Overview:

We are not of one mind about all the important things in life because natural selection did not grant us this, but it might some day.

Reading Time: 2 minutes

It’s entirely possible that Shakespeare’s innumerable rhetorical gems popped into his head willy-nilly without bidding, and he jotted them down for later use. He might not have had any particular character in mind. Then, as needed, he consulted his notes and inserted soliloquies and speeches and insults and profundities and short lines into the mouths of hundreds of different characters.

Anyone who has read all thirty-seven of Shakespeare’s plays knows that his genius regularly placed profound words on the lips of major and minor characters. Even servants, pages, whores, tapsters, and buffoons need to be listened to in Shakespeare.

Consider this one sentence from a simple jailer in the play ‘Cymbeline’ (5.4.207):

“I would we were all of one mind, and one mind good.”

Think of the philosophy and the psychology and the sociology and the anthropology and the biology and the theology and the politics packed into these words:  ‘I would we were all of one mind, and one mind good.’ Think of the idealism embedded in this sentence. Think of the wish, think of the prayer, think of the hope this line embodies.

Let us restate it as, “I wish we all agreed on what The Good is.”

And yet our species is cursed with disagreement about every important aspect of human existence. We have never all agreed on what The Good is.

Why has natural selection not gifted all of us with the ability to recognize what The Good is in every human endeavor? And why instead has natural selection made us susceptible to error and therefore disposed to disagreement about what The Good is?

“I would we were all of one mind, and one mind good.”

Jailer, ‘Cymbeline,’ Act 5, scene 4, line 207

Why do we not all agree, after several thousand years of trying, what good government is, what good politics might be, what good morality might be? Why are we not all of one mind on all of this, and that one mind good?

Someone might answer that in eons past natural selection had no interest in providing the human brain with the ability to recognize metaphysical truths.

Rather, the human brain evolved to espy the crouching tiger, the hidden dragon, and the loping bear, so as to avoid their fanged and bloody vehemence. The human brain did not evolve to espy a lofty thing called The Good.

On the other hand, why shouldn’t natural selection—operating in the interest of our species’ success—lead us to easy agreement instead of habitual variance on things that directly affect the success and happiness of our species?

We could answer this by saying natural selection is still underway and human brains are still evolving. It may be that we humans are still in the early morning of our evolutionary progress. It may be that in 100,000 years or 300,000 years or one million years some version of humanity will be of one mind and that one mind good.

The fact that a genius 17th-century playwright could conjure this twelve-word cry of hope is a hint of things to come. Hope is an adumbration of human progress and a virtue oriented to the future. The future may be a far, far distant shore, but nonetheless reachable, nonetheless ours. We may yet evolve into a state of agreement about everything that really matters, everything that’s really important.

J. H. McKenna Ph.D. has taught the history of religious ideas since 1999 at the University of California, where he has won teaching awards. He has published in academic journals and also in popular venues...