Does humanity have a purpose?

The long shadow of the Holocaust.
  • Transcript


Question: Does humanity have a purpose?

John Harbison: Well if you ask that question, you know, at the end of the 19th Century, I think everyone would have said yes. Of course we’re doing better. We don’t have slavery. We seem to be behaving more tolerantly and so forth. But then there was the Holocaust. And I think the real legacy of the Holocaust is that we can no longer think of a trajectory . . . you know, toward an enlightenment trajectory. Because of course the way I have to read the Holocaust is that the country from which I have, perhaps, the most artistic respect . . . because Bach essentially raised me as a musician . . . this extraordinarily developed country was at the heart of this utter calamity, and probably the most culturally sophisticated development that we’ve ever achieved. And also the country which had achieved the most sophisticated integration of various racial and national types. There was no country in Europe, for instance, in which Jewish people were more accepted in high stations and important professions. And then you had the camps. So I would say finding the overarching purpose, or if we were to take that to mean as it so often does, some development in the positive way about human nature, I think it’s very, very, tenuous and hard to believe. I think one has to believe much more in individual kindness, and daily decency, and much less grand ideas.

Recorded On: 6/12/07