Faith and charity get plenty of attention, but hope not so much. Pessimism, it seems, has become one of the guiding principles of modernity, reflected in the media, popular culture, and even academia. So I was surprised to find a philospher making the suggestion that children anchor our hope for progress and our conviction that life will be better for the next generation.
First, here is the quote, from Chapter Nine (titled “Hope”) of Susan Neiman’s Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists (Harcourt, 2008). She was “corresponding with a philosopher who found my book on the problem of evil too sanguine; in his opinion we were all on a slow road to ruin.” She continues:
After a round of philosophical argument I wrote that my three children prevented me from accepting such a view. Getting up in the morning, sharing their plans, helping them to go on in the world made it impossible to resign myself to a scenario of decay. If one cannot offer them the prospect that their good efforts can make the world slightly better than they find it, one can offer them nothing that matters. … Does the fact that we reproduce ourselves through children who need us force us to believe in progress after all? Children give us a stake in the future; whether or not we want to believe that progress is possible, we cannot possibly raise them if we believe it is not.
Progress is a surprisingly recent notion. The ancient view of things was that history is cyclical. The orthodox Christian view was that history was going somewhere (toward the Second Coming) but that we lived under the cloud of Original Sin, which compromised any hope of making the world a better place through our own efforts. That radical idea — that the application of human reason to education, law, and society could make the world a better place — dates to the Enlightenment and permeated the thinking of Enlightenment philosophers and thinkers. They initiated the ongoing era of social reform. “Yes we can!” might have been an Enlightenment slogan.
But the notion of progress has fallen on hard times. The 20th century was particularly tough on the idea of progress. For example, I’m currently watching the DVD version of Ken Burns’ documentary The War, which includes sections relating the experience of young Japanese-Americans training and serving in the US armed forces, then, on leave, coming to visit their parents in “relocation centers.” Behind barbed wire fences. Observed by machine gunners in guard towers. That’s not the Dark Ages or the Gulag Archipelago, that’s America in 1943. The concentration camp is a 20th-century invention, another signpost on “the slow road to ruin” that too many people think we’re on.
There are, of course, features of the 20th century that one can cite as evidence of social progress. Yet pessimism and resignation retain their strange allure. However, as aesthically attractive as pessimism and angst are for many modern intellectuals, they don’t work that well as philosophies of life. To get back to the point of the post, they are simply incompatible with raising healthy, well-adjusted children. Furthermore, it appears that the vast majority of parents are simply incapable of adopting a frame of mind other than hopeful, optimistic faith in progress vis-a-vis their children. It’s a truism that children change your life; it appears they may actually change the way you think about the world. Whether you think God or evolution is pulling the strings that make this happen, it’s not a bad thing in a world where hope is needed but in chronically short supply.