This week I found, put out for the taking with a bunch of old crockery, a copy of H. G. Wells’ “The Outline of History,” started in the last year of World War I and updated off and on till the posthumous 1955 edition that I’ve started reading.
For many years the famed British writer, founder of science fiction (as in “The War of the Worlds,” whose 1938 radio dramatization by Orson Welles sowed panic in the United States), had been taking notes and writing memoranda toward a personal synthesis of world history, and the end product is fascinating, a real tour de force of human knowledge and vision.
Of his “Outline” he writes in the preface:
“Its background is unfathomable mystery, the riddle of the stars, the measurelessness of space and time. There appears life struggling towards consciousness, gathering power, accumulating will, through millions of years and through countless billions of individual lives, until it reaches the tragic confusions and perplexities of the world of to-day, so full of fear and yet so full of promise and opportunity.” (p. 5)
As the French say, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Sometimes we just have to apply a sense of humility and remember that all of us alive today, whatever our condition, our aspirations and distresses, are just bit players in the the story of human evolution. As Wells puts it in his pages on Alexander the Great (to which I turned because I just finished reading Mary Renault’s novel about him):
“We are beginning to understand something of what the world might be, something of what our race might become, were it not for our still raw humanity. It is barely a matter of seventy generations between ourselves and Alexander; and between ourselves and the savage hunters our ancestors, who charred their food in the embers or ate it raw, intervene some four or five hundred generations. There is not much scope for the modification of a species of four or five hundred generations. Make men and women only sufficiently jealous or fearful or drunken or angry, and the red hot eyes of the cavemen will glare out at us today. We have writing and teaching, science and power; we have tamed the beasts and schooled the lightning; but we are still only shambling toward the light. We have tamed and bred the beasts, but we have still to tame and breed ourselves.” (p. 354)
Wells, who fought against militarism and class stratification, also foresaw long in advance the release of enormous destructive power from radioactive decay and the rise of autocratic governments in Europe.
As a prophet with many successes, he should still be listened to today, in his cautions about the irrational underpinning of the human personality, particularly the expressions of fear and anger that threaten our own public life and discourse today.
H. G. Wells, public domain, from Wikimedia Commons