William McNeill on material abundance

Historian William McNeill, concluding The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community (1962):

... The secularist hopes and theories of the West which have won partial hold over men's minds all round the globe are remarkably generous ones. Like the ideals of earlier religions, they may yet demonstrate a staying power even in the face of repeated disappointment and failure. At the least, it is clear that men of nearly all nations, having once been exposed to the notions of liberty, equality, and fraternity, in any of the versions and with any of the accents which have been put upon these ideals, find them hard to forget and impossible to neglect. The vision of a free, well-fed, well-clothed, well-housed, and well-educated human being, member of a free and peaceable society, exerting his proprtional share of influence to determine the mild and equable policies of "his" government, and himself contributing to the general welfare to the best of his abilities, holds a vast attraction for almost everyone. It has the further advantage that it may be vulgarized or specified in almost any manner to prescribe almost any line of conduct and appeal to almost any audience.

Persons who embrace the vision of future perfectibility of mankind enthusiastically find themselves wrestling with the appalling gap between ideal and reality. The gap is so wide that practical action in the imperfect world of fact may appear simply hopeless or else may seem to require such violent action against vested interests as to turn the pursuit of good into the perpetration of evil. Yet because it is not easily achieved, the secularized vision of a future heaven upon earth does not lose vibrancy. On the contrary, an ideal easily realized would soon lose its power to inspire action, whereas an unrealizable aspiration for which men must and will fight both asserts and in many cases reinforces its power amid the brutalities of battle. In the heat of such struggle, the standing discrepancy between ends and means will trouble only the most critical minds; and even they can never be sure that the end does not indeed justify what "has to be done."

Even a cursory consideration of the wars and revolutions, of the political and social reform movements, and of the activities of the great multitude of charitable, social service, welfare, and missionary agencies during the century since 1850 will show that many men have proved ready, even eager, to labor, to suffer, and if need be, to die in the struggle to bring the heavenly city to earth. Liberals, nationalists, socialists, and communists each have pursued their own version of the ideal on the political stage; and countless others each have have dedicated private efforts to the task of remodeling one or another corner of the social scene in the hope that, through the voluntary actions of innumerable individuals, a better approximation to the free, equal, and brotherly society of their dreams might in time be achieved.

The end is not yet, and cannot be foretold. Eventually men will no doubt turn away to pursue other visions; but in the meantime, however imperfectly the secular ideal of social bliss has come or ever will come to embodiment in human societies, it remains true that the universality and power of this vision among men of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was a leading characteristic of the initial age of global cosmopolitanism.

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