In THE PROGRESS PARADOX, having let us in on the secret that money can’t buy us love, Gregg Easterbrook lets a couple of other cats out of his bag: money can’t keep us from dying, either, and it can’t buy us meaning. Fortunately for us, at least according to Easterbrook, neither of those cats has claws and we shouldn’t let them concern us in the least.
First, as to our inevitable mortality, Easterbrook acknowledges that “there is a baseline anxiety in all our hearts, and that anxiety is the fear of death.” He quickly dismisses that anxiety, however: “even supposing there is an incurable baseline anxiety about death, this need be no reason not to take pleasure in life.” We just need to look at the issue logically. “There are two basic poles of possibility: that there is an afterlife and that there is not. If the former, we need not despair.1 If the latter, and life must end in oblivion, then why worry about it?”
Duh! Why hadn’t anyone else ever thought of that? “Should it turn out that there is nothing after the grave, then in order to enjoy the gift of life you must accept the inevitability of its conclusion, and fretting only erodes the experience of whatever number of days you’ve been granted.” So stop fretting! Gregg Easterbrook is like the doctor who says to the patient, “Does it hurt when you move your arm like that?” The patient replies, “Yes,” and the doctor says, “Then stop moving your arm like that!”
Just to clinch his argument, Easterbrook gets all up in the face of the late Welsh poet Dylan Thomas: “The Dylan Thomas attitude—that one should ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light’—seems particularly ridiculous in this case, as raging won’t change a thing…” Stupid poets, always raging about stuff without changing a thing!
Having brushed aside our primordial anxieties about death, Mr. Easterbrook moves on to the topic of meaning, another thing that money can’t buy. He points out that we should thank our lucky stars that we’ve made enough material progress that we can now worry about “meaning”: having attained affluence, “Now we begin to hunger both for comfort and meaning.2 A transition from material want to meaning want is progress on an historically unprecedented scale—involving hundreds of millions of people—and may eventually be recognized as a principal cultural development of our time.”
But, Easterbrook goes on to say, there really isn’t any such thing as “meaning want” (a phrase he himself coined) because “Meaning can be found.” 3 In fact, “The life-is-meaningless intellectual fad is almost over, wafting away of its own insubstantiality, while the rising interest in spiritual questions shows that average people are way ahead of the intellectuals on this one.”4 Intellectuals are about as useful as poets: “The notion—advanced by existential thinkers—that if humanity ‘emerged only by chance’ then our lives lack meaning is perhaps the silliest idea ever entertained by serious people.5 Meaning can exist regardless of whether our being is the gift of a divinity or a natural result.”
Again, allow Easterbrook to present this logically. “Here are the poles of possibility: if God exists, then surely life has meaning. And if God does not exist, then surely life has meaning.” What? Explain, please: “Meaning may be divinely conferred. If not, we can create meaning by living decent and admirable lives.” See how easy that was to resolve! Why do people fuss so about “meaning” when they can either get it from God or just create it for themselves?
But wait—maybe it’s not that easy after all, because Easterbrook immediately writes that “As Western society moves from material want to meaning want, we must always be aware that meaning is harder to come by than a car or a house.” But he just said we could create meaning simply by living decent and admirable lives! “Ultimately, the reason that possessions…are so alluring is that acquiring possessions is a simpler challenge than acquiring a fulfilling philosophy of life.” So now, instead of just living a decent and admirable life, I have to have a philosophy of life?
I admit to being confused. “Western society has concentrated intently on producing a vast output of material goods,” concludes Mr. Easterbrook, “in part because this was an empirical, tangible goal—we knew we could do it. Now we face a task about which we are less confident, the search for meaning.” In the course of two short pages, Gregg Easterbrook has gone from boundless confidence—we can create meaning by living decent and admirable lives—to existential uncertainty; and he’s given me a headache in the process.
Ni fallor (though not about the headache)…
1 Easterbrook is correct: if there is an afterlife, we need not despair; we need only fret endlessly over our eternal fate.
2 Since most of our major religions—which provide, among other things, meaning—go back millennia, it seems clear that people hungered for and worried about meaning even before the dawn of modern affluence. I do not know why Gregg Easterbrook thinks otherwise.
3 I recommend looking for it under the lamp post where the light is better.
4 Although one might argue that the “rising interest” in spirituality indicates not that intellectuals are wrong but that many people are still searching for meaning—in other words, that they desperately want to find it and that they haven’t found it yet, possibly because it doesn’t exist or possibly because they’re not looking under the lamp post.
5 Some previous reader of my copy of THE PROGRESS PARADOX has underlined Mr. Easterbrook’s phrase “advanced by existentialist thinkers” and has written “misstated” in the margin alongside. I disapprove of underlining or writing in books, but I concur with the criticism of Easterbrook.