William B Irvine, Ohio - Audi 2021 - Magazine | Monocle

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How do you define progress?
I’ve come to distinguish between two different kinds of progress. The one that most people think of is “material progress”: having more stuff, having better stuff. If you talk to an economist or a consumer, that’s the definition you’ll end up with. And if you measure that kind of progress, we’ve made great strides in the past century and in the past decade. Yet if you went back to the world’s great thinkers and early philosophers, they would say that we should be aiming for “personal progress”. That means transforming yourself into the best that you can be. You can measure that in a number of ways. Are we happier now than we were then? Do we have more fulfilling lives?

William B Irvine in the library at Wright University

How can we make the world a better place?
A lot of people struggle to have full conversations these days and discussions can quickly devolve into shouting matches; it’s a sad state of affairs. One project I’m working on is looking at how to make people think more effectively; to improve their critical thinking skills. Doing so means that you can talk and move forward through conversation – I would regard that as progress. Of course, if you tried to look up a measure for it, such as gross domestic product, I don’t know whether you would find it.

“There is this ongoing tension between material progress and personal progress”

Are you positive about whether we can collectively improve our mindsets
Right now, we are in the midst of a stoic renaissance. When I wrote my first book on the subject, it was 2008 and there were maybe 200 books on stoicism on Amazon. Today, on average, there is more than one book being published on stoicism every day. That’s some kind of indicator that people are really thinking about the quality of their lives and trying challenge negative emotions.

How does the idea of progress change over time?
Well, there is this ongoing tension between material progress and personal progress. And then you can have these breakthrough moments. For instance, the Buddha changed our idea of personal progress and how we can improve our internal selves. But that is always in conflict with material improvements. These two are in tension; how this tension is resolved defines our idea of progress.

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