Yesterday was the forty-eighth anniversary of Pacem in Terris, Pope John XXIII’s important encyclical on world peace and justice; today is the fiftieth anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s space-flight. Half a century ago we worrying about a nuclear conflict between the west and the Soviet Union but we had great faith in the ability of science to help create a better world. We still believed in progress. Today we are worrying about nuclear leaks from Fukushima and watching the violence in Africa and the Middle East with an uneasy sense that maybe, just maybe, climate change and the pressure on natural resources may prove to be even more damaging to human life and happiness. We are not sure what we believe any more, are we?
I am tempted to say that I suspect it has always been so, that every generation has its own fears and dark terrors that may look a little exaggerated to the next. The twentieth century should have brought peace and prosperity to more people than ever before in history. It didn’t; it brought war and death and deprivation on a scale previously unknown. I am sceptical about the way in which we recall some events, the way we pile up anniversary on anniversary without necessarily distinguishing between them. ‘Those who do not learn the lessons of history are fated to repeat them.’ Perhaps. Sometimes I wonder whether the trouble is that we are too busy marking and partying in the name of celebration to do the learning.