Notes from the Underground, Chapter VIII:
In short, one may say anything about the history of the world—anything that might enter the most disordered imagination. The only thing one can't say is that it's rational. The very word sticks in one's throat. . . .
Now I ask you: what can be expected of man since he is a being endowed with strange qualities?
Shower upon him every earthly blessing, drown him in a sea of happiness, so that nothing but bubbles of bliss can be seen on the surface; give him economic prosperity, such that he should have nothing else to do but sleep, eat cakes and busy himself with the continuation of his species, and even then out of sheer ingratitude, sheer spite, man would play you some nasty trick. He would even risk his cakes and would deliberately desire the most fatal rubbish, the most uneconomical absurdity, simply to introduce into all this positive good sense his fatal fantastic element. It is just his fantastic dreams, his vulgar folly that he will desire to retain, simply in order to prove to himself--as though that were so necessary-- that men still are men and not the keys of a piano, which the laws of nature threaten to control so completely that soon one will be able to desire nothing but by the calendar.
And that is not all: even if man really were nothing but a piano-key, even if this were proved to him by natural science and mathematics, even then he would not become reasonable, but would purposely do something perverse out of simple ingratitude, simply to gain his point. And if he does not find means he will contrive destruction and chaos, will contrive sufferings of all sorts, only to gain his point! He will launch a curse upon the world, and as only man can curse (it is his privilege, the primary distinction between him and other animals), may be by his curse alone he will attain his object--that is, convince himself that he is a man and not a piano-key! If you say that all this, too, can be calculated and tabulated--chaos and darkness and curses, so that the mere possibility of calculating it all beforehand would stop it all, and reason would reassert itself, then man would purposely go mad in order to be rid of reason and gain his point! I believe in it, I answer for it, for the whole work of man really seems to consist in nothing but proving to himself every minute that he is a man and not a piano-key! It may be at the cost of his skin, it may be by cannibalism! And this being so, can one help being tempted to rejoice that it has not yet come off, and that desire still depends on something we don't know?
Ever since modernity opened up the prospect of a world without want, people have been asking what such a world would be like. A great many of them have agreed with Dostoyevsky: that we would blow up the whole thing rather than let social engineers contrive our happiness.
I am not sure how true that is, but it is certainly true in part. Our relationship to peace and prosperity is complicated and sometimes perverse.
If you consider science fiction, you find that the optimistic kind is mostly about exploration: sailing between stars, these authors suggest, we will find wonders and horrors enough to keep us from blowing our civilization to pieces. Staying on earth with replicators and holodecks is too awful to contemplate.
You might consider Asimov's Foundation series a response to this passage; what if our learning were so great that we could really predict our future? That we could even predict when we would rebel against the predictions and try to overthrow them? Because we absolutely would.
One reason I sometimes find my fellow human baffling is that I believe, very deeply, that we are not capable of perfection. I hope for a better world; I believe in working for a better world. But I find the idea of perfection both impossible and intolerable. Whenever anyone says something like G.W. Bush's "we will rid the world of evil" or a call to "eliminate sexism" I shudder. But "Let's strive to keep our problems within reasonable bounds" doesn't make much of a battle cry.
I have an acquaintance who is a revolutionary socialist. He seems, so far as I can tell, to be a mostly reasonable person. He has acknowledged, in response to my prodding, that past revolutions have at best achieved modest gains in welfare at very high cost. He admits that many revolutions have made the world worse. And yet he continues to believe we must have another, because he finds the current state of the world intolerable. He finds it unbearable that anyone goes hungry in a world with billionaires, that any woman anywhere is kept from her dreams by male oppression, that any child is abused, that any species be driven to extinction. Since our current system cannot fix these problems, we must have a revolution, and if that fails we must keep having them until the suffering is over.
Talking to him makes me feel callous and cruel. What is my excuse for not being constantly angry about the state of the world, for not devoting my every waking moment to improving it? But I have to admit that I do not find the dream of utopia appealing at any level. Even if we could achieve it, which I do not believe we could, we would just blow it up and start over again, because struggling is what we do.