Restraint

I have touched on this topic from time to time but have not, until now, addressed it in detail. I am speaking about the astonishing lack of restraint that is not only allowed in our culture, but actually applauded. One sees it especially in sports where one team member will call out his teammate and trash him in public while the talking heads on television applaud him for his “emotional honesty.” There was a time, not long ago, when Johnny Unitas would throw a touchdown pass to Raymond Berry who would smile, toss the ball to the referee and trot back to the bench. Rod Laver would win one of his “Grand Slam” tournaments, smile, jog to the net and shake hands with his opponent. But no more. This sort of behavior is not regarded as exhibiting “emotional honesty” and would never make Sports Center.

We now see the football players make a touchdown and then beat their chests like great apes drawing attention to themselves and getting huge applause from the crowds. The tendency has even infiltrated the more tranquil sports (if you will) like tennis and golf where the victors throw themselves down on the court after the final point or pound their chests after the last putt drops in like….well, like a great ape. The act itself is one thing, but the fact that the cameras follow those types and avoid the more sedate players who simply behave themselves is worth a moment’s reflection. Why do we think it worthy of praise if a man or a woman wallows in self-applause, insults another person, or “lets it all hang out”? The less restraint the better, we are led to believe. And it’s not just in sports. Many admire our sitting president for these very qualities, which can by no stretch of the imagination be regarded as estimable.

I think back to the Greeks who prized self-control. Homer, for example, describes Achilles’ actions after the death of his close friend Patroclus — which was every bit the sort of thing we see on television every day: dragging Hector’s corpse around the walls of Troy. He then learns restraint in granting Hector’s father permission to take Hector back to Troy and provide him with the hero’s burial he justly deserves. And that seems to be the lesson. Indeed, the Greek plays, especially, are full of examples of heroes who cross the line and behave in an unrestrained manner and then have to pay the price. This is the heart and soul of tragedy. And Plutarch’s Lives were written about true heroes who exemplified self-control in order to provide examples to the young people who read them years later.

The Victorian age followed the Greeks in their praise of self-restraint, and that age has generally been dismissed as repleat with human suffering and emotional hang-ups that required Freud to untangle. Focus tends to be on the manifold sins of the age in which the people were all “uptight” by today’s standards and tended to look the other way as the poor were left to fend for themselves. But a peek behind the curtain of the Victorian ethos reveals a people who prized self-restraint every bit as much as did the Greeks. George Eliot is a case in point. Her novels are filled with heroes and heroines who know the value of self-restraint, who seek always to control their emotions, do their duty, and respect others. There is no better example than the remarkable woman Maggie Tulliver in Eliot’s The Mill On The Floss who falls deeply in love with Stephen Guest who is promised to another. The man, as it happens, also loves Maggie and seeks to “compromise her” as the Victorians would have it.

In a lengthy passage that goes on for pages, the would-be seducer manages to divert Maggie’s attention while they are drifting down the river, passing the landing spot they had initially targeted. This means they will have to spend the night together after they land down-stream. This was no accident as Stephen repeatedly attempts to win Maggie over and she fights against his will and her own deepest desires. She sums up the struggle in the following passage:

“I am quite sure that [this] is wrong. I have tried to think of it again and again; but I see, if we judged in [your] way that it would be a warrant for all treachery and cruelty – we should justify breaking the most sacred ties that can ever be framed on earth. If the past does not bind us, where can duty lie? We should have no law but the inclination of the moment. . . Faithfulness and constancy mean something else besides doing what is easiest and pleasantest to ourselves. They mean renouncing whatever is opposed to the reliance others have in us – whatever would cause misery to those whom the course of our lives has made dependent on us.”

Bear in mind that in the eyes of her society Maggie has already compromised herself. She is a sinful woman who has spent the day — and the night ahead as it happens — with a man betrothed to her best friend. But regardless of the consequences Maggie sees her duty to others clearly and provides us with an excellent example of the self-restraint of which I write. It is truly admirable — through it would almost certainly be dismissed these days as an example of a woman who needs to “give it a rest” and be more honest with her feelings.

The fact is, of course, she is totally honest with her feelings. She knows exactly how she feels and her feelings are every bit as strong as Stephen’s. But she resists “the inclination of the moment.” She shows the sort of self-restraint that the Greeks admired. Eliot knew about the struggles between desire and duty and always sought to do the right thing. As a result she was greatly admired while today, I wager, she would be dismissed out of hand as a wooly headed fool.

Thus things do change. And not always for the better.

 

Our Great Country

We hear a good deal of late about making our country “great” again. But we hear very little about what that might entail. Just what is “greatness” when it comes to nations, anyway? If Honoré de Balzac is to be believed, it is the principles, the things the people of that nation hold dear, that makes nations great. We might also call them “virtues,” to use a much neglected word. And if we are to make America great again I would assume that this means determining what the principles, or virtues, were that were prevalent at the founding of this country and attempting to restore them to life. According to American historian Clinton Rossiter in his book Seedtime of The Republic those principles prevalent at the founding of this nation were such things as industry, frugality, humility, piety, charity, honesty, love of liberty, self-reliance, courage, and community spirit — what Rossiter called “that special American blend.”

Henry Steele Commager, another American historian, was asked when this country celebrated its bicentennial if he could put his finger on the one thing that differentiated the country in 1996 from the country in 1776 and he said it was the deeply felt concern of the citizens in 1776 with the future, with future generations. In 1996 we were preoccupied with today. I will develop this theme in a bit, but at this point I would like to quote from a letter written in 1775 by the Rev. William Smith that provides broader perspective on the mind-set of so many of his countrymen in that era:

“Look back, therefore, with reverence look back to the times of ancient virtue and renown. Look back to the mighty purposes which your fathers had in view when they traversed a mighty ocean and planted this land. Recall to your minds their labors, their toils, their perseverance, and let their divine spirit animate you in all your actions.

“Look forward to a distant posterity. . . Think that on you may depend whether this great country, in ages hence, shall be filled and adorned with a virtuous and enlightened people; enjoying liberty and all its concomitant blessings . . . or covered with a race of men more contemptible than the savages that roam the wilderness.”

Now, putting aside his use of the politically incorrect term “savages,” and ignoring, if we can, the attempts that followed to eradicate native people from this continent, we might learn something about what it was that made this country great at the time it was experiencing the growing pains that accompany the founding of a great nation. We can do no better than to reflect on the list that Rossiter provided us with, the “special American blend.”

And what, we might ask, to follow-up on the hints that Commager gave us more than thirty years ago, would characterize America in our day? I would suggest that the qualities that define us today — I hesitate to call them “principles” or much less “virtues” —  are such things as a predominant materialism, concern for physical comfort, competitiveness, desire for success (measured in dollars), conformity, physical activity, efficiency, mastery of the world around us, pragmatism, and a fixation on “progress” and profits. And to make the point with emphasis, two years ago those electors who elect politicians determined that the man who embodied those qualities was to be elected to the highest office in the land, a man who embodied those qualities that characterize themselves.

In a word, if we are to make this country great again, we chose the wrong leader. But it will take more than the right leader to turn the tide that is sweeping this country today and return us to a time when things were as they appeared and people looked beyond themselves — a time when “civic virtue” was something all (or most) embraced wholeheartedly as they looked to the future.

 

Is This It?

I recently finished re-reading George Eliot’s Felix Holt: The Radical. It’s an amazing book and once again proves Eliot’s mastery of her craft. She was a wise woman in addition to being an exceptional writer. In this novel she is addressing the complex question of the extension of suffrage in England in the mid-nineteenth century. It was a thorny issue, as it involved the willingness of the wealthy and privileged to allow the poor to vote and help determine political events.

We no longer deal with this particular issue, but we do need to think about the central issue of whether or not everyone should be allowed to determine who holds the reins of power. In this regard, we have recently been made aware that something has been rotting in the political cellar for many years: there are those who feel they have been excluded from the political process and they have risen up and spoken out loud and clear in voting for a man who is clearly unqualified for the job but who, they think, speaks for them. I have tried again and again to fathom how this could have happened and nothing ago posted a guest essay by Jerry Stark who was nice enough to comment at length on my suggestion that the revolution we are living through is an expression of what the French call “ressentiment.” I think the discussion that followed that post helped to clear up some of the problem; but in reading Felix Holt I came across a passage that may help even more.

In the novel the hero is a bright and well-educated man who chooses to become an “ordinary” craftsman, a watchmaker as it happens. He is also dedicated to teaching and helping the poor become eligible to vote. Eliot was clearly influenced by Thomas Carlyle whom she greatly admired and who spent much of his life trying to make room for the poor in the political arena. He, in turn, was motivated by the fear that England would suffer a violent revolution much like the French and there would be chaos. Eliot, however, insisted, in the words of her hero, that the key was not the extension of suffrage to all and sundry, but education for all in the hope that as suffrage was extended the voters would make wise choices.

In the brief passage mentioned above she has another speaker voicing his ressentiment in making an impassioned plea for universal suffrage on the part of the disenfranchised who, he insists, have been held down by those with great wealth and position far too long:

“. . .these are the men who tell us we’re to let politics alone; they’ll govern us better without our knowing anything about it. We must mind our business; we are ignorant; we’ve no time to study great questions. But I tell them this: the greatest question in the world is how to give every man a man’s share in what goes on in life –.”

This brief passage, along with some comments made to the guest post I mentioned above, have helped me to understand a bit better the frustration many in this country have felt for years because they have been displaced by those they regard with suspicion: those with wealth, education, and status who have refused them a place at the political table. They identify this group as “liberals.” In a democracy, no matter how flawed it night be, it is everyone’s right to have a place at the table. But as Eliot insists, and I couldn’t agree more, those who take their place must understand what’s involved. Again, education is the key.

Because we have failed to recognize this important truth we now find ourselves in the midst of a moral revolution, as Jerry Stark suggests, in which black is white, right is wrong, and truth is falsity. We are led by a man blinded by his own self-interest and sense of self-importance coupled with a twisted view of the world because a great many people in this country who do not feel themselves a part of “what goes on in life” have spoken up in angry self-righteous indignation. And, unfortunately, those with legitimate complaints have brought with them the lunatic fringe who wallow in fear and hatred.  It is important that the disenfranchised have a voice. But it is also important that they have the capacity to grasp the “great questions” a capacity that is only possible with an education that involves both civics and history — at the very least. Otherwise, as Eliot would have it, we shall be governed by “men [and women] whose mental state is a mere medley of appetites and confused impressions.”

As Felix says in a lengthy speech to a gathered throng at a political rally:

“. . . all the schemes about voting, and districts, and annual Parliaments, and the rest, are engines, and the water or steam — the force that works those engines — must come out of human nature. . . . Whether the engines will do good work or bad depends [on the wisdom of the voters]; and if we have false expectations about men’s characters [whom we vote for], we are very much like the idiot who thinks he can carry milk in a can with no bottom. In my opinion, the notions about what mere voting will do are very much of that sort.”

In a democracy no one should be excluded from the seats of power, but all who take their place must know what they are about.

My Truth

One of my favorite bloggers, and one who makes frequent insightful and thought-provoking comments on my blogs as well, recently included this statement in a response she made to a blog post:

“That’s my truth, and the beauty of it is, it remains my truth though no one else may accept it.”

This claim is worth pondering. In fact, acceptance by others is the heart and soul of truth. “Truth” is a word that applies to claims. Some of these claims are private as in “These pretzels are making me thirsty.” This claim cannot be corroborated by anyone else: it is private. It is “my truth.” But it is also somewhat uninteresting, except to close friends and, perhaps, one’s psychiatrist — or bartender. And, strictly speaking, it is not a “truth” at all. Truth claims are public and require corroboration in order to be called “true.” And some of those claims, such as the claim that 2+3=5 and  “the earth travels around the sun in an elliptical orbit” are absolutely true. They are true for me and they are true for you. They have always been true (even though not always accepted as such) and they always will be. Denial of those truths would engender a contradiction, which is one of the three laws of thought that govern all human thinking.

Acceptance, or what I have called “corroboration” is the heart of the matter. Truth claims must be tested and verified by others in order to be true. To make the claim that “my truth” is mine and mine alone is, on its face, pointless. That is, a claim that no one else can accept is not a truth claim at all. It is an intuition or private conviction that we may hold dear but which we do not expect anyone else to share with us. Indeed, we may not even care whether anyone else agrees with us! None the less, such things can be convictions that we hold dear and which help us survive in this insane world of ours. But, strictly speaking, those are not “truths.” They are very personal and they sustain us in times of struggle. They sit comfortably alongside matters of faith.

So what? You might well ask. The reason these sorts of distinctions are important, pedantic though they may seem at first blush, is because there are those “out there” in our shared world who deny truth in order to redefine it as consisting of claims they want us to accept as true, whether they are or not. We confront such claims on a daily basis these days. We quite correctly call them “lies.” The denial that there is objective truth leads invariably to a type of subjectivism which when institutionalized by those in power can lead directly to indoctrination. That way lies totalitarianism.

One of the first things both Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin did when they came into power — and, indeed, on their way to power —  was to redefine truth as consisting of those claims they insisted were true even though they could not be corroborated by others. They were true by fiat and repetition. Such claims as “The Jews are an inferior race,” for example. This cannot be corroborated because it is blatantly false. We are all members of the same race, uncomfortable though that thought might have been for Adolph Hitler. It is only by de-humanizing certain types that they could be eradicated, and that was the “final solution.” And while Hitler was making the Jews scapegoats for all of Germany’s ills, Stalin was rewriting history. Truth was cast aside in order to realize twisted dreams.

Thus, in the end, how we define “truth” is important. And it is Important to insist that truth is something we must all agree upon, something shared, something we all accept because it can be corroborated by anyone else at any time. It is not “my truth.” It is “our truth.”

Stupid!

One of the very few sit-coms I watch on the telly is “Young Sheldon,” the spin-off from “The Big Bang Theory.” It stars the truly remarkable child actor Iain Armitage and is in many ways more delightful (and funny) than its predecessor.

Young Sheldon is a nine-year old Sheldon Cooper who likes to brag (even in Church with his Fundamentalist mother) that he doesn’t believe in God: he believes in science. This is amusing when it comes from the mouth of a small boy sitting next to an adult, but it is also a bit stupid. As Pastor Jeff tells Sheldon in an exchange they have in Church, even some of the most brilliant scientists believed in God — to wit, Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin. In another episode, Sheldon comes across Pascal’s wager in which the brilliant mathematician explains that it is smarter to believe in God than to disbelieve in God because those who believe will be rewarded while those who do not cannot be. And even if God doesn’t in fact exist, those who believe will have lived better lives. This is a bit of a simplification, but you get the idea.

In any event, young Sheldon, for all his intelligence, has committed the fallacy of bifurcation: either God or science, not both. But why not both (ask Einstein and Darwin)? Indeed, it is a bit stupid to insist, as so many intellectuals do, that there is only one way to know anything and that is the way of science. This, of course, is what has been called “scientism,” and I have written about it before; it commits the fallacy of poisoning the well. That is to say, it rules out the possibility that there are other ways of knowing and it ignores the uncomfortable fact that there may be things we simply cannot know — mysteries, if you will. This, too, is stupid. We have already encountered two fallacies in the minds of those who, like young Sheldon, insist there is only one way to know.

But it is equally stupid to ignore the findings of science, including medical science — such things as evolution and climate change, for example. Science can deliver us a great many truths that simply cannot be denied without being completely stupid. And it is perhaps the fact that many people who identify themselves with religion insist that science is the work of the devil that intellectuals don’t want to acknowledge that there could be any semblance of truth in religion. This is guilt by association. Those people conflate the differences among religion, organized religion, and faith. This, too, is stupid — as Pascal would attest. But the fact is that a great many people who insist that faith is the only road to the Truth are as stupid as those who think science is that road. Either road requires a form of denial and an assumption that our way is the only way. There may, in fact, be many roads.

In a word, there are, as Hamlet tells us, a great many things in heaven and earth which we cannot explain with science. There are limits to human truth. But there is truth and it is available to those who are willing to search for it; while a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, the unexamined life is not worth living.  And the start of that search begins with the acknowledgement that we do not know everything and may never know everything. Not in this life, anyway.

It may well be the case that we will only know the truth after we die. Heaven may consist of a world in which the Truth is revealed to us. And Hell, of course, may be a place where truth is denied and everyone tells lies, a world in which everyone makes everything up as they go along and in which there is nothing whatever that is solid and we are surrounded by incessant confusion and uncertainty — a world of Donald Trumps, if you can imagine.

In any event, I have no problem whatever accepting the very real possibility that I do not know everything and that there are things which I simply must accept on faith. But I also believe that there are things that are true, things that stand on a solid base of empirical evidence and intuitive truths that simply cannot be denied. In the end, though, there is only one certainty and that is that there is no absolute certainty. That much I do know.

Still Pertinent?

Back in 2001 I wrote an article titled “Intercollegiate Athletics: The Tail That Wags The Dog” which was published in Montana Professor. In the article I analyzed the then current situation in intercollegiate athletics and pointed out what was then (and now) a serious problem; I speak of the corruption in NCAA Division I athletics, especially football and basketball and I recommended that the best possible solution was to eliminate the athletic “scholarships,” pay the athletes who played those sports at the major universities a reasonable salary, and let those few who wanted to receive an education pay for it out of their earnings. I thought it more honest and a worthwhile experiment at the time and I find it fascinating that now a good deal of talk has surfaced about the need to pay the athletes who play because they are being exploited by the schools they represent which are making tons of money from television and gate receipts.

In any event, I started the article with a couple of charges against the universities themselves which have lost their way, forgotten that their objective is to educate the young, not entertain them. With a few comments added for clarification, I simply quote those paragraphs here as I think they are still pertinent — if not impertinent!

Assuming we ever knew where we were going, in America, at least, higher education has lost its way. We are confused about what it is we are supposed to be and what it is we are supposed to do–which is to empower young people, to put them in possession of their own minds. These young people come to us decidedly unfree. For all practical purposes, they cannot read, write, or figure. They therefore cannot think their own thoughts or initiate their own actions, which are the activities that define us as human beings. These students belong to their parents, to television, to the malls, to advertisers, and to a hedonistic youth culture; though they believe themselves to be so, they are not free in any meaningful sense of that term. They are surrounded by options but they are unable to make informed choices; they cannot separate fact from fiction or reasonable opinions from wishful thinking; nor can they foresee consequences or entertain antithetical points of view. Our secondary schools cannot help because they are caught up in methodology, and society places impossible demands on the underpaid teacher’s time. Consequently, as things now stand, the only institutions standing between young people and a lifetime of slavery to whim and to manipulation by others are our colleges and universities, which, for the most part, do not seem to be up to the task. As Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, recently noted in this regard, “students come to us already profoundly miseducated; we simply complete the job.”  It is worth noting in this regard that Princeton University’s law school implemented remedial courses for their students because the college graduates that come to them, in many cases, do not have the reading, writing, and thinking skills required to do the work demanded of them.

Higher education is at present tangled in a web of conflicting ideologies, disputes over territory, and faculty concerns over tenure and job security. We have bought into myths that delude us into thinking education is about providing students with jobs, shoving them into the fast lane on the information highway, or indoctrinating them about cultural diversity in the name of what a zealous handful has determined is social justice. However, “vocational education” is an oxymoron: education should not be confused with job-training, though we would hope that educated persons would be able to find and hold a good job; education does not require the most advanced technical gadgets, because faster does not mean better; and finally, education must not be confused with indoctrination, though we would expect free minds to reject injustice wherever it is found.

Because it is hidden in the dust stirred up by these controversies, we can barely make out one of the most widely ignored obstacles standing between students and their inner freedom, namely, the multi-million dollar business we call “intercollegiate athletics.” In this article I should like to bring that obstacle into sharper focus.

I would only add to this  two items: (1) colleges and universities themselves have become “multi-million dollar businesses,” and (2) I would add “social media” to the above list of the major factors enslaving today’s young while giving them the illusion of freedom. In fact it should be at the top of the list!

If you are interested in reading more of this article, it is online at https://mtprof.msun.edu/Fall2001/CurtArt.html

What’s Best?


In a recent post I noted that the template for so many activities we humans engage in has been created by business. We have become a nation of shopkeepers governed by shopkeepers with tiny minds. I mentioned the health-care industry (note the noun) and education — which I have commented about endlessly, some might say. I should have mentioned sports, especially professional sports.

I noted repeatedly the increasing movement toward business in NCAA I sports, especially football and basketball. But I might also have noted the effects of huge amounts of money in professional sports. Because in both cases it is money that is indeed the root of the evil. I  recall a discussion I heard on ESPN recently among four men and one woman, who all agreed that the trend toward football players opting out of the meaningless Bowl Games at the end of the year is perfectly OK because these young men “must do what is best for them” — meaning, they must do whatever necessary in order to make as much money as possible in professional sports.

Now I have a habit of whistling into the wind, as some might have noted. Some will insist that I am blind to reality. But I will agree that young men should do what is best for them, and even agree that they would be wise to maximize their income in a sport that may well cripple them. But there is the fact, ignored by so many these days, that these young men do have a responsibility to their college teams and it is not clear that making the most money possible is indeed what is best for them. In any event, the trend started last year when a couple  of young men who knew they were to be high draft picks in the upcoming NFL draft refused to play in their team’s Bowl Games after the regular season ended. This year a player on the Ohio State football team chose to withdraw from the team in mid-season because he knows he will assuredly be a high draft pick and didn’t want to get hurt after returning to the team and therefore lower his chances of landing a big contract from some NFL team or other.

Coaches used to like to say, “There  is no ‘I’ in team.” But then a great many coaches jump ship whenever they get a better offer from another university and the players who sign on with them are often severely disappointed, even frustrated. They have learned to be suspicious and take promises at their face value — which value is becoming increasingly worthless. Now players can transfer from university to university and become immediately eligible to play on their new team, and, as I have noted, the really good ones feel free to quit if they think their professional futures are in jeopardy, given the violence of the game they play. To be sure there is a risk. There are millions of dollars involved. And that is the rub.

The trend toward opting out of the Bowl Games is one that the experts are convinced will grow as more and more players with potential to become highly paid professional players realize that by playing in what is in so many ways a meaningless game they would jeopardize their future wealth. All five talking heads I referred to above agree that this is coming, if it is not already here, and it is perfectly OK. They saw nothing whatever wrong with it. And this speaks volumes when it comes to understanding what is going on in our post-modern society. It is all about money. End of story.

But I will not end the story because not all things should be about money. Health care certainly should not. Education assuredly should not. And a young man or woman who plays for a collegiate sports team and accepts a full scholarship should pause before choosing to quit before their season ends — even if that season ends in a meaningless Bowl Game. Because let’s face it, all of the games are meaningless in the grand scheme of things; and the Bowl Games, as absurd as they are, are still a part of the football season and are prized by many who play the sport and are not good enough to expect a professional contract when they are finished.

In a word, there is a responsibility to the team here, a responsibility that is totally ignored because we have all become so inured to the parade of fools who sell their better selves for filthy lucre. It is not all about money. Sports are not and education and health care certainly are not. And yet the fact that we have allowed the business model to become so very prominent in our culture causes us to ignore the deeper levels of human behavior — such things as character, for example. And this seems to me to be a serious problem we might well consider as we casually dismiss the latest young man or woman who is concerned only about “what is best for them.”

 

Death of Soul?

In his introduction to the Barnes and Noble edition of Balzac’s classic Père Goriot, Peter Connor asks the provoking question:

“Is Balzac the artist who has recorded for our modern era the death of soul? The death of all belief in something greater, grander than the individual?”

The question is rhetorical and Balzac makes it quite clear what he means to say in his many novels and stories that comprise the Human Comedy which he wrote in the early and middle parts of the nineteenth century. In his novel The Country Doctor, for example, he has this remarkable passage:

“With the monarchy we lost honor, with the religion of our fathers, Christian virtue, with our sterile governments, patriotism. These principles only exist partially instead of animating the masses. . . . Now, shoring up society, we have no other support than egoism. Woe betide the country thus constituted. Instead of believers, we have interest.”

“Interest” here, of course, refers not only to the money made from money, but self-interest — or, better yet, short-term self-interest which has become all the rage not only in France, but also in this country where the business model provides a template for all human endeavors, including health care and education. Profits now and screw tomorrow…. and the planet.

But, ignoring for the moment the reference to the restoration of the monarchy in France after Napoleon (and the oblique reference to the “reign of terror” in which clerics were one of the favorite targets of the Jacobites), let us focus instead on the loss of virtue. The “death of God,” as Nietzsche would have it. And recall that Karl Gustav Jung echoes Balzac’s plaintive cry when he wrote a set of essays in the 1930s and collected them in a book titled Modern Man in Search of Soul. All of these men, and others like them, have noted that the modern era (and especially the post-modern era I would add) have displaced soul with stuff. We live in a disenchanted age. It is an age of scientism and capitalism, the one ignoring intuition and insisting that the scientific method is the only way to the Truth; the other giving birth to a crass materialism that places emphasis on things over the ineffable. We have ignored Hamlet’s observation:

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, then are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

And “philosophy” in Shakespeare’s day meant natural philosophy, or science.  Indeed, ours is a “commodified culture” as Robert Heilbronner would have it, an era in which the new car or the flat-screen TV are much more important to most of us than virtue, or the development of what used to be called “character.” And we have the audacity to think that there are no problems our scientists, mostly technicians these days, cannot solve.

Balzac’s many novels and stories — more than 90 of them — comprise “a documentary of the cramped modern soul, a soul shown to be cynical, pitiless, insensible, gluttonous, scheming, and, perhaps, above all, indifferent,” as Conner would have it. In his classic  Père Goriot, which many think is the cornerstone of Balzac’s Human Comedy, he describes in exacting detail the residents of a boarding house where the novel takes place:

“There was not a soul in the house who took any trouble to investigate the various chronicles of misfortunes, real or imaginary, related to the rest. Each regarded the others with indifference, tempered by suspicion; it was a natural result of their relative positions. Practical assistance not one of them could give, this they all knew, and they had long since exhausted their stock of condolences over previous discussions of their grievances. . . . There was not one of them but would have passed a blind man begging in the street, not one that felt moved to pity by a tale of misfortune.”

That was France in the nineteenth century. And it was written by a novelist who, we all know, makes things up. Surely this is not the real world, not the world of these United States in the year of our Lord 2018? And yet with the exception of the remarkable people Jill Dennison tells us about weekly in her blog, most of us seem to fit the pattern of the lodgers Balzac is describing in his novel, sad to say. We do seem to be indifferent to others, preoccupied with our very own selves, turned in on ourselves, perhaps posting a selfie on social media in hopes of getting yet another “like.” We glorify our indifference to others by calling it “tolerance,” and delude ourselves into thinking we are better than we are.

It is certainly the case that many Christians have given a bad name to Christianity. We can see with our mind’s eye those who drive each Sunday in their gas-guzzling SUV to a mega-church where they sit in comfortable chairs, sipping an espresso coffee and watching the frantic preacher on a television set near the book store where his latest book is on sale, along with other memorabilia, including, no doubt, tee shirts. Such people abound who go by the name “Christian” while all the time indulging themselves, festering hate in their hearts, supporting a president who is the embodiment of hate, fear, and unbridled greed.

As Balzac notes, and this is not just a novelist speaking, we have lost religion, “Christian virtue.” And this includes not only so many of those who pretend to be Christians, but many of those who have rejected religion altogether, all religions. Along with “more things in heaven and earth” we have indeed lost our souls.  If we have any doubts we need only reflect on how so many of us celebrate Christmas these days.

Commodified Culture

You have probably seen the commercial. A young woman walks into the kitchen of a very posh house and places two sets of keys down on the counter and smiles at her husband (presumably). They race out of the posh house and stand beside two brand new GMC trucks (costs, appx. $50,000.00 apiece). One truck is blue and the other is red. The man points to the blue one, but his wife has already claimed it for herself and he weakly smiles as he realizes that the red one is his.

I have borrowed the words of Robert Heilbronner to help us grasp what is wrong with this commercial, so typical of those we see on our television at this time of year. To begin with these are apparently Christmas presents that the woman has bought for herself and her husband. Thus begins the set of problems this commercial sets before us.

Christmas is not all about getting, though the commercials like this one would lead us to believe it is. Granted, if all are expected to get something at Christmas then someone must be giving, but the point is moot because the scenes we witness again and again are about the joy of receiving, not giving. So that’s the first problem. A season of giving has turned into a season of getting — and we mustn’t ignore the sad faces of the little children who may not get anything this Christmas. Heaven forbid.

The second problem is the fact that these expensive gifts are now the aspiration of a great many people in this country most of whom could not even dream of spending that sort of money to buy Christmas presents. So it breeds resentment, of which I have spoken before: the frustration and anger that arise because others have things we want for ourselves. But the fact that we want these things is a fact that rests on the virtual certainty that the marketing forces that rule the media have convinced us that those expensive toys will make us happy.

The third problem suggested above, is that the woman’s behavior in claiming the blue truck which her husband clearly wants shows us her selfish desire to gratify her own pleasures and to ignore his — again, getting takes precedence over giving. What started out to be a gift turns out to be a sort of booby prize because the man has the very thing he wants snatched away from him by the giver, in this case his wife.

But beyond these obvious layers of message, and there are many when we reflect on commercials, is the growing evidence that ours has become indeed a commodified culture that stands or falls on the willingness of consumers to buy things they do not need simply because they have been conditioned by the “hidden persuaders” that they want them.  Therefore they must have them. Need is forgotten. Wants trump and they are easily created by media that have become very astute at sending messages, both conscious and unconscious, that help us decide what sorts of things will make us happy.

And here is the nub of the problem. It is bad enough that we have become a society of blind consumers, but it adds to the problem when we realize that Christmas time, starting these days immediately after Halloween, has become all about getting things. Getting and things: two concepts that are at the core of a commodified culture. Thus, a season that is supposed to be all about love and peace on earth, is now about getting the stuff we want, regardless of the cost. Period.