- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 13, 2003


By Gregg Easterbrook

Random House, $24.95, 400 pages


Not so many centuries ago, the wits and wags of Europe, and their aristocratic patrons, played a mind game. Sometimes they called it “The War of the Ancients and Moderns,” and sometimes “The Battle of the Books” (although the two were far from identical). By whatever name, it centered on a simple yet potentially humiliating question.

Who were the better people — us or them?

The fashionable answer: We may be pygmies, but we’re standing on the shoulders of giants.

By such evasions did intellectual Europe of the pre-Enlightenment era acknowledge its inferiority to the great minds and spirits of antiquity, while simultaneously proclaiming its potential. But it would not be many decades more before a new word entered the lexicon: a word that, for a couple of centuries, convinced the pygmies that they could do without the giants.


Prior to the 18th century, the word had little meaning. Life was repetitive, at best. There might be wars and rumors of wars, feast and famine, epidemics and earthquakes, dynasties contending, arrivistes spending, occasional new gizmos and faiths. But the world you were born into was, pretty much, the world you would die in.

Then Europe began to notice that the times they were a-changin’ and conceived that the future might be radically different from the past. In 1776, the year all that Novus Ordo Saeclorum stuff got going in America, the world’s first science-fiction book, “L’annee 2000,” appeared in Paris. Its speculations on what the world might be like in what later came to be known as Y2K weren’t particularly prescient. But errant prophecy mattered less than the fact that such prophecy was now conceivable, marketable and optimistic.

The Industrial Revolution and the scientific knowledge explosion turned Progress — the belief that things were getting better, and would continue to do so — into a secular theology of sorts. And at the heart of this theology was the notion that material and scientific progress, and the elimination of poverty and ignorance, would inevitably improve and perhaps even perfect human nature. All would be happy.

And the pygmies could laugh at the giants.

Not everyone bought it, of course. Mary Shelley didn’t. Nietzsche warned us. So did Freud. And if nothing else, the 20th century demonstrated that material and scientific advance could serve murderous evil as well as liberal good. And now we post-postmoderns face what Gregg Easterbrook calls “The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse.”

I mention all this history because Mr. Easterbrook, a journalist by training and a good one, is utterly unaware of it. This is the author’s choice. His book is about us, and us only, and about our “feelings,” not the human potential for perfection. And while it is wrong to fault an author for not doing what he never intended to do — in this case, write history — historical context matters. For it helps explain why this book, although well-crafted, intelligent and intriguing, misses the larger story.

Mr. Easterbrook, a man blessed with three day jobs (at the New Republic, the Atlantic Monthly and the Brookings Institution) begins with a pair of simple facts. Even the poorest among us live better and longer lives than the vast majority of the human race, ever. And by nearly all objective standards, things are getting better. To prove this, he offers an array of statistics on everything from boat ownership to divorce rates.

The cumulative impact of all this good news resembles the experience of listening to a forest full of chirping birds. Benign and pleasant enough at first, but after a few minutes, grating. Then, well, just imagine a flock of chirping statistics you can’t get away from. However, with one or two minor exceptions, there’s no need to question them. Certainly, in toto, they bear out Mr. Easterbrook’s contention that material progress is both real and, on the whole, accelerating.

So why aren’t we happy?

Mr. Easterbrook rounds up the usual suspects. We’re not happy because we’re stressed out. We’re not happy because we’re afraid it might end: economic or ecological collapse, terrorism and all that. We’re not happy because we’ve bought into the Cult of the Victim. We’re not happy because there’s always something more to covet, or because we’ve already got everything we want.

Alexander wept because he had no more worlds to conquer; we moan that there’s nothing we want to buy. We’re not happy because, in the way of the world, solving one problem simply creates another. Why are old people screaming over the high cost of prescription drugs? Because they’re alive to do so.

We’re not happy because our elites and our media specialize in bad news, and daily bring us our ration of planetary woe. But most of all, we’re not happy because …

Life Lacks Meaning.

Now Mr. Easterbrook shifts from cumulator of statistics to physician of the soul. He points out, correctly, that our world doesn’t exactly care whether you’re happy or not. All the economy expects you to do is consume, and toward that end, prefers you to be discontented. The government may or may not assist you in your pursuit of happiness, but neither defines nor guarantees it for you.

Religion’s available for those who want it, but no longer compels. And America’s de facto official religion, psychology, has for the past century concentrated almost entirely on the pathological. Ever since Freud, we’ve all been sick. The most we can hope for is to shed our neuroses and dysfunctions in favor of “ordinary unhappiness.”

So what’s a pursuer of happiness to do?

Mr. Easterbrook advises us to start by junking the “Life Has No Meaning” evasion, then get busy finding — or creating — meanings adequate for happiness. How? Try positive psychology. Try making the world a better place. Try living “decent and honorable lives.” There’s a new interest in “spirituality” out there, he avows, even if the intellectuals don’t get it yet. Go Spiritual, America. But always remember: “Attaining happiness is hard work.”

At one level, pure pap, superficial and treacly. At another, trendy moneymaking cliche; just ask Dr. Phil or Dr. Laura. But at another, far more complex level — exactly what the ancients were trying to tell us.

To the ancients, especially the Stoics, the only thing a human being could properly call his or her own was will — a word to them more akin to “spirit” and “master faculty” than to dragging yourself to the health club. All else, from body to universe, was “indifferent.” But some indifferents are preferable to others, and in one form or another, you’re part of the universe forever.

Now go make your way, dealing with what comes to hand, letting your deeds and your needs be few, keeping your spirit inviolate. Hard work, indeed. But do that much and, blaming no one for your failures, you will think well of yourself, and be content. And you will find your share of eudaimonia, the Greek word for happiness.

Literally, “a good god within.”

So what have we here? A Beltway intellectual, writing to and for a nation starving to death in the supermarket of materialism and superficiality, rediscovering on his own (a few stray quotes from Aristotle notwithstanding), what the giants were trying to tell the pygmies. Happiness is about the will to integrity and connection. Meaning is what you and the universe make it. And whatever else life may be, it is not absurd.

We may or may not, nowadays, be pygmies standing on the shoulders of giants. But we sure could use a few giants, standing on the shoulders of our pygmies. “The Progress Paradox” will never attain the stature of those two great manuals for aspiring giants: Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations” and the “Enchiridion” of Epictetus.

But at least it tells the pygmies, in language they can understand, how to start.

Philip Gold is president of Aretea, a Seattle-based public and cultural affairs center and author of “Take Back the Right” (Spring 2004, Avalon).

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