I’ve seen a few people posting this graphic on Facebook, in response to a particular issue which this post is not about. I’ve been thinking about the quote itself.

Whether minds can be changed by eloquent quotes, I don’t know, but I do think President Jefferson here captures the mood (or a mood) of the nation’s founding, the pervasive optimism of the enlightenment, which was not especially religious, even if the men themselves were.

I think this idea has fallen upon hard times with a large number of people; the idea that our national story is one of discovery and development. Among some, there is distrust of science. Among others, profound unease about the changing “manners and opinions” of the 20th and 21st Centuries.

Even among those who live by this myth — and it is, after all, a myth, in the broader sense that means a communal narrative of origin and destiny — even among those who live by this myth, I feel like faith in it erodes; people speak with confidence about the right and wrong side of history, projecting a jury of our descendants who have the final verdict, even while lamenting the ebbing tide of progress.

I have mixed feelings myself about this narrative… I don’t completely accept this idea of “barbarous ancestors,” or that humanity has had a childhood which it can outgrow, that we are fit for bigger britches now than we did before. It is a more compelling myth, to me, than one of divine creation and pending apocalypse, but I feel like it is ahistorical to suppose we have only recently matured, after sixty or seventy thousand years of existence.

I have grave concerns about the immediate future and little hope for the far future, for purely scientific reasons that have to do with population and ecology. Whatever our barbarous ancestors did, they lived for many millennia, adapting to climactic and other changes, without making the place uninhabitable. They were more or less leaderless and casteless. Their lives were short but the world was without end.

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