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Impearls: VI. Devils and Pilgrims

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Earthdate 2002-11-12

The World, The Flesh, and the Devil   by Freeman J. Dyson

Freeman J. Dyson
Institute for Advanced Study
Princeton, New Jersey

 

VI.  Devils and Pilgrims  

I have spoken much about how we may deal with the World and the Flesh, and I have said nothing about how we may deal with the Devil.  Bernal also had difficulties with the Devil.  He admitted in the 1968 foreword to his book that the chapter on the Devil was the least satisfactory part of it.  The Devil will always find new varieties of human folly to frustrate our too rational dreams.

Instead of pretending that I have an antidote to the Devil's wiles, I will end this lecture with a discussion of the human factors that most obviously stand in the way of our achieving the grand designs which I have been describing.  When mankind is faced with an opportunity to embark on any great undertaking, there are always three main factors that devilishly hamper our efforts.  The first is an inability to define or agree upon our objectives.  The second is an inability to raise sufficient funds.  The third is the fear of a disastrous failure.  All three factors have been conspicuously plaguing the United States space program in recent years.  It is a remarkable testimony to the vitality of the program that these factors have still not succeeded in bringing it to a halt.  When we stand before the far greater enterprises of biological technology and space colonization that lie in our future, the same three factors will certainly rise again to confuse and delay us.

I want now to demonstrate to you by a historical example how these human factors may be overcome.  I shall quote from William Bradford, one of the Pilgrim Fathers, who wrote a book called Of Plimoth Plantation describing the history of the first English settlement in Massachusetts.  Bradford was governor of the Plymouth colony for 28 years.  He began to write his history ten years after the settlement.  His purpose in writing it was, as he said, “That their children may see with what difficulties their fathers wrestled in going through these things in their first beginnings.  As also that some use may be made hereof in after times by others in such like weighty employments.”  Bradford's work remained unpublished for two hundred years, but he never doubted that he was writing for the ages.

Here is Bradford describing the problem of man's inability to agree upon objectives.  The date is Spring 1620, the same year in which the Pilgrims were to sail.

But as in all businesses the acting part is most difficult, especially where the work of many agents must concur, so was it found in this.  For some of those that should have gone in England fell off and would not go; other merchants and friends that had offered to adventure their moneys withdrew and pretended many excuses; some disliking they went not to Guiana; others again would adventure nothing except they went to Virginia.  Some again (and those that were most relied on) fell in utter dislike with Virginia and would do nothing if they went thither.  In the midst of these distractions, they of Leyden who had put off their estates and laid out their moneys were brought into a great strait, fearing what issue these things would come to.

The next quotation deals with the perennial problem of funding.  Here Bradford is quoting a letter written by Robert Cushman, the man responsible for buying provisions for the Pilgrims' voyage.  He writes from Dartmouth on 17 August 1620, desperately late in the year, months after the ships ought to have started.

And Mr. Martin, he said he never received no money on those conditions; he was not beholden to the merchants for a pin, they were bloodsuckers, and I know not what.  Simple man, he indeed never made any conditions with the merchants, nor ever spake with them.  But did all that money fly to Hampton, or was it his own?  Who will go and lay out money so rashly and lavishly as he did, and never know how he comes by it or on what conditions?  Secondly, I told him of the alteration long ago and he was content, but now he domineers and said I had betrayed them into the hands of slaves; he is not beholden to them, he can set out two ships himself to a voyage.  When, good man?  He hath but £50 in and if he should give up his accounts he would not have a penny left him, as I am persuaded.  Friend, if ever we make a plantation, God works a miracle, especially considering how scant we shall be of victuals, and most of all ununited amongst ourselves and devoid of good tutors and regiment.

My last quotation describes the fear of disaster, as it appeared in the debate among the Pilgrims over their original decision to go to America.

Others again, out of their fears, objected against it and sought to divert from it; alleging many things, and those neither unreasonable nor improbable; as that it was a great design and subject to many inconceivable perils and dangers; as, besides the casualties of the sea (which none can be freed from), the length of the voyage was such as the weak bodies of women and other persons worn out with age and travail (as many of them were) could never be able to endure.  And yet if they should, the miseries of the land which they should be exposed unto, would be too hard to be borne and likely, some or all of them together, to consume and utterly to ruinate them.  For there they should be liable to famine and nakedness and the want, in a manner, of all things.  The change of air, diet, and drinking of water would infect their bodies with sore sicknesses and grievous diseases.  And also those which should escape or overcome these difficulties should yet be in continual danger of the savage people, who are cruel, barbarous and most treacherous, being most furious in their rage and merciless where they overcome; not being content only to kill and take away life, but delight to torment men in the most bloody manner that may be.

I could go on quoting Bradford for hours, but this is not the place to do so.  What can we learn from him?  We learn that the three devils of disunity, shortage of funds, and fear of the unknown are no strangers to humanity.  They have always been with us and will always be with us whenever great adventures are contemplated.  From Bradford we learn too how they are to be defeated.  The Pilgrims used no technological magic to defeat them.  The Pilgrims' victory demanded the full range of virtues of which human beings under stress are capable; toughness, courage, unselfishness, foresight, common sense, and good humor.  Bradford would have set at the head of this list the virtue he considered most important, a faith in Divine Providence.

I end this sermon on a note of disagreement with Bernal.  Bernal believed that we shall defeat the Devil by means of a combination of socialist organization and applied psychology.  I believe that our best defense will be to rely on the human qualities that have remained unchanged from Bradford's time to ours.  If we are wise, we shall preserve intact these qualities of the human species through the centuries to come, and they will see us safely through the many crises of destiny that surely await us.  But I will let Bernal have the last word.  Bernal's last word is a question which William Bradford must often have pondered, but would not have known how to answer, as he watched the first generation of native born New Englanders depart from the ways of their fathers.

We hold the future still timidly, but perceive it for the first time, as a function of our own action.  Having seen it, are we to turn away from something that offends the very nature of our earliest desires, or is the recognition of our new powers sufficient to change those desires into the service of the future which they will have to bring about?
 

© Copyright 1972, 1973, 2002 Freeman J. Dyson.  Reprinted by permission of author.



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