Imagining a Better World
10 November 2009
Everyone knows that Hitler’s application to the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts was twice rejected. It is almost impossible to avoid the temptation to ask oneself what if Hitler had been accepted. We know that Kokoschka asked himself this tantalizing what if question. In Elias Canetti’s memoir, Party in the Blitz: the English years, Canetti relates the following about Kokoschka:
At the beginning of the War, when I saw him again — two or three years after our first meeting in Prague — I hadn’t been with him for more than half an hour when he made me his monstrous confession. He was to blame for the War, in that Hitler, who had wanted to be a painter, had been driven into politics. Oskar Kokoschka and Hitler were both applying for the same scholarship from the Viennese Academy. Kokoschka was successful, Hitler turned down. If Hitler had been accepted instead of Kokoschka, Hitler would never have wound up in politics, there would have been no National Socialist Party, and no Second World War. In this way, Kokoschka was to blame for the War. He said it almost beseechingly, with far more emphasis than he usually had, and he repeated it several times, in a conversation that had moved on to other matters, he brought it back, and I had the dismaying impression that he was putting himself in Hitler’s place … It was impossible for him to be implicated in history without having some significance, even if it were guilt, a rather dubious guilt at that.
There is another version of this story (I can’t recall where I read it), less poignant, more in the vein of black humor, that has Kokoschka semi-humorously suggesting that he would have run the world rather differently if Hitler had been accepted at the Vienna Academy and he had gone on to something like Hitler’s political career.
Today on the BBC there was an article (Kalashnikov ‘wanted to be poet’) making the claim that Mikhail Kalashnikov, designer of the AK-47, considered becoming a poet in his early life. Again, the what if question is almost irresistible: if Kalashnikov had become a poet instead of designing one of the most popular and effective firearms in history, how might things have turned out?
Everyone instinctively wants a better world in the same way that everyone instinctively wishes to be happy, but “a better world” and “happiness” are differently defined by each individual, hence visions for world betterment and happiness diverge or collide, and the result is the actual world that we live in rather than the ideal world we imagine. But it only requires a compelling thought experiment to bring us back to the fantasy, however pervasive the countervailing reality.
We gain an appreciation of certain features of human psychology when we reflect that the antithetical thought experiment doesn’t feel nearly as compelling. Certainly on a personal basis we often acknowledge our near scrapes with death and disaster, but I think it is much less common for individuals to imagine the possibility of a much worse world than we actually have. That is to say, I think people are less likely to imagine close scrapes with death and disaster for the world entire than for themselves, and that they are much more likely to imagine a better world or a better life for themselves than they are to imagine a worse world or a worse life for themselves. Hope is not merely uplifting; it is a central constituent of how our minds function.
Imagining a better world (or a better life) has about it the same kind of dishonesty as when individuals remind themselves, “This too shall pass” when in the midst of adversity. It is true that adversity will pass, but one ought, by the same token, to admonish oneself, “This too shall pass” when in the midst of celebration and good fortune, for it too certainly shall pass, no less than adversity.
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Mikhail Kalashnikov, R.I.P. — It was announced today, 23 December 2013, that Mikhail Kalashnikov, designer of the AK-47, has passed away. Cf. AK47 assault rifle designer Kalashnikov dies at 94
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The alternative perspective to that of imagining a better world is that of imagining a worse world, which is arguably the more common human tendency, though when I wrote the above I was apparently coming at the problem from a different perspective. When one consciously compares the human tendency to imagine a better world with the parallel human tendency to imagine a worse world, it is difficult to say which is the more common. This would be an appropriate inquiry for experimental philosophy.
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