As the world ages, we gain collective experience. Relationships between things are clarified: insecurity gives way to confidence, truth, gained through an insufferable struggle, turns into familiar axioms that don’t demand any sort of struggle.
The well-intentioned man who once encouraged our predecessors to remind themselves of humility, would be the very first to be ashamed of his naiveté, should he rise from the grave and see the successes of his descendants.
In every way, we have succeeded; in every way, we have become enlightened. As we progress, our beliefs become firmer: they morph from vague illusions into something tangible.
The thunder rattles, the dog barks, the stubborn halfwits triumph – these are the simple truths that we have garnered and on which our future well-being relies. We recognise as truths only those truths that smack us right in between the eyes and physically stimulate our senses. We record in our annals only those facts that have the advantage of being in the perfect tense.
Everything else is labelled as lacking evidence and attributed to the realm of nonsense, and because nonsense is axiomatically useless, we treat this “everything else” with skeptical condensendence if not with outright hatred.
Where our unquestionable truths come from, what effects the thunder has, why a dog barks, why stubborn halfwits triumph, and not good people – we don’t think about it and aren’t interested in explanations. We just take it as fact, immutable and irresistible. On hearing the thunder, we say: this is thunder. On hearing a barking dog, we say: this is a barking dog.
The meaning of all our aspirations and worries is to be free from all doubts forever and to create for ourselves a position of flawless confidence in which we could live without thinking.
Each individual has a preference for a certain framework: we each create a comfort zone, and then we only need to make sure that we don’t venture into the unknown. In front of us, a prize dangles on a string, on which our eyes are fixated and which serves as a guiding star in our journey.
It wouldn’t be fair to say that creating the comfort zone is easy – quite the contrary! There is nothing more fragile than the framework to which we so diligently cling, nor is there anything more insistent on disturbing it than the unknown, from which we so stubbornly run. Staying in the comfort zone requires us to constantly repel the unknown with hard work and even violence… But we persevere. Assuming that our morals have been simplified enough that they don’t impede us in the our zealous quest for the said prize, what happens when we finally sink our teeth into it? I will tell you: the minute we reach the prize, when we feel it in our hands at last, it turns out that its richness isn’t quite what we thought it would be – the prize itself has become a victim of the unknown that we so strenuously fought against. And so, even though we judge the dreamers with their nonsense, we too end up in pursuit of nonsense, crude and stupid.
The question is: what was it that we were fighting for?
This is my rather liberal translation from Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin’s Sign of the Times, c. 1863. Quite possibly its first English incarnation. Original text in Russian.