Found online: a transcription of the opening of the first magazine installment of what would subsequently become Foundation. Remember that “The Psychohistorians” was written for the 1951 book version, and that it is the second part of the book that was first published, as “Foundation,” in Astounding Science-Fiction for May 1942.
“And after you die, sir?”
“Why, there will be successors—perhaps even yourself. And these successors will be able to apply the final touch in the scheme and instigate the revolt on Anacreon at the right time and in the right manner. Thereafter, events may roll unheeded.” (Asimov 46)
In this passage, Seldon is explaining to Gaal that he has been offered exile on another world. Gaal wants to know what will become of Seldon’s mission once he is gone. The way that I interpreted this passage was that Seldon is not taking responsibility for the future. This will fall on the future generations who will have to execute the real efforts of his plans with the Encyclopedia Galactica. This is an important observation Asimov makes of the way history is shaped. What Seldon devises could turn the 30,000 years of dark-ages into a fraction of the time, but he will not live long enough to see any of this come to fruition. His prediction of the fall of the empire isn’t for another 300 years, and in this world, prolonged/eternal life is not a possibility. So in order for his plans to work, it must be the future generations that carry it on. This is something that can be seen throughout our own history. The example that comes easiest to me is the birth of the United States. After becoming an independent nation, our forefathers could only lay the groundwork for the hundreds of years to come after, with the Constitution. It has been the duty of many who came after to work towards the long-term values they sought.
“Psychohistory-… Gaal Dornick, using nonmathematical concepts, has defined psychohistory to be that branch of mathematics which deals with the reactions of human conglomerates to fixed social and economic stimuli… / …Implicit in all these definitions is the assumption that the human conglomerate being dealt with is sufficiently large for valid statistical treatment. The necessary size of such a conglomerate may be determined by Seldon’s First Theorem which…A further necessary assumption is that the human conglomerate itself be unaware of psycho-historic analysis in order that its reactions be truly random… / The basis of all valid psychohistory lies in the development of the Seldon functions which exhibit properties congruent to those of such social and economic forces as…” (ENCYCLOPEDIA GALACTICA, 19.)
Hidden in the quasi-academic jargon of this passage is what I think Asimov wants the central dilemma of “Foundation” to be: Fate versus Chance in history. The concept of psycho-history relies on the future of the Foundation, the Empire, and the galaxy being traceable to a set series of circumstances. Once innovation and cooperation stop being a priority, stagnation leads to an eventual Fall and collapse into barbarism. This is an outcome too far-along to stop, but the effects can be improved as long as all parties wind up in the right place at the right time. You can argue that the importance of any personal ambition falls away over thousands of years. In a kind of meta-awareness on page 89, Hardin says, “…we’ve been stumbling about, getting misty glimpses of the truth, and no more. And that is what Hari Seldon wanted.” Hari Seldon and the psychohistorians needed to keep the most-likely disasters of history secret, or else ambitious people in positions of power would eventually use these spoilers in their destructive self-interest. History, in this sense, is a series of actions driven by mob-mentality and actors that technically have the power to choose their society’s fate, if not the full awareness of how they’re doing it. There is always a chance of humanity failing to keep civilization going, but psychohistory banks on minimizing the likelihood that this happens. I think Asimov’s narrative is set up to convince us that nothing is ‘Fated’, but events can occasionally be up to 99.9/100 percent (un)likely. The continuing spirit of cooperation and innovation is the best bet to improve history regardless – at least for as long as the whole messy shebang lasts.
“To that end we have placed you on such a planet at such a time that in fifty years you were maneuvered to the point where you no longer have freedom of action. From now on, and into the centuries, the path you must take is inevitable. You will be faced with a series of crises, as you are now faced with the first, and in each case your freedom of action will be forced along one, and only one, path” (Asimov 94).
“And after the Fall will come inevitable barbarism, a period which, our psyhohistory tells us, should, under ordinary circumstances, last for thirty thousand years. …we can shorten the period of barbarism that must follow- down to a single thousand years” (Asimov 95).
After his apparent appearance in The Vault, the great psychohistoricist Hari Seldon enlightens Hardin and his fellow leaders on Terminus of the nature of their condition and the destiny they are bound for. The very notion of psychohistory alludes to the idea of history being something that is not only “readable”- but predictable. Seldon, though arguable one of a kind in his mental acumen, is able to read the future and those destined for it’s nature and arrange everything in such a way that it aligns perfectly with what he projects (and is always correct) will take place. The future, with it’s insurmountable complexities, is a history in and of itself: it follows patterns, is able to be studied, and it’s contents, though uniquely so, are fixed.
Though this “freedom of action” is arrested, Seldon binds their destiny to be “forced along one, and only one, path”, suggesting that history is fixed. But however fixed it is, I find the second quote to be illuminating in that though events themselves are fixed, the process in which, or perhaps the nature of these events, is less defined. This suggests a very interesting way of thinking about the future, at least in the context of Foundation. One cannot change the future, just as one cannot change the past. The importance lies not in what happens- but how it happens, which seems to be Seldon’s claim for why he’s lead them to the place that they are. That even though the events of the future are unchangeable, how we come to those events and what we do with them matter far more.