It’s my firm belief that creation is a wonder. Rest assured that I’m not into alternatives as propagated on the other side of the ocean these days. Nor indeed in the customary interpretation of the title’s noun. It’s human creation that interests me, and more specifically in the alternative sense of what its contribution to the good life might be.
This is an existential exploration, as illustrated by Bill Watterson’s delightful character Calvin:
The question of why we do what we do is also the central query of an intriguing book that has just won the Dutch prize of the Best Spiritual Book 2017– and which I hope will receive an English translation. In Restlessness the Ghent based ethicist and philosopher Ignaas Devisch advocates an immoderate life to be understood as a life of desire, passion and creativity. His argument is intriguing for at least two reasons. One is that the author very explicitly challenges the manifold calls to slow down, be it in food, science or living. Second, he does so with an extensive historic reconstruction of the societal presence of restlessness – which is not recent at all!
Restlessness belongs fundamentally to modernity.
Aware that this is an unfamiliar statement, Devisch spends most of his book elaborating it. This leaves a mere ten percent of the book explicitly devoted to the praise of the immoderate life, as we’ll see later. But first the historian in me delights in stressing the unusualness of the argument, even more so because Devisch transcends the often stark division of the so-called Dark Ages and Modern Times on the grounds that the late Middle Ages prepared that modernity in fundamental ways – including the arrival of restlessness.
Of course it’s tricky to pinpoint the birth year of a concept such as restlessness, but if one year deserves the ‘honour’, it must be 1348. With the outbreak of the Black Death a torrent of angst ran over Europe and undermined the Christian ideals of heavenly awards for the toils of this earthly life. If death can be so horrible and sudden, better make the best of this life – now. This is the beginning of the end for the medieval worldview. And the beginning of the modern project that, from the start, included the desire to live here and now. How topical that sounds!
Devisch gives the 17th-century French philosopher, theologian and mathematician Blaise Pascal a central role in his exposé. Probably his most famous expression is that “man cannot sit in a quiet room alone”. This is the boredom Calvin refers to. But Pascal’s interpretation is actually much more bleak. Pascal understood the modern race against time as a secularized version of our inability to deal with the inescapable, death. In the expression “get the most out of life while you can”, we would stress the first part, probably even leave the second unmentioned. For Pascal the escapist movement away from death was essential and essentially modern. A central theme in his Pensées (published after his death in 1669) is divertissement: modern man diverts himself – in order not to face the terrible reality of life.
Nothing is so insufferable to man as to be completely at rest, without passions, without business, without diversion, without study. He then feels his nothingness, his forlornness, his insufficiency, his dependence, his weakness, his emptiness. There will immediately arise from the depth of his heart weariness, gloom, sadness, fretfulness, vexation, despair.
This is indeed not a very attractive position. No wonder that man wants to stay busy. Pascal stresses the existential objective of diversion. Devisch rather emphasizes that almost inadvertently that diversion gave rise to human agency. And both make the point that modernity is thus equal to movement and freedom.
With the religious frame of the afterlife shattered, and all the normative structures that came with it, emptiness arises – which can, Pascal would say must, be filled again. At a collective level, this explains why progress is so central to modernity, although Devisch hardly elaborates on this (I’ll turn to this in the next installment of this blog). At an individual level, modern man (and of course I always mean “woman” as well) is free to do what he wants – to be whom he wants to be. This is why modern man is essentially individualistic: there is no more fixed identity, it’s up to him to make something of his life. Modern man has become an agent.
And with the agency comes the restlessness: there’re choices to be made, not once but time and again. There’re always opportunities to better oneself, to move up in the world. There’s the drive to be or more accurately to become someone. Living in the secular modern world is a permanent undertaking, a project. Put like that, it’s also clear the work is never done. There’s no point where I can say: I’ve reached my destiny, I’m me now.
With some exaggeration, Calvin’s thoughts shown earlier summarize one of Pascal’s key arguments: boredom originates from the emptiness of modern life – and both are expelled with creation. Or again, modern humans craft themselves. And as any craftsperson knows, perfection is never reached. Perhaps one is content with the outcome for a little while, but even while planning a new (stage in the) project it’s clear that the skills need further tuning to do better. There’s no upper limit, it’s never (good) enough. And so one becomes restless – again.
If, in short, restlessness is so very much part of what it means to be a modern human being, there’s no escaping it. Devisch actually argues that the question is put wrongly. In essence he challenges the negative connotations of restlessness: since when is a life in balance desirable? Pascal would say: do you actually want to spend your life alone in a quiet room? Or in Calvin’s words: do you really want to be bored? Of course not. We like activities and interaction, we search for things to look forward to and to strife for. We like to be busy and make progress.
As restlessness has been with us for over six centuries, it’ll probably last (at least) our lifetime. Devisch advises to stop fighting what you cannot change. Better still, recognize restlessness for what it really is, namely the crucial factor for an interesting and creative life. In management books this would be called “positive stress”. What would our lives be if we stopped moving? If we had no further desire to better things and or ourselves? So the argument finally turns positive: give in to your desire to get out of the room, go and do things, live life to the full. In brief, Devisch advocates the immoderate life:
Embrace your restlessness!
With the full story of its centrality to modern life, we now understand restlessness is positive energy that is available to us. The real question then becomes: what will we do with it? Devisch concludes with the adagium of a passionate life: “engage your restlessness for things that make life meaningful, whatever that may mean”.
Here we reach the weakness of the book. It’s obvious that Devisch doesn’t want to dictate how we should live. That indeed would go against his own argument of modern freedom and the virtually endless choices that entails. Yet difficult questions remain. Such as: how free are we really? Don’t many people feel, not mobile as supposedly inherent in modernity, but its very opposite, namely stuck? And how many of us experience their life as “meaningful”? Do many not continue to suffer from the emptiness of modern life Pascal was obsessed with? How many can say that they fight off Calvin’s boredom with a good life? How many feel in existential control over their lives’ ‘project’, rather than lost? Devisch admits that restlessness does become a problem (think: time pressure, loss of control, negative stress) when people don’t experience the meaning of their actions anymore. His suggestion is to find “ways to stand less restlessly ‘in the mobility’.” But what if you don’t know how to do that?
Devisch has chosen to concentrate on the individual level. And that’s of course legitimate. As historian I’m delighted with his rephrasing of “nothing new under the sun” that brings a much needed sense of nuance and relativity into the current debate. The strength of his book is that it opens an alternative perspective for each of us: we understand better why we, as individuals, are restless – and how that can be a good thing. But, alas, and as most of us experience at least sometimes, it often isn’t.
My own argument for alternative creationism has two components. In my next post I will explore the collective level which Devisch hardly addresses. My hunch is that problematic restlessness has less to do with a misperception of our individual drive than with the collective implications of the modern project. More specifically, the sense of being lost and stuck is often connected with the conditions of work. Devisch points a few times to the continuing need critically to evaluate the consequences of competition and time pressure on the labour market. He also refers to the current discussion about “workable work”, including the difficult realization of “meaningful” work, but he doesn’t elaborate. I aim to show that alternative perspectives can also re-insert meaningfulness in work. But first I unashamedly advocate craftsmanship as an individual choice to craft the good life.
‘Making’ is an undervalued source of wonder and joy. I maintain it’s also a meaningful way “to stand more firmly in the mobility of modern life”. It requires sitting (or standing) in a quiet room alone and to engage one’s energy towards something meaningful. You’re in control over what you decide to make – and the range of possibilities is virtually endless. Yet you’re also happy to be challenged and to be lost in the flow for that’s part of the fun. This is creationism because of its focus on creating. It’s alternative in the sense that that creating is considered to be an end in itself. Although there usually is a ‘creation’, a ‘product’ if you want, the process of getting there is not (essentially) instrumental. And that’s why the combination contributes to the good life.
Craftsmanship is about energy. It’s about connecting mind and body, so that you can grow towards a more integrated human being. It’s about exploring your imaginations and intuitions and searching for corresponding forms of self-expression. The experience itself creates a space in which you can discover meaning, as Calvin has put it. That focused space enables living in the present. And it is filled with kairos that allows us to remain in Pascal’s room.
Yet the skills that are thus developed, such as practicing patience, engagement and perseverance, exercising autonomy, judgement and agency, achieving a level of expertise or mastery, also craft a personality that stands more firmly outside that room – about which of course there is much more to be said, and that’s a promise.