Thoughts, Ideas, Observations

Changing the World

John Bedell

We are watching in Iraq the collapse of another attempt to change the world. The bold rhetoric about making a new reality instead of "judiciously studying" the old one is gone, and we are left with recriminations, regrets, and painful debates about when and how to extricate ourselves from a situation that America obviously does not control. The democratic, stable, pro-western, anti-terrorist state of Iraq falls into the recycling bin of failed grand designs. How huge now is the scrap heap of our dreams, a vast pile of  socialist utopias, egalitarian societies, worlds without work, undersea cities, and empires on which the sun will never set. Some were dreamt by philosophers, some by  revolutionaries, some by lyricists: "Baby I'll be there to share the land, that they'll be giving away, when we all live together." Some, like the Iraq venture, came from warhawks who think every problem has a military solution. Whatever their source, our schemes for the future amount to no more than the Land of Cockaigne, where broiled chickens run up on perfectly cooked legs when we cluck for them.
Or do they?
I am currently listening to a course of lectures on the history of ideas, and this week I have heard about the Philosophes and the makers of the American Revolution. As the speaker said, these men were not really engaged in intellectual debate, they were out to change the world. Did they? That, it seems to me, is one of the deepest questions of history. Certainly the world did change. In 1700 most Europeans thought it perfectly normal to be ruled by kings, but by 1900 the idea seemed absurd. The question remains, however, of how much the efforts of intellectuals and reformers had to do with those changes.

Consider first the question of whether any single person did much to create the Enlightenment. Surely the answer has to be no. Take away Voltaire, Diderot, Leibniz, Locke, Hume, Smith, Kant, whoever you like, and things would have run on pretty much as they did. The thinker who had the most profound influence was Newton, and yet what did he change? In time his many scientific advances would have been achieved by others, leading to the same synthesis in the end. Or, consider what Newton would have achieved if he had been born two hundred years earlier; he would have been an alchemist carrying out symbolic manipulations in secret, perhaps famous for a time, but perhaps remaining obscure, since the real Newton never published any of his own alchemical manuscripts. The questions that Newton solved did not exist even fifty years before he solved him, and he does not seem to have been the man to dream up new problems. He was made by his time more than he made it.

Together, the Philosophes did change the world, but the Enlightenment only happened because thousands of people were thinking along the same lines. To say that they achieved something as a group answers nothing. It only changes the question, and we now have to ask why so many people were thinking in that way at that time.

History runs on like a mighty river or a current in the celestial ocean, and people, great or small, famous or obscure, are all swept along by the current. To leave a mark in the history books it is not enough to do extraordinary things or think extraordinary thoughts. One must, as it were, catch the wave. A brilliant monarchist writing in the twentieth century would have no more readers than an anarchist writing in the fourteenth. A great scientific mind would have made little impact among the Scythians; no poet who wrote in Etruscan would be remembered, no matter how soaring his verses. Mao, Stalin and Hitler came to power in an age of ideology, and as that age fades they now seem to us so monstrous that we have trouble understanding how anyone ever saw them as heroes.

It does sometimes happen that a person whose thinking runs contrary to that of his or her own time will be discovered by a later age and heralded as a genius. I submit that this happens only when the future happens to have changed in a way that could not have been predicted, so that the fame of these futurists still rests more on society at large than on their own achievements.

This is no new insight, I know. To the ancients, all was in the hands of fate; to Augustine, in the hands of God; to Marx, everything was determined by the predictable evolution of economic systems. Marx I think was wrong in dismissing thought as a causal factor in its own right. Ideas, or systems of ideas, can be powerful forces for change, and human history is a tale of ideas as much as of social and economic systems – all happening, we must never forget, within human minds. But my vision of history is closer to Marx's or Sophocles' than to one in which Great Men shape the course of events.

If this is so, how should we respond? We must take advantage of the opportunities our age presents to us. I think that for a North American of the early twenty-first century it is little use to dream of being a great philosopher, a great poet, or a revolutionary political leader. Ours is a prosaic age in which those talents are of little use. On the other hand this is a great time to dream of wealth or entrepreneurship, of world travel, of creating virtual worlds, of probing the secrets of the cell and the brain. It is also a perfect age for living a life of domestic comfort and intellectual curiosity, the path I have chosen for myself.

I am much impressed by the way particular scientific disciplines enjoy bursts of creativity, followed by periods in which nothing much happens despite our best efforts. For the past 30 years cellular and molecular biology have been on an astonishing run, producing success after success; while, on the other hand, theoretical physics has been a backwater. Making real scientific advances depends on being in the right discipline at the right time. Today there may be dozens of physicists as smart as those who changed the world in the decades between 1900 and 1970, but in comparison to their predecessors they are accomplishing next to nothing. The only response that an ambitious young scientist can make to these facts is to choose a field in which achievements are possible; those who want to bring some backwater field into prominence by their own genius are almost certain to be disappointed.

What does all this have to do with the place where I started, Iraq? Bush's plan for Iraq was based on a sense that for a truly great power, boldly led, history sets no limits. To accomplish anything we have only to fight hard enough. The result shows that he was wrong. Quibbling about the execution of the plan and the number of troops and all such matters is beside the point. Perhaps bad decisions were made, but I have no confidence that different decisions would have led to a different result. When the time is right for an event, it can come to pass despite enormous bungling. The mistakes made in Iraq are no greater than those made by the American Revolutionaries, or by the Union during the Civil War. Given Iraq's history and ethnic make-up a real Iraqi democracy is not likely to happen any time soon; if something like a democracy does take shape, it will only be a cover for a balance of ethnic power negotiated behind the scenes, maintained by the armed strength of the various factions. The deep hostility felt by many Arabs toward the US is another fact of the situation that Bush chose to ignore, but the plain truth is that no government installed by the US has any chance of being seen as legitimate in the Arab world.

We can only achieve possible goals, and the first step in our planning should always be a realistic appraisal of what can be done. Yes, it is hard to know the future. Surely to Aristotle a society so free of disease that most people will live to 80 would have seemed every bit as crazy as a society of complete equality, yet we are near to the first and as far as ever from the second. But in the short term we can know much, and almost everyone who thought seriously about the problem of a post-Saddam Iraq, from Saudi sheiks to think tank "experts" to the commander of the US army, predicted the civil war and chaos that have come to pass. Might we not have started by taking the advice of those in the best position to know?

To change history is hard. To do so even in a small way requires, not just will and effort, but a sense of timing. Anti-Stalinist demonstrators in the 1930s ended up as corpses; in 1989, as heroes. To remake a whole region of the world, as Bush and his crew set out to do in Iraq, requires extraordinary historical luck. This is my post-mortem on Iraq: the stars were aligned against this venture from the start, as was obvious to anyone who had even looked at that part of the sky. The threads were measured and cut before the first shot was fired. By embarking on this venture against all sensible advice, Bush and company acted the part of deluded heroes in a Greek tragedy, and the sorry count of bombings, assassinations, and collateral damage that we read every day is the inevitable result of their hubris.

February 4, 2007

From the 
Commonplace Book

In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's mind there are few.

--Shunryu Suzuki-Roshi


Commonplace Book
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