Thursday, June 18, 2009

Potential

The letter of Jourdon Anderson to his former master prods me to write down the thoughts on potential that have bumped around in my brain for many years. I, like Ta-Nehisi Coates who provided the link, was so astonished by the letter that I found it slightly suspicious at first. Just too amazingly brilliant and subtle to be authored by some anonymous person lost in the sands of history. Of potential ghost writers, Mark Twain was the first to come to mind, but I could easily imagine this being written by Frederick Douglass, or Lincoln, or William Lloyd Garrison, or... But, of course it is genuine, and it is a stark reminder of something I already knew, but do not hold in my mind every day (but probably should).

Great swaths of human brilliance have always been, and still are, lost to us and our posterity by the scourges of poverty, oppression, disease, famine, and war. Is is not certain that somewhere a brilliant poet just died of malaria in the Sahel? Or that a great mathematician lived his or her whole life eking out a bare subsistence on a Chinese farm 500 years ago? Or that an astonishing musical prodigy died from a tooth infection in the Amazon last century?

How many of these people have lived and died, unnoticed and unrealized? How many Einsteins, Douglasses, Lincolns, Euclids, Baryshnikovs, Darwins, Beethovens, Leonardos, and Michelangelos have toiled away their lives in obscurity, scratching and clawing each day for their very survival?

On the one hand, the question is obviously rhetorical, an exercise, essentially, in metaphysical speculation. But in another sense, I think not. We know that, in fact, desperate poverty has been the default state for the great mass of humanity, for almost all of our history. It is only within the last few hundred years that our knowledge, our science, technology, and, crucially, our social and economic institutions, have combined to begin to change this, to alter that default state and to produce the mere possibility for people to achieve their potential. So, I would say the question can actually be answered, not with precision, but nevertheless with accuracy:

How many? Almost all of them.

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