The Best of Times, the Worst of Times
Charles Dickens is one of the greatest and best selling authors to have written in the English language since the 19th century, and rightfully so! In his view, writing could help fix the problems of the world, despite this not being its primary function. Many of those problems he tackled such as child labour and vicious labour conditions have fortunately been left behind by the modern world. At the same time, sadly, problems like social snobbery or government inefficiencies have stood the test of time.
Dickens’ stories hit the mark brilliantly, using the age-old Heraclitus’ wisdom that “The only constant thing in life is change.” That way, even if not for the moral conviction that we are bound to do more, simply because even the well-off in society can quite easily put on the shoes of the unfortunate.
The Tale of Two Cities is a story about the injustices that prompted the French revolution, taking place in the years leading to it, as well as consequences that followed in the years to come. In the famous opening, Dickens starts with “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Living in 2020 my knowledge is somewhat limited to fully understand where he is coming from exactly. But, I know that today, as it was back in late 18th century France, it is the best of times, it is the worst of times.
We are undoubtedly living in a time of unprecedented peace. For more than seven decades, no two major powers have been in an armed conflict with each other. We have somehow managed to achieve, in Tony Stark words, “Peace in our time,” without the total oversight of the “Big brother.” Yet, (proxy) wars are still waged, innocent people still die, the western democracies are constantly “two minutes to midnight,” with the intentions of “teaching the un-free the right ways of living”. The next armed conflict looms over our heads, as If we have learned nothing from the past experiences.
It is an age of wisdom, showering us with technology and further understanding of the world, staggeringly closing the gap to the goal of “heaven on Earth.” Yet, it is an age of foolishness, where 5G fearmongers and flat Earthers roam among us. We still drool on reality TV shows like ‘Big Brother’ or ‘Survivor’, call art a duct taped banana on a white piece of nothingness, all the while making stars out of the people like the Kardashians and Cardi B. Beauty indeed lies in the eye of the beholder. Who’s to say that a few hundred years from now that Taylor Swift and Beyoncé are not going to be the Beethoven and Mozart of our time.
The epoch of believe is long gone, but so is the epoch of incredulity. Wealth and easy-living have killed the belief in the unknown. Lost is the appreciation of innovation. What the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 meant for the ordinary people is something we can’t comprehend, let alone relate. They were the generation on the forefront of the second industrial revolution, the technological one. They had taken their first rides on the Ferris wheel, being transported on the first moving sidewalk, seeing glowing bulbs of various shapes and colors light up the sky and tasting Wrigley’s gum. Soon after came the first telephone and the X-ray machine, making it truly an epoch of incredulity.
Today, one can hardly find a person without a smartphone in his or her pocket, a more or less fifteen centimeters long and less than a single centimeter thick machine that replaces tons of gadgets of the past. In many ways this seems much more incredulous, yet we have forgotten how to be infatuated.
The worst of all, it’s neither the spring for hope, or the winter. Quite recently, we’ve managed to bring the numbers of abject poverty under the 10% mark for the first time since we’ve left the caves, yet all we seem to worry about is income inequality and how the rich are getting richer. Encompassed by relative wealth, our vision is impaired. The Sun King, the longest reigning monarch in European history, rarely bathed and was blessed with a single bathroom in the reeking Versailles. As wealthy as the robber barons were, no man in his right mind, living in the advanced world today, would trade his life for theirs.
Just like we were supposed to run out of oil, the most important species on Earth, the bees, were about to die out, acid rains were to wipe out the waterways and the temperate forests, so will climate change in boiling the planet. Not to say that climate change is not real or important in any way, but we didn’t run out of oil, nor did the bees die or acid rains destroyed the waterways and the forests. However, in this age of wisdom, somehow, Julian Simon’s insight that the ultimate resource after all is the human mind has somehow slipped our minds. We ended up lacking the capacity for hope, feeding strictly on despair. Thus, we have everything before us and nothing before us, going directly to heaven and the other way at the same time.
There is much beauty in Dickens’ writing, but what caught my eye the most is his genuine humility, by only showing us what he sees as irredeemable features of society, without providing specific reforms, acknowledging the lack of expertise at his disposal. This way, he paves the way for those compatriots of his to ask of the politicians and civil society for the right solutions.
For many if not most, the COVID-19 crisis is going to be the most severe calamity, for which, overnight, pretty much everyone ‘became’ an epidemiologist and economist. It’s a far cry that we should only listen to the experts or rely on the benevolent politicians. But, just as the experts are fallible, so are we. The COVID-19 crisis will pass, and we’ll “become” experts knowing everything again, with the power to “fix society only if we had a magic wand at our possession.” In those times we should remember the timelessness of Dickens’ writing and learn from the decorum of his humility.