So striving to improve the lot of man is futile, we are but base beasts, and dreams of an improved future are just that and waking from them would make us happier? Odd. I sit reading this over my breakfast (generous, hot, with nice coffee) in a warm house, before I drive to London some 60 miles away to see my father who has lived to the positively patriarchal age of 95 thanks to angioplasty and pills. It is raining outside, yet I will stay dry. The chances that I am burgled, attacked, shot, enslaved, that my wife or daughters are raped or my house is casually burned to the ground are minimal. The number of highwaymen on the M11 is small. I have time, and education, to be irritated by Gray’s pronouncements, and a postal service and internet to deliver them to me.
None of these things would have been true 1000 years ago. Of course removing Saddam Hussein did not turn Iraq into middle class England. Of course societies can go backwards as well as forwards by the measures of progress that other societies deem just. But the grinding pessimism that implies that all you can do is live moment-to-moment is as unjustified as the idea that toppling Hussein would turn Bagdad into Bermondsey overnight. If, as per Gray via Berlin from Herzen, ‘The purpose of life is to live it’, then we have made progress. Perhaps what would make us happier is forgetting the grandiose pontification of politicians and philosophers, and remembering that if I have made my life better without making yours worse, then I have done OK, and if I can make both our lives better then we, members of the base human race, have made progress indeed.
Corpus Christi College, 1975
(a drab, materialistic biochemist)