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The Importance of Humanist Aspirations

For Stephen W. Hawking, the cosmos was mankind’s exit strategy. In the present, we must find our answers on Earth.

By Henry N. Brooks, Contributing Opinion Writer

It should come as no surprise that the recent passing of English physicist Stephen W. Hawking has conjured a massive outpouring of fan love.

To many, myself included, Hawking’s life of the mind stirred a genuine sense of human goodness. Hawking never treated his disciplines (cosmology and theoretical physics) as the private property of intellectuals, nor did he hesitate to poke fun at himself or his work. He regularly published literature for the laity, including the bestselling volume “A Brief History of Time,” which topped the London Sunday Times bestseller list for over five years. His visibility had powerful consequences outside of science too: Hawking embodied the wide gulf between condition and pathology. All who watched him knew that his physical impediment was no handicap to greatness.

As the kindly ambassador from a foreign field, however, Hawking often intimated his discomfort with this world. “I believe that life on Earth is at an ever-increasing risk of being wiped out,” he once divulged. “I think the human race has no future if it doesn’t go into space.” Hawking kept several such statements in his repertoire. At a science festival in Norway, he confessed, “The Earth is under threat from so many areas that it is difficult for me to be positive.”

In keeping with this grim survivalist sense, Hawking’s top priority was space travel. He hoped to avoid a string of possible worst-case scenarios for humanity: A take-over by artificial intelligence (potentially “the worst event in the history of our civilization”), global nuclear conflict, and “genetically engineered viruses.” In a world so treacherous, Hawking believed, mankind ought to abide by the simplest logic: “The human race shouldn’t have all its eggs in one basket.”

Of all humanity’s members, we Americans are perhaps the best equipped to understand Hawking’s worldview. Our politics during the past two years have laid bare the difference between aspirational policy (like reaching the stars for the sake of human achievement) and stopgap measures (such as Hawking’s hoped-for “tiny space probes”). Where only a short time ago Americans were warming up to the idea of an immigrant republic and overseeing a national shift to soft power in our foreign affairs, we’re now left longing for a pause in the ongoing partisan hostilities or a period without a vulgar presidential tweet.

These yearnings for civility, like Hawking’s longing for cosmic travel, may seem like a commendable response to the times. They are not our better angels, though. They’re reminders of how low we’ve stooped.

Part of the problem is a growing sense of alienation from politics, as much as our shared humanity. News about our government reads like that of a foreign putsch. Trump has been likened to Latin American caudillos, European fascists, and Third World dictators. Alongside these claims, the “America First” mantra has left many of us wondering whether, in fact, we can claim anything in common with those beyond our borders.

Our times—abundant with confusion and lacking in obvious emancipatory strategies—recall Walter Lippmann’s assessment from nearly a century ago that being a private citizen feels like spectating from “the back row.”

The fondness for escape is palpable in this environment. Recall the list of celebrities who threatened to leave the country if the current president should ever achieve national office. In the aftermath of election night, some of those celebrities retracted their promises; others recanted them as jokes. We understood their sentiments either way.

Even the government is afflicted with this escapist urge. Three Republican senators have promised to resign after 2018, two of them openly dreading more embarrassment-by-association. Cabinet-level appointees have taken so vigorously to jumping ship that taking stock of casualties has become nearly impossible.

These are the circumstances in which we negotiate our potential futures. Some long for simple civility; others (the wearier moderates) demand a return to normalcy.

More entrenched liberals (myself included) are committed to these positions contingent on other important victories: a lasting resolution to gun violence, an end to nationalist sloganeering, renewed commitment to Herbert Croly’s “promise of American life.” These maneuvers give us firmer footing in the turf of values.

As with Hawking’s work, there is something profoundly humanist in the American creed—its call for constant democratic renewal, its framing of American advancement within a grander human project. But this humanism is not self-actualizing.

Physicist though he was, Hawking was performing a very old, unscientific ritual by aspiring to escape Earth. He was fantasizing the heavens as a reprieve from our earthly suffering.

In the age of Trump, we must learn to aspire for simpler rewards—respect, justice, and increasing opportunity. Once these are achieved, we can pursue the cosmos for its own sake.

Henry N. Brooks ’19 is a Social Studies concentrator in Currier House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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