There is no room in the city
for respectable skills…and no reward for one’s efforts.
Today my means are less than yesterday; come tomorrow,
the little left will be further reduced. So I’m going to make for
the place where Daedalus laid aside his weary wings.
—Juvenal, Satire 3, lines 21– 26
Something is profoundly wrong in our country. Once, we were a great power, but our standing has been jeopardized by corrupt rulers, burdensome taxes, and a population that has lost its spiritual moorings. Unchecked immigration has flooded our nation with cheap labor and a large population that does not even speak our language. Sexual perversions abound, and it is becoming impossible to tell the difference between men and women. This is without a doubt most corrupt and lascivious generation that has ever lived on earth.
That, at any rate, was the opinion of the Roman satirist Juvenal during the first century CE, when he wrote his famous Third Satire. The country he reviles, of course, is Rome, which has been invaded by mercantile Jews and libertine Greeks–whose sexual proclivities he had already described in his Second Satire, “Hypocritical Perverts.” And the conclusion that he comes to—that we are living in the worst of times—has been pronounced by every generation in human memory. Thinking that our lives suck is one of the things that humans do best.
It is also, unfortunately, one of the things that religions do best—especially religions that have a strong “end-of-time” narrative like ours. As a Mormon child in the 70s, I got a big dose of the Saturday’s Warrior’s rhetoric: these are the wickedest days in the world’s history, and the Lord has saved His best soldiers to combat the forces of Satan in the Last Days. My children now hear much the same things—they are Late-Saturday-Night-Just-A-Few-Minutes-Before-Sunday Warriors.
As we go back into previous generations of the Church, we find much the same rhetoric in every generation: pessimistic turtles all the way down. For the last six months or so, I have been working on a critical edition of Apostle Orson F. Whitney’s 1904 poem, Elias. Just last night, I got to the passage about the world in the time of Joseph Smith. It is way too long to reproduce in a blog post, but here is a brief sample:
Disorder reigned, and satire laughed to scorn
Grotesque, invidious inconsistency:
Talent on title waiting, brain on birth!
Genius at oars, and dullards at the helm!
The prancing war-steed fastened to the plow,
The ass unto the chariot—oft with rein,
Curbing the mettled courser’s noble rage,
Or goading him with needless cruelty!
Matter was monarch; Spirit stood apart,
Unknown, unseen, or spurned and thrust aside
By thronging myriads, bending supple knee,
And basking in the proud usurper’s smile.
Men bowed not down to sun and moon and stars,
To bird, nor beast, nor reptile, as of yore;
But worshipt still at other creature shrines,
Ignoring the Creator’s primal claim. (Elias VIII, 2494-2509)
You get my point. It was the worst of all possible worlds, and this is the core of the problem: any generation can be bad, but only one can be the worst. If every generation is the worst one ever, we have to keep inventing new reasons that life sucks even worse in order to justify our eschatological narratives. We have tricked ourselves into believing that hope in Christ for tomorrow requires us to believe that we live in the worst of all possible worlds today.
We have quite a bit of evidence to suggest, however, that we are closer to Dr. Pangloss’s world than to Voltaire’s. Steven Pinker’s recent book The Better Angels of Our Nature (see my review here), for example, presents a vast amount of data to support his point that we are now living in the least cruel and least violent era in the world’s history. We have a hard time recognizing this, of course, because of our unprecedented ability to monitor the world’s events.
According to the standard Juvenalian nostalgia cycle, those us living in the worst of all possible worlds have to go back just a few generations to find the other end of the spectrum. I had an institute teacher in college tell me, in 1994, that the best time live in America was the 1950s—the era of Jim Crow, lynch law, massive gender inequities, and the open oppression of almost anyone who did not fit into the WASP aesthetic-political ideal. The world has improved in hundreds of tangible ways since 1950 (which improved a lot from 1850 and a whole lot from 1450), yet a non-trivial percentage of Latter-day Saints believe that we are living in the worst of times today.
In the end, I think, we must all remember that we believe in a Gospel of Hope—and not just the hope that Jesus will come soon and set us free from the fetid sewer that our world has become. Hope means believing that the world we wake up in tomorrow will be worth living in because there are good people in it (many of them not Latter-day Saints or any of the other standard forms of “us”) doing good things for good reasons. It means loving the life we have and not just the one we expect to have when this one is over. And it means getting out of our bubbles once in a while and noticing that there are many things in “the world” today worth thinking well of.