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Disposing of Luxuries
By David Arthur Walters
Last edited: Saturday, February 05, 2011
Posted: Saturday, February 05, 2011



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Periodic Bonfires of Vanities may save the human soul from gross materialism

For Helga

 

Something we should consider before rushing to build towers to the heavens.

Each and every one of us is confronted by and is part of a world upon which we all depend for our survival.  Besides its objective or material aspect, our world includes a so-called subjective or spiritual aspect, i.e. other human spirits or wills with which everyone must contend; hence individuals develop apparently unique and conflicting perspectives in the competition for physical resources.

Although we shall never fully understand the relationship between mind and matter because the difference between the two is a fiction drawn from a relationship that might not really exist, we assume for convenience's sake that there is in fact an objective world "outside" of the human mind that, by its opposition to individual wills, determines mental character. But an over-emphasis on the material world is mistaken and inhumane, and it will, taken to its psychological extremities, destroy the human being through spiritual impoverishment.

Notwithstanding the commonsense prejudice of matter over mind, a few leading thinkers emphasize the reverse, giving formal priority to the human spirit as the leading principle of human life, not because it is logically prior, but because mind over matter is necessary to our survival; our immortality, if you will. In any event, subject is placed above object for the sake of the human dignity without which the human race would perish. Regardless of the relative physical distribution of the universe, the human being is at its center. He is not the victim of a world set against him or indifferent to him: rather, he is formally prior to the world and the world is FOR him provided that he makes the highest and best use of it by virtue of the progressive organization of his intelligence.

Man is naturally a rational animal. His higher power of mind enables him to employ the mental field of society to the greatest advantage of the greatest number of people. Therefore it is no wonder he treasures this superior force whose "object" is not particular things but rather his ongoing felicity: the wise man rightly ranks subtle "spirit" over rank "matter." That is why “the pursuit of property” in the rough draft of the U.S. Constitution, which initially followed the French version of the clause, was changed to the “pursuit of happiness.” Still, the pursuit of property goes on unabated as if it were the equivalent of happiness.

Indeed, experience informs us of the vicious consequences of luxury and the virtuous effects of thrift provided that the savings is put to their highest and best use. Spiritual leaders since time immemorial have urged a broader distribution of wealth. And they have prescribed the disposal of luxuries: we find a relatively recent example in Savonarola, who took over his town and had his flock bring their luxuries to the public square for destruction. Of course that served as a spur to yet another wave of perverse accumulation of obscene luxuries; and it has been well noted that the things destroyed in that exemplary bonfire of vanities were junk rather than previous things like silk and gold. But from whence does gold get its value besides its enduring glitter? As John Maynard Keynes remarked in support of the expansion of money supply to stimulate demand during economic depressions, if gold coins with no intrinsic value are buried in the ground, people will break their backs digging them up.

Yes – and this bears repeating – fundamentalist or primitive preachers have preached frugality and thrift from the earliest times. Perhaps our Neolithic predecessors were subjected to such sermons, even in those places where the average man could make a good living hunting and gathering in about four hours per day provided he was in a friendly environment. Of course prehistoric free-time was not always the leisure time we imagine it to be for our beloved noble savages, but was a forced idleness imposed by harsh weather and other natural conditions. Later on, religion imposed its enforced holidays, sometimes over the objection of cultivators and merchants who were otherwise disposed. With the advance of civilization, from human sacrifice to sacrificing present consumption in order to accumulate wealth, excess production resulted not only in the waste of unjustly allotted material resources but also in the waste of spiritual resources, of the earned leisure time better invested in meditating and communing than chasing after and warring over material superfluities. Even when material excesses flow from the highest of spiritual motives, unsavory characters, who should be discoursing on Confucius and Socrates and their heirs if not studying sacred scriptures, show up to make gross capital of them.

For example, during the Middle Ages the highly productive unpaid-labor force of the frugal Cistercian monks and their lay brothers created a huge excess over their own consumption, contributing to an economic mini-boom in Europe. Greedy laymen moved in to purchase the leadership of the monasteries in order to turn a quick profit, which is anathema to the true Cistercian spirit. Abbots squabbled among themselves, leaving the ingeniously confederated order in disorder.

That old order of monks is now associated in the popular mind with the White Monks or Trappists, one of the later branches of the Cistercian order founded in 1664 at La Trappe. The Cistercian monastic order, first called 'Novum Monasterium', was established at Citreaux in 1098 in reaction to the religious disorder resulting from priestly intimacy with worldly perversity and the general love of luxury. The monkish Benedictine defectors longed to actually observe the Rule of St. Benedict, especially as it appertained to poverty and obedience and charity. So did many others, not only humble folk but rich and noble persons as well. Persons eager for spiritual order instead of material disorder flocked to the remote site, causing the rapid growth of the Cistercians.

The nobleman Bernard joined up in 1112 along with 30 others of noble birth, including four of his brothers. St. Bernard was asked in 1125 to write an Apology for the alleged Cistercian slander of the Cluniacs, the Benedictines headquartered at Cluny from which the Cistercians had defected. Of course the Apology served continued the polemic against the old institution: Amongst other things, Bernard had this to say about the edifices at Cluny:

"...There is no comparison here between bishops and monks. We know that the bishops, debtors to both the wise and unwise, use material beauty to arouse the devotion of a carnal people because they cannot do so by spiritual means. But we who have now come out of that people, we who have left the precious and lovely things of the world for Christ, we who, in order to win Christ, have reckoned all beautiful, sweet-smelling, fine-sounding, smooth-feeling, good-tasting things - in short, all bodily delights - as so much dung, what do we expect to get out of them? Admiration from the foolish? Offerings from the ignorant? Or, scattered as we are among the gentiles, are we learning their tricks and serving their idols?

"I shall speak plainly: Isn't greed, a form of idolatry, responsible for all this? Aren't we seeking contributions rather than spiritual profit? 'How?' you ask. 'In a strange and wonderful way,' I answer. Money is scattered about in such a way that it will multiply. It is spent so that it will increase. Pouring it out produces more of it. Faced with expensive but marvelous vanities, people are inspired to contribute rather than to pray. Thus riches attract riches and money produces more money. I don't know why, but the wealthier a place, the readier people are to contribute to it. Just feast their eyes on gold-covered relics and their purses will open. Just show them a beautiful picture of some saint. The brighter the colors, the saintlier he'll appear to them. Men rush to kiss and are invited to contribute. There is more admiration for beauty than veneration for sanctity. Thus churches are decorated, not simply with jeweled crowns, but with jeweled wheels illuminated as much by their precious stones as by their lamps. We see candelabra like big bronze trees, marvelously wrought, their gems glowing no less than their flames. What do you think is the purpose of such things? To gain the contrition of penitents or the admiration of spectators?

"Oh vanity of vanities, yet no more vain than insane! The church is resplendent in her walls and wanting in her poor. She dresses her stones in gold and lets her sons go naked. The eyes of the rich are fed at the expense of the indigent. The curious find something to amuse them and the needy find nothing to sustain them..." (Translation by David Burr, olivi.mail.vt.edu: translations available for educational use.)

Still, after labor, obedience, poverty and incoming charity made the Cistercians wealthy, the abhorred laxity took hold. Unequal justice was done in the once equal ranks. The abundance siphoned off by merchants was not equitably distributed. Thus the good intention of the monks had results that finally fell far short of the higher aims of the human spirit. Thus have so many reforms lapsed back into the very conduct that evoked reform.

Alas, abundance does not mean just distribution, as we can clearly observe in a much more recent glaring case on point during the Great Depression: food rotted in warehouses because selling it would have been unprofitable. President Hoover, the Commander in Chief, had the American military forces under Patton, MacArthur and Eisenhower attack hungry veteran families camping in Washington; just imagine gas bombs exploding, sabers flashing, bayonets stabbing – a child was stabbed in the leg for trying to save his pet rabbit – tanks clanking, women and children running and screaming, babies bawling, hospital filling up with casualties: what more could this Great Nation of Ours ask for in terms of heroism, other than its own army attacking veterans because they were out of work and without a place to live? Such was the penurious charity of the Puritan ethic, which had helped inspire the boom in private wealth, after the boom went bust – Puritan thrift turned to selfishness made charity necessary. Then Hitler's greed saved the United States from revolution at the price of millions of lives.

But let's return to the Cistercians, who were one the perfect picture of practical economy in their heyday; for example, their monasteries set up over streams to facilitate access to drinking water, milling of grain, bathing, and sewage disposal. A Cistercian named Joachim had another, more spiritual form of facility in mind. Joachim of Flora conceived of a utopian, cruciform monastic system (New Jerusalem) to live out the Age of Love he envisioned before he died. Like a church, the cross-shaped monastery represented the Ideal Man, Jesus Christ – its functional structure corresponded to the eyes, ears, nose and mouth. For instance, if I could stand the disciplining of my cultivated chaos and the tempering of my unruly insubordination at Joachim's model monastery, I would prefer Joachim's Oratory of St. Paul, which is the center of Learning symbolized by the Ear in the anthropomorphic scheme of things. Joachim's utopian vision was of a new world order of monks (ordomonachorum: Holy Spirit) praising God realized at a model monastery comprising, since the Trinity is indivisible, teaching clerics (ordoclericorum: Son), and married layworkers (ordoconjugatorum: Father) – naturally everyone will chip in on the work, since Work is dignified by the Rule.

Joachim was eventually appointed Cistercian abbot of Corazzo against his will. He managed to obtain acceptance of his resignation, retiring to Flora to write his books. There he founded the Abbey of Flora, a center devoted to strict observance of discipline. He was an eloquent, famous man who dressed in rags. He unwittingly inspired a radical reform movement, first led by spirituals of the Franciscan order; it was taken up by other radicals who believed the pope was Antichrist and the Church had been rendered obsolete by the dawning of the Age of the Spirit (Love, the Third Age of the Trinity - the First Age was of the Father (Law), the Second that of the Son (Faith). The reform movement inspired by St. Francis and Joachim became quite popular.

One of the central legal battles of the time was whether Jesus and the disciples held property privately or in common or neither of the above. A pope or trustee for Christianity who was a fine lawyer won the battle to the Church’s capital advantage, justifying the piling up as much wealth as humanly possible. Yet other people who wanted to follow Christ in those days were giving away their property to pass through the eye of the needle. Roving bands of Beghards were roundly condemned as scoundrels; Beguine communities of chaste women were likewise calumniated – numerous wealthy men gave away their wealth to beguinages and joined the Beghards to lead lives of poverty. Heaven forbid, spiritual tracts were being drafted in the vernacular instead of Latin. Marguerite Porete was burned for elevating Love over Reason and for calling learned university theologians braying asses – historians believe that she was a peace offering to the pope in recompense for the destruction of the Templars. Her writings were secreted by the nuns and handed down through the ensuing centuries. All this presented a serious challenge to the Church's own bureaucratic system of leisure!

The early radical reformation movement became so popular that, if it had persevered, today’s Christians would be called Franciscans instead of Christians. Saint Francis himself was believed to be the expected advent of the Son of God. Radicals went so far as to say that the spirit had gone out of both Testaments and into Joachim's three books, which they dubbed 'The Eternal Gospel.' The actual teachings of the conservative mystic – his theory of history – were distorted by his enthusiastic admirers. Joachim hardly intended to foment a revolution against the Church. He submitted his writings to the Church for approval in 1200; he died prior to the 1215 condemnation of his teachings by the Lateran Council. Today he is in good standing with the Church.

Now, then, history is replete with many examples of social problems or evils presented by the accumulation of great wealth, a form of power which tends to relatively few expropriating hands, and the efforts to resolve those problems by the regulation of greed through involuntary distribution of abundance, voluntary self-sacrifice or loving charity. So great is the almost instinctive need to dispose of private luxury for the social good that men are periodically pressed into militant service against one another with the result that capital and the human resources creating it are destroyed. Great civilizations whose material aspect is economic are leveled and new ones are founded on the rubble.

If no Savonarola calls upon people to pile up their wealth in the center of town and burn it in order to rejuvenate the spirit impoverished by objective idolatry and commodity fetish, people will pile up towers to the heavens; and then, upon command of their political leaders, bomb them into rubble. If the competition for material wealth becomes democratic enough to include all in the invidious war of all against all called the pursuit of happiness, identical twin towers are eventually set up as relative idols, having no value except their relativity; 1=1: the choice is consumer or consume. Someone will invariably destroy the symbol equalizing good and evil, and set up a tower beyond good and evil in order to gain entrance into Paradise. Thus a great drama ensues: the logjam of ambivalence is broken into waves of violence and destruction arguably necessary for evolutionary progress; people are seldom enthusiastic or god-possessed by a virtual, unspectacular fight FOR universal good or love, but instead want to witness real destruction, murder and mayhem in a dramatic effort to annihilate the relative evils of each other, each thinking he or she is on the good side.

Moreover, the moral stagnation and spiritual impoverishment cultivated by the competitive pursuit of so-called happiness is so contrary to the preservation of the human race that, in the absence of attack by foreign enemies, the demoralized population sinks into depression; Our Great Nation then requires some internal stimulation, some New Deal; if that new deal is just another deal, only a violent remedy will do, a Revolution or a War. The Evil must be radically extirpated.

The radical reformations may serve us well until they revert to the very principles they originally opposed. There is a tendency to eventually become the enemy radicals once originally waged war upon. We see democratic republics acting like totalitarian fascists while accusing some nation that wants a viable alternative of totalitarianism. We hear huge corporations extolling the virtues of free markets and individualism. We note frugal puritans, now capitalist hoarders, advocating faith-based charities that the poor may be beholden to and even worship the power responsible for its poverty.

 

In the final analysis, we might arrive at the conclusion that evil always wins because man is originally evil. Well, if there is such a thing as Progress, it must always proceed from evil, otherwise no good would be called for, but evil shall not win until our race is dead.

On the other hand, what we call Progress may just be a Vicious Cycle. I personally believe there is at least hope for real progress providing – there are always provisos – we carefully examine the lessons about ourselves provided by our history instead of inconsiderately rushing ahead to build more towers to idolize and be destroyed by yet another iconoclastic explosion. We should find resort in more moderate dispositions. We should retreat from the insane "objectivism" of "modern" civilization. And one most important course we should all regularly take for our mutual good is 'Disposing of Luxuries.'

September 2001
Honolulu

 

-XYX-

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Reviewed by Helga Ross 2/13/2011
Hi David.

Lots of food for thought, as always.

"On the other hand, what we call Progress may just be a Vicious Cycle. I personally believe there is at least hope for real progress providing – there are always provisos – we carefully examine the lessons about ourselves provided by our history..."

Cyclical is The pattern that struck me regarding your argument. Reminded me that we're up against this long-held observation/ assessment/phenomenon/truism; unless the technology and tempo of these generational times upends the way we usually trend:

"Shirt sleeves to shirt sleeves in three generations". "There’s nobbut three generations atween a clog and clog." "Who doesn’t have it, does it, and who has it, misuses it."

(P.S. I completely forgot the part about "pursuit of property". Thank you for reminding me, since debate about the Declaration still often comes up, in my case.

Helga.






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