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A nineteenth century blast of rational optimism


Peter Risdon writes to draw to my attention what Mark Twain wrote to Walt Whitman on this 70th birthday:

What great births you have witnessed! The steam press, the steamship, the steel ship, the railroad, the perfected cotton-gin, the telegraph, the phonograph, the photograph, photo-gravure, the electrotype, the gaslight, the electric light, the sewing machine, & the amazing, infinitely varied & innumerable products of coal tar, those latest & strangest marvels of a marvelous age. And you have seen even greater births than these; for you have seen the application of anesthesia to surgery-practice, whereby the ancient dominion of pain, which began with the first created life, came to an end in this earth forever; you have seen the slave set free, you have seen the monarchy banished from France, & reduced in England to a machine which makes an imposing show of diligence & attention to business, but isn’t connected with the works. Yes, you have indeed seen much – but tarry yet a while, for the greatest is yet to come. Wait thirty years, & thenlook out over the earth! You shall see marvels upon marvels added to these whose nativity you have witnessed; & conspicuous above them you shall see their formidable Result – Man at almost his full stature at last! – & still growing, visibly growing while you look.

After that the letter gets a bit mystical and religious for my taste. But it’s a fine specimen of nineteenth century rational optimism at a time when `degeneration‘ was about to seize the imagination of the intelligentsia.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist