WHAT a piece of work is man, I often wonder with the Bard. How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, how like an angel, like a god. So join me for a moment in celebrating us — homo sapiens, “wise man,” humanity. For we are an incredible species.
What other beings could — as we just did — position a telescope between the earth and the sun? Like a new god wafting between Gaia and Helios, it has an eye so powerful that it can peer backwards in time to see light emitted during the Big Bang. With it, humans are one step closer to literally observing creation.
Extend that sense of awe for just another moment. In a Large Hadron Collider underneath the Franco-Swiss border, other angels of science are smashing unimaginably tiny particles into one another. They’re closing in on the Higgs boson — also called the “God particle.” It’s some sort of vibration which gives mass to other elementary particles, like quarks and electrons — thereby making possible, well, everything.
And now our exaltation screeches to a halt. No, it’s not just, as Hamlet realized, that this amazing piece of work — humankind — amounts to a quintessence of dust. It’s so much worse. It’s that we do have reason, faculty, even hints of divinity — and yet no wisdom to speak of. A better name for us would be homo stultum, foolish man.
Just glance at this week’s news again. Even as some people devote their ingenuity to fathoming the universe, others are deploying theirs to oppress their compatriots and threaten other nations with war, death, and suffering. I’m thinking of Russian President Vladimir Putin, of course, as he menaces Ukraine. But I could name others, now and in the past.
There’s no question people like Putin are intelligent. He’s a KGB-trained master at manipulating other people and messing with their minds in order to gain and keep power. But he’s using this might not to make his country and its people thrive. He’s wielding it to keep them down, and to turn neighboring countries into failed states, lest their prosperity and freedom should ever inspire Russians to demand the same. It’s wit without humanity — and becomes the accomplice of evil.
That’s just the way it always has been and will be, you say. And I agree. Almost a century ago, Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr were also debating the unimaginably vast (general relativity) and the unfathomably small (quantum mechanics), and also glimpsing divinity as today’s scientists now do at CERN or NASA. Simultaneously, the likes of Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Joseph Stalin had their thugs roaming the streets like hounds of hell.
Another couple of centuries back, Isaac Newton was disseminating his insights into the workings of our world just as the good Puritans of Salem were hanging 14 women and five men for witchcraft. I hear the echoes today. Heroes like Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci, the founders of BioNTech SE, are giving us mRNA vaccines to fight the pandemic. Simultaneously, the followers of QAnon are spreading drivel about Bill Gates wanting to inject us all with microchips.
Perhaps that’s what ultimately defines our species — neither wisdom nor folly, but the ability, as F. Scott Fitzgerald put it, to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. How else could Thomas Jefferson have written that all men are created equal — and endowed with the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — even as one of his slaves, Robert Hemings, was tending to his every need.
We are a species that contrives the most sophisticated logistics and supply chains conceivable — and then uses them to literally sell bottled farts. We develop antibiotics that kill the bacteria that harm us — and then overdo it so much that we breed even stronger microbes that will one day be our nemesis.
We figure out that E=mc2, then spend the rest of eternity trying to find ways not to blow ourselves up with that knowledge. We capture the energy of photosynthesis that was buried millions of years ago in the fossils under our feet — and forget that we’re thereby polluting our home. One day, we may become the only creatures simultaneously foolish enough to destroy our own planet and genius enough to colonize another.
The late B.K.S. Iyengar, a yogi, once said that intelligence, like money, is a good servant but a bad master. Even science has explored why and how smart people can be so foolish. In a nutshell, it comes down to a cocktail of egocentrism, narcissism, and arrogance that overpowers everything else — or what the ancient Greeks called hubris.
So, should I sing a paean to humanity, or a dirge? I never know. But let me tell you where I sometimes go to reflect on all this. In central Berlin, near our office, there’s a park. On one edge of it stands a monument to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, one of the most enlightened minds in the history of Germany and the world. Directly across the street, 2,711 slabs of concrete stretch over an area that also covers the remains of Hitler’s bunker. This is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.
There are plenty of places to sit — benches on the park side, the concrete blocks on the other. So, I sit and look at them, the poet and the slabs, the light and the dark, the apex and the nadir. But they just gaze at each other in silence, unable to answer that question: What a piece of work is man.