Editor’s Note: This text originally appeared in the January 2019 publication L’Acampado.
One of the characteristics of modern man is to qualify himself as a consumer, or a man who integrates into a society of consummation. Tocqueville, in the 19th century, already predicted that man—and the society of the 20th century—would be of weak spiritual stature who is always on the lookout for material usefulness in things or personal interests, beneath a State of paternal appearance, but totalitarian at its core. This particularity of modern man permits us to qualify him as a “homo economicus.” When money seductively dominates those who live in society and when it is placed above man’s natural end (which determines equivalence among things) society converts itself into a grand shopping center and the citizen into a producer and consumer being.
His principal goal is not always gaining the bait. What preoccupies and absorbs the businessman, what fills his life and gives motivation to his activity is the interest of his business. This is where the business man concentrates his work, his preoccupations; what do his pride and desire rest upon? His business. Business for him is a being of flesh and bones which, thanks to his responsibility, organization, and commercial contracts, drives his independent, economic existence. The businessman does not know any other end nor does he have any other preoccupation except to watch his trade grow until it is converted into a strong, prosperous, and blossoming organism. The vast majority of masters of industry do not have any other aspiration other than amplifying their trade. If someone asks them why they are doing all of this, what is the object of all their preoccupations? They would stare with a gaping mouth and reply in an irritated manner that no explanation is needed. Their business simply requires economic development; it requires progress. Such an analysis for the impartial observer with such a response appears absurd and even implicates regression to childhood i.e. to the elementary state of a childish soul. A child has four ideals that direct his life.
—Firstly, it is the inherent grandeur in mature adults, and finally, by the bigger person or “grown up.” We find this in the quantitative valorization proper to businessmen. For him, being successful signifies having advantages over others, being greater than one’s neighbor, being bigger—a childish desire, a certain searching for the infinite which is sometimes the signature of the spirit of avarice.
—The second ideal proper to children is that of rapid movement. The promptness of carrying out his economic plans interests the modern businessman as much as his massive and quantitative character; the concept of setting new records enters his business.
—The third ideal of the child is novelty. The child gets tired of his projects quickly. He will leave it to take up another. Equally, the businessman of our times is drawn by what is new, because what is novel is original.
—Finally, the child tries to feel that he has a certain power, and for this, he gives orders to his little brothers or makes the dog do tricks. The seeking of power is the fourth tendency of the businessman. Thus, the head of a modern company who is obsessed with his trade has tainted morals which are similar to those of children. Therefore, there is a certain childishness in him. Certainly, not all business owners behave like this. There are exemplary examples in their fields, but for the most part among them, they give themselves feverishly to their activity and push themselves to the limit of human possibility—to the detriment of their family, and above all to the detriment of their spiritual life. Each and every moment of the day, of love, of life, each aspiration of the mind, all preoccupations and worries are consecrated to one thing: production. This excess of activity ends in destroying the body and corrupting the soul.
Behold a man who lives by the coming and goings of his wallet. He finds himself upon his deathbed; his eyes are already closed. All of a sudden, he opens his eyes and with what little he has left of his voice he addresses one of his sons and asks, “How much is the dollar worth today?” Those were his last words. The same obsession with earnings makes this type of businessman, who dominates today, completely ignorant regarding all foreign considerations to things other than earnings. He is convinced that they are of the superior lucrative value above all other values. No scruples exist on the moral, aesthetic, or sentimental levels.
We can apply here what was said about one of the Rockefellers: “They have passed above every moral obstacle with an almost ingenuous lack of scruples.” John Rockefeller recalledwhose memoirs reflect in an excellent manner that mentality, on one occasion summed up his creed by saying that he was disposed to pay a salary of a million dollars to one of his agents on the condition that he possesses—outside of the necessary aptitudes—a deficiency of scruples such that he will be willing to sacrifice thousands of people without the slightest hesitation. Behold the face of the businessman—the active face of the consumerist spirit. Let us look at the identity of the consumer now. He is, himself, obsessed by economic goods, always looking for what is useful, of quantity over quality. His call to action is to produce and consume the maximum. Man is a machine who is made to produce and consume. Conversely, there is a profound difference between economic and spiritual goods.
The nature of economic goods consists in being exchanged and consumed. The nature of spiritual goods consists in being expressed and communicated. The magnanimity of a spiritual good does not change, rather, it communicates itself. It does not consume itself; it expresses itself. And the more that is communicates and expresses itself, the more it enriches, grows, and the more powerful it becomes. On the other hand, economic goods, money or material goods change, are used up, and are consumed. This signifies that they may be bought or sold. No one, on the other hand, can buy or sell spiritual goods, because they are not merchandise. This is not to say that material goods are contemptible. Their status of being bought and sold implies a just price. This just price is established upon a basis of moral criteria, therefore, economic exchanges can be acts of justice.
In this case, the act of buying and selling, which is proper to economic goods, includes a certain spiritual value which, among non-spiritual goods becomes concrete and a part of life. It is for this reason that it would be wrong to denigrate, in the name of an abstract spirituality, economic goods. It would also be wrong to overstate, in the name of obtuse materialism, economic goods, as is the case today. It would be equally erroneous to put these two categories of values on the same playing field.
—Economic goods, one makes use of;
—Spiritual goods, one savors. The expression comes from St. Augustine, according to whom,
—Perishables, correspond to their uti, their utility.
—The things that do not perish, corresponds to their frui, their enjoyment.
The first are a means—to consume. The others, by enjoying them—grow. But the consumerist man does not establish distinctions. For him, the only things that count are earthly goods. It is the era of plastic: to have and use, to use and throw away, and to buy a new one. And of course, we must recognize this and react against it. This metaphysics of “nothing” is achieved by the possession of a great number of things and the widespread death of all ideals. The sickness of our Western, and formerly Christian heritage, is abundance: to have all that is material and to reduce to the maximum all that is spiritual. Surrounded by objects, man feels empty, the contrary of what St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “Having nothing, we possess everything.” Every civilization offers a vision proper to man, and it is by this that one can judge it. Thus, the civilizations of old had their aristocracies in which a determined human ideal was incarnated. One cannot understand, for example, Greek civilization without knowing the ideal of “the good and the beautiful” which is its hallmark; in the same manner, one cannot understand medieval culture if one does not know anything of what was sacred, of knights or of courtiers. Each grand civilization brought about a certain type of man, a human model which sometimes never becomes totally solidified, but which the attraction remains fascinating, sustaining the effort of all those upon whom they radiate. Modern civilization which does not understand man anymore, which ignores the sense of intelligence and finds itself amputated from all finality, may be essentially defined as a civilization of means, a technical civilization; the means themselves are converted into ends. To possess the means is to possess the end. It is evident that material riches have always played an important role in society, but which have never constituted an object of admiration in themselves. Man has always sought after silver and gold, but never before was his “searching for and obtaining the goal” considered as the ultimate end of human intelligence. For traditional men, wealth was nothing other than the means that allowed him to carry out his creativity. Only the society of today has exalted the figure of the consumerist man where his final destiny is achievable on earth. This frantic consuming of everything at our finger tips: food, products of every species, fashion, value, idea, neologism, novelty, information, idol, brand name, and image, manifests within man a profound desire to assimilate whatever he doesn’t have, whatever the human condition does not permit. It refers to the multitudinous and degraded expression of a false ecstasy that emanates from this man, to consume more every time and to be less each time. Behold the man who is before us today, he who is the citizen consumer, the anxious man who satisfies his desires, a man who is reduced to his material necessities. Lastly, everything revolves around passion, limited to a great extent by the goods of consummation. It is what is proper to the passionate man: to see nothing other than his passions, to be blinded by them, to identify with them. Modern propaganda has understood the mutilating function of passion when it exits its orbit. Today, it gives man a “light” that doesn’t interest heroes or saints anymore. These models are those that have triumphed economically, a race full of things, but empty of the essential—empty of being. Thus, one creates a mass of people which is subject to the daily stupor of the media, accustomed to react personably, without the least suspicion, and fully submitted to every type of manipulation.
The consumerist man is therefore an anxious man. Not anxious in the same sense as explained by St. Augustine: that the heart of man is “not at rest until it reposes in God.” He is at unrest because of his superior appetites, but not at rest due to his tireless search for what is inferior. Confronted with the spasmodic rhythm of progress centered around technology, superficial information, and the easy access to visual stimuli that inundates us, the soul doesn’t develop at all; on the contrary, it regresses, and the spiritual life diminishes; it loses quality. Well-being increases while spiritual development is reduced. The overabundance breaks the heart and leaves it in terrible sadness.
No, it is impossible to confide all our hopes in science, technology, and economic gain. The victory of scientific and technical civilization has inculcated us with a sort of spiritual insecurity. These gifts enrich us but also submit us to slavery. Everything is reduced to our interests; everything is a struggle for material goods, but an interior voice tells us that we are leaving behind something pure, superior, and fragile. We do not discern the sense or finality of our existence anymore. So, remember this, even as a whisper to help us correct ourselves: busy and caught up in this vertigo of movement—why are we alive? The eternal questions remain, it is up to us to fight back so that we remain free and enjoy the freedom of the children of God. Slaves of God, yes, because being slaves to our flesh is contrary to our dignity. May we become more aware of this by the ever-abundant grace of God.