I’m grateful for the era I live in. It seems to have a lot of advantages over past periods. There’s not as much hard physical labor now. An unlimited amount of information and entertainment is readily available. Even people of modest means can access the highest culture and arts. In this country anyway, there’s a remarkable amount of freedom to have a life of one’s own.
I think, though, that this is somewhat of an illusion, to the extent it suggests a preference for life now. Every age offers its people reasons for gratitude. Native Americans had centuries of very free, robust life at one with a natural world of surpassing wonder and beauty that we’ll never know. The literary age when books and the printed word were the only form of mass communication had an order, stability and refinement that seem elusive now. The ancient Greeks and Romans who worked out how to organize into city states and developed philosophies and religions that still stand must have felt like they were inventing the world.
Even if we could know the advantages and disadvantages of human life in other periods, or even in the future for that matter, I think we would still not be able to judge between them. We would inescapably find our own time is best for us. We are the product of our age, and each of us also in small ways creates our age. In short, we’re inseparable from our time.
This is in keeping with a profound observation by 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: “Judgments, judgments of value about life, for it or against it, can in the end never be true … such judgments are meaningless.” We’re alive and completely immersed in life — as he says, “an interested party, even a bone of contention, and not impartial judges.” Judgment presumes comparison, which requires a perspective that sees what can be compared. But we can’t step outside of life to gain that perspective.
If we can’t estimate the value of life, then we’re surely going to find it difficult to believe that living was better or worse in one era than another. We can make assumptions about the challenges and rewards people faced in the past or that await them in the future, but we can’t test them or even think meaningfully about them because the ultimate value of life must remain mysterious.
We can’t even know that we would prefer human life if we had the choice. The chickadees at the feeder as I write this seem cheerful, social and intensely alive. They take in sensory information and react to it far, far faster than people do. Even by our aesthetic standards, they seem physically to be a work of art. And they can fly! How great is that? True, their lifespan usually is only a few years, and depending on one’s view of death that can be considered a major drawback. But they surely pack a lot of action and experience into their days and if eastern religions of rebirth are right, spending some of one’s many lives as a bird looks fairly appealing.
Life as a human is wonderful, with an incomparable potential for richness and satisfaction. The ability to create values and think about actions in regard to those values is one of our unique specialties on this planet. It is part of our destiny, a key tool in the development of life beyond mere natural selection — which is both our heavy responsibility and our great liberation.
That life itself sets firm limits on our value judgments is a caution to us. Our judgments will always be our own, not life’s, and always remain tentative. To the extent we remain modest and open about them — not delude ourselves that we understand more than we do or disregard the judgments of others — they’ll be effective guides to moving forward.
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