Who Says That Chance Rules in the Affairs of Men?

Some years ago, while driving into Boston to attend a conference on “Changing and Unchanging Values in the World of the Future,” I noticed a billboard advertising not the latest consumer gadget but a sage observation attributed to Winston Churchill.  “The farther backward you can look,” it said in large black letters, “the farther forward you are likely to see.” 

It seemed more than a coincidence that the conference I was attending was at the Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future at Boston University.  Had some representative of that institution contrived to place Churchill’s fortifying admonition at the city gates?

I was disappointed to learn that the message had been arranged, not by the Pardee Center, but by some other civic-minded entity or individual. Nevertheless, if Churchill’s observation is not the motto of the Pardee Center, perhaps it should be.

The past does not provide a window overlooking the future, exactly; nothing short of clairvoyance can promise that. Nor is it even quite true, as George Santayana famously remarked, that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (I recently had something to say about that in this space.)

History is not a form of prophylaxis. But knowledge of history does acquaint us with the permanent moral and political alternatives that mankind confronts in its journey through time.

It reminds us, for example, how regularly tyranny masquerades as virtue, how inhumanity is apt to cloak itself in the rhetoric of righteousness. (This is not, as St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians reminds us, a new insight: “Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works.”)

Above all, perhaps, knowledge of history can serve to temper our presumption. As I reflected on Churchill’s observation and the subject of the conference, I was struck anew by the large quota of optimism that language budgets into our lives.

There is a sense, I suppose, in which the fact that it was felt necessary to establish a center for study the “longer-range future” betrays a certain anxiety. A carefree future needn’t be studied, merely enjoyed.

Still, in the larger sense it can be said that any institution that presupposes “the longer-range future” is an institution conceived in hope and consecrated to a cheerful view of mankind’s destiny.

And it is worth noting how regularly, in ways small and large, such hopefulness insinuates itself into our plans and projects. Consider only that marvelous phrase “the foreseeable future.” With what cheery abandon we employ it!

Yet what a nugget of optimism those three words encompass. How much of the future, really, do we foresee? A week? A day? A minute? “In a minute,” as T. S. Eliot said in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “there is time/For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.”

So much of life is a juggling with probabilities, a conjuring with uncertainties, that we often forget upon what stupendous acts of faith even the prudent conduct of life depends. Had I been asked, on September 10, 2001, whether New York’s Twin Towers would continue standing for “the foreseeable future,” I should have answered “Yes.”

And so, in one sense, they did.

Only my foresight was not penetrating enough, not far-seeing enough, to accommodate that most pedestrian of eventualities: an event.

An event is as common as dirt; it is also as novel as tomorrow’s dawn. “There is nothing,” the French writer Charles Péguy noted in the early years of the 20th century, “so unforeseen as an event.”

The particular event Péguy had in mind was the Dreyfus Affair. Who could have predicted that the fate of an obscure Jewish Army captain falsely accused of spying would have such momentous consequences? And yet this unforeseen event, as Proust observed in his great novel, suddenly, catastrophically “divided France from top to bottom.”

We plan, stockpile, second-guess, buy insurance, make allowances, assess risks, play the odds, envision contingencies, calculate interest, tabulate returns, save for a rainy day . . . and still we are constantly surprised. Just ask the former managers—to say nothing of the former employees and depositors—of the Silicon Valley Bank.

In a thoughtful essay called “What is Freedom?” the philosopher Hannah Arendt noted the extent to which habit—what she disparages with the name “automatism”—rules life. We are creatures of habit, schedules, and conventions.

And yet we are also creatures who continually depart from the script. Human beings do not simply behave in response to stimuli. We act—which means that our lives, though orchestrated largely by routine, are at the same time everywhere edged with the prospect of novelty.

“Every act,” Arendt wrote, “seen from the perspective not of the agent but of the process in whose framework it occurs and whose automatism it interrupts, is a ‘miracle’—that is, something which could not be expected. . . . It is in the very nature of every new beginning that it breaks into the world as an ‘infinite improbability,’ and yet it is precisely this infinitely improbable which actually constitutes the very texture of everything we call real.”

Every moment of every day presents us with the potential for what Arendt calls the “miracle” of human action, so familiar and yet ultimately unfathomable. This is why we find phrases like “the foreseeable future” indispensable. They declare the extent of our confidence, the reach of our competence.

But they also serve to remind us that our competence is revocable without notice. Which is to say that our foresight is always an adventure, practiced at the pleasure of the unpredictable.

This is something that P. G. Wodehouse, a philosopher of a somewhat merrier stamp than Hannah Arendt, put with his customary grace when his character Psmith (the “P” is “silent, as in phthisis, psychic, and ptarmigan”) observed that “in this life . . . we must always distinguish between the Unlikely and the Impossible.”

On September 10, 2001 it seemed unlikely that a small band of murderous fanatics should destroy the Twin Towers and fundamentally alter the political landscape of the world. It was not, alas, impossible.

The eruption of the unlikely is an affront to our complacency, an insult to our pride. We tend to react by subsequently endowing the unlikely with a pedigree of explanation. This reassures us by neutralizing novelty, extracting the element of the unexpected from what actually happened.

I well remember the many sages who told us that it was impossible that Donald Trump should be elected 2016. After he was, most of them retrieved their disused rationalization machines to explain that his election had, as a matter of fact, been inevitable. 

I think again of Churchill. Summarizing the qualities that a budding politician should possess, he adduced both “The ability to foretell what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month, next year”—and “the ability afterwards to explain why it didn’t happen.”

Today, surprising events like Donald Trump’s 2016 victory or 9/11 seem almost inevitable. Reasons have been furnished for every detail. Plausible itineraries have been repeated until they seem like predictions.

All of those reasons and explanations were available beforehand. A look at the literature shows that some had been propounded for years. But they lacked the traction that events give to hindsight.

They were not part of the foreseeable future until that future, unforeseen, overtook us.

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