figures, trying to remember to be kind, and learning to dance with my friends.

  5. Ché Pasa

    Ah, sigh. I love this post. It’s really beautifully written, and the optimism therein is infectious. But…

    There is karma and there is delusion. On the one hand “we” — individually and collectively — are always subject to our karma, however you might define it. I see karma primarily as genetics which can be far more powerful and determinative than we give it credit for. Genetics applies to individuals, families, clans, and it can apply to nations and empires as well. Many aspects besides genetics can influence individual and imperial action and behaviour — one reason totalitarian states seek to shape and mold the individual essentially from the cradle, regardless of their nature. It works to a certain extent…

    Delusion, however, is ever-present. In the material world — where most of us always are — everything is delusion. In reality, there is no “there there.” What you see and sense and feel in the material world does not exist in Ultimate Reality. None of it. Which you eventually discover through enlightenment…. And trying to change what does not exist is absurd. (This is one reason Buddhists, for example, are terrible leaders of anything larger than a monastery, and often make terrible leaders of monasteries, too.) When nothing in the plane of the material world is “real” it’s hard not to be a cynic, a nihilist or a comedian. But then, none of that is real, either!

    And yet we can change, and change for what we think is the better, and we do, regardless of karma and delusion. Or more often using our karma and delusion to engineer something better not only for ourselves but for everyone.

    Yes we can, and I hope to see it flourish. Thanks for writing such a positive and helpful piece.

  6. Trinity

    Ian, I would have to choose both, because both are true of human nature, and we are humans and part of Nature, even if we prefer to believe otherwise. And to me therein lies the problem.

    Religions and other world leaders want us to believe we are above and beyond nature. In fact, the Bible says so. (God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” [Gen 1:26–28].)

    I don’t know if other religions also say this. Religious writings and interpretations have a tendency to be contradictory. It isn’t true, never has been, never will be. Dominion can mean “supremacy”. It can also mean dependency. Some Native American tribes chose the latter, we’ve chosen the former, to the peril of us all.

    Being dominant over Nature is a wish only, a fabrication handed down by a bunch of people trying to be early BC oligarchs, just like the current crop. Only the messaging is different.

    In choosing to be dominant, or both outside and above Nature, we’ve “forgotten the face of our fathers”, we’ve literally forgotten who and what we really are. We live fabricated lives inside fabricated walls in fabricated communities doing fabricated work (which now feeds only the oligarchs). Even our governments are now fabricated. The choices made in the past have literally made us “unnatural”, or put another way these choices denies us our very natures, the full range of human expression, emotions, activities, motion.

    This fabrication further pushes us to the first choice (“there is no alternative”), and essentially eliminates the second choice as an option by default. And here we are, and here we will stay until a majority realizes this: that we were never meant to sit for hours in cubicles made of toxic materials, or stand on concrete floors in toxic factories or warehouses just so we could buy something to eat.

  7. Whoever’s in; meet me on path #2. Bring your work boots.

  8. Feral Finster

    Humans are smart enough to be dangerous, but not wise, the way that cats are.

  9. Adam Eran

    For those interested in the second path, long form, try Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman

  10. GrimJim

    “In this world men struggle and suffer vainly, finding pleasure only in the bright madness of battle; dying, their souls enter a gray misty realm of clouds and icy winds, to wander cheerlessly throughout eternity.”

    Bêlit shuddered. “Life, bad as it is, is better than such a destiny. What do you believe, Conan?”

    He shrugged his shoulders. “I have known many gods. He who denies them is as blind as he who trusts them too deeply. I seek not beyond death. ..Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.”

    From “Queen of the Black Coast” by Robert E. Howard

  11. don

    The Descent Lyrics
    The descent beckons
    as the ascent beckoned
    Memory is a kind
    of accomplishment
    a sort of renewal
    an initiation, since the spaces it opens are new places
    inhabited by hordes
    heretofore unrealized
    of new kinds—
    since their movements
    are toward new objectives
    (even though formerly they were abandoned)
    No defeat is made up entirely of defeat—since
    the world it opens is always a place
    unsuspected. A
    world lost
    a world unsuspected
    beckons to new places
    and no whiteness (lost) is so white as the memory
    of whiteness

    With evening, love wakens
    though its shadows
    which are alive by reason
    of the sun shining—
    grow sleepy now and drop away
    from desire

    Love without shadows stirs now
    beginning to awaken
    as night

    The descent
    made up of despairs
    and without accomplishment
    realizes a new awakening:
    which is a reversal
    of despair
    For what we cannot accomplish, what
    is denied to love
    what we have lost in the anticipation—
    a descent follows
    endless and indestructible

  12. don

    oops! omitted poet’s name william carlos williams

  13. Soredemos

    Welsh, you’re giving faaaar too much credit to kings. It’s true humans likely domesticated themselves, but that was a collective activity that took place over hundreds of thousands of years. ‘Civilization’ was built on slavery imposed at spearpoint. For thousands of years people consistently preferred the nomadic ‘barbarians’ and fled the city states to join them.

  14. HMP


    “I don’t know if other religions also say this. Religious writings and interpretations have a tendency to be contradictory. It isn’t true, never has been, never will be. Dominion can mean “supremacy”. It can also mean dependency. Some Native American tribes chose the latter, we’ve chosen the former, to the peril of us all.”

    Very true. I call it the Conquistador Worldview. And that worldview arises quite naturally out of a religion with a transcendent, anthropomorphic god. After all, that theology essentially puts a human, at least human-like creature, in charge of the universe.

    There are different approaches. I love this passage from the Tao te Ching as rendered by the writer Ursula Le Guin:

    Those who think to win the world
    by doing something to it,
    I see them come to grief.
    For the world is a sacred object.
    Nothing is to be done to it.
    To do anything to it is to damage it.
    To seize it is to lose it.

    Tao te Ching # 29 (Le Guin rendition)

    Other cultures will find it easier to adapt to our new world. We’re still stuck in “Compete and Consume” when we must more quickly to “Cooperate and Conserve.”

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