The burden of creating meaning
George Parkin Grant on the insatiability of the modern will
“The more we are concentrated on the future as the most fascinating reality, the more we become concentrated on that side of our existence that is concerned with making happen. The more we can make happen novel events that come forth in the potential future, the more properly can we be called historical beings. When we single out somebody as an historical individual, or a people as an historical people, we surely mean that those in question have been in their doing the makers of events. Thus the English were an historical people in harnessing new power to industry, and in beating their European rivals in taking it around the world. In our generation Chairman Mao is an historical individual in bringing European technology to the Chinese masses, by uniting Chinese and European politics. In this sense we can say that just as men are more historical than other animals, so in the last centuries Western men have been more historical than the other civilizations still present, and than those civilizations we superseded geographically. . . .
“The accomplishments of masterful doing lead us to think about the language of willing. When we say that somebody has a strong will we mean that there is a resoluteness through time about his determination to carry out his purposes in the world. It says little about how much he may have deliberated about those purposes, nothing about their nobility. To state the obvious: in a university one knows many thoughtful people, irresolute in decision; in the political world one meets decisive men whose purposes are little deliberated. . . .
“Greek heroes were summoned to be resolute for noble doing, but their deeds were not thought of as changing the very structure of what is, but as done rather for the sake of bringing into immediacy the beauty of a trusted order, always there to be appropriated through whatever perils. In the modern call, human wills are summoned to a much more staggering challenge. It is our destiny to bring about something novel; to conquer an indifferent nature and make it good for us. Indeed in that summons our wills come to be thought of as operating in a quite different context. Human willing is no longer one type of agent in a total process of natural agents, all of which are directed towards the realization of good purposes. We now see our wills as standing above the other beings of nature, able to make these other beings serve the purposes of our freedom. All else in nature is indifferent to good. Our wills alone are able, through doing, to actualize moral good in the indifferent world. It is here that history as a dimension of reality, distinguished from nature, comes to be thought. History is that dimension in which men in their freedom have tried to ‘create’ greater and greater goodness in the morally indifferent world they inhabit. As we actualize meaning, we bring forth a world in which living will be known to be good for all, not simply in a general sense, but in the very details we will be able more and more to control. Time is a developing history of meaning that we make. The self-conscious animal has always been plagued by anxiety as to whether it is good to be in the world. But to modern man, though life may not yet be meaningful for every one, the challenge is to make it so. Upon our will to do has been placed the whole burden of meaning. . . .
“In the conceptions of history now prevalent among those ‘creative’ men who plan the mastery of the planet, changing the world becomes ever more an end in itself. It is undertaken less simply to overcome the natural accidents that frustrate our humanity and more and more for the sheer sake of the ‘creation’ of novelty. This movement inevitably grows among the resolute as the remnants of any belief in a lovable actuality disappear. We will, not so much for some end beyond will, but for the sake of the willing itself. In this sense, the challenge of the will is endless to the resolute, because there is always more ‘creation’ to be carried out. Our freedom can even start to make over our own species.”—from George Parkin Grant, Time as History (University of Toronto Press, 1969)
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