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Director

I often wonder, dear reader, if you are the type of person who thinks that turtles go ashore and lay their eggs or that turtles go ashore to lay their eggs.

As I may have mentioned to you before, it’s all a question of perspective.  And whatever you think is the case will be the very thing that is creating the world you inhabit.  To paraphrase Hamlet, it’s the thinking that makes it so.

We are often occupied, chez Tiffin with ideas of setting targets and achieving goals.  Or even setting targets to achieve goals.  And maybe we are preoccupied most with the idea of ‘making progress’.

As I write these words on Polling Day, I am mindful of the regulations that mean I must not be producing content which could be taken as an attempt to influence the outcome of today’s voting.  So rest assured that these paltry words are not meant to sway your political leanings.  But I do think I might talk about targets, goals and progress.

Aristotle believed the deepest cause for things must not be looked for in the beginning of those things but in their end.  This he referred to as their telos.  In other words, their purpose and final actuality or whatever it is to which they aspire.  In this argument, ‘cause’ acts as a kind of internal ‘puller’ not an external and separate ‘pusher’.  Of course modern science and evolutionary theory has done away with all of that nonsense.  Or has it?

Augustine was quite into the teleological argument for the existence of God as it related to the doctrine of a final cause and purpose.  But of course modern science and evolutionary theory has done away with all that nonsense.  Or has it..?

When you think about it, the so-called modern view is very very very teleological.  Humanity is seen as moving in a historical development out of a darker past characterised by ignorance, primitiveness, poverty, suffering and oppression, and towards a brighter ideal future characterised by intelligence, sophistication, prosperity, happiness and freedom.  Most of the last six weeks of political campaigning has been characterised by precisely these kinds of narratives, with each party promising to free us from a dark past and deliver a brighter future.  But lest I fall foul of the media purdah on such matters today, the Director must move on.

This faith based outlook is based largely on a blind trust in the salvational effect of expanding human knowledge.  You know, the idea that humanity will be fulfilled in a world reconstructed by science.  Yuval Noah Harari’s interesting book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow looks at what that kind of future world might look like.  It’s an interesting read, and if we ever have the time, dear reader, we might discuss where he’s wrong, but I ever hear Time’s winged chariot at my back.

I think we get our ideas about progress from their relation to the whole business of targets and goals, as well as a sense that we ought to be moving towards some final goal.  Wyndham Lewis described the idea of progress as ‘time worship’, in other words the belief that things are valuable not for what they are but for what they may someday become.

This, dear reader, is a very muddle headed way of thinking.  Why?  Well, chiefly because both the past and the future are unreal and to live in the past and to live in the future is to be dead. Of course there are wonderful things in the past, and we can learn lessons from the past, and the past has influenced and shaped us etc.  But that doesn’t make it real.  And we must plan for the future and that’s an excellent thing to be doing, but the future isn’t real either.  It is a notion. And as long as you live in the past and in the future you’re not here now.

When I speak to students I often get the sense that they live in a future culture; the culture of tomorrow.  The Tomorrow People.

They seem to be waiting for the future to arrive and then they’ll start living.  You know the type of thing:  as soon as I get my GCSEs, I’ll be fine, because then I’ll get my A Levels, and then I’ll be fine, because then I’ll get into a good University and get a good degree and then I’ll get a good job and then I’ll earn enough money to buy a good house.  All the time, they’re working away to enjoy some kind of future. And then they’ll start living the life they think they want.  But by then it might be too late.  They might get there and not ever have known what it means to actually live.

Ask yourself, dear reader, how much of your thinking is on matters of the past or matters of the future.

There’s a story of a wise and ancient boatman who is carrying pilgrims across the river in his boat so that they can go to a shrine. One day someone asks the boatman if he’d ever been to the shrine himself. He replies that he hasn’t because he still hasn’t taken in everything that the river has to offer.  The pilgrims don’t even notice the river because their minds are all set on the shrine.  Sometimes, if not every time, the journey is the thing.

I’ve been lucky enough to go to restaurants where the menu has been wonderful. And we can guide ourselves by menus but it’d be foolish to try and eat the menu; to mistake it for the food it’s advertising. And if you spend all your time with the menu you will never get to eat the food.

Let that not be the story of our lives.

But what about work?  Surely you’re not suggesting we forget about the importance of hard work to achieve our goals. Well….

As John Gray points out, in thinking so highly of work we are mistaken. “Few other cultures have ever done so. For nearly all of history and all prehistory, work was an indignity.

Among Christians, only Protestants have ever believed that work smacks of salvation; the work and prayer of medieval Christendom were interspersed with festivals. The ancient Greeks sought salvation in philosophy, the Indians in meditation, the Chinese in poetry and the love of nature.”

The thing about ‘progress’ as we see it, is that it condemns idleness. The work needed to deliver humanity is vast. Indeed it is limitless, since as one plateau of achievement is reached another looms up. Of course this is only a mirage; but the worst of progress is not that it is an illusion. It is that it is endless.  Let’s remember Sisyphus.

In Greek myth, Sisyphus struggles to roll a stone to the top of a hill so it will then roll down the other side. Robert Graves tells his story thus:

“He has never yet succeeded in doing so. As soon as he has almost reached the summit, he is forced back by the weight of the shameless stone, which bounces to the very bottom once more; where he wearily retrieves it and must begin all over again, though sweat bathes his limbs, and a cloud of dust rises above his head.

For the ancients, unending labour was the mark of a slave.”

“The labours of Sisyphus are a punishment. In working for progress we submit to a labour no less servile. “

Let our telos be more about the now.  I love an oxymoron, me.

Until next time, Happy Reading/Idling!

Director’s Tip #9

Wash and prepare your vegetables as soon as you bring them home from the shops, thereby saving time on all your meals.