‘Long-winded disputes fill up the place of common sense and candid inquiry’

William Hazlitt, ‘On the Conduct of Life: or, Advice to a school-boy. (c. 1822)

History has a tide table, and each century has a ‘long, withdrawing roar’. While we stumble onto each new stage in our old clothes, Time laughs: 1914-18, 1812-15, 1707-15 (The Act of Union; Enlightenment), 1603-5 (Gloriana; gunpowder),1517 (Reformation) &c &c. You get the drift…

2020 is an evocative date for our 21st Century to begin. Misunderstood as ‘perfect vision’, 20:20 is actually seeing clearly at twenty feet. But whether 20 centimetres from Tweets on smartphones, or twenty years from the Millennial turn, what exactly is our vision? Or are we too blinded by ‘fussing and fighting’ on social media, hurling ever more fuel on the bonfire of twentieth century vanities, to see the way ahead?

George Bush Senior once confessed to being no good at “the vision thing”, conceding it perhaps to the other side; the one where we’re told the angels are, dancing among the pinheads. Yet we have mystic chords of memory, as another Republican President, Abraham Lincoln said; and they too can touch – and sing to – the better angels of our nature. Taking office for the second time, President Reagan spoke of a vibration – “the American sound… hopeful, big-hearted, idealistic, daring, decent, and fair,” he said. “That’s our heritage; that is our song. We sing it still.”

What, then, will our new century’s sounds and song be, and how can we begin to hear – let alone sing – amid the sound and fury?

Here’s a thought: we start from silence; we ‘just say no’. Stop chucking everything – from twigs and Tweets to logs and think-pieces – onto this roaring and polluting fire (think of the emissions!), one we have all, in some ways, helped create. This insatiable fire, demanding fuel as voraciously as any pathological narcissist, won’t die down until we stop feeding it. We need to mute, hold our tongue, unfollow, avert our gaze.

To mix a metaphor as furiously as Prince George does Christmas pudding, we should recall Alec Douglas-Home’s favourite quotation, ‘Peace, be still’, and rebuke the wind – as George RR Martin says again and again in The Game of Thrones: ‘Words are wind!’

We need to discipline ourselves – and each other – to walk on by from these exhausting, unwinnable culture wars, and instead share enriching thought, art, music, amusements.

And it’s not as if there isn’t work to be done. In the last numeric century, Spaceship Earth picked up 4.4 billion souls. In the next, we’ll welcome aboard another 3.1 billion, at which point we’re expected to reach our full complement. That’s no mean payload. And, to be fair, we’ve done a pretty good job so far – doomsayers notwithstanding.

Perhaps, then, we might press Pause and devote some time to ponder, with our brief gift of symbolically ‘perfect vision’, what this new century could be – instead of haggling about what the last one was. Sit more convivially around a new, quieter fire, to envision and re-member. (The atavistic intergenerational task of forgetting and re-membering is a perennial one, but will be exacerbated by our ageing demographics). And we need to throw some stuff overboard.

Quite a lot of stuff, to be honest. Like a balloon debate, we find ourselves, with all these new souls coming aboard, a little – well, a lot – overweight. Fat, in the old currency. At the back of the rocket is the heavy, spent, 20th Century stage, with its residue of the fuel that got us thus far, which we can now gratefully jettison. The trick to de-coupling this problematic and toxic drag-weight, left over from the fast-burn of the late last century, is a kind of non-attachment, as Hindoo and Buddhist sages put it, to the desire for things and concepts which satisfy individually but are no longer helping the Spaceship’s trim. Not unlike clearing the home of an elderly relative who has passed on, we need to quickly decide what to bin, what goes to charity, and what to keep. We’ll all have opinions (I can live without Marxism, postmodernism, poststructuralism, ‘this-ism, that-ism’, and modern academic writing) but the luxury of long-winded disputes is feeling increasingly dangerous.

We might also discipline ourselves to eschew these faux terms of art and pseudo-argumentation. The lethal cruelty of Communism, the moral error of Eugenics, the precise trajectory of the arc of progress, or identity-led ‘power relations’, will never be resolved in bad faith. A good heart and good faith, as Hazlitt remarks to his eleven year old son in his ‘On the Conduct of Life’, will take us farther: “Envy no one, and you need envy no one. If you have but the magnanimity to allow merit wherever you see it – understanding in a lord or wit in a cobbler, this temper of mind will stand you instead of many accomplishments. Think no man too happy.”

We should therefore stop giving oxygen to this great conflagration of mendacity. We must stop wasting fuel. We have limited supplies.  And space is big, time long.

We need to get Spaceship-shape in other ways, too. We have a pretty good idea of the tasks ahead and of our assets (one planet, lots of rather agreeable souls; places to go, things to do), and we are a remarkably capable species. Having cleared the decks by chucking the 20th Century’s clinker overboard, we should remember that there were an awful lot of babies thrown out with the bathwater. And there’s a lot of stuff in the supply lines – mostly at the back of the baggage train – we’d better use in a hurry before it’s too late.

Most of this stuff is analogue, pre-digital. And speaking as part of the only ‘born analogue, die digital’ generation Spaceship Earth will ever carry, it’s our final, vital, task to pass this baton to the digital generations. To help them lift their gaze from their machines and see the more universal desire paths of the human soul. If our spaceship passengers forget St. Augustine’s timeless advice – that when in doubt we should walk the earth – they’ll be unhappy for decades until they remember that they evolved in a pre-digital world. Meanwhile their diabetic problems are likely to bankrupt the mission.

We should also collect up some of the dusty old words we’ve been neglecting, those crown jewels of centuries upon centuries of collective endeavour. Words like honour, dignity, virtue, gallantry, patriotism, character, and caritas. From them we can reweave the cradles in which we once nurtured our gifts to the future; prudence, fortitude, courtesy, kindness, and, above all, humility. (Our insufferable Pride, in particular, is clogging the carburettor).

Some of us, therefore, will have to look lively; go back and fetch these orphaned spirits of another age; give those unloved supplies a polish or two; and then lug them – not unlike Lucky – on board, before carefully stowing them away. Because we’re going to need them if we’re to enjoy a brand new day.

In short, we need to go back to go forward; let go, to let in.