[Excerpt from this book.] There are delights and dangers in adopting a broad perspective on oneself and one’s society. Looking at the “big picture” can either electrify or paralyze one’s will. The latter possibility is obvious, given, for example, the big-picturesque horrors of global warming and capitalist global pollution. Oceanic garbage patches the size of continents, slums the size of cities, cities disintegrating into slums, and a planetary future incinerated in the vortex of capitalism are not things that quicken the will to live. Internecine violence running riot from Mexico to the Middle East, from central Africa to Russia, as governments outdo each other in the art of cultivating murderous resentments, does not inspire confidence in one’s ability to make meaningful change. Despair on a cosmic scale, encompassing life from low species already extinguished to high species threatened with extinction, suffocates “optimism of the will,” “pessimism of the intellect” alone remaining.
The added burden of such modern afflictions has done nothing to ease the ancient burdens philosophers and poets have bewailed since the Upanishads. Earth is a pale blue dot in the infinite expanse of desolate space. What matter our little earthly tribulations or triumphs? Someday we’ll all be gone, Earth itself will be gone, and it will be as though nothing ever was. No art, no music, none of the sound and fury of a Faustian but forgotten history. “All is vanity!” The flower of youth wilts, as poets have lamented for millennia, withering into a decayed old age and finally death. Pleasures are evanescent; time consumes all, like Saturn devouring his children. The transience of everything makes life seem meaningless—as does, in another way, the immensity of Earth (however microscopic it is on the cosmic scale), the prodigious mass of humanity compared to which the individual is too puny to mention. People come and go like flies. –The plaintive cry of Ecclesiastes still resonates two thousand years later.
On the other hand, the “big picture” need not be utterly demoralizing. To contemplate the grandeur of the universe can be a nearly religious experience, Kantian in its sublimity. “Two things fill the mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe,” Kant said, “the more often and the more intensely we reflect on them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” One feels vanishingly insignificant but gloriously exalted at the same time, uplifted to dazzling infinity as one glories in the ability to reflect on this black unbounded cosmos. The relative immensity of Earth, likewise, and one’s being a mere momentary individual among billions, fills with wonder and awe, even love for all fellow creatures stranded inexplicably on this floating island in space. Time itself overawes. Translucent as a pellucid mountain river, the life-engendering flow of time carries us along to experience the beauty of change. The broad human perspective illuminates hope and the reality of change.
To glance over the modern world is to know the temptation of despair, but it is to know possibility as well. Fatalism is a factually incorrect philosophy. Horrors happen daily, but from a broad perspective one sees also constant kindnesses and life-saving interventions. A billion moments of moral beauty every day; ten billion meaningful connections between this life and that life. Even lost in anguish, even surrounded by modern ugliness, one can see beams of hope piercing the gloom. To know the true urgency of humanity’s situation, however, should entail not wretched immobility but galvanized movement, passionate activism. When people join together they can make meaningful change.