How do we know what qualities make for a good year. We may read various books or watch motives that point out a good year of wine and a good year in the life of someone that finds them success in their personal business and happiness in love and relationships. It is easy enough to see what makes a good year for individuals. How does one do so when it comes to larger groups of people, and perhaps even all of humanity in a given region or around the world? Being a somewhat dark person by nature, though, I would like to tackle this particular subject in a typically indirect way, via a thought experiment. Sometimes we can best determine a good year by examining its opposite. When we see what qualities make for bad years, we can better understand some of the reasons why their opposite makes for good years. Let us therefore begin.
Recently, I have read a slate of books that talk about particularly bad years. One book looked at 1942 as being a particular dark year in American history because of the gloominess and early defeats that marked the American entry into World War II, where Nazi Germany continued its invasion of the Soviet Union and destroyed many ships in the Atlantic and where the Japanese advanced in the Pacific. Another book looked at the darkness of the beginning of the Great Depression as people found their investments wiped out and the rise of joblessness not only in the United States but across many countries within the world. And the other book looked at 1816 as the darkest year, given the climate effects that followed a volcanic explosion off the coast of Indonesia that killed many people there, spread ash across a large distance, and caused world temperatures to drop several degrees for years, making 1816 a year without a summer, with catastrophic consequences for peasants around the world, whose crops were ruined in many areas, leading to massive food insecurity in many parts of the world.
To be sure, these are not the only years that could be viewed as the darkest years of human history. Nevertheless, they at least point to the sorts of things that make years bad. Military defeat, climate change (even that caused by volcanoes that we can do nothing about and are not in any way responsible for), disease, and economic distress are all things that make years bad. Indeed, we may think of the qualities that make years bad for people all around the world can be summed up in the four horsemen of the apocalypse, found in Revelation 6:1-8: “Now I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals; and I heard one of the four living creatures saying with a voice like thunder, “Come and see.” And I looked, and behold, a white horse. He who sat on it had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer. When He opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature saying, “Come and see.” Another horse, fiery red, went out. And it was granted to the one who sat on it to take peace from the earth, and that people should kill one another; and there was given to him a great sword. When He opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come and see.” So I looked, and behold, a black horse, and he who sat on it had a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard a voice in the midst of the four living creatures saying, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius; and do not harm the oil and the wine.” When He opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature saying, “Come and see.” So I looked, and behold, a pale horse. And the name of him who sat on it was Death, and Hades followed with him. And power was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, with hunger, with death, and by the beasts of the earth.” Bad government, warfare, scarcity, and plague are all qualities that make for the worst years of human history and the misery and suffering of many millions.
We may therefore think of good years as resulting from the opposite of this. When we are ruled by good government and our leaders enact wise policies that lead to the well-being of the general population rather than crony capitalism and policies that drive wealth and prosperity out of countries, the people can rejoice because they are living good lives. When we have peace rather than war, people can turn their creative energies towards that which benefits themselves and others rather than seeking to create that which will kill and destroy others and their property and their livelihoods. Similarly, when we have plenty and abundance the prices of food and other necessities are low and people have more than enough to eat and can focus their attention on that which brings pleasure and enjoyment rather than having to grimly struggle for enough merely to survive. Likewise, the widespread presence of good health and the absence of plagues and diseases tends to make for good years. Most of this makes sense, in that good government, peace and prosperity, and good health in our physical bodies and communities and families and other institutions tends to make for a better and more enjoyable life, just as their absence tends to lead to a great deal of suffering and privation.
How then do we have these things? If our well-being depends to some extent on external circumstances, as it does, how do those circumstances work in our favor? How is it that we have good government? How is it that we have plenty of food and a reasonable amount of economic security and good health and peace? All of these things require a great deal of effort. Good leaders must not only be virtuous but also wise, discerning in knowing what plans and policies to adopt and which to reject, not only being interested in the well-being of the people that they lead and serve but also competent in doing that which brings about the well-being they seek. Prosperity depends not only on our own efforts–working hard enough and smart enough to succeed, through trade and creativity and productivity in ways that not only work out well for ourselves but other people around us as well whom we deal with. Peace depends on goodwill and trust that is built up through honest and kind communication and behavior that demonstrates integrity and goodness that leads and encourages other people to respond in kind. Likewise, the avoidance of plagues and illness depends on obedience to God’s laws across a society, and the avoidance of foods and behaviors that bring suffering and misery upon us and the cultivation of habits such as cleanliness not only among ourselves but among those who provide us with the food that we eat.
These are all complex and interrelated things. And there are many ways in which these areas can go dreadfully and catastrophically wrong. We may think only of our own pleasure and our own convenience and act in ways that make others more vulnerable because of our neglect and carelessness. We may rely on our good intentions to see us through when we lack the competence and understanding to do that which is wise and proper, or we may think ourselves wise enough and competent enough to disregard rules and safeguards that are meant to protect us and other people from ourselves. Just as there are many cases where humanity suffers because of what others do, even above and beyond that misery which humanity brings upon itself, so too the well-being of humanity requires that people on a widespread level think and act beyond their own narrow interests to act in ways that are virtuous and generous and beneficial to others. Just as externalities wherein people seek to outsource the negative consequences and repercussions of their actions bring undeserved suffering to others, so too the well-being and prosperity of the world depends on positive external benefits springing from our behavior, and so too in order to be blessed we require the beneficent actions of God, governmental and other institutional leaders, as well as other people. Where then can such wisdom and such philanthropy be found in an age as cynical and wicked as our own?