Karel ČapekIn a 1925 essay titled Let’s Be Revolutionary (Bud’me revolucni in Czech), Karel Čapek wrote:

The word “evolution” seems, if I may say so, to imply very long periods of time, and amounts to procrastination. It may be true that a man must evolve from a child or an executive from a clerk, but this is only because the process takes so long. When a man wakes up in his bed in the morning, we don’t say that he has evolved from a state of sleep to a state of wakefulness; its a sudden change, and if you’re hard to wake up, even a violent upheaval. A hungry man doesn’t become a satiated man through a slow evolutionary process but as the result of a revolutionary act: eating his fill in a hurry. Sleep is not an evolutionary stage of wakefulness; going to sleep is almost like a jump into darkness. A young man who has fallen in love hasn’t evolved through countless leisurely changes from an imperfect creature into a perfect fool; rather, he goes through a sudden precipitous revolution which rocks his very being with passion…A thought doesn’t usually evolve slowly; it jumps at you like a spry flea. From morning to night, life is more a series of small revolutions than a smooth evolution.

But what modern physics is doing to us is even worse. It turns out that all activity in matter is just a lot of small revolutions. Some electron suddenly hops like a crazy man into another orbit; all material processes are supposed to internal, so to speak, communal revolutions in atoms. Everything that happens takes the form of a constant jumping back and forth from one state to another. Matter has neither gentle continuity nor smooth transitions, but only jumps; its really quite terrifying. The ink from my pen dries by means of violent and precipitous events taking place in its black interior. A hundred thousand atoms carry out a homemade revolt so that one letter can dry. The ink itself, however, dries and blackens slowly; I would say that it evolves.

And precisely here we see the strange and profound thing about nature: electrons may prance about, but an inkwell isn’t going to prance about a desk. The atom is terribly revolutionary, but the mass is basically peaceful. The last individual atom undergoes a violent transformation, but matter changes slowly. Human life during a day is a series of revolutions; during a year it is a small piece of evolution. But if we have to change the world, let’s at least be revolutionary like atoms; let’s each of us take a step forward by himself. The world won’t take a step forward; the world is broad and peaceful, like matter. We need millions of individuals to accomplish revolutions in themselves, so that people as a whole can evolve. We need every individual to do what he can do best; then mankind will change a bit too, at its endless leisure, of course. The natural order of things dictates not one revolution, but making a million revolutions. This is the only morality flowing from the revolutionary order of nature.

This quote is by no means a manifesto, a raison d’etre (pretentious phrase or pretentious beer) for this blog. It is more of an example of the type of passage I like: laced with awkward historical phrases, full of contentious concepts, rife with inconsistencies, yet containing a few glistening shards of truth. That said, this passage has been one of my favorites for a few years now, primarily for its fundamental argument–that no act is too small to be significant, that every act has the potential to be, in a sense, revolutionary, and that millions of revolutions on multiple geographic scales (atomic, self, neighbor, street, block, neighborhood, city, state, etc.) are necessary to achieve real change. Change comes from neither the “top, down” or from the “bottom, up.” It comes from all directions simultaneously.

That’s what I’ve been thinking, and I think that its about time that I started writing some of these things down…

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