The most cogent of prophetic statements are not those that lament the corruption of their generation. Every generation thinks itself to be cursed with the worst morals and the most profligate people. From antiquity onward, cultures have looked back longingly on a lost golden age or paradise, and lamented the present. These are not cogent insights but reflect the psychology of insecurity.
Characteristic of the modern era (versus the medieval and ancient eras) is the insistence on a progression into the future, whether social or intellectual or technological. The hallmark of modern thought is the boundless optimism of its captains and elites.
The ability to describe the unchanging status of human nature and the state of societies around us as realistically as possible, without the illusion of progress, and to project it into the future, is far more insightful than the wishes of past generations, because it is historical, philosophical and scientific. Have we reached that potential for accuracy?
With the grip of industrialism and complex technology, the modern illusion of indefinite progress, realizing no good change in human behavior or human nature, collapsed among insightful observers. Not exactly among the social critics of exploitation as disparate as Marx or Dickens, who still had faith in human destiny. Rather, among those who got to the core of history and human nature such as Nietzsche, who said that humans had only 200 years left to prove that they could survive. This he wrote in the 1880s.
Reflecting on the experiences of the 20th century, two other thinkers speak clearly on this very topic of human survival: Freud and Heidegger. There are many others, of course, as the decades rolled by, but considering what they did not see, and what has suddenly loomed before us, from the nuclear age to the last age of climate change, Freud and Heidegger speak as clearly as if they were our contemporaries.
Nietzsche’s calendar ticks off the years like a terrible dripping water clock.
The fateful question for the human species seems to me to be whether and to what extent their cultural development will succeed in mastering the disturbance of their communal life by the human instinct of aggression and self-destruction. … Men have gained control over the forces of nature to such an extent that with their help they would have no difficulty in exterminating one another to the last man. They know this, and hence comes a large part of their current unrest, their unhappiness and their mood of anxiety. And now it is to be expected that the other of the two “Heavenly Powers,” eternal Eros, will make an effort to assert itself in the struggle with its equally immoral adversary [Thanatos, or Death]. But who can foresee with what success and with what result?
— Sigmund Freud
The darkening of the world, the flight of the gods, the destruction of the earth, the transformation of men into a mass, the hatred and suspicion of everything free and creative, have assumed such proportions throughout the earth that such childish categories as pessimism and optimism have long since become absurd.
— Martin Heidegger