* note: this question will not be solved in this post… I am not Aristotle
Over on my Reading Group blog post, I mentioned that I wasn’t really sold on Kevin Kelly’s definition of progress – which is more choice for more people, the ability to choose to live beyond our basic necessities, the “general enlargement of knowledge and comfort and choices – and the sense of well-being.” But I didn’t really engage with why I’m not sold on his idea of progress, since I was mostly focusing on the slightly concerning issue of the potentially massive social inequalities that might result if he is right about how humanity progresses in this way. Which is enough for an afternoon, really.
Anyway, today I was at a seminar which made me think a bit about why I don’t buy this definition of progress. Dr Sam Wells was talking at a Faith & Public Policy Seminar about ’What’s Wrong With Poverty?’ a title with about 45 different potential meanings (well, at least two), and in order to define poverty he wanted to conceptulise poverty’s ‘other’ – The Good Life. And that set me thinking. If you progress, you’re progressing towards something, and – in thinking about Capital-P Progress (rather than physical motion) – that’s a thing that you define as a Good. But clearly the definition of The Good Life varies – quite probably from person to person when you get down to it. But, I think that while our personal definition varies, we also have a cultural understanding of a Good Life.
Wells wanted to ask what the point of existence was – and therefore what the key problem of existence is. What is it that you lack if you’re ‘poor?’ And he argued that, in much of the western world, life is the point of life – and death is the problem. In our cultural undersanding of The Good Life, death is the ultimate limitation, and limitations are problems to be overcome. We define ourselves by our freedom to do things, our ability to overcome constraints and limits, and our ability to choose for ourselves – not to fight them is often seen as a sign of weakness. And not having these freedoms or the potential ability or resources to overcome limitation is what we tend to think of as poverty.
This version of The Good Life chimes with Kelly’s idea of progress, and not a lot with Aristotle or Cicero (and yes, I am now feeling a need to go away and re-read The Nicomachean Ethics and some late Cicero) – or, I think with God. Wells was suggesting that life as existing and breathing isn’t the ultimate point of life – it’s what you do with that living and breathing that is the point. I actually think most people I know would agree with that, and think that immortality would be unpleasant – but probably also still have a fear of death and a distaste for limitations (I know I do). But the point is actually that, once you’ve got your head around that, the understanding of what poverty is can – and perhaps should – change a bit. It stops being primarily about lacking resources and opportunities.
I say primarily, because obviously both The Good Life and poverty are complex things with bundles of factors and facets that all interrelate – and even if you’re moving, as Wells was, towards the Good Life as a state of being rather than a state of having, a certain amount of having makes the being easier, especially when there are noticeable inequalities and different levels of having. I’m soft-peddling Wells’ line a bit here – because he went on to talk about how we respond to poverty, and I don’t want to deal with that in this post – and I also think that more people are more aware that poverty isn’t all about not having than he was having in his paper.
But I do like his argument that the fundamental human problem isn’t being limited – it’s being isolated, living with bad or non-existent relationships and being unable to reshape them or get out of them. He makes the case that, biblically, in creation and in the final revelation, even if we’ve made the bit in the middle a bit sticky for ourselves, human life’s ultimate meaning is in being with God, with isolation a complete impossibility (and I mean, literally, not even God can get away from being with others). I like that – that the good life, and the authentic human life, is about being tied in with others, celebrating with them and cherishing them – and about voluntarily limiting our choices as a result.
And all of this means that the deepest poverty is about this lack. You could solve all of the economic problems and all of the world’s resources problems – and you still wouldn’t eradicate dissatisfaction or loneliness.