It is part of our nature as human beings that we both need and desire to live together in communities. Indeed, it is part of our very nature that the most basic human community, the fundamental unit of human society, the family, is one that we are born into upon entering the world, rather than one we voluntarily join. It is also part of our human nature that each of us is a unique person possessed of his own desires, intelligence, and will.
There is tension between these two aspects of our nature, a tension that is intensified by another aspect of human nature that is perhaps best described by the theological term “sin”. This tension creates the necessity for rules and for government with the authority to enforce those rules. Laws can be just or unjust to varying degrees. The more necessary a law is for the good of the whole community the more just it is. The more a law serves the interests of a part of the community rather than the good of the whole, the more unjust that law is. This is true regardless of whether the part of the community served be the few or the many, the rich or the poor, the high or the low. In the most just laws, the good of the whole community is in harmony with the good of each of the parts. Such laws are by nature few and Evelyn Waugh once wisely wrote that while man cannot live without rules they should be “kept to the bare minimum of safety”.
To do so requires that there be something other than just law holding a community together and easing the tension between our human need for community and our human individuality. That something is what we call culture. While a community’s formal rules are part of its culture it also includes much more, including informal rules, and a shared understanding of the community and the world which encourages the kind of attitude and behavior towards others which facilitates community life but which cannot reasonably be enforced by legislation. T. S. Eliot in his Notes Toward a Definition of Culture
pointed out that culture and religion overlap to a large degree. Roger Scruton, in a work inspired by Eliot explained further that religion, by setting aside certain things as sacred, renders them inappropriate for the buy-and-sell world of the marketplace, thus ensuring that the most important elements of community life are not conducted on a commercial basis. (1)
This raises the question, which we will be looking at in this essay, of the effect of capitalism upon culture.
Before doing so we will need to consider the definition of the term “capitalism”. Capitalism is not an easy word to define, especially since those people who are in favour of capitalism and those people who are against capitalism do not appear to be referring to the same thing when they say “capitalism”. A further difficulty arises from the fact that the word capitalism does not have the same relationship with the word capitalist as the word socialism has with the word socialist. A socialist is someone who believes in the idea of socialism. A capitalist, however, is someone who uses capital which he owns in order to make a profit. This would suggest that capitalism is an economic activity – the use of capital (productive property) to produce goods to sell in order to obtain a profit. We usually think of capitalism as being the opposite of socialism, however, and socialism is not an economic activity but an economic system, which would suggest that capitalism is such a system as well.
Perhaps that is needlessly complicating the matter. It is possible for capitalism and socialism to be opposed to each other without belonging to the same general category. Socialism, at least as it was understood in the 19th Century, is the belief that private ownership of productive property generates social and economic inequality which produces the oppression of one class by another which in turn creates most of the evils people suffer in society, and that therefore such property should be collectively owned by the society. If capitalism is the economic activity of using privately owned productive property to produce goods to be sold for a profit then it is an activity which socialism clearly judges to be wrong. This is especially true if the capitalist hires other people to labour for him. This is judged to be oppression by the socialist because he regards the capitalist as having an unfair advantage over the laborer in the fact that he owns capital and the laborer does not. Conversely, the capitalist believes that the socialist is unfairly condemning him for things which are not morally wrong – owning property, using that property to produce goods which people want, selling those goods to others who wish to buy them in order to make a profit for himself, and providing jobs for others who need them in order to earn a living. (2)
Those who write in favour of capitalism, however, usually think of it as an economic system rather than an economic activity. The features of the system are the private ownership of property and the free market. The free market is not an actual market in the sense of a place where people go to buy and sell but a concept, an idea about how the process of buying and selling works. People exchange that which they have (sometimes only their labour) for that which they do not have but want or need more than that which they are giving up for it. The price (what amount of x that is exchanged for what amount of y) is determined by the impersonal forces of supply and demand. The more a good is in demand (the more people want it) the higher the price is, the larger the supply of the good (the more available it is) the lower the price. The adjective “free” modifies the concept to suggest the idea that the market works best and has the fairest outcome when people are free to make their own voluntary exchanges without interference from a regulating body. (3)
Historians might object to the free market economist’s definition of capitalism however. If, by a free market we mean a market that is completely unregulated then no such thing has ever existed. If we mean a market that is unregulated but not completely so then the question becomes how unregulated must it be in order to be considered a “free market”? Any answer to that question would be more or less arbitrary and so we are left with a definition of capitalism as an economic system that is either a) an abstract ideal that has never existed in real life or b) a definition that would apply to a number of economies before the Industrial Revolution and the historically recognized dawn of capitalism. A further historical problem with the free market economist’s definition of capitalism is that the transition to an industrial capitalist society was accomplished with a significant degree of positive government intervention and not by the adoption of the laissez faire proposals of economic liberals. (4)
What this tells us is that the liberal economist’s defense of the free market and private enterprise cannot be taken as a literal description of capitalism as a historical economic system. It must be regarded as being either an ex post facto justification of historical capitalism arrived after it had already developed or was in the process of developing (5) or a prescription for what capitalism would look like in its ideal form. This raises the question of what is the defining characteristic of historical capitalism.
Here we run into a very interesting problem. There is an obvious answer to the question of what distinguishes historical capitalism from all previous economies. That answer is the application of modern science in invention to the matter of the efficiency of production. This is what brought about the Industrial Revolution and the transformation of pre-Industrial economies which were predominantly rural and agrarian to industrial economies which were predominantly urban and based upon large-scale manufacturing. The problem lies in the fact that this answer cannot also be used to distinguish capitalism from socialism. Indeed, if this is taken to be the chief distinguishing characteristic of capitalism, which from a historical point of view it seems to be, then socialism would appear to be a form of capitalism. That assessment is not one which is likely to please either free market economists or socialists.
It is industrialism, the result of technology produced by the application of modern science to production, that distinguishes capitalism from previous economies, but this does not distinguish capitalism from socialism which is widely regarded as capitalism’s only significant competitor in the modern economy. Capitalism and socialism can only be distinguished by economic theory. In the economic theory of capitalism productive property is privately owned and the market is considered the most efficient and most fair means of distributing goods. In the economic theory of socialism productive property is collectively owned and the state distributes goods based upon need as assessed by the state.
The relationship between historical capitalism and the liberal economist’s theory of the free market can now be explained however. One result of the application of modern science to production was that it now became possible to produce manufactured goods on a much larger scale than before. In a modern, industrialized factory, goods could be produced in larger numbers in shorter periods of time than ever before. As a consequence, the market became more important than ever before. The whole point of a market is to sell that which you have produced in excess of your own needs to others who wish to purchase it in order to obtain other things that you do not make yourself but which you wish for or need. In an economy where people make most of the things they need for their own use themselves the market performs this vital function but people are not absolutely dependent upon it. When large factories began producing on a massive scale, however, all of a sudden the entire economy of a modern, industrialized, country became dependent upon the market. This is where the liberal economists entered the picture and offered a theoretical defense of the market which had already taken on new importance due to technological development.
Our definition of capitalism then, is that it is a modern economy brought into existence by the application of modern science to the development of productivity-enhancing technology and efficient assembly-line processes, in which productive property is privately owned and the market, as the means of distributing mass-produced goods is of central importance to the economy.
Now that we have a working definition of capitalism we can return to the main question of the impact of capitalism upon the culture of societies which have adopted it. Culture, remember, which grows out of a society’s religion, serves as a social adhesive, holding a community together, inspiring the kind of attitudes and behavior necessary for community living which laws alone cannot produce, and helping relieve the tension between human individuality and the human need for community. Has capitalism strengthened culture and helped it to perform this function or has it weakened it?
A case can be made that capitalism, in its early stages, strengthened culture. Although the economic case for the free market was made primarily by liberals who were at their best broad church latitudinarians and at their worst outright religious skeptics, (6) early capitalism was closely identified with the Protestant faith, particularly Calvinism, and especially the English version of Calvinism that is known as Puritanism. (7) Capitalism, at this stage in its development was supported by a Protestant ethic which stressed the importance of hard work, thrift and saving, and sacrifice. These are important things for a culture to stress because they help ward off the free rider problem which causes people to lose faith in the collective project of community and society. (8)
These ties between capitalism and the Protestant ethic no longer exist. If anything, capitalism in the late 20th and early 21st Centuries has come to support the exact opposite of these values. Contemporary capitalism encourages people to spend their money in order to support the market. This discourages thrift and saving. Yet hard work, thrift and saving are practices that cultures have encouraged and which parents have tried to teach their children for millennia. The Proverbs of Solomon in the Hebrew Scriptures and the fables of 7th Century BC Greek storyteller Aesop both preached their importance (9) The Protestant work ethic of early capitalism was in line with thousands of years worth of accumulated human wisdom. The contemporary capitalist ethic of “shop till you drop” is not. After the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center ten years ago, then US President George W. Bush in an address to the American nation said “I ask your continued participation and confidence in the American economy”. (10) While Mr. Bush went on to identify the values of the older capitalism as the source of American prosperity his words were widely interpreted by the news media and their viewing/reading audience as meaning “go shopping”. (11)
Why was this interpretation of “continued participation and confidence in the American economy” as “go shopping” so widely accepted? It was because an equation between “support the economy” and “go shopping” had already been made in the popular culture. It is a very easy equation to make because “go shopping” is the ubiquitous message of the popular media and a lesson people now learn from their earliest childhood. The electronic media have become the primary vessels of the transmission of culture for the majority of people and while television programs are still occasionally produced which convey old fashioned values in their message, the louder message is that of the advertisements which pay for the programs, and whose message is “buy our product”.
In all of this we see that a change has taken place within capitalism itself that coincides with a change in the culture of societies which are economically capitalist. As part of that change, values which culture has traditionally promoted and which were important to the early stages of capitalism have been abandoned as the culture has begun to promote behavior which traditionally culture sought to discourage. Why did this transformation take place and was it inevitable that capitalism would develop in this direction?
The change that has occurred in capitalism is basically this – consumption has become more important than production and the market has ceased to be a means to the end of human material prosperity and has become the end to which human productivity has become the means.
The seeds of this transformation were present in capitalism from the beginning. From “the market is the most efficient and fair way to distribute goods” it is a simple step to “the market is the source of prosperity” and yet another short step to “we must keep shopping in order to keep the market going because our economy will crumble if we don’t”. Yet these steps could never have been taken apart from the weakening and collapse of the cultural roadblocks which stood in their way.
Those roadblocks were essentially religious.
At Mt. Sinai, the commandments which the LORD handed down to Moses, began with:I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me. And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
We have a term for the sin of breaking these commandments. That term is “idolatry”. Theologically, idolatry can be defined as putting something which is not God in the place of God. It is idolatry, even if that which is put in God’s place, is itself a good. In philosophical ethics, roughly the same thing occurs when a means is treated as an end, or a penultimate good is treated as an ultimate good. This is exactly what occurs when the market is regarded as the source of human prosperity. It has taken the place of God as the ultimate source of good for mankind. When man turns a lesser good into an idol, that idol becomes his master and he becomes its slave.
The Christian faith, which inherited the Hebrew Scriptures and the prohibition against idolatry, stood in the way of the market being put in the place of God as the ultimate source of human good, so as long as capitalists were Calvinists, this could not take place. When the Christian faith of the Calvinist eroded, this roadblock was gone. The market was elevated to the level of the highest good and became an idol. When this happened the relationship between man and the market was inverted. The market, as a means to the end which is the material well-being of mankind, is a good thing. As such it is man’s servant not his master. When the market is treated as the source of human happiness it become’s man’s master and man becomes its slave. When this happens you find people making decisions and doing things that they would not otherwise make or do because it is “good for the market”.
Idolatry is an error in the setting of priorities. That which is secondary is treated as if it were of first importance. This leads to other similar errors. Man’s material needs are treated as being of greater importance than his moral and spiritual needs. Consumption is treated as being more important than production. The same Christian faith which warned against idolatry, including making an idol out of the market, warned against these errors as well. “What doeth it profit a man”, the Lord Jesus Christ once asked, “if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” To consume without producing, Christianity and common sense have long warned, is the path to poverty.
Capitalism, in other words, was on the road to contemporary consumerism the moment Christian faith began to wane in capitalist countries. Did capitalism itself contribute to that waning?
In a way this is like the question about whether the chicken came before the egg or vice versa. Capitalism is both the product of and a contributing factor in the ongoing process of change that has transformed the Western world from Christendom into a number of secular states and societies. Modernization is one way of describing this process. Those who regard it as being an unmixed blessing often refer to it as “progress”. This term suggests that the changes in the modernization process are improvements and that they are leading mankind away from the evils of the past towards a glorious future. While the modernization process, including the early stages of the development of modern science, began with Christian scholars in the late middle ages (12) it was deists, religious skeptics, and people who were hostile to the Christian faith who began to think of modernization in terms of progress.
It is ironic then that the concept of progress can be regarded as a form of “Christian” heresy. A heresy is what you end up with when you take one element of the orthodox doctrine of a religion and make it all-important by removing it from the context of orthodox doctrine as a whole to the point where other doctrines are denied. As Canadian conservative philosopher George Grant explained in the series of CBC lectures later edited into the book Philosophy in the Mass Age
Christianity inherited from Judaism a belief that there is meaning in the order of events which occur because such events are ordered by God towards His ultimate ends. Our Western understanding of history is based upon this belief and when it is removed from the theistic context of Christianity it becomes the idea of “progress” in which man takes God’s place as the mind directing historical events. (13)
This understanding of progress is fundamental to the critique of progress, technology and capitalism that recurs throughout Grant’s writings. In the opening essay of his final book Technology and Justice
he breaks down the English word “technology” into its roots and argues that this word better captures the essence of that which it denotes than its counterparts in other European languages, because technology is a synthesis of art and science, of making/doing and knowledge. The purpose of this synthesis is human domination over ourselves, nature, and the world. This, of course, is the domination which he saw as lying at the heart of the concept of progress. (14)
It is this same technology, as we earlier saw, which brought into existence the industrial economy of capitalism. If Grant is correct then, the capitalism which was in its earliest stages driven by the Protestant ethic, was part of a process that would eventually undermine that very influence of Protestant Christianity upon the culture of capitalist nations, which in turn led to the transformation of capitalism into the consumerist corporate empire it is today. Grant himself went even further than that in identifying the seeds of late capitalism in the capitalism of the earlier era:Early capitalism was full of moral restraints. The Protestant ethic inhibited any passion that did not encourage acquisition. The greed of each would lead to the greater good of all. But in the age of high technology, the new capitalism can allow all passions to flourish along with greed.
The idea here is that of a two-stage liberation of the passions, which pre-modern ethics had shackled. (16) In the first stage greed was unleashed, while other passions – the context suggests the sexual passions are what Grant has chiefly in mind - remained inhibited. In the second stage the remaining passions are emancipated.
While there are some problems with this (17), overall the description of the modern age of progress as a gradual unshackling of the passions from the restraints pre-modern Western civilization placed upon them seems quite accurate. Contemporary capitalism and the culture that corresponds with it has been telling people to indulge themselves and their passions for decades. The advertisement industry, that part of consumerist capitalism whose job is to convince people to buy products, is constantly preaching this message to people, and since advertisement pays the bills for the producers of popular culture in the age of the mass media, that culture has come to preach that message as well. A culture that tells people to indulge their passions and throw off traditional restraints, however, is a culture which does not serve the function for which culture exists very well.
Culture, remember, exists to unite a community or a society, alleviating the tension between the social nature of man and his individuality, in a way which the law, also required for this purpose, cannot. Culture does this, Roger Scruton tells us, by “dedicating
them [the present members of a society] to the past and future of the community”. (18) In other words, it provides the present members of the community with the long view that enables and encourages them to sacrifice part of their present, short term good, for the long term good of the community as a whole.
Culture then is supposed to present us with a view of our community, as a whole larger then ourselves. (19) Culture cannot do this when it is too heavily influenced by modern liberalism. Modern liberalism is the belief that the individual comes first and that society is a voluntary contract between individuals made with the end of securing the good of individuals. The free market economist’s defence of capitalism is the economic expression of modern liberalism (20).
Modern liberalism, in its political and economic manifestations, wishes to see all human interaction conducted on a contractual basis. It was against this that 19th Century social critic Thomas Carlyle wrote “We have profoundly forgotten everywhere that cash-payment is not the sole relation of human beings”. (21) Nor, it should be added, is it the most important. The most important relationships between human beings are not those which are appropriate for the market place but those which exist within the family. The relationship between a husband and his wife, and between parents and their children, are of far greater importance than the relationship between a seller and a buyer. These relationships would not be improved by being made to resemble a business relationship. Indeed, a huge part of the present crisis of marriage is that the state has done all in its power to reduce marriage to the level of a business partnership.
What the state has removed from marriage is what liberalism would have removed from all human relations – the sense of the sacred. The words we use to express the concept of the sacred are words which originally conveyed the meaning of “set apart”. Something that is sacred, that is holy, is something that is “set aside” or “reserved”. To grasp the concept of the sacred we need to ask two questions: “set apart for what?” and “set apart from what?” The answer to the first is fairly obvious. Within a religious tradition that which is sacred is set apart for that which is considered divine in that religious tradition, the gods, or in Christianity, God. The second question requires a bit more thought but what the answer ultimately boils down to is “the common”, “the ordinary”, “the everyday”, “the mundane”. Something which is sacred is something which is removed from the realm of the ordinary and elevated by being consecrated for the use of the divine.
When something is raised to the level of the sacred it is removed from the market, for something which is dedicated to God is priceless in the most literal sense of the term. To attach a price to it, to make it into an object of commerce, is to commit an act of desecration. Remember that Jesus when He found the money changers in the courtyard of the Temple, overturned their tables and drove them out saying “It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves” (Matt. 21:13). Whereas modern liberalism demands a separation between church and state, which makes religion into something it is not supposed to be, i.e., a private, personal matter and prevents it from being that which it is supposed to be, i.e., the coming together to worship which lies at the heart of the culture which binds a community, past, present and future, together, it was something more like a separation between commerce and religion which Jesus demanded.
Does this mean that the market is a bad thing?
No, it is a good thing when it is kept in its proper place and put to its proper use. When it is put in religion’s place in the heart of a community, however, it cheapens everything by reducing it to a commodity. Roger Scruton wrote:But something new seems to be at work in the contemporary world—a process that is eating away the very heart of social life, not merely by putting salesmanship in place of moral virtue, but by putting everything—virtue included—on sale
This spells death for the life of a community. In a market transaction, both participants exchange something they value less for something they value more. This amounts, paradoxically, to a gain for both parties. This is the “subjective theory of value” which is one of the central insights of Carl Menger (23) and the Austrian School of Economics. This, combined with Ludwig von Mises’ argument about the non-existence of a means whereby a central planning body could calculate the economic needs of everybody within a society, is the reason why the market is the best possible way of handling economic matters.
It works, however, because each person in a market transaction is looking out, first and last, for his own self-interest. This works well in economic transactions but it would be very problematic if every interaction in society were conducted on this basis. If every social interaction consisted of two individuals looking out for their self-interest first and trying to come to an agreement then the only way in which we would ever see others is as means to our own ends. This amounts to the complete objectification (24) of every person, by every person, and is the very antithesis of a healthy community.
Religion, traditionally, consecrates the most important events and relationships in our lives. Weddings are traditionally conducted by clergymen, who pronounce God’s blessing on the union of man and woman, establishing the marriage as a covenant rather than a contract. In most of the traditional branches of the Christian faith a newborn child is baptized shortly after birth upon which occasion the child officially receives his Christian name and when a man is expected to die God’s blessing is pronounced over him in the last rites. The beginning and end of life is thereby consecrated and after a man dies the ceremony in which his loved ones say good bye, the funeral, is an inherently religious rite as well.
All of this serves an important social function. By consecrating the most important events and relationships in our lives as sacred, religion reminds us that life is about more than just the obtaining of material things. This reminds us that life itself is sacred. As technological development and mass production have magnified the role of the market place in Western societies, they have brought us tremendous material blessings, but those blessings have not come without a cost. By taking over the role of the Christian religion at the centre of Western cultures, the market has robbed us to a great degree of our sense of the sacred. It has also robbed us to a large degree of a sense of vocation (25) and of public spirit (26) among our leaders. These are all things which it is difficult to regain once lost.
The time is now long past when we should have asked ourselves whether the price of “progress” was worth it.
(1)Roger Scruton, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture
(South Bend, Ind.: St. Augustine’s Press, 1998, 2000) This book is a defense of high culture, in the tradition of Wilhelm von Humboldt, Matthew Arnold and T. S. Eliot, which argues that the function of modern Western high culture is to fill the gap left by the collapse of Christian belief in Western societies. The argument is a sociological/anthropological explanation of the purpose of religion. While Scruton argues that such a view of religion can only be taken from the outside by those who have distanced themselves from the faith I see no reason why someone like myself who believes that the evidence overwhelmingly points to Jesus of Nazareth having risen from the dead as a historical fact, thus demonstrating the truth of His claim to be the Son of God, cannot also accept a reasonable explanation of the social function of religion.
(2) Socialism’s moral assessment of capitalism and capitalists and capitalism’s moral assessment of socialism are not the subject of this essay and so I will deal with them briefly here. Each side, in its judgement of the other, exaggerates the importance of a particular economic group (productive property owners for capitalism, wage-labourers for socialism) for the good of the other group and of the society as a whole, and downplays the extent to which the well-being of its own group depends upon the good of the whole community. The exaggeration is far greater on the part of the socialist than the capitalist. No efficient system of producing goods on a scale large enough to raise the standard of living of most members of a community significantly above subsistence level ever has been produced by manual labour alone, nor would it be possible to do so. The possibility exists, at least in theory, for a capitalist to do away with his labour force by completely automatizing his property. The capitalist is far more important for the well-being of the wage labourer than the other way around (this is the one essential truth that can be pulled from the mountains of error which exist in the writings of Ayn Rand). Conversely, the capitalist is far more likely to downplay the extent to which community, an orderly society, and just laws contribute to the creation of private wealth. Ultimately, however, the capitalist’s moral assessment of socialism is more accurate than the socialist’s moral assessment of capitalism.
(3) From an economic point of view I have no objection to the free market argument. Socialism, which presents itself as the alternative to capitalism, is based upon the idea that a governing body can plan the economy of an entire society in such a way as to produce a better outcome for all of the society’s members than if each member makes his own economic decisions for himself and has control over whatever property he may privately own. I have never understood how anybody could be stupid enough to believe this.
(4) See Robert Nisbet’s The Quest For Community
(London: Oxford University Press, 1953, 1962), pp 104-105.
(5) Marxists, for example, explain the relationship this way.
(6) See, however, Murray N. Rothbard Economic Thought Before Adam Smith: An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought Vol. 1
(Aldershot and Brookfield: Edward Elgar Publishing, 1995) for the alternative view that free market arguments were anticipated by, among others, neo-Aristotelian Roman Catholic scholastics in the late middle ages.
(7) See, for example Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism
(New York: Scribner, 1958). It should be noted that Weber’s explanation of the relationship between the Protestant work and the doctrine of predestination seems accurate enough as a description of Puritan theology, but some insist that that theology, through the influence of Theodore Beza, William Perkins and others, has diverged from John Calvin’s own teachings on just this point. See R. T. Kendall, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1654
(Oxford: Oxford University Press: 1979), and M. Charles Bell Calvin and Scottish Theology: The Doctrine of Assurance
(Edinburgh: The Handsel Press, 1985). Nevertheless, the connection between Calvinism and early capitalism seems undeniable. Capitalism developed first where Calvinist influence was the strongest (the Netherlands on continental Europe, the English-speaking world, and especially the strongly Puritan influenced United States of America).
(8) Marxists, of course, and other socialists would argue that the capitalist class – i.e., the class of people that derives its income from its ownership of property is a free rider class that profits from the efforts of others, i.e., those it employs to work on or in its property. This argument is based upon a misconception of the relationship between property owners and labourers. It has more weight, however, when it comes not from those who believe in some nonsensical vision of a propertyless egalitarian society, but those who preach the importance of small property owners who work their own property (deceased British economist E. F. Schumacher for example, Kirkpatrick Sale or Wendell Berry of Kentucky).
(9) Think of Proverbs 6:6-9 and Aesop’s fable of the ant and the grasshopper.
(12) Richard M. Weaver, in Ideas Have Consequences
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948) identified the nominalism of William of Ockham in the 13th Century as the beginning of the decay of Christian civilization. Nominalism was a rejection of the reality of universals, which in one form or another had been the focus of Western philosophy since Plato and Aristotle. This is relevant because the Athenian school, by refocusing philosophy on universals (justice, truth, etc.) laid the foundations for Western civilization, whereas nominalism led to a reversion to the questions which were important to pre-Socratic philosophers (questions about the nature and composition of the world). Note however, that the Athenian philosophers did not reject such matters entirely. Aristotle in particular devoted much study to the natural sciences which is why the Scholastic revival of Aristotelianism was also an important factor in the development of modern science. Science is built upon a foundation of presuppositions which assume a theistic worldview like that of Christianity – science is the observation of the world, the development of theories which explain and predict on the basis of those observations, and the testing of theories through experimentation, all of which presupposes that there is order which can be found in the world through observation, which presupposes, although many scientists deny it, that Someone put that order there.
(13) George P. Grant, Philosophy in the Mass Age
(Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995). The original edition was published by Copp Clark Publishing in 1959. It consists of eight essays which were revised from a series of lectures on philosophy Grant had given on CBC radio in 1958. The fourth essay, “History as Progress” is the relevant essay, in which Grant writes “Nevertheless, in its moral connotation there is nothing more important to its understanding than to recognize how the Christian idea of history as the divinely ordained process of salvation, culminating in the Kingdom of God, passes over into the idea of history as progress, culminating in the Kingdom of Man: how Christianity’s orienting of time to a future made by the will of God becomes the futuristic spirit of progress in which events are shaped by the will of man.” (p. 44).
(14) George P. Grant, Technology and Justice
(Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 1986). The first essay is entitled “Thinking about Technology”.
(15) George P. Grant, Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism
(Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1989), p. 59. The original edition of this book was published in 1965. The occasion for Grant’s famous jeremiad was the defeat of the Diefenbaker Conservatives in 1963, when the Liberals and NDP brought down the government following an orchestrated media campaign against Diefenbaker after he refused to allow American nuclear warheads on Canadian soil. Grant regarded this as the last step in the transformation of Canada into a satellite of the American empire. As a part of Western civilization, Grant argued, North American societies have no roots older than the age of progress, but whereas the United States was built upon the concept of progress, Canada was a conservative project made possible by the fact that English Canada retained its ties to Great Britain which still had pre-modern roots.
(16) Grant, like Weaver, was a Christian Platonist. In Plato’s Republic
, Socrates argued that the human soul was divided into three parts, reason, will, and the appetites, and that in the properly ordered soul, the soul of the philosopher, reason governed the appetites through the will, and that this same tripartite division would be reflected in the class structure of the just polis. The rule of the philosopher kings representing reason, would be enforced by the guardian warriors representing the will, over the mechanical workers representing the appetites or passions. The same idea that ethical behavior requires the use of the will to suppress our desires when they would pull us away from what reason tells us is the right thing to do, recurs in a slightly different form in the Ethics of Aristotle. Grant’s comments about the removal of moral inhibitions on the passions reflects a Christian version of this.
(17) Grant seems to make no distinction, for example, between the desire to acquire material wealth and “greed”. However, if we consider the passions which were inhibited in the earlier Protestant ethic but which have subsequently been unshackled, such a distinction is necessary. Grant’s next sentence after the one quoted makes reference to Playboy
, for example, indicating that sexual desire was what he had in mind when he wrote “any passion that did not encourage acquisition”. The Protestant ethic however, did not completely equate sexual desire with the vice of “lust”. Such an equation would have been expressed in a rule against any and all sexual expression, including that which occurs within wedlock. Only extreme sects like the Shakers ever dreamed up such a rule, however. The mainstream Christian ethic, both Catholic and Protestant, was that sexual desire was only to be physically expressed within the confines of marriage. The passion of sexual desire was not intrinsically bad, but when ungoverned, led to behavior which was either harmful in itself or could have harmful consequences (premarital intercourse was irresponsible because it could lead to children being born outside of the security of wedlock, adultery was intrinsically harmful because it was a betrayal of one’s spouse and could also lead to cuckoldry, etc.) Hence, in the Christian ethic, the vice of lust is not sexual desire per se, but sexual desire which is emancipated from these ethical restraints. Similarly, greed must not be identified with the generic human desire to acquire material wealth. Like sexual desire, the desire for material acquisition is necessary to human survival, and must therefore be identified as a good. It is when it is not balanced with other goods and made subject to the highest good that it becomes a vice. The vice of greed is not easy to define. Some have defined it as “the desire to acquire more than what one needs”. This begs the question of “what do we mean by need?” If by “need” we mean the bare minimum required to maintain our existence, then this definition of greed would translate into the moral requirement that all human beings live at the level of mere subsistence. Only an insane person would think this way. Another definition of greed is “the desire to acquire more than one’s fair share of material goods”. This is better than the first definition but we again run into the problem that “one’s fair share” is a hard concept to pin down, except in cooperative ventures. The best definition of greed is that it the vice of taking one’s desire for material gain so far that one is willing to compromise the good of other people for it.
(18) Scruton, op.cit., p. 9, italics in original.
(19) This serves the good of the community but it also serves our good as individual persons by providing us with a context within which to understand ourselves. That this answers to a need in our human nature seems evident from the search for self-identity which seems to be everywhere present since culture has ceased to provide it.
(20) This can be confusing to people in the English-speaking world, especially North America. This is because we tend to equate conservatism with capitalism and liberalism with socialism and to regard conservatism and liberalism (and capitalism and socialism) as opposites.
(21) The quotation comes from “The Gospel of Mammonism”, which is the second chapter of Book Three of Past and Present
(1843). Elsewhere in the same work (“Working Aristocracy” which is chapter 9 of Book III) Carlyle expressed the same sentiment by writing “Cash-payment is not the sole nexus of man with man”. This brought the expression “cash nexus” as a reference to market interactions into the English language.
(22) Scruton, op. cit., p. 55.
(23) Carl Menger, Principles of Economics
(New York: New York University Press, 1976) a translation of Grundsätze der Volkswirtschaftslehre
first published in 1871.
(24) By objectification I mean the reduction of a person to the level of an object. Jewish philosopher Martin Buber in his I and Thou
(New York: Scribner Classics, 2000, a translation of Ich und Du
first published in 1923) pointed out the fundamental difference between the “I-Thou” way of relating to other people and God and the “I-It” way in which we use objects.
(25) Vocation, a word derived from the Latin verb meaning “to call”, refers to the sense that one’s work is an answer to a higher calling. While a sense of vocation can still be found among clergymen, artists and to a lesser degree statesmen (if anyone deserving of this label is still around) it has by and large been lost for most people. Careerism has replaced vocation for those whose work comes with a ladder of success for the ambitious to climb, whereas other jobs have become “occupations” – things done to pass the time and pay the bills. Without a sense of vocation, work is perceived as a necessary evil to be avoided if at all possible, rather than as something which is a good to be engaged in for its own sake as much as for the material remuneration one receives for it. See Weaver, op. cit., pp. 70-79.
(26) Peregrine Worsthorne, Democracy Needs Aristocracy
(London: HarperPerennial, 2005), originally published in hardback as In Defence of Aristocracy
in 2004. In this book Worsthorne argues for the values the British aristocracy represented (even if they did not always embody them very well) and for the general concept of a leadership class which takes to public service out of a sense of duty. While Worsthorne does find examples of aristocratic leadership in the most capitalist of countries the United States (chapter four) he argues that the capitalism of the new consensus between “New Labour” and “New Conservatism” has threatened the values he is championing. In chapter five, for example, he writes “For triumphant capitalism, unlike triumphant socialism after the war, had no need to make use of the gentlemanly public-service ethics. Quite the contrary. It has a vested interest in the destruction of that ethic, and the marginalization of the gentlemanly class that still adhered to it. Cutting off heads, in the French revolutionary fashion, was not necessary. A less brutal but no less effective method was to stuff their mouths with gold” (p. 199) Worsthorne goes on to decry the way the “spirit of free enterprise” has taken over the old Tory educational institutions so that “a great public school like Eton became just as proud of an old alumni who had built up a media empire from scratch as of one who had become a prime minister or an archbishop.” (pp. 200-201). Earlier, in the chapter in which he gave a brief history of the British aristocracy, Worsthorne explained this as the result of the Labour Party’s acceptance of the post-Thatcher consensus. “New Labour’s removal of the threat to property had thus altered the balance of power in British politics, allowing the bourgeois bulk of the Conservative Party, which only accepted the aristocratic tradition as a marriage of convenience, to show what, out of prudence, they had previously kept hidden: their anti-gentlemanly social chip on the shoulder”. (p. 105) Worsthorne writes “As a force for change, capitalism in Britain was always likely to be a more socially dissolvent force than socialism”. (p. 106). George Grant had made similar remarks in Lament for a Nation
and Technology and Empire
(Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 1969) in the last of which he wrote “These days when we are told in North America that capitalism is conservative, we should remember that capitalism was the great dissolvent of the traditional virtues”. (p. 67) There is a slight difference in the way these two conservative thinkers came to their similar positions however. Grant believed that the Marxists were wrong in seeing socialism as being more progressive than capitalism and argued that socialism was a positively conservative force. Worsthorne, on the other hand, wrote that “Indeed socialism, by frightening and therefore slowing down the capitalist horses, acted more as a brake than an accelerator”. In other words, it was not that socialism was intrinsically conservative in any way, but that it was a threat that prevented capitalism from going too far down the road of progress.