Utopias and apocalypses

The ideal island state of Utopia as conceived by Thomas More, illustration from Louvain, 1516: Wormsley Library, Oxford.  

A telling distinction between the distant Renaissance and the familiar 21st century is the popularity of utopian thinking during the former, and the appeal of dystopias and apocalyptic-dreaming during the latter.

The ideas of a Leon Battista Alberti, a Thomas More, may be contrasted with Hollywood’s proclivity for apocayptic films, with our focus on environmental pessimism or the talk of a post-AI humanity. Where the men and women of the Renaissance saw a golden future of quasi-Lennonesque brightness, our own century expands huge brainpower on millenarianism-style destruction and deaths-of-the-world by a thousand-and-one cuts. Just as the spirit of the Renaissance leveraged the resources of the classical past and latter-day scientific progress, the 21st century harnesses the latest developments in science, tech and social theory to make Cassandra’s doomful voice the loudest in the agora. The Renaissance, it may be argued, was just getting started in its humanist optimism, while our zeitgeist is one of spent energy, a sense of being at the end of a journey. A journey, however, that doesn’t end with us walking into the sunset – but a blood-red sunset of wildfires, earthquakes, tsunamis and rocks falling from the sky.

We now seem to live in a Gaulish village ruled not by the likes of Asterix or Obelix, but by Vitalstatistix whose daily fear is that that the sky may fall on his head tomorrow.

The Renaissance man loved humanity. What a piece of work man is! The 21st century despises humanity and seeks release from the shackles of the body. The Renaissance celebrated the fullness, messiness of man. The 21st century, in its mad reductionism (or, at best, dualist equivocation), hangs garlands on the altar of anti-speciesism, while the pontifex maximus is preparing to carve up the sacrificed tofu and to offer it to the gods of transhumanism.

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