A certain difference is found among ends; some are activities, others are products apart from the activities that produce them. Where there are ends apart from the actions, it is the nature of the products to be better than the activities.
Somebody once explained to me that the difference in social attitude that distinguishes North Americans from Europeans, can best be summarised by considering the different ways in which representatives from these two cultures attempt to explain certain feature of their society. Europeans, it is said, explain the present in terms of the past: "we do it this way because
", is followed by some history, providing the antecedent causal story. North Americans, by contrast, are said to explain the present in terms of the future: "we do it this way because
", is followed by setting out some purpose, the pursuit of which orientates both current and subsequent actions.
I'm not really persuaded by this story of alleged cultural difference. Among people I know, conservatism is common but evenly spread on both sides of the Atlantic, and pragmatism, although rarer, also exists on both continents. Nonetheless, while dismissing the simplistic generalisation, it is worth noting that the character of this social attitude is important, since it helps shape many of our values and major life decisions. Do we try to stay true to something in our past whether personal, ancestral or cultural or is our loyalty tied up with some aims and objectives that are not yet achieved, but that we are working towards?
At one extreme, there are people who believe in fate or destiny: we can but fulfil what was determined for us before we were born. Our future is simply the unfolding of some genetic or astrological blueprint, from which there is no escape. At the other extreme is a form of radical existentialism, which says that every morning we start our lives anew, and each choice we make, while it might be influenced or shaped by the past, should be a point of radical departure. Most of us do not inhabit these extremes: we value the past, and acknowledge its influence on us, but we also want to be free to choose the most important goals that we work towards in life.
I think indeed, I hope that I am not greatly influenced by or beholden to the past. I find the study of history interesting, not least because it helps to show in a precautionary way the extent to which so much of contemporary life is held tight by the clutch of tradition, and the extent to which so many of my contemporaries are dulled by the 'anζsthetic effect of custom' (to borrow a phrase from Marcel Proust). In the main, many of us, by default, avoid becoming the masters and mistresses of our own destiny, too easily satisfied with keeping the world more or less as we inherited it from our parents. Today is much like yesterday, tomorrow will be much like today.
I am increasingly tempted by the pragmatist extreme, to want to make the world anew every day. My conviction is growing that habit is death. Last January, I visited the Kilauea volcano in Hawai'i, which has subsequently entered a phase of more vigorous eruption (please note, logicians consider post hoc ergo propter hoc to be a fallacy). The hard, black volcanic rock that covers the lava belt, which runs from the crater to the sea, appears as ancient as the earth itself, but is in fact only thirty-five years old at most. Walking across this lava, I realised that the earth's crust is, in places, being made anew every day. The creation story is still not over.
Living each day without regard for anything that went before seems impractical. We cannot make everything new every day, just as we cannot re-build a boat at sea all at once. We need to work gradually, one part of our lives at a time, holding some things stable while other things are changed. The question is whether we work hard to re-fashion and improve the major things our character, our values, our friendships, life goals or whether we limit ourselves to the superficial our clothes and hair, our phone company, the music in our earphones.
In his writings on ethics, Aristotle observes that there are some activities that are valuable in themselves and others that are valuable because they are means by which to achieve a more valued goal. When we pursue a course of action that leads towards a desired outcome, the outcome is better than the actions that led us to it. Well, maybe. There are some cases simple examples, like queuing to buy a ticket, and life changing examples, like under-going chemotherapy where no-one would willingly undertake the action unless it held out the promise of a benefit upon completion. There are many means that are valued only for being means.
But there are other parts of our lives, where the means and the ends are entwined in more complicated fashion, where the pleasure and the value come from the pursuit of the goal as much as from the achievement of the goal. The pleasures of exercise, or work, of friendship, are not to be found in some elevated teleological purpose, but in the activity itself. These are goals that cannot ever be achieved, completed, perfected or consumed: they are like the horizon line, ever receding as we make progress towards it; they are the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, the absence of which detracts nothing from the beauty of refracted light.
To put this another way, the problem with goals or purposes is that either we achieve them in which case our lives are left bereft of meaning, without challenge and structure to or we fail to achieve them in which case we are left unhappy. To be purposeful, in the truest sense, not only do we need to set our own goals, but we need to set some important goals that are unattainable, whose value lies in their pursuit rather than their achievement. We need to create some of our world anew every day and we need to be sure never to complete it.
The seventh day can only be a fast lane to unhappiness.