You may know the story of the Tower of Babel. A whole generation of people, those who have grown up after a world-devastating flood, conspire together to build a sky-tower like none ever seen before and are punished and dispersed across the world for their hubris and arrogance.
Our hubris, problematic? Yes, when it dislocates us from the rich biological and social world of which we are an indivisible part, when we over-extend ourselves in pursuit of our wants with no heed to the consequence and impact.
But the story itself is problematic if taken as a caution against human boldness and creativity, because these are the very qualities we most need in order to bring about a world in which we can all live.
It is our capacity to imagine, to invent, and then to act in cooperation with others that have brought about medical, technological, social and political advances that have transformed the quality of life for billions. Confidence in our ability, acted upon with due consideration of the wider world, is no compromise of our humanity but a dignified and important expression of it.
In an imaginative retelling from the 1st century work of Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, there are no stones available to build the tower, and so thousands of people are marshalled to bake bricks until the construction is some miles high. Those with new bricks climb the tower on the eastern side, and those who descend go down on the western side.
Sometimes a person climbing up or down falls. When a person drops to their death, nobody notices. But when a person falls with a brick the workers sit down and weep, not for the life lost but because they do not know when another brick will come in its place.
In this interpretation the compromise to our humanity comes not through building itself, but through the way in which we build. Or, said another way, our projects can bring about great changes in the material world at the same time as they bring about great changes in our social and inner worlds. We are inevitably shaped both by what we do and by the manner in which we do it.
The danger here is not that we hope and dream and build and make and create. The danger that Eliezer is so keen to point out to us is that we easily do so without paying sufficient attention to the kind of people we are becoming through the doing. We become means-to-an-end, objects, ‘it’ instead of ‘I’, ‘it’ instead of ‘you’.
In this reading the story of Babel is a reminder of our endless capacity to forget ourselves and others as human beings even as we pursue our most human of goals.