I was half-listening to the vacuous baritones on National Public Radio a few nights ago (actually an episode of Radiolab) when this question jarred me awake: if, due to a cataclysm, all scientific knowledge was destroyed, and you could pass on only one sentence to whatever sentient beings follow humankind, what would it be?
Nobel physicist Richard Feynman asked that of his Introductory Physics class at CalTech in the 1960s. Because I was only half-awake, I didn’t hear the qualifying word scientific. Evidently neither did the show’s hosts. After sharing Feynman’s scientific answer, they asked a bunch of writers, musicians, and artists for their answers.
Just as well, because were I in that position — one that reminds me of Walter Miller’s sci-fi classic A Canticle for Leibowitz, which I must re-read — I wouldn’t convey a scientific message either. I would presume the cataclysm occurred from a lack of wisdom rather than a lack of knowledge, and seek to impart the missing wisdom in words unlikely to be misinterpreted.
I started my search for the ultimate sentence with the first spiritual guides of my adulthood, the Taoists Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu. But they reveled in the inadequacy of language, not least its susceptibility to misinterpretation, so were useless for the task. The Buddha was more straightforward. His “do good, avoid evil, purify the mind” admonition captures his creed in seven words. But what is good? What is evil? And what is purifying the mind? Too vague.
Turning to the western spiritual tradition, I thought of the Ten Commandments, but those contain lots of sentences, any one of which is too narrow to capture the universal wisdom I’d want to convey. Rabbi Hillel does better. Asked to teach a non-believer the Torah while the non-believer stood on one foot, Hillel said, “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow.” A generation later, Jesus rephrased “do not do unto others” by taking out the not, which to me can be interpreted as giving permission to harm others (“if I were a heathen and someone came to my village with the Gospels I’d sure want to be forcibly converted”).
The Hillel, though, is definitely a contender.
What about literary sources? There’s Shakespeare’s “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” from Midsummer Night’s Dream, but though true, and a good reminder to stay humble, it’s not prescriptive. Then there’s Kurt Vonnegut’s “live by the foma (harmless lies) that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy” from Cat’s Cradle, which is prescriptive and acknowledges our addiction to delusion, but how does one distinguish harmless from harmful foma?
Okay, what about sources from the social sciences? The historian Lord Acton warned that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Good one! But power is a factor in all relationships, so does that mean all relationships are corrupt? I think not, but perhaps that’s one of the foma I live by. There’s also economist Carlo Cipolla’s first law of stupidity, “always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation,” but I wouldn’t want to so thoroughly discourage the readers of my sentence.
Of course, I’m assuming the next sentient earthly species will share our faults, which may not be true. And I’ve failed to mention dozens, if not hundreds, of pithy sentences worthy of consideration. At the risk of further projecting my all-too-human failures on our successors, perhaps my sentence should be “you’re not as smart as you think you are.”
Or I could just send them a shopping list.