Have We Lost Something?

I repost here a piece I wrote a couple of years ago and which strikes me as even more relevant today.  It is a theme I pursued at some length in my book The Inversion of Consciousness from Dante to Derrida and it remains one of my main interests today.

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.

Piece of Trash

A recent story about an upcoming golfing event struck me as most interesting. As we are told:

Vijay Singh is apparently going to participate in the Korn Ferry Challenge — the first Korn Ferry Tour event of the revised season after the COVID-19 hiatus — next month at TPC Sawgrass in Florida.

That move, though, didn’t sit well with at least one other professional golfer, who called Singh “a piece of trash” on Twitter after seeing his name on the list of participants.

Now Vijay Singh, for those of you who are out of touch with golf, is a very wealthy professional golfer who has been playing golf for many years  and decided to crash the Korn Ferry Challenge to tune up his game for an upcoming PGA event. The Korn Ferry tour is something like the minor leagues in baseball — except the players are not paid a salary and must rely on winnings to make ends meet. These are mostly young players who hope one day to play on the much more lucrative PGA tour. In the meantime they play off the stage and out of the spotlight for peanuts.

To get an idea of the vast difference in the size of the purses on the two tours, we might note that the total purse of a single Korn Ferry event is $1 million, with $180,000 going to the winner and the rest of the field receiving proportionally less. By contrast, the total purse on the PGA Championship is $11 million with $1.98  going to the winner — nearly twice as much as the entire purse on a typical Korn Ferry event.

I listened to a discussion of this story on the Golf Channel and it was intriguing. While one of the talking heads, a young woman, defended the young player for trashing Singh another older player defended him on the grounds that there is no rule against his playing and it’s “just how things are.”

The young woman reminded him that during these last couple of months the golfers have all gone without any income whatever and while the very wealthy ones at the top can make do (!) those at the bottom — like those on the Korn Ferry tour, must take other jobs to pay the bills. Many of them have families with young children. Singh is older and very wealthy and, so far as I know, does not have young mouths to feed.

What intrigues me about this is the fact that someone (anyone) could defend Singh for basically elbowing his way into the tournament! And, given that there is a limited number of players who can play the Challenge, he takes the place of a younger player who truly needs the money he might make by winning the tournament — or even placing high in the final standings.

Is it possible that this man doesn’t see the moral problem here? He says Singh is not breaking the rules, and this is true. But doing the right thing is often a matter of ignoring the rules. What we have here is another example of a very wealthy man who fails to recognize the plight of others who are in need.

It makes me just a little bit sick.

Ethical Dilemma

In 1993 I wrote an ethics textbook designed to provoke thought in undergraduates and at the same time suggest that it is possible to think about ethical issues –not just emote. The book did not sell particularly well but was later picked up by a larger publisher and is still in print and selling fairly well (which amazes me no end). But one of the things I was particularly pleased about in that book was the final chapter which consisted of a number of case studies in fields as far apart as medicine and business — though those two are not so far apart these days. One of the categories was sports and I included a case that was actually based on a young man who had played football at the university where I taught — a “small potatoes” football team with a top-line player. The example changes his name but is based on what actually happened to that young man. I place it here to provoke thought (!) and to raise the question of whether what is legal is always necessarily moral or ethical.

At the age of 17 William”Willie” Smith was caught dealing drugs in his home state of Florida. While he was awaiting trial he enrolled at a local Junior Colleege and later transferred to a four-year university in Minnesota to complete his degree and play football — which he did very well. In the interim he was tried and found guilty of the drug charge, but he was given a delayed sentence to allow him to complete his college degree. After the completion of his degree he was to serve a nine year sentence.

Willie’s understanding was that his case would be reviewed at the end of his college career and that he would almost certainly be placed on probation (and not sent to jail) if he kept his nose clean — which he did. He continued to work on his degree and he played football so well he was drafted by an N.F.L. team in the ninth round. When it was announced that he had been drafted a reporter form his home town ran a story about his brush with the law and his later success. In the ensuing confusion the judge who had tried Willie’s case three years previously held  a press conference and, noting that athletes should not be given special treatment, repeated her ruling that Willie was to serve nine years in prison as soon as he completed his degree. The N.F.L. team that had drafted Willie immediately announced the they were no longer interested in Willie.

Did the judge do the right thing? What do you think?

Visiting John Carroll

I have drawn considerable inspiration from John Carroll’s book The Wreck of Western Culture. Readers of this blog will recognize his name by this time. He is an Australian sociologist who writes with clarity and insight. After finishing his latest book I decided to take a look at an earlier attempt, this time Ego and Soul, in which Carroll clarifies his notion of what culture is and why he is concerned about its demise. I discovered that he not only embraces the notion of truth (gasp!) but also the notion of soul (double gasp!!) which he carefully distinguishes from ego and which he is convinced is not only very real but also immortal. In a word, the man is out of the intellectual mainstream and has the courage to defend ideas that most “thinking persons” would reject with a snicker. That’s what  makes him interesting and thought-provoking. Accordingly, I thought I would share some of his remarks about the “three levels of truth.” The first level is ordinary truths which we call “facts,” such as “The president tweeted again today.” The second level of truth has to do with “a body of cardinal laws” about which has this to say:

“The backbone of the ethical order is a body of cardinal laws. They are universal; that is, they are found in every human society. They include ‘thou shalt not kill’; ‘thou shalt not strike or damage another human being without due cause’; thou shalt protect the innocent’; thou shalt not betray trust’; and ‘thou shall not lie about important things.” These laws constrain all humans, except those whom we classify as ‘psychopaths’ — people who transgress major interdicts without conscience. [Who might that be??] . . .

“In the West, the recognition that all humans are equal in terms of the cardinal moral laws and some of their derivatives, has come to be called ‘universal human rights.’ These apply irrespective of tribe, ethnicity, age, sex, status, wealth, or power.

“This is an exceptional historical development. Humans have generally been tribal. The tribal view constrains me to treat members of my own tribe, nation, or culture justly, but those outside may be dealt with by looser standards. Outsiders — distinguished disparagingly as barbarians, gentiles, heathens, infidels, or savages — are legitimate prey to my self-interest.

“It is only since the mid-twentieth century that a belief in universal human rights has become predominant in the West. This is one of Western Civilization’s great achievements. It has its sources in the teachings of Jesus and in classical Greek philosophy, consolidated in the European Enlightenment and, since then, developed into a staple of liberal-democratic political form.”

The third, or highest form of truth is Culture. These are truths that come to us in “stories and myths, images, rhythms, and conversations that voice the eternal and difficult truths on which deep knowing and therefore wellbeing, is dependent.” And these are the truths that seem to have died out with the death of religion and humanism, as Carroll examines that topic in his latest book. In his earlier book he hints at what the problem might be and he lays the blame clearly at the feet of the colleges and universities whose role has been, from the Middle Ages, to protect and conserve culture and pass it on to subsequent generations. About this, Carroll has this to say:

“The great weakness in the West over the last century has been in the domain of Culture. The mainstream of literature, art, music, and philosophy has largely abandoned its mission to retell the timeless stories in new ways, and to interpret them. It has betrayed its responsibility to help people make sense of their lives and times. In its relativisms, surrealisms, deconstructionisms, and  postmodernisms it has denied that there are fundamental truths. It has sometimes even denied that there are universal moral truths.”

Indeed, since Carroll wrote this book in 2008 one could say without fear of contradiction that the failure of the colleges and universities has become even greater and that the denial of truth has escaped from the citadels of “higher learning” and now have found firm ground in the “real world,” especially in the world of business and politics. But that’s another story. For now it suffices to say that when John Carroll, sociologist and student of human collective behavior, worries that our culture is floundering, if not dying, we need to take heed. At the very least, we must embrace the fact that there are truths, even truths about what is right and what is wrong. We prefer to think truth is all subjective — perhaps because that makes us feel good about ourselves — but it is not.

Moreover, we need to think beyond our narrow selves, our egos which drive us to succeed, and embrace others and the world as a whole. Because it is only when humans balance ego with soul — that which makes us part of the entire human community and, indeed, a part of the whole of existence — that we can become happy and at peace with ourselves and the world.  As Carroll would have it:

“It is the business of each culture, at home in its own backyard, to cultivate its singular understandings of mortal life. It is the business of all humans, wherever they dwell, to defend cardinal moral laws and universal human rights.”

What Matters?

In the recent college basketball game between Duke and their in-state rival North Carolina, Duke’s star player “blew out” one of his expensive Nike shoes, tripped and sprained his knee. He left the game and didn’t return. Duke, predictably, lost the game. It appears as of this writing that the sprain is minor. But it raised a number of questions that got the talking heads talking.

On the television the next day the air was filled with opinions left and right: since the injury is not season-ending, should he just “shut it down” and not play lest he seriously hurt himself and ruin his chances to make big money (VERY big money) in the N.B.A.?  The consensus was that he should. After all, that’s what intercollegiate athletics at the highest levels are all about these days: money. But Jalen Rose — who played basketball for Michigan and later in the N.B.A. and now comments on ESPN’s lively morning show “Get Up!” — held to the opinion that the man signed a letter of intent to play for Duke and owes them the rest of the year and a chance to win the National Championship — a real possibility with this man playing, a long shot without him.

I applaud Jalen because he was the only one I heard in all the drivel (and I gather there were a few others, but very few)  who seemed to be the least bit aware that those who play intercollegiate athletics do have an obligation to the institution that gave them a “free ride” and to those teammates with whom he or she played. It’s not all about money, though the weight of opinion “out there” is clearly that it is about money. Period!.

I have blogged about this before and I will not hash over the points I made earlier, but I will only add that it is heartening that at least one or two people in the entertainment world are aware that there is such a thing as a moral obligation (though Jalen didn’t use those words) and that athletics is not all about money. Or it shouldn’t be.

Athletics at every level should be subsumed under the highest goals of the universities where they are housed. The highest goal, obviously, is to educate the young. There is a serious question whether athletics at the NCAA Division I level have anything whatever to do with education, but we will let that also pass as I have posted about that ad nauseam. In their place, however, athletics can play an important role in educating the “whole person” who attends a college or a university. It can help the participant learn to put the team above the self — a lost art in a culture that dwells on the “selfie” and wants only to be “liked.”

Sports can also teach the player about the valuable lessons to be learned from losing, another lost value in a culture where “self-esteem” is the goal of the schools and entitlement is the result — with everyone expecting a reward with little or no effort whatever. All of us who have lost or failed from time to time remark about the valuable lessons we learned from those losses or failures. It helps us grow and mature. It makes us work harder next time and enjoy the satisfaction that comes from finally succeeding.

Sports in their right place are important and valuable, despite the fact that there are folks who will insist that they are frivolous and a waste of time. How better to spend our time than with healthy exercise that also helps us learn about failure and the joys of winning while at the same time we also learn that our success at times depends on others? We need to keep these lessons clearly in mind in a culture that tends to cover them with mud and money. But it is not clear that football and basketball at the highest collegiate levels are sports any more. They have become a business — like education itself.

In any event applaud Jalen Rose for seeing beyond the immediate focus on greed and self-advancement to the wider picture that also involves important values, values that are slowly sinking into the mud.


I was a bit dismayed by the lack of response to a guest blog I posted not long ago written by Jerry Stark. It struck me as extremely insightful and even a bit alarming. It is certainly worth a moment’s reflection. If Jerry is correct then we are in the midst of a revolution — which may or may not be a bad thing. Thomas Jefferson thought we needed a revolution every 20 years to clear the air, as it were! But this revolution is assuredly not a good thing, I fear, as it radically alters our perception of our world and other people in decidedly negative ways. I suspect it goes hand in glove with our cultural narcissism and may be exacerbated by our numerous fears and uncertainties. At the very least, it expresses the ressentiment of a growing number of people in this country who feel disenfranchised, excluded from the centers of power and influence, on the outside looking in.

In any event, I have selected the ten points that Jerry lists as evidence of the revolution in our thinking and will leave it to my readers to decide whether or not this alteration is a good thing — or indeed if it is widespread. I cannot argue against the fact that it is taking place. The only question is whether or not we will benefit from it in the long run. After all, like the oligarchy that has replaced our Republic, it replaces much of Western Civilization as we have known it for hundreds of years.

Here are Jerry’s ten points as he posted them:

(1) There is no truth other than the truth of the powerful. Any truth other than that of the powerful is not only false and fake; it is evil. The Leader is the source of Truth.

(2) Bigotry in defense of white supremacy is good. Non-white people are inferior. Social equality between races and religions is a dangerous lie.

(3) Nationalism, nativism and authoritarianism are good. Globalism, cosmopolitanism, and intellectualism are forms of weakness.

(4) Men are superior to women.

(5) Christians are superior to non-Christians.

(6) Real Americans, that is white Americans, are superior to all others.

(7) Strength is better than weakness. Military and economic strength are all important. Diplomacy and cooperation are signs of weakness.

(8) The strong are morally worthy; the weak are morally unworthy.

(9) Leadership is action for its own sake. Destruction is better than reform. Intelligence and policy analyses are unnecessary. All that is required is the will to act decisively and to prevail — in Trump’s words, to be a winner.

(10) Ignorance is virtue; intellect is vice.


Guest Blog Post

The following comment by Jerry Stark expanded and improved upon my attempt to explain the notion of ressentment. It is extremely well done and helps us understand the mind-set of those who follow our sitting president and worship at his shrine. I post it here with Jerry’s permission.

The concept of ressentiment is intriguing, especially when applied to our current circumstance.

Nietzsche’s (pre-postmodern) claim was that morality is defined and established by the powerful and inflicted upon those whom they dominate. He further argues that new moral regimes can emerge out of a process of ressentiment, wherein those who are viewed as social inferiors by the powerful, and who have come to view themselves as socially inferior, develop a resentful hatred against those they view as elites — their “betters”. Ressentiment is not about class consciousness; it is about the revenge of the unworthy.

Ressentiment is characterized, in part, by a thoroughgoing refusal to accept conventional definitions of good, bad, and evil. Further, according to Nietzsche, ressentiment bears within it, implicitly at first, a new definition of good, bad, and evil. As ressentiment spreads throughout the populace, a populist revaluation becomes more explicit, more refined, and more powerful. If the morality of the extant elites is displaced, then a new moral order emerges to reflect the new social order that gives rise to it.

Nietzsche does not claim that the new moral order will be better or more virtuous than the pre-existing order, only that it will be chronologically newer. . . .

Though I seldom turn to Nietzsche for philosophical insight, what intrigues me about the notion of ressentiment are (1) the parallels between Nietzsche’s concept and our current political situation and (2) the possible morality that might emerge from it. I offer four points to this discussion.

First, the self-perception of disempowerment and cultural displacement, not economic insecurity, are driving forces behind support for Trump’s campaign and his presidency. This takes several forms, often overlapping: (1) White ressentiment at being culturally displaced by non-whites; (2) Male fear of being politically and economically displaced by women or of falsely being accused of sexually insulting or assaulting women; (3) Christian evangelical fear of being culturally displaced by non-Christians and non-believers.

The way Trump has manipulated and magnified these fears has been nothing short of masterful. It matters little that this reveals less about his mastery of politics than it does about his own pathological narcissism. What matters is that he has turned ressentiment into a political weapon, a political strategy, and a form of political governance – all at the same time.

Second, an emergent morality comprehensively dismissive of previous norms of moral conduct emerges out of this populist ressentiment, guided, of course, by those who stoke the fires of fear and who dismiss conventional notions of good, bad, evil – and even truth. It does little good to appeal to so-called “common morality” in response to the anti-morality, anti-truth dispositions of populist ressentiment. Any attempt at reasoning, be it logical or moral, will be dismissed. Any attempt to counter unfounded claims will be disregarded as false, a priori [italics added].

The parallel between Nietzsche’s conception of populist ressentiment and Trump’s dismissal of any truth, fact, or morality other than his own could not be clearer.

Third, a key element of the replacement of the old moral order is the extent to which significant portions of the existing elite accommodate to the values that emerge from popular ressentiment. What appears clear is that the wealthy and powerful, for the most part, are willing to accept Trump-guided ressentiment as a political framework if they get what they want: power and money. Every successful fascist regime has made peace with the wealthy and the powerful. They are useful.

Some members of this country’s elite will feel they can moderate and manipulate Trump. Others will accommodate to Trump in the pursuit of specific policies consistent with their interests, all the while holding their noses. Some will actively support and endorse Trumpism. Finally, some will actively oppose it. The relative balance of these different segments of the political and economic elite can be of decisive importance to the consolidation of the new regime of Trumpian anti-morality and anti-truth.

Thus far, the wealthy and the powerful have received more than they could have hoped for: a rubber-stamp Republican Party; a president who wants, to a pathetically obvious degree, to be accepted by them; a federal judiciary and Supreme Court that are increasingly pro-corporate at every turn; an insanely expensive and profitable permanent war economy; a decreasingly problematic (for them) regulatory system; a government increasingly insulated from the policy risks of potentially democratic influences upon government decision-making, legislation and regulation.

Fourth, the outlines of a new morality become clear. The morality of Trumpism is based upon a number of premises that counter traditional morality and knowledge:

(1) There is no truth other than the truth of the powerful. Any truth other than that of the powerful is not only false and fake; it is evil. The Leader is the source of Truth.

(2) Bigotry in defense of white supremacy is good. Non-white people are inferior. Social equality between races and religions is a dangerous lie.

(3) Nationalism, nativism and authoritarianism are good. Globalism, cosmopolitanism, and intellectualism are forms of weakness.

(4) Men are superior to women.

(5) Christians are superior to non-Christians.

(6) Real Americans, that is white Americans, are superior to all others.

(7) Strength is better than weakness. Military and economic strength are all important. Diplomacy and cooperation are signs of weakness.

(8) The strong are morally worthy; the weak are morally unworthy.

(9) Leadership is action for its own sake. Destruction is better than reform. Intelligence and policy analyses are unnecessary. All that is required is the will to act decisively and to prevail — in Trump’s words, to be a winner.

(10) Ignorance is virtue; intellect is vice.

The extent to which Nietzsche would agree with these anti-moral premises is not the issue (though it is likely he would agree with several). What matters here is whether Nietzsche’s concept of “ressentiment” is relevant to an understanding of the current situation in this country.

Sadly, I agree with Professor Curtler that it is.

Even more sadly, we have heard this all before.

Religion and Mammon

I recently blogged about what I argued was the inverse relationship between morality and wealth, insisting that we have somehow lost the proper perspective — one that the Greeks shared, for example — between wealth and morality. Aristotle, for example, insisted that the accumulation of wealth was a means to an end, not an end in itself, and that too much wealth was a threat to a balanced character. The goal of humans is to be as happy as possible and a certain amount of money is necessary to that end. But when the accumulation of wealth becomes all-consuming it is problematic. In my argument I suggested that the preoccupation with wealth in this country since the Civil War has brought about the reduction of our moral sensibilities. But, it might be asked, what about religion? Folks like Gertrude Himmelfarb insist that Americans are among the most religious people on earth. Doesn’t this undercut my argument somewhat?

I would say not because, as I argued in a blog not long ago, much depends on what we mean by “religious.” If we mean, simply, that many Americans attend church regularly, this is probably true — though there are a great many empty churches in this country and traditional religions are struggling, especially in attracting the young. Furthermore, mere attendance at church hardly sets one apart as a deeply religious person. In any event, William Dean Howells noted in a most interesting novel, A Modern Instance, that religion — even in the late nineteenth century — had become something less than all-consuming and considerably less important than such things as the pursuit of pleasure. Speaking of the small New England town in which his novel was set, the narrator notes that:

“Religion had largely ceased to be a fact of spiritual experience and the visible church flourished on condition of providing for the social needs of the community. It was practically held that the salvation of one’s soul must not be made too depressing, or the young people would have nothing to do with it. Professors of the sternest creeds temporized with sinners, and did what might be done to win them to heaven by helping them to have a good time here. The church embraced and included the world.”

Howells was good friends with Mark Twain and we can see the same scepticism in his novel that I noted in some of Twain’s comments quoted in the previous post. The Civil War did something profound to the ethos of this country. The death of 620,000 young men almost certainly had something to do with it. But the sudden accumulation of great wealth by many who took advantage of the war to turn a profit was simply a sign to others that this was the way to go. And the Horatio Alger myth was born as inventors and business tycoons seemed to appear out of nowhere. The cost to the nation as a whole was the conviction that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Wealth increasingly became a sign of success and even of God’s favor. As I noted, the relationship between the accumulation of wealth and the sacrifices necessary to pursue one’s sense of duty was turned upside down and instead of looking askance at those with fat pocketbooks, as was the norm for hundreds of years, the rich became instead role models for the rest of the country — and the world, as it happens. Simultaneously, as it were, morality was set on the shelf by many who now insisted that right and wrong are relative concepts and virtue is something to be read about but not to bother one’s head about. It certainly shouldn’t be allowed to interfere with pleasure and the accumulation of as much money as possible.


The Arts and Morality

I would like to take as my text a brief passage from a lecture Lionel Trilling gave at Harvard University in 1970. His topic is sincerity and he has this to say about literature and the universality of the messages we receive when we take it seriously:

“Generally our awareness of the differences between the moral assumptions of one culture and those of another is so developed and active that we find it hard to believe there is any such thing as essential human nature; but we all know moments when these differences, as literature attests to them, seem to make no difference, seem scarcely to exist. We read the Iliad or the plays of Sophocles or Shakespeare and they come so close to our hearts and minds that they put to rout, or into abeyance, our instructed consciousness of the moral life as it is conditioned by a particular culture — they persuade us that human nature never varies, that the moral life is unitary and its terms perennial, and that only a busy intruding pedantry could ever have suggested otherwise.”

I shall begin by confessing that I have devoted a majority of my life to the defense of both literature and the universality of certain fundamental moral precepts — such precepts as justice and human rights, which I insist are at the core of every civilized (and indeed uncivilized) society and whatever religion they happen to practice. Trilling is suggesting there is a connection and I suspect he is right.

But I would add all of the arts, including dance, painting, music, and poetry to the list of things that demonstrate the universality of what we call “human nature.” The arts, and naturally literature as one of the core elements of the fine arts, prove indubitably that we are all basically alike despite our superficial differences. What this means is that as human beings who share a common nature, we are held to the same ideals regardless of our cultural or historical differences. As Trilling suggests, those differences make no difference. We all espouse justice, fairness and the rights of others as fundamental principles of a common moral code. We may view this code differently or stress different elements at one time or another — shrinking or expanding our grasp of what constitutes justice and allowing or disallowing that some who have been denied also have rights. Moreover, we may espouse those universal principles and yet refuse to act on them. But when push comes to shove, or when we stop and think “what if….?” we realize that we all demand fairness, justice and the recognition of our human rights, though, of late, we may tend ignore the responsibilities that go along with rights..

The fine arts, including literature, attest to the correctness of those demands. They demonstrate as cannot be otherwise demonstrated that we are all fundamentally alike. We share Achilles’ outrage at his treatment by Agamemnon despite the fact that he lived in a different culture ages ago. We commiserate with the seventeenth century French playwright Molière’s character Alceste when he comes to realize that one must play a role to succeed in the real world. We suspect this is a profound truth, even in our day. We can feel the hatred that permeates the soul of Keiko, one of the main characters in Kawabata’s Beauty and Sadness, and share Okonkwo’s outrage over the presumption of the Christian missionaries in their attempts to colonize his country in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.

Moreover, when we view a painting or see our fellow humans dance or hear them sing (despite the fact that we cannot understand the words) we respond, as Trilling says, with our hearts and minds to the same emotions or others very much like those of the artists themselves. We note the presence in symphony orchestras of people of different ethnic backgrounds and from different countries who tap deep into the emotions of the composers of their European music and project it into the audience made up of a heterogeneous grouping of their fellow humans and we share a common experience.

Thus, when we hear that “it is all relative,” and that we shouldn’t be “judgmental” because we are all different, we know this is at best a half-truth, a “busy, intruding pedantry.” We are all different in so many ways as those who would ride the “Identity Politics” horse would insist. But at the core we are all the same and when we do the right thing or the wrong thing we know that this can be seen and recognized by our fellow humans who also seek in their own way to do the right thing or avoid the wrong thing. We all seek the moral high ground — or if we don’t we should.

The fine arts demonstrate in no uncertain terms that we all suffer outrages and seek approval and love in the same way and take delight in the same joys and are repulsed by the same atrocities committed by those who seem very real though they be mere “fictions,” products of an artist’s imagination. This is why we read and why we open our eyes to the beauty that surrounds us in whatever form it may take. Because it deepens our sensibilities and makes each of us a little more human.


The Moral Vacuum

I call your attention to a comment made in an excellent post on the website titled “Zenocrat” and written by Ewa Kuryluk. She notes, in speaking of Franz Kafka, that:

Employed by an international insurance company, he watched bureaucracy driven by capitalist efficiency operating in a moral vacuum and imagined how easily it could be turned into a totalitarian death machine.

While somewhat disquieting, this is brilliant sentence that captures the heart and soul of capitalism and the moral problems it raises. The notion that this efficient economic system operates “in a moral vacuum” is precisely why it has come under such close scrutiny by thinkers like Karl Marx and Robert Heilbroner.

Marx talked about “Constant Value” and “Variable Value” which are based on the cost of the means of production, salaries of all employees, including management and owners, deterioration of the physical plant, and the like. But over and above these, insists Marx, there is something he called “Surplus Value,” which is created ex nihilo, as it were, in that it does not correlate in any way to the human labor that went into the production of the commodity, and which (in the form of great wealth) somehow manages to end up in the pockets of the owners of the means of production. In today’s world this is reflected by the salaries of the CEOs of giant corporations in this country who make between 300 and 700 times what their average employee makes. This is usually “justified” on the grounds that the CEO must be paid a “competitive” salary (with benefits) for fear of losing them to another company. Or there is talk about the “risks” he or she takes in running such a giant corporation. But these are pathetically weak excuses in light of the huge disparity they attempt to cover up.

Not many years ago the N.F.L. Players Association struck professional football on the grounds that the players’ salaries should be based on the “take” from the total number of games they played in a season, billions of dollars. Granted, the players were already making huge sums of money — though paltry by today’s standards — but they felt it was only fair that the pie should be cut in such a way that the players got their fair share rather than the amount each individual could bargain for on his own. Interestingly, this is a thoroughly Marxian notion (though the players would be reluctant to admit that). The total pie in professional football, even at that time, was huge, and on Marxian principles the players should have been allotted their fair proportion, even granting that the owners’ shares might remain large.

Robert Heilbroner worried about many of the same things, particularly the moral vacuum of which Kuryluk speaks. In The Nature and Logic of Capitalism he notes that:

“[Capitalism] succeeds in offering definitions of right and wrong that exonerate the activities and results of market activity. This is accomplished in part because the motives of acquisitiveness are reclassified as interests and not passions; in part because the benefits of material gain are judged to outweigh any deterioration in the moral quality of society; and last, and most important, because the term ‘goodness’ is equated to private happiness, absolving all elicit activity from  any need to justify itself on other grounds. . . . The expansion of capital is aided and abetted by the declaration that moral and aesthetic criteria — the only dikes that might hold back the flood tide of capital’s expansion — are without relevance within the realm of economic activity.”

And it is precisely this lack of moral restraint, the loss of any sense that there is such a thing as moral high ground — the notion that “all’s fair in love, war, and business — that provides the grounds for the concern about the “totalitarian death machine” of which Zuryluk speaks. There need to be moral dikes to stem the tide of greed and avarice endemic to capitalism. We have hints of this today in this country in light of a Federal Administration headed by a quasi-successful businessman who yearns to be a despot.

There is no question that Western men and women have benefitted in many ways from capitalism. Adam Smith thought this justified the lack of moral restraints that Heilbroner mentions and Kafka and Marx worried about. Of course, Smith was convinced that human beings had a natural sympathy for one another that would mitigate somewhat the raw forces of competitive capitalism and the subsequent bracketing of moral precepts. In any event, this may be wishful thinking, since it is not clear that we are better off because we now have two SUVs, a powerboat plus a skidoo, and a home on the lake (which require that both husband and wife work full-time) than we would be if we all lived in smaller homes where one spouse lived at home, perhaps with the grandparents living in as well, and where the family could spend time together and the children could get the discipline and structure that they surely miss.

In a word, it’s not at all clear that the benefits of capitalism outweigh the costs, whether the “moral vacuum” of which Kuryluk speaks will not eventually suffocate us.