Monday, 23 April 2012

The Pilgrim's Egress

I am musing upon two quotations I heard this morning, which to a degree I read in opposition to one another. Allegedly the first is from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: "He who moves not forward, goes backward"; and the second from G.K. Chesterton:"There are two ways to get enough. One is to continue to accumulate more and more. The other is to desire less." I say "allegedly" as "you can't trust every quotation you read on the Internet" (Mark Twain).

I like G.K.'s, and I don't trust Goethe's. That's the fact of it. To be fair, I've no idea what the context is for Goethe. He may go on to discuss the right times to move forward, and when backwards is more appropriate. But life is too short for me to start digging round in the works of Goethe. The way in which it is quoted, on the other hand, seems to pre-suppose that to go forwards - to progress - is necessarily a good thing - the great lie of Modernism.

I was struck by the use of the word "progressive" at the last election - or just after it, when all the haggling started as to who could cobble together a Coalition further to ruin the country. The Labour Party, in an attempt to appeal to the Liberals, starting referring to those two parties of the Left-ish as "progressive". There was no attempt to define what they were progressing towards - I had visions of progressing further towards a surveillance state, as that seemed to be New Labour's grand plan - but the assumption was that to be of the Left was "progressive" and progress was a good thing.

And to be sure, to progress is often a good thing. The inventions of antibiotics, the tea light and the non-stick frying pan were all good things. But Goethe does not even cover all the options, and so logically his statement is a lie.

"He who moves not forward, goes backward," says Goethe - to which I would respond - what about sideways then, Johnny WvG? You've not considered sideways. If I walk up to a cliff edge, wondering at God's beautiful sea and sky, then to move forwards is a foolish thing - I will tumble into God's beautiful thin air until I crash onto God's hard, pointy rocks. Going backwards will be quite a good move. If there is a cliff path then sideways will be an option. But perhaps the best of all will be simply to sit down and enjoy the view.

Imagine, if you will, the discussion between the Henry III and his chief executioner.
Executioner: You want to do what, my Lord? 
Henry III: From now on, the penalty for treason is to be dragged at the tail of a horse to the place of execution. Then hanged by the neck.... 
Executioner: ... till dead? 
Henry III: ... till a bit throttled. But just a bit. 
Executioner: Isn't that a bit lenient, my Lord? 
Henry III: Haven't finished yet. Then cut down, emasculated.... 
Executioner: One or two 'm's?  
Henry III: It doesn't matter - you can't write. Then cut all the way up the middle, then disembowelled. Then you burn the bowels and... other bits before their eyes. Then you put your hands into the chest and pluck out the heart. 
Executioner: I take it I'm going to get overtime for this? And isn't it a bit cruel? 
Henry III: Cruel? Up to now we've just hanged them. This is progress.
Executioner: And what about for women? Something similar?
Henry III: Of course not. We're not barbarians. We'll burn them alive.

Yet again, to the slave traders of the 17th Century - introducing an industrial-scale slave trade must have seemed like progress, compared to the old, ad-hoc, cottage-industry slavery that had happened around the place till then. Progress all depends upon what you think you're moving forward to.

It seems to me that, in this world of finite and dwindling resources, where progress means wiping out honey bees and "fracking" for natural gas, Chesterton is right. One way to have enough is to get more. But the world will last a lot longer in a liveable state, if indeed we are content to live with less. Sometimes, if the option is to go forwards or backwards - just nudging back a bit is not such a bad plan.


  1. I was thinking about Goths when my grand daughter turned up with everything black, including lipstick, nails and bone through her nose.

    I'm not sure whether Chesterton, Goethe or even New Labour were appropriate. However, Henry III's executioner might have been quite useful.

    Imagining the conversation:

    OY, You, girl, or thing, wot are you doing dressed up like me?

  2. Progress is anything that reduces the overall amount of suffering in the world, more efficient disembowelling probably wouldn't make my list, although it depends on my mood. Another more important example would be using an SSD to decrease the boot-up time of my PC to less than 15 seconds (Yay!) Total time from zero to reading your blog < 30 seconds, now that's progress! :)

    1. Well, it's all about setting an example, isn't it Steve?

      I'm sure Henry thought, it's the deterrent effect.

  3. I totally agree about the SSD!

    I had to rethink what "progress" meant to me (or us, as a family) when we had to financially downsize from "comfortably off" to "financially stretched". Sudden redundancy gives lots of opportunities for learning all sorts of new things, like getting ten portions out of a small (oven-ready) chicken and training oneself to find bright sides to look at. Financial retrograde movement become forward progress, of an unexpected but beneficial nature.

    "Either/or" philosophies are too black and white for me. I like living in a glorious, technicolour world.

    (Greenpatches has just posted on spiral growth - I need to read it again properly)

  4. 'Progress' saves thinking about the details. It's a very useful word that way. In my much younger and more naive days, I once earnestly asked a more politically-involved friend "Yes, I understand that you're saying that this policy you're supporting is progressive. I just don't quite understand why you think it might make things better."


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