Portal Site for Russellian in Japan
In actual fact, however, the world has often been in a worse state than it is now. The average European, say in the year 1819, was pretty certainly more unhappy than he is now. There was more actual hunger, there was more wickedness in high places, there was more fear of oppression on the one hand and of revolution on the other; young children worked for fifteen hours a day in factories, and the wages of agricultural labourer were about two dollars a week. Shelley describes the politicians of his time as
... Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know,
But leech-like to the their fainting country cling,
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow ...
We may not have any very high opinion of our present politicians, but most of us would hardly describe them quite so savagely as this. In the same poem he describes George III as 'an old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king'. Shelley's despair was that of all generous minds. The hopes aroused by the French Revolution were dead, and in a dull peace of exhaustion the reactionary Eastern Powers repressed all attempts at improvement. Nevertheless within thirty years the world had entered upon a period of buoyant optimism and unexampled prosperity.
The chief difficulty for men, as for other animals, is adaptation to new circumstances. The great reptiles of the days before men, who might have seemed invincible, perished from a change of climate. Innumerable kinds of animals have become extinct through specialising on weapons of offence, such as too many horns, which left them inadequate energy for ordinary living. Man, however, has survived the Ice Age, wars, pestilences, and all the other dangers which have threatened his existence. Each change has been met by an adaptation much slower than it need have been, since it was always opposed by what we call practical men, i.e., those who blindly followed the revered wisdom of their ancestors. Such men still control our politics and make our adaptation to the altered circumstances of industrialism much slower than it need be. But in the long run everybody will see that in a rapidly changing world wisdom cannot consist in mere adherence to tradition. As soon as we allow intelligence instead of passion to guide our economic life, we shall all grow rich. Most people find it pleasanter to follow their passions rather than their intelligence, but when the penalty is starvation, they will, in the long run, submit to being reasonable. The conditions of universal prosperity are quite simple and well known, but they involve changes in our habits of feeling, and will, therefore, only be adopted when the lessons of the Depression have sunk deep into men's minds.