“If we can stop thinking about what the future might bring and embrace the present for what it is, we would be a lot better off,” reasons John Gray in his Christmas Day editorial posted on the Internet by the BBC News Magazine, A Point of View: The endless obsession with what might be.* Gray is an English political philosopher who compares the ideas of Francis Fukuyama and Arthur Koestler to develop his argument, and justify his conclusion:
“The task that faces us is no different from the one that has always faced human beings — renewing our lives in the face of recurring evils. Happily, the end never comes. Looking to an end-time is a way of failing to cherish the present — the only time that is truly our own.”
This is pure Zen. Also, it is exactly the perspective Raymond Aron gave in both The Opium of the Intellectuals (1955) and Politics and History (1978, especially the essay “Machiavelli and Marx”). Aron criticized the Christian-like historicism of Marxists, and said that “politics” not “revolution” would always be the order of the day, since people would perennially have to address the problems of the present rather than hoping for “salvation,” or waiting for a presumed historical inevitability to deliver “a revolution” that would produce Nirvana: an ideal society in perpetual stasis, the end of history, “heaven.”
The Machiavelli view (we avoid the pejorative “Machiavellian”) is that so long as human psychology remains unchanged (which seems true for the last 200,000 years of Homo sapiens) there will be human conflicts regardless of the specifics of the forms of government and relationships of power, economics, and social structures. Thus, compromises and consensus of any kind are always provisional and will always have to be revised, or even totally changed, “later.” In a nominally peaceful and well-managed society, this would be the day-to-day norm of managing collective life on every scale: local, state, regional, global.
From Carl G. Jung’s theory of personality types, “P” style people, who naturally deal with uncertainty, ambiguity, “sloppiness” and improvisation more easily than “J” type people, who like certainty, finality, “forms” and hierarchy, will more readily adapt to living in a situation of “managed fluidity” necessary for the continuing operation of a collective enterprise that involves groups with competing interests. The obsession with “the future” is very much a J characteristic (“getting things settled,” “getting things organized,” “nailing it down”). Jung made the point that the successful achievement of psychological maturity (physical development plus experience, by age 37 he estimated) led one to possess a balanced personality, one that incorporated both J and P styles of decision-making rather than being lopsided by remaining with one’s default strong suit from birth (“infantile behavior”).
Life — individual and collective — is a process, its only finality is death, the end of the conscious processes considered here. The Zen Buddhists say the past and future are illusions, you only actually breathe and can have awareness (the two indicators of life) in the present. To not be “in the moment” (which we interpret for practical political purposes as: in the social situations of current times) is to waste some of your limited time of aliveness to delusions, by distracting yourself with the unrecoverable (the past) or the unattainable (the distant “perfect” future).
Delusions of the future include the Christian heaven and the Marxist end-of-history with the triumph of historically inevitable socialism, a determinism set by the presumed inevitable collapse of capitalism due to its internal contradictions, and society’s rebirth by the ascendancy of the proletariat. Both of these cults of the future instill a passivity in their believers. For Christians, to not seek rewards “on Earth” but to accept temporal authority, keep the faith, and reap rewards in the afterlife. Marxists can be filled with smugness, from their belief that they know history’s script for the delivery of their heaven, and they need only await for history’s train to pull events past them till their boarding call is sounded and they can take their seating in the vanguard coach; no point wasting time in the here and now with “reformism” for a capitalist system that will only be swept away, and “soon.”
The managed fluidity I mentioned earlier is entirely the practice of karma yoga: the merging with (yoga) the consequences of our acts (karma). Once this is an established practice, we are simultaneously solving our legacy problems while preventing many new ones from arising, by anticipatory awareness. We accept that we will never have no problems, or that we can ever solve them all “for good.” We do what is possible at the moment to prevent creating lingering difficulties, and to minimize those we still have. This is the daily reality that will always be true. This reality can always be made worse by our collective obtuseness; but even if we manage the flow of our collective reality with collective elegance, we can be assured that so long as Earth harbors human life, the conflicts of maintaining our collectivity will never be eliminated.
Obsessing about the future, as discussed by John Gray, is simply an evasion from dealing with reality. The static Nirvana of political imagination is a delusion; the only possibly achievable Nirvana is an unending dynamic reformism. <><><>
Gilles d’Aymery (30 June 1950 – 9 May 2015) pointed me to John Gray’s article, a thoughtful suggestion for which I thank him. <><><>
A Point of View: The endless obsession with what might be
by JOHN GRAY
26 December 2011
The above was originally published as:
The Endless Reality Of The Imperfect Now
2 January 2012
For a closely related ramble see: