The Futurists

Ah Love! could thou and I with Fate conspire

To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,

Would not we shatter it to bits - and then

Re-mold it nearer to the Heart's Desire!
Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam


A governing drive of man has been to subdue nature and to arrogate its powers. Thus we have tampered with wind and weather, with water and land, with forest and fields. Unaware of the price we have to pay, we have filled our surroundings with machines and our filth. We thought we were making better things for better living through chemistry, through highways and cars and planes, through supermarkets and laundromats. But Fate - was it? - decreed otherwise, and we are desperately wishing to bring nature back to life. Yet we have only the beginnings of an understanding of our relationship to nature - of what is possible and what desirable. We have, it seems, allowed our technology to outrun our understanding. We have lacked the wisdom to make choices in a form which can guide our advance into a possible and desirable future.

The question of whether human choice and action can influence future events is a very old question and also a pressing, current one. It raises philosophical issues and practical considerations which have agitated the minds of philosophers and behavioral scientists. These Futurists differ widely as to the nature of the relationship of the human being with Nature and raise many questions: Should we set limits to uncovering the secrets of energy for satisfying the ever increasing need for luxury and the elixir of life; can we ever understand the complicated laws governing nature and live harmoniously with it; can we control the greed and avarice in human nature and prevent over-exploitation which leads to destruction of the vital resources for living itself; can we ever understand and accept the laws and forces of Nature and live in a holistic manner with the thought that we are an integral part of Nature?

In a broad sense, we may classify Futurists into three categories according to their attitude to Nature: aggressiveness, passivity and acceptance. The aggressive Futurists take their name after Prometheus, the Titan king who stole fire from the Gods. They have a world view which is characterized by a faith in science, technology, logic, prediction, and control. They believe that it is possible to control the environment in which we live and through such control, to direct the way persons behave. The emphasis is on re-formation of the environment.

One exponent of this world view is the behaviorist B.F. Skinner, who asserts that all behavior is totally controlled by the impact of the environment; there is no such thing as the `self' - no autonomous mind, creative urge, conscience, or sense of purpose to motivate our behavior. The function of the individuals is to contribute to the survival of their culture; and the function of the culture is to see to it that they do so. 

A very different kind of Promethian is the mathematician-architect-design scientist Buckminister Fuller, who holds that mind is the defining characteristic of the human species, and that we have a cosmic function; our function in the universe is to use mind to apprehend and apply universal principles in the human environment. He seeks to reform the environment rather than to reform men. His goal is for all humanity 'to be a success.'

Prometheus' theft of fire put into the hands of man the power to shape the world to his wishes. The myth suggests to us that science, technology, even the arts grew from Prometheus' daring, aggressive act. And as, through the ages, technological man probed into nature deeper and developed ever more powerful tools, he made of Prometheus a culture-hero, lauding him through history as the Great Rebel.

But the myth also tells us that power has its price. Prometheus who stole fire and thereby gave mankind freedom from the power of Gods was himself punished by Zeus by being bound to a rock, an eagle gnawing eternally at his liver. And the price of that freedom for man who received the gift of fire was to be given, so the myth goes, a woman. With the first woman, Pandora, came a box containing all the ills of the world. Pandora opened the box, ignoring a warning and thus allowed its contents to escape. What remained in the box was only hope, the myth concludes!

Zeus' revenge was terrible, but the Prometheus of Aeschylus does not bend; in fact, he curses Zeus and predicts: 'Let him act, let him reign his little while as he will; for he shall not long rule over the gods.' ......(Gore Vidal in his article in NY Times July 4, 1993 Book Review Page 3 entitled: 'The Deadly Sins/Pride: The most unnerving Sin ') Prometheans consider Nature as a despotic ruler, with dominations and powers that enslaves human beings. They therefore celebrate with pride every scientific discovery as a victory won after a hard fight against an enemy and await the day when man's laws shall fully replace all of Nature's laws.

We are already paying the price of the totalitarian power to exploit nature and realizing how difficult it is to control the human tendency of indisciplined and unlimited harnessing of nature's resources without regard to holistic considerations. We now look askance at the gift of fire, which has been transformed before our very eyes into the dubious gift of nuclear fission.

Classical man framed a civilized context for human perspective. He was aware that he could defy fate-nature-environment, but only at his own risk. Contemporary man with faith in unlimited power over Nature goes further and attempts to create the world in his own image, to build a totally man-made environment. But he then discovers that he can do so only on the condition of constantly remaking himself and his fellow-human beings to fit to this new environment. Lacking in this ability, since it is against human nature to conform so totally, we now face the fact that man himself is at stake.

The danger that lies ahead in the near future then is that today's Prometheans, trusting their power to change the future will lead us into disaster and unwittingly pay the heavy price of losing the future itself! Wisdom therefore, consists in restraint and making our choices in harmony with and not contrary to Nature's laws which we should try to understand fully. With our intelligence, we have reached a stage when anything is possible; it is now time to use our power of discrimination and choose what is holistically desirable for all of us.

So much in our society needs changing and, without question, technology is the most powerful force for social change now. Prometheans are found not only in the laboratory and the library. They are often found also among the doers -- the city planners, the industrial magnates, the legislators, the behavior-shapers in schools, prisons, and mental institutions. These modern Prometheans assure us that they can contain the ills we anticipate by predicting and controlling the future. But with so many of them occupying leadership roles in society and with so much already gone wrong in a very short period of time, it is incumbent upon us to study their work and bring into existence powerful moderators to their roles. This trend which is already discernible in the "Back to Nature" movements, needs to be broadened and strengthened. (See Monkey's Paw)

The myth of the Greek sea-god Proteus provides us with a name for the alternate school of futurists, the Proteans. Proteus was a seer and prophet. But he was exceedingly reluctant to settle down to his job which was sooth-saying. When people came to him for help, he changed his shape into various disguises and escaped. By assuming many forms, he kept the self fluid; by refusing to prophesy, he kept the future fluid.

Some Proteans are mystics. Some feel that the restrictions and proscriptions of a society based on the impersonal dictates of science and technology abort the human potential. One school led by Leonarda and Castaneda, seeks to submerge personal identity in the changing orchestration of the rhythms and harmonies of the cosmos. There are those like Alan Watts who believe that they are in a very real sense Gods in one of God's manifestations. The human person is not bounded by a "bag of skin," but extends throughout the Universe.

And then there are other Proteans whose "identity" derives from the activity of the moment, who readily shift homes, jobs, friends, commitments and allegiances. In their temporal orientation, Proteans are unlike Promethians who perceive time in a past-present-future sequence. By disengaging from the past and keeping the present in flux, Proteans keep the future in flux. They dwell in an eternal NOW.

Critics of the Protean mode are offended by this challenge to the continuity of the individual self and of the culture of the society -- a continuity defined by enduring attitudes, values, memories, purposes, beliefs. They fear that without commitment to some particular, if evolving, vision of the future, a future which fulfills its past, society will find its energies dissipated, its dreams of a better world idly blowing in the wind.

The third group of futurists derives its name from the life-loving Greek King, Sisyphus who put Hades, the lord of the dead, in chains. When he was dragged down to the realm of the lord of the dead, Sisyphus again tricked Hades and returned to Earth and to life. For his death-defying acts, he was condemned to roll a rock to the top of a mountain again and again for all eternity, as each time the rock rolled back down of its own weight.

Sisyphus is seemingly significant as a symbol of futility; Sisyphean labor is synonymous with futile effort. But the existentialist Albert Camus has added a new appreciation for this elusive myth. Camus wrote: "Sisyphus is the absurd hero. His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted towards accomplishing nothing ..... but Sisyphus teaches the highest fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks....the struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart..."

Camus has suggested that even in a totally uncompromising world a person can be free. But one's freedom is not achieved by some technological feat such as blasting one's rock out of orbit, a Promethean approach, or by changing one's shape and so escaping, as might Proteus. Rather, Sisyphus' trip is an inward trip and his freedom is achieved through a particular kind of commitment to his own singular labor. Although accepting his fate, indeed by the very act of accepting it, Sisyphus transcends it and thus is free. The world's reality is, for Camus, beyond the influence of mankind and is at bottom an absurd setting for human spirit. Sisyphus, like Prometheus and Proteus, must employ a trick to wrest his freedom from the constraints of his fate. His trick is to cultivate in himself a transcendent consciousness, to create for himself a point of reference outside his physical existence.

The Sisyphean futurists, then, are those who believe that existence is characterized by interlocking opposites - both fate and freedom, both up and down, both inner and outer, both despair and triumph. Among them, Camus appears to take a pessimistic view, but Maslow believes that change for the better will come about as a result of developing the potential in human nature. There is scope for such optimism in the profound Eastern symbol of interlocking opposites, the yin-yang:  A black fish is intertwined with a white fish to form a whole circle. But the eye of the white fish is black, and vice versa, giving each the potential of infinite change by turning into its opposite.

We see Sisyphus today perhaps most clearly in persons whose fate is most harsh ZZ the victims of poverty, prejudice, or injustice, for example and in those courageous persons who set themselves to the seemingly futile task of closing the unclosable gap between the ideal and the real. Some painters, poets, musicians seek to do this through their art; some teachers and the tenacious fighters for lost causes, too, are among those for whom striving and caring in the face of stubborn reality are the processes of self-affirmation. These tenacious Sisypheans negate the criticism of the Prometheans and the Proteans that the Sisyphean view rests on assumptions of fate and interlocking opposites which will tend to restrict the scope of change. It is only the weak who experience futility and alienation; the strong, on the contrary, experience wholeness and transcendence.

I think it fair to say that no theory of psychology will ever be complete which does not centrally incorporate the concept that man has his future within him, dynamically active at the present moment....Also we must realize that the future is in principle unknown and unknowable, which means that all habits, defenses and coping mechanisms are doubtful and ambiguous since they are based on past experience. Only the flexibly creative person can really manage the future, only the one who can face novelty with confidence and without fear. I am convinced that much of what we now call psychology is the study of the tricks we use to avoid the anxiety of absolute novelty by making believe the future will be like the past.      ~Abraham H. Maslow (Toward a Psychology of Being)

The Sisyphean world view is a response to the perils, evils and promises of a Promethean world. From this perspective, neither the Promethean effort to resolve our societal problems through ever-greater control, nor the Protean response of personal transformation seems sufficient to bring about a better world. Nor, for that matter, do the belief systems on which they rest seem adequate to a full understanding of the nature and future of mankind. What is missing from both systems, according to the Sisyphean view, is an acknowledgment of the central, integrative, purposive consciousness of the individual human being, through which alone can blind fate be transcended and a meaningful human destiny be achieved. As distinguished from the either/or quality of the Promethean and Protean approaches, the Sisyphean tends to be both/and, conciliatory - or better, reconciliatory.

In the Sisyphean view of the human being's relationship to the universe, there are limitations built into the human condition. A person has a particular fate in the world, a fate which he does not invent but can discover. His options are circumscribed by facts of existence common to humankind, such as death, as well as factors in his own cultural and personal life condition. Therefore, a part of discovering and defining oneself is to bring to consciousness, to recognize and to reconcile within oneself the facts of one's condition which together makes up one's fate.

In the myth, Sisyphus' battle for selfhood was waged against the gods, who had the power to set the course of his life. His victory lay in the fact that, while he was not free to choose his life's direction, he could nevertheless choose its meaning for him. The Sisyphean might be found in any of us, as might the Promethean or the Protean. But it appears perhaps most dramatically among those persons in our society whose lives are circumscribed not by the gods but by society itself - the impoverished, the disenfranchised, the militarized, the institutionalized young, old or ill, the imprisoned. We may look for it among those whose range of options is curtailed by virtue of their race, sex, or age, or by mental, physical, or social handicaps, for here awareness of the limitations of one's existence is almost a necessity for survival.

                                             Source: Star Sight by Patricia Wallace Garlan; Maryjane Dunstan; Dyan Howell Pike (1977).