The Struggle Itself

Feb 13, 2017 | 6 minutes read

Tags: Philosophy, Life, Sisyphus, Progress, Struggle

The Myth of Sisyphus more closely describes the tragedy of the progressive condition than it does the universal human condition. Here I use the term progressive at face value: that is, of or pertaining to progress, and specifically people who hold human progress as a desirable, achievable goal. In this piece, I intend to examine the rationality of pursing human progress when one believes it is impossible.

We can examine human history and development through a few different lenses, each with its faint air of mutual exclusivity hanging over the fact that reality is somewhere in between. The two primary ones are the Progressive and the Cyclical. To these, I would like to add the Evolutionary. Each lens offers varying degrees of comfort according to what the observer values most. I’ll spend a few moments outlining them to help frame the rest of the discussion.


The first point of the triptych is the Progressive view, which is the idea that human history has an arc, a direction, and that as moral agents we human have progressed to new moral heights. Evidence we use to support such claims include technological progress, the fact that “we” don’t own slaves anymore, and the slate of (politically) Progressive agendas we have managed to advance, however slowly. This is an attractive idea for obvious reasons, among them that we can see elements of progress with our own eyes. Implicit in this view is the idea that our human ancestors were all terrible people. By extrapolation, so are we, because we are not as good today as we will be tomorrow.


The second point of the triptych is the Cyclical view, which suggests that, insofar as human history has any kind of arc, it is a periodic function, mirroring the rise and fall of empires and civilizations. Evidence we use to support this claim primarily includes the fact that history is littered with the corpses of dead empires and civilizations. For those of us who read history as a long game, this view is, while perhaps not overly attractive, at least comforting in its rationality, somewhat like the cold clockwork certainty of death. Implicit in this view is the idea that, unless we’re in a golden age now, we are simultaneously marching away from and and toward golden ages. By extrapolation, we are never in a golden age, but always retreating from one and avancing toward another. Also implicit here is that we can count on human nature to both create and destroy, else we would be firmly ensconced in the Progressive view. The danger of hewing closely to this, however, is that it allows the worst devils of our nature to undermine the better angels. Insofar as these remain in balance (which they never do), any ideas of human progress or regression remain static.


The third point of the triptych is what I am calling the Evolutionary view, which is that the best we can hope for in human history is that we adapt well enough to temporally local circumstances to survive. In other words, it suggests that we make the best of whatever situation, but exhibit no bias toward either explicit improvement or explicit regression. We have a number of human-built institutions that superficially operate this way, exercising situational discretion rather than blanket edicts as a matter of flexibility (or perhaps antifragility). Similarly, we tend to find some comfort in the encapsulation of moral and ethical stances within their temporal circumstances and calling them artifacts of their time. Implicit here is that there is no larger goal or meaning; rather, all meaning in this system is contained in local optima.

I am suggesting that reality is probably some mix of these. Human history does show signs of real progress, but it is neither as pronounced nor as durable as the Progressive view supposes. At the same time, empires and civilizations DO rise and fall, but their undulations are not as clean or complete as the Cyclical view posits. And finally, there is a strong strain of the globally aimless but locally optimized Evolutionary process tooling around in the other two views, one that adds a resilience that’s hard to ignore, but ultimately remains silent with regard to our desire to see ourselves as improving our lot. The Myth of Sisyphean Progress

My personal view of history most recently has been one of nearly complete retreat from the idea of real, durable human progress in favor of a evolutionary cyclicality. Whatever gains we make as humans in moral terms seem frail in the long view of history. Democracy is all we as Americans may know (unless we are immigrants or persons of color), but it is a historical aberration despite the seemingly universal longing for liberty. Technology appears to be more durable, but it needn’t coincide with any sense of moral development. Indeed, technological progress often outpaces the capacity for both governance and moral response, but rarely fails to capitulate to the onslaught of oligarchs.

Despite my dim view of the durability of human progress, especially moral progress, I find I’m still committed to progressive values. If I hold no hope of overcoming the weight of human history, how is it that I can still cling to a doomed moral structure? This, then, is where Sisyphus is most instructive. Or, rather, Camus’s conception of Sisyphus. In his essay, Camus wrote:

It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me. A face that toils so close to stones is already stone itself! I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.

Clinging to the myth of human progress in the face of overwhelming evidence against it seems absurd, and indeed it IS absurd. But:

The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is no fate that can not be surmounted by scorn.

We prove nothing to anyone but each other and ourselves. If we do not succeed where we cannot succeed, how can that constitute failure? And if we somehow do succeed, then all the better. It is for the struggle itself: We must imagine the progressive happy.