Big Idea:
Angels and Idiots


Here’s a notion that I should like to see laid to rest, interred with the bones of the Dubyas: that human beings are what the Vegan posing as Ellie Arroway’s Dad, in Contact, calls “an interesting mix.” Capable of both great good and great wickedness, yadda yadda yadda. This is nothing but the tired old Great Chain of Being idea: that men and women, uniquely among sublunary creatures, possess quintessential souls, partaking of the divine ether — but that they also, as mortal beings, are corruptly composed of clay and dust. Get it? If we were all quintessence, we’d be good all the time, but thanks to our quintessential souls, we’re not bad all the time. We’re what Plato and Aristotle never dreamed of being cool enough to call “an interesting mix.” Even though they thought it.

(If none of this chatter makes any sense to you, congratulate yourself: you’re as yet uncorrupted!)

The idea that we’re both as noble as angels and as base as tarantulas — an insult to tarantulas — persists. And why not, as long as we recognize that the conceit is altogether human. We’re the ones who have decided that we’re an admixture of spirits and beasts. It’s our way of saying that we’re good, we’re bad, and we can’t help it.

Maybe we can’t help it, but we can stop thinking of ourselves as “an interesting mix.” In fact, there are no angels on hand to make us look stupid, and no animals capable of acknowledging, in so many words, our superiority. Let’s just give it up and accept our uncomplicated starkness, as the smartest things that this little planet of ours has to offer. And let’s just try to live up to that.

One Response to “Big Idea:
Angels and Idiots”

  1. LTG says:

    Great post and so true. I just feel the need to point out that the ‘interesting mix’ speech was not part of Sagan’s original book – but a Hollywood embellishment which, like most Hollywood embellishments, would have been better left out. An insult to tarantulas, indeed.