Europe in Search of Europeans   /   Spring 2014   /    Notes And Comments

Against Mastery

Wilfred M. McClay

Prometheus Bound and the Oceanids, photo by Wim Hoppenbrouwers; flickr.

Do we imagine that complete control over our biological fates will necessarily make us happier?

It is now exactly a century since the brilliant young journalist Walter Lippmann published a book titled Drift and Mastery, a signal work of the Progressive era. The same year, 1914, saw the founding, by Lippmann and others, of a magazine called The New Republic, to be a flagship of liberal and progressive thought. The book and the magazine expressed a self-confident Progressive ideal: the longstanding infirmities of the human condition were now within the power of human agency to alter, and the march of scientific knowledge, including knowledge about the reordering of human society, was granting us an ever-expanding ability to control our circumstances. The alternative to this optimistic vision of mastery guided by science and social intelligence was not liberty, or spontaneous order, but…drift. And who could be in favor of something as amorphous and passive as drift?

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