Matthew Parris, always worth reading, has an interesting piece on the relative lack of progress our society has made in the last half century compared to the previous one, lack of progress in both technology and thought. Apologies for the slightly stale nature of the link. Key passage:
With very few exceptions. . . the great life-changing inventions and discoveries — humble or hi-tech — that shape modern society were made before or during the Second World War: automobiles, aeroplanes, the jet engine, electricity, telephones, radio, television, refrigerators, washing machines, industrial mass production . . . the list is endless. In medical science the same is true: germ theory, penicillin, virology, radiology, anaesthetics and bacteriology are all pre1950, and the huge leaps enjoyed in average life expectancy in the developed world were made relatively early in the last century. Today life expectancy is only creeping forward. . . When I was 10, my schoolmates and I believed that an Age of Reason was almost upon us. Reason was (unthinkingly) associated with science; and science would help to lead mankind not only to a more comfortable, but to a more just and moral, way of life. . . .
. . . None of this has come to pass.
Maybe this goes to the heart of why we are living in an age of creeping barbarism, religiosity and superstition. I suspect it is because science, or reason, seems to have failed us, or rather, it is moving forward in a way we no longer notice. The river of knowledge has moved underground. We become more and more aware of what it is we do not know, of the things we cannot change. Never mind the fact we have not landed on Mars, do not live on the moon and there are very few flying cars. We still die of cancer, of heart disease. There is no AIDS vaccine. Guerrillas in Vietnam and Iraq can defeat the highest of high tech weaponry developed by the greatest superpower the world has seen, by hiding in bushes or behind walls. There have been no significant, practical advances in our understanding of physics discernible to the layperson since the H-Bomb, just boffins in wheelchairs writing books about black holes which — let’s be honest — no one can actually understand.
Spinoza by contrast lived in an age when everything seemed up for grabs. Copernicus, Newton, Hobbes, Locke, Rembrandt, Vermeer were all creating new ways of thinking, of understanding things, of seeing. The Dutch East India Company was opening huge swathes of the world to commerce (OK and slavery, exploitation and disease too, but you can’t have everything). Mathematics and reason provided unbounded hope. What was impossible? Similarly, as Parris points out, in the 1930s and 1950s, we won the war, people were dreaming of rocket cars and disposable underpants we can eat (this came true however). They were also designing planned societies, and dreaming up Milton Keynes.
My point: in the environment and age Spinoza lived, the invention or discovery of great all-encompassing systems of thought, of intellectual progress, were possible. The priests of superstition, religion, false certainties were shown to be wrong and the atavistic illogic of authoritarianism had to give way to the light of Reason. Science was more interesting, more powerful than the old conceptions of god.
In our age, the sensible person is trained to be deeply suspicious of peddlers of great thoughts. We do not see the great achievements. Science seems toothless, Reason seems fallible. And so the stupidity of superstitious religion, of the irrational politics of naked power, of illiberalism, fundamentalism, hypocrisy and cant reasserts itself. We live in the age of Dubya, suicide bombers, The Base, CheneyRumsfeldGonzales, Iraq, Howard, Blair, WSJ op-eds, Hilary Clinton, torture, that fact no-one seems to give a shit about torture, farm subsidies, the end of habeus corpus, the fact that no-one seems to give a shit about habeus corpus, Motorola managers, hate speech, criminalising hate speech, bed-wetting hand-wringers, complainers, The Economist, sites like this, Sarko, Sego, that other one — all this goddamned crap! This goddamned crap is because it looks like science and reason has failed us.
They haven’t failed us of course. It just looks like they have. I think the potential of the internet and genetics are the 2 greatest forces for change in our time. At some point a theoretical physicist might even discover something useful. But it might take time. So we need Spinoza at times like this to remind us what pure a priori reason can achieve, and to remind us it is not all hopeless and we don’t need the goddamned crap.