Meaning in a Time of Progress

This essay was shortlisted for the New Philosopher Essay Prize

Imagine if God was a manager (and if you don’t believe in God, imagine also that one exists). You are called into God’s office to give a progress report on your life thus far. Supplying progress reports is standard practice in many business environments: why not in life as well? What would you say? How would you give an account? What counts as progress?

In 1923, pre-eminent author G.K. Chesterton expressed his vexations with the very idea of progress. He wrote: “I have long ceased to argue with people who prefer Thursday to Wednesday simply because it is Thursday.” Would Chesterton, a devoutly faithful man, have promptly left God’s office and began typing his letter of resignation?

The tongue-in-cheek question is important because progress is one of the most central concepts in our understanding of our lives as moral, social, and political beings. However, as Chesterton’s remarks show, progress for its own sake – what is sometimes called ‘the cult of progress’ – is banal, meaningless, and dull.

We have to talk about progress because it – at least in a certain form – is completely inevitable. Human beings cannot but progress. Aristotle described all things – human beings among them – as possessing a telos – an end – to which all they were naturally oriented, and progressed toward. The good life is defined, Aristotle tells us, by our progress toward our end, which he describes in the untranslatable term eudaimonia.

Progress moves us toward clearly-defined ends. Ultimately, it moves us toward our own flourishing, which is part of the reason we exist (but, as we’ll come to see, only part).

However, this is not the type of progress that warranted Chesterton’s ire: earlier in his life, when he maintained his “antagonism” toward progress, he wrote that “progress should mean that we are always changing the world to fit the vision.” “Instead,” he lamented “we are always changing the vision.”

What does this mean? Progress consists in three things: an understanding of the goal to be achieved, actions to achieve the goal, and the goal itself. Chesterton suggested that oftentimes the understanding of the goal (vision) is lacking, or constantly changing, making progress little more than unproductive change.

When we think of much of our activity today, it seems like our society may not have progressed far beyond Chesterton’s descriptions of the early 20th century. Ever-increasing consumerism has led many to define themselves in part by the things they own, but the market is a demanding god, and constantly offers new siren songs to tempt people as they navigate the market of their lives. Led to believe that the goal is the possession of things, progress becomes debased from a permanent vision of the good. It becomes obsessive, unrelenting consumption.

Progress possesses no basic moral value. Progress for its own sake is inane. What is newer appears better thanks to slick marketing and our natural propensity to seek short-term gratification, but when closely inspected, “newness” – advancement for its own sake – reveals itself to be entirely vapid. This notion of progress toward ever shifting goals – endless progress – is not progress at all. It’s just change.

“A change is as good as a holiday,” we’re told. But why? A holiday brings peace of mind, reflection on one’s self and things of value. This kind of change (the change of the new) by contrast, is mere distraction; precisely the type of “progress” that Chesterton took aim at.

When there is no attainable end to progress, the endeavour loses its meaning. Albert Camus’ Sisyphus, pushing a boulder up and down a hill for all eternity, is the paradigmatic example of purposeless activity. He literally cannot make progress, and his labours have no end. Sisyphus’ progress report will be very brief. Is the cycle of the market any different? Unless we can break the spell that consumerism has cast over our ideas of progress, we become Sisyphus.

There is hope to this story though. Camus insists that Sisyphus – despite being eternally unprogressive – lives a life of meaning. The meaning is in the struggle itself: in the experience. Camus tells us that “the struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Sisyphus can be happy because he knows that there is nothing to be achieved by what he does. He stops looking for purpose outside of the activity itself, and is able to focus on the experience of pushing the stone, of rest as it rolls down the hill. Sisyphus is aware of the experience itself, for its own sake. This is where his life’s meaning lies.

For us, the dearth of meaning promised by “progress as newness” is less obvious, and so we are to keep looking past our boulders in the hope of some meaningful end. This end is possible, but only by rejecting the linear model of time and progress that we’ve adopted.

The Ancient Greeks had two words for time: chronos – linear, boring, moment-to-moment time (physical time); and kairos – the invasion of transcendent reality into our earthly experience (spiritual, or transcendent time). Kairos is non-linear: we cannot progress toward it, we can just experience it. Kairos is what Sisyphus experiences when he stops looking for meaning – it is time out of time – a shift away from the pettiness of means-ends activity, and a revelling in a moment for its own sake.

What we are seeking are kairotic ruptures from the everydayness of our experience of time as physical.

Economic activity is chronological. So is most political activity. Indeed, these two forces are probably where we begin to view the world as chronological because they are aimed directly at a certain telos (goal).

There is certainly a place for teleological thinking. Chesterton believed that “progress should mean always changing the world to fit [our] vision” – our goal. We cannot make actual progress unless we have goals in mind. Sisyphus, unable to progress, can find meaning and happiness, but without the capacity to develop and achieve, he cannot live a eudaimon life. That privilege is reserved for us.

At the same time though, we need to remember that progress cannot be our soul measure of value. Speaking of politics, philosopher Michael Oakeshott expressed concern for teleocratic thinking; that is, political thinking characterised by the unification of individual efforts toward a singular, substantive goal: “national interest.”

This is not just about basic consumerism, but about the myth of the self-as-project. There is a risk in measuring our lives teleocratically: in the achievement of a particular state of affairs. If our goal is to be successful, happy, or virtuous, our activities must progress toward that-which-we-are-not-yet. In aiming to create ourselves according to the image we have chosen, we miss the experiences of becoming who we are progressing toward. We close ourselves off from rupturous experiences in which we can enjoy activities for their own sake, and ourselves as ourselves.

Self-development is good: it’s essential to living a life of virtue. At many times we need to act in conformance with the model set by our imagined, ideal self. But at other times we need to set that project aside. Return to your image of God and your progress report. I would think that any God worth the name would be interested not only in how good a person you had become, but in your involvement in activities that nourished, asserted, and reflected you as you are. “I would only believe,” Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed “in a God that knows how to dance.” He would only believe in a God, that is, who was open to kairotic ruptures, to creativity, and to relishing in those experiences that bring life to life.

“When men have come to the edge of a precipice,” Chesterton tells us, “it is the lover of life who has the spirit to leap backwards, and only the pessimist who continues to believe in progress.” Progressing toward our ideal, virtuous selves can be a tough ride and might lead us to thinking of ourselves only as chronological entities. It is necessary to become inured from chronos because eudaimonia, for Aristotle, is not a state that we achieve, but an activity – a mode of living. The eudaimon life is one of self-experience and of the experience of becoming.

When God and Sisyphus sit down for a progress report (God, it seems, would be a progress report kind of manager – to a degree), Sisyphus might scrape a pass. Although he cannot progress toward complete eudaimonia, the great humility and determination his labours had cultivated in him would warrant some praise. More importantly though, I’d wager God would also be interested in how deeply Sisyphus had relished on those moments of bliss as he walked down the hill to push the boulder once again. A God who knew how to dance would be satisfied by that.

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