Those of you who have seen Glengarry Glen Ross likely know the sales motto “A.B.C.”: “Always Be Closing.”
But the secret to happiness may very well be “A.B.G.”: “Always Be Growing.” As Gregory of Nyssa (c.335-395 A.D.) argued in the 4th century, happiness for men and women consisted not in resting on one’s laurels but in making constant, never-ending progress.
Gregory used the Greek term “epektasis” (“striving,” from Phil 3:13) to refer to this idea of perpetual progress. He most famously describes it in his Life of Moses, where he uses the prophet Moses as an example of someone who devoted himself to epektasis—who “at no time stopped in his ascent, nor did he set a limit for himself in his upward course.” He recommended that men and women do likewise, to “never cease straining toward those things that are still to come.”
Gregory believed that man’s ultimate purpose was to grow in participation in the divine. Since God was an infinite being and man was finite, he reasoned that man could never reach a point where he fully participated in God, hence the need for the concept of epektasis.
And since men and women would not magically become infinite after death, Gregory even hypothesized that their constant progress would continue for eternity in heaven—which sounds like a much less static description of the afterlife than that usually offered by Christians and others.
This idea that man is called to make perpetual progress might at first seem to contradict the classical maxim that desire longs for fulfillment and possession of its object. But Gregory counters with the seemingly paradoxical statement that man is only satisfied “by the very things which leave his desire unsatisfied.”
Human experience tells us that Gregory may be closer to the truth. All of us know well the feeling of longing to possess or achieve something, only to become disinterested in it soon after our goal has been reached. It is not the fleeting that we ultimately long for; rather, as Nietzsche famously wrote, we desire “eternity… deep, deep eternity.”
These days there is much pressure to put in one’s work in the earlier years so that one can simply sit back and “enjoy” retirement. But though the nature of one’s employment may change, the need to “work”—to grow in learning and virtue—should never end. Indeed, we should fear the day it does come to an end, for as Thomas Scott reminds us, “Growth is the only evidence of life.”
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