In Modernizing "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," how does Dickens's quote apply to the real world today?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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While it might be cliched, the opening to A Tale of Two Cities is timeless. In order to mode apply this opening to the modern setting, we have to consider the entire opening:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way--

Dickens's opens his work with a vision in which the pitch of human prosperity is matched with the reality of human despair.  It is interesting to modernize Dickens's opening in light of the accumulation of wealth and the income inequality that is its complement.  In his recent work, Capital in the 21st Century, Thomas Pikkety argues that capitalism creates a reality where one views reality in the dichotomy that Dickens outlines:

And then I started to look at other countries and I saw a pattern beginning to emerge, which is that capital, and the money that it produces, accumulates faster than growth in capital societies. And this pattern, which we last saw in the 19th century, has become even more predominant since the 1980s when controls on capital were lifted in many rich countries.

Pikkety's point is that the "best of times" that seems to be intrinsic to the perception of capitalism has to be set against the reality that capitalism constructs a reality for many that constitutes "the worst of times:"

When the rate of return on capital exceeds the rate of growth of output and income, as it did in the nineteenth century and seems quite likely to do again in the twenty-first, capitalism automatically generates arbitrary and unsustainable inequalities that radically undermine the meritocratic values on which democratic societies are based. 

Pikkety's recalling Dickens's 19th Century reality makes the modern application even more relevant.

Wealth accumulation and wealth inequality have constructed a modern vision of Dickens's opening idea in A Tale of Two Cities.  The "age of wisdom" in which globalization and economic growth have developed is matched by "an age of foolishness."  This reality is seen in the economic struggles that individuals endure and the growing condition of worldwide poverty, despite economic growth.  The "season of hope" is what inspires the capitalism vision, something that thinkers like Pikkelty suggest result in "a winter of despair."  As capitalism and economic growth take hold, it brings more heartache and suffering to more people.  Issues of wealth inequality have demonstrated that there are more people who face economic hardship under capitalism than those who benefit from it.  The hopes of those who believe that wealth accumulation moves them towards a happiness that parallels "Heaven" is confronted by the reality of those who are moving "the other way."  Given how Dickens himself was attune to the impact that material conditions have on individual happiness, it makes sense that a modern application of Dickens's world would focus on wealth inequality in the globalized world.

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