Joy and Progress

July 12, 2008

It was said by the ancient Romans that for each human life, Zeus sprinked sorrow, and only some humans were given a mix of sorry and happiness. That the human life is difficult, and oftentimes mingled with unhappiness, has been long documented. But today, let's try to put a positive aspect of that unhappiness. I'll theorize that human unhappiness is among the greatest stimuli for the progress of the human species.

Peering down from a high window at the New England landscape, one sees forests smothering those areas yet untouched by human hands, while signs of human progress account for the concrete majority of the landscape. The juxtaposition of verdant and artifice is sufficient to call to mind the extent to which we humans have transformed the planet, for better and for worse.

Whatever the implications of the changes we've made, much of it comes from our innate unhappiness. Suppose that we were all creatures easily content with whatever nature had given us. Then, we would be far less likely to take implement in hand and begin to reconstruct our world to our own needs and whims. Yet it is our inability to be happy with the state of things around us, and the subsequent urge to change those things, that has lead us to construct huts and palaces. It is our inability to take what is given to us that has lead us to create far more than we have been given.

Unhappiness, then, has been quite a muse. Not all of the changes made to our environment have been positive, but they have certainly included many positive effects on our world, at least as far as we humans are concerned. This is part of what makes us human.