I read an excellent commencement address by Daniel Mendlesohn this week in which he describes a conversation he had with his grandparents about his plans to study classics in university.
His grandparents asked:
What good it will do you, Greek and Latin? They are dead, the Greeks, the Romans—all dead, for a thousand years they are dead! A thousand years! I have been to Greece, been to Athens! And I can tell you—they are dead! What good did it do them, their literature, their art?! Plato? What good will he do for you? I have been to the grave of Plato, and I can tell you: he has been dead for a thousand years! Trust me, find something else to study, you'll make a living at least, you'll be happier!...Plato, the Greeks...In a thousand years, it will all be lost.
I've been thinking a great deal about those last few words, lately, particularly as they pertain to my work, but also as they pertain to our public life, our discussions, our debates—our life together. The question that continues to recur for me is this:
What would our governance, our conversations, our work—our civilization—look like if above us, in each institution and context in which we live and work, was a sign that said, "In a thousand years, it will all be lost"?
Would things change at all?
It is a truth universally unacknowledged that much of our labour is of the subsistence variety. We work, talk, and make policy hand-to-mouth. Anyone who spends time in the halls of power knows that in the public eye of politics, media, and business, a watch in the night is like a thousand years rather than the reverse. The next quarter's balance sheet, the next poll, the next morning's headline: these seem to be the drivers of our public life.
Which begs the question: is democracy even capable of considering the next thousand years? Niall Ferguson, among many others, is doubtful. He notes that "the biggest challenge facing mature democracies is how to restore the social contract between the generations." This is true, I think, in areas other than the economic policy. It's also true when it comes to environmental policy, labour policy, and a host of others. We're content to sow the wind, but we don't want to reap the whirlwind and its stunted grain. If we find ourselves without food, then we'll just take it from those who aren't born, if they're born at all. Better the pleasure today, than the pain today which might lead to a better tomorrow.
Ferguson thinks this trend is "a consequence of a more profound malaise." I agree. But what is the source of that malaise? I think, perhaps, one source is the divorce of eternal questions from the day-to-day of our work. After all, if eternity matters not, why care about the next hundred years, let alone the next thousand? This makes me think that hanging signs, like guillotines, that say "in a thousand years, it will all be lost" won't make a lick of difference. It is, after all, the wrong message. Perhaps, what needs saying, despite Mendelhson's sobering recognition that much (or all) of our work will be lost to "a hundred decades of accidents, of fires, of rats, of moisture, computer viruses, of viruses and corruptions we cannot even think of because the technologies they will ruin are as unimaginable to us today as the iPhone was to the monk who spent months making a single copy of Aeshcylus's Oresteia" is this: in ten thousand years, your work will not be lost.
This is not to say that it will be found worthy; only that there is someone who will judge that work. And that that someone's judgment matters more than the next balance sheet, poll, or headline.