The History of the Future  (from Chapter Three)

The future has a long and colorful past. For untold millennia, human beings have contemplated what lay around the next bend, or season, or lifetime. Indeed, the ability to imagine and plan for the future is fundamental to our intelligence and essential to our survival. Our forebears were hardly the most imposing species to trek the African plain: without fang or claw for attack, without speed or camouflage for defense, humans needed all of the forethought they could muster. Add to the mix consciousness--and with it, a voracious appetite for meaning--and it is easy to see why people have looked to the future as a way of understanding their world and interpreting their purpose. Although true eschatologies (systems of belief about God’s ultimate victory) probably came on the scene fairly recently, that is, only about 2,500 years ago, their antecedents are much more ancient.

Of course, not all interest in the future springs from lofty purpose. Knowledge of the future is valuable in countless practical ways. So farmers listen to weather reports and investors read market projections. Those who possess, or at least are believed by others to possess, reliable information about the future control a vital and desirable commodity. This truth has not escaped the notice of a thousand generations of diviners, seers, mediums, oracles, and other prognostic professionals, to which one could add modern-day economists and "futurists." (The examination of birth rates and income trends seems a tad more rational than the analysis of entrails, but both pay the rent.) Moreover, knowledge of the future is a much wished-for antidote to the nagging, sometimes paralyzing uncertainty of life. A trip to the local Tarot card reader or equivalent may assure anxious souls of future happiness. Some seek to dodge personal responsibility by offloading important decisions onto others: "No, I can’t visit Grandma today. My horoscope plotter warned me not to leave town on Thursdays." It may well be that much knowledge of the future is not good for us, encouraging passivity, resignation, and moral infantilization.

The idea that we can know the future and the conviction that the future is inevitable are closely related. Each opinion naturally but not necessarily leads to the other. (I have heard it argued that God exists beyond space and therefore also outside of time; therefore, God may have foreknowledge of events that, technically speaking, are not predestined. I confess that such matters are beyond my small powers.) Not surprisingly, belief in both prediction and destiny was widespread in the ancient world. Modern readers are often struck by the fatalism they encounter in Greco-Roman texts. The world had a given structure, individuals had a station in it, and that was that. Often this attitude was reinforced by a cyclical view of history modeled on the endlessly repeating pattern of the seasons. In short, history was not going anywhere and neither were you. Much of the moral philosophy of the day taught that it is best to learn to be happy where you are. After all, the lowliest slave could be inwardly free and content, while the mightiest king could be enslaved to passion and beset with worry. (Of course, I might choose to be a free and content king, but that option was not suggested.) Wrote Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher, "I am without a home, without a city, without property...Yet what do I lack?..Who, when he lays eyes upon me, does not feel that he is seeing his king and his master?"1 Those who sought a better fate--a destiny upgrade, so to speak--could pursue various forms of popular religion or magic (incantations and charms, not tricks with rabbits) in hopes of altering the course of future events. The classic expression of the conflict between fate and choice is Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex. Oedipus was told by an oracle that he would kill his father and have children with his mother. This was disquieting news, to say the least. He fled, but in his very attempt to outrun fate, Oedipus raced toward fate’s terrible conclusion. Against his will and yet by his choice, he fulfilled his destiny. What’s a good tragic hero to do? Apparently nothing. Though the future may be ours to see, "whatever will be will be."