Letters to a Future Tense
“In 1917 Olaf Stapledon published “Letters to the Future,” addressed to his great grandson in the year 1999.
“To my Great Grandson in early manhood. Sir,
If ever you come upon this letter, forgive its preglacial dialect, and have patience to spell out its meaning. How gladly would I address you in whatever speech lives in your ears! The thoughts which follow must, I know, reach you only as dead and fragile specimens; but today they live. They flit among us dazzlingly and elusively, and we fight about them; for some of us fear them as the plague and would exterminate them, while others prize them as the light of our world...
In some such vein as this might I preach you as good a half-truth as ever became a slogan. But it is only half the truth. And moreover preaching won’t go down with one’s relatives. So I will make a plain tale of my faith, and temper it with many queries. For obviously we who believe may be mistaken. You perhaps will have already exposed our error and set our altar in your museum. Indeed even today certain clever young persons are trying to budge it. They think, I suppose, that because so many goods have gone bad on our hands goodness itself must be illusory. Well, they may prove right in the end; but meanwhile we find some amusement in watching them apparently tugging in vain at the rock face. Whether they are right or wrong they have not yet convinced us. We still believe, and must act on our belief. Folly is less shameful than disloyalty.
But it may well seem inappropriate that I, whose career has been a texture of good luck and bad management, should undertake to be the spokesman of an age which, whatever its failings, has not been inarticulate. I speak, however, as kinsman to kinsman, hoping that something of the family mannerism may render me intelligible to you when our more public voices have already become archaic. Further it is just possible that my very obscurity may fit me to speak more faithfully for my period than any of its great unique personalities.
But how can I write cogently to one with whom I am not even acquainted? Are you rich with the culture of your age, or are you a boor or a philistine? Are you curious about the nature of things, or content to see no further than your own food and the curves of woman? I cannot know; but I shall presume that you have the broad interests that are not uncommon in our family, and (like the rest of us) a certain capacity of reasoning. If you have not, it is to be hoped that you will at least have the sense to hand this letter, and those which follow, to someone of intelligence,—if there be any such alive in your day.
For in ours it is impossible to be sure that the human mind is not destroying itself. We seem to ourselves to be in a unique crisis of this planet’s history, a crisis which may soon end, or may, we suspect, drag on even far beyond the lives of your remote descendants. We are accustomed to describe man’s present plight thus. His knowledge and power have lately increased extravagantly. His mind is embracing regions hitherto unguessed; and he can give effect to his will as never before. But these wide and deep discoveries, which should enlighten him as to what is truly desirable, do not in general have any influence on his choice of ends. He is ruled almost entirely by his animal and ancestral nature. He behaves very seldom in the manner that is uniquely human. Quite rightly he seeks the fulfillment of bodily and personal needs; and he even knows how to subordinate these to ends deemed more important; but his remoter ends are not as a rule chosen rationally, and are seldom objectively valid. He can transcend his private needs only for outworn or mistaken ideals imposed by ancestral taboos. For these alone are backed up by the forces of habit and public opinion.
Few of us today have seen what man is and what he might become. And of these, fewer see the starry universe as anything more than the stage of man’s drama. Even when we glimpse the things that are better than food and sex and applause, and better than all the virtues, we cannot long act in conformity with our vision. Very soon we succumb to the old cravings or the old sightless conscience. And so the great power that we are acquiring issues in disaster. And no one knows what will become of his own children in the stupid riot.
There seem to us three possibilities with regard to the world in your time. Either the interest of the mass of men and women will have definitely passed beyond the puerile ends which infect us, and a new epoch will be dawning in the life of this planet; or, like us, you will continue to be at heart no more than anthropoid. The latter is the more probable alternative. And if this is the case, either civilization will still be hanging by a thread, or it will be already shattered.
I may then be addressing one whose society will have crashed into a second barbarism before ever it has achieved true civilization, one who may perhaps regard us (if he knows of us at all) with the misunderstanding adulation so often lavished on a more intelligent past. Or I may be exposing myself to one who will really be of a finer mentality than has yet been achieved on this planet, and to an age that has at last won through to some agreed certainty of belief and some unquestionable judgment as to the good, and to full sanity of will. Or again you, like us, may be more than animal yet not fully human, seeing fitfully the good, but unable to serve it with any constancy. Such I expect will be your state; though if you have not actually crashed you must surely have outgrown some of our follies. Sanity of thought and sanity of will may not be quite so rare with you as with us. Persons of common intelligence will perhaps be less entangled in the maze of superstitions from which none of us today can entirely escape.
If you have outstripped us even thus far you will scarcely be able to conceive our mental confusion. For today every hoax finds some believer, and every truth is obscured by a fog of argument. While some pathetically dress up old idols in modern clothes, others are naively disillusioned because they have ransacked the universe in vain for a trace of God. Yet all the while (if I mistake not) in the streets and the farms, and indeed in every span of every man’s experience, something cries out for our admiration and our help, something better than any idol, something lovelier than the God of our fathers.
It is about this something that I must speak to you, lest your apprehension of it should through some misfortune happen to be more uncertain even than my own. But if, when you read these letters, you find that you have already passed beyond their range of thought, perhaps they will at least interest you historically; and perhaps you will forgive my importunity. However remote we may be from each other in time and in mentality, we are kin, and our two worlds are one. We, and all men, however gravely we conflict, are engaged on the same enterprise. In my language the goal of that enterprise may be called the fulfillment of the world’s capacity; but if this sounds barbarous to you, call it what you will, so long as you recognize in me a fellow-worker, though far-removed.”