John Gray is the author of Gray's Anatomy: Selected Writings, published by Penguin.

Mostly a wise leap from grace

Those who are aware of what they are, wrote Pascal "shun nothing so much as rest. They would do anything to be disturbed." Everyone, it seems, wants to be disturbed. Dreading any encounter with itself, the human animal seeks distraction in a state of constant unrest. To be forced to be by oneself, with no opportunity for diversion, is the worst imaginable punishment. When inflicted for long periods solitary confinement tends to result in madness. Sanity requires a relationship with oneself that stops well short of prolonged intimacy; passing one's life in the company of others is a way of avoiding this excessive acquaintance with oneself. Work fends off the heavier burden of idleness, and even the round of commuting keeps the self at bay. Pascal wrote of gambling and the hunt as techniques of self-distraction, while we – more enlightened and democratic – have devised reality shows in which people can avoid contact with themselves in a spectacle of desultory interaction with each other. Of all the techniques of self-avoidance, though, none is more effective than joining with others to improve the world.

The cult of progress has many sources, but a dread of inactivity is surely one of the most powerful. Labouring for humanity has many advantages over other techniques of diversion. Unlike gamblers, who aim to lose their stake and thereby (if only for a short time) renew their contact with themselves, those who devote their lives to improving the world are engaged in a project that has no end-point. The hunt ends in the kill. In contrast, the charm of progress is that it is never finished. Since human life does not actually change, it always stands need of improvement. The ever-receding mirage of a better world sustains a condition of perpetual motion, and the dreaded encounter with oneself is forever postponed.

While seeking diversion in action is a universal trait, as Pascal perceived, it is only in recent times that it has been singled out as the meaning of life. For the Ancient Greeks labour was an indignity; human fulfilment was found in leisure. The biblical myth of Genesis teaches the same lesson: having to live by the sweat of one's brow is the mark of a fallen creature. Action is a fall from grace.

The idea that humans can find meaning in changing the world is a modern illusion. Nearly everyone is bound to leave the world very much as they found it. Even those who truly alter the course of human events do so at the behest of fate. As Alexander and Churchill – two individuals who did change the world – clearly recognized, the life of action is essentially a fantasy. That does not diminish its appeal. On the contrary, the very fact that it cannot alter the world is what makes action so attractive.

Nowadays people like to think they can imprint their will on things – if not on the course of history, at least on their own lives. Success means leaving a mark, and this means action in the world. In reality any mark we leave is written on water; whatever we do is soon washed away. But rather than instilling a sense of futility, this only energizes further activity. How can this be? The paradox is resolved once it is understood that the goal of human action is not to achieve anything in particular. Like other animals, humans are impelled to act in order to meet their needs: to satisfy hunger and thirst, have sex, and defend their lives from attack. Unlike other animals humans look for a meaning in their activities, and for the most part they find it – but not in the results of their actions, as they imagine. The need that is satisfied by action is immersion in the process of action itself. For humans, acting is at bottom reactive. The life of action is a vain effort to displace a sense of emptiness.

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