Saturday, July 23, 2016

Dissatisfaction as Resulting from American Devotion to Accumulation

Green Lake, Wisconsin

Political economist Robert Skidelsky's and philosopher Edward Skidelsky wrote a killer book,  How Much Is Enough? Money and the Good Life. If you're a Jesus-follower and read this book the connections between the Skidelsky's analysis of American money hunger and the words of Jesus will be pop up all over the place like Pokemon..

Isn't every culture money hungry? The correct answer here is: no. There have been cultures where having more and more money is not the good life. American, the Skidelsky's claim, is the sad exception. They write:

"Aristotle’s vision of the good life may be parochial, but his assumption that there is a good life, and that money is merely a means to its enjoyment, has been shared by every great world civilization except our own." (P. 78) Read thei book and watch the Skidelsky's back this up.

World-historical civilizations followed, largely, Aristotle's idea that life has a telos, a purpose, an "end" beyond which there was not "more" to be sought after. This goes logically with the idea of a contentment, a satisfaction, a resting place in life that is to be enjoyed for its own sake. Relate this to the Christian idea that the telos of life is the love and enjoyment of God, in which the faithful find their rest. "Rest" here is not to be equated with apathy or lethargy or "doing nothing," but rather an active state of being that is no longer wasting its activity in the pursuit of "more."

The Skidelskys write: "it is our own devotion to accumulation as an end in itself that stands out as an anomaly, as something requiring explanation." (p. 78) We Americans are the wacked-out ones who inseminate other cultures with the seed of greed.

We are the restless, overworked culture. Compare American work hours with, e.g., European work hours to see how Europe is still indebted to Artistotle. Thus,

"work for the ancient Greeks was strictly a means to an end, so not even a contender for the title of good life. Only activities without extrinsic purpose— above all philosophy and politics, both conceived non-instrumentally— could make it onto the short list. These attitudes were to leave a long legacy, as we shall see." (p. 73)

This legacy was picked up in the 13th century by Thomas Aquinas, who wrote: 

“The desire for material things as they are conducive to an end is natural to man. Therefore it is without fault to the extent that it is confined within the norms set by the nature of that end. Avarice exceeds these limits and is thereby sinful.” (Quoted in Ib., p. 79, from Aquinas's Summa Theologica)

In Aristotle, and Aquinas, and in Jesus and Paul, the idea of an "end" or "telos" is precisely not the sort of thing one would ever want "more of." But in a culture of no ends and limitless consumption such as ours there can never be "rest" and "enjoyment" and - note this carefully - "fulfillment." In this case the "desire for more" is the enemy of fulfillment. (Relate this to some Christians' cries for "More, Lord." Perhaps some of that is a manifestation of underlying American greed?)

This is a rich, beautiful, helpful, and troubling book that I was not able to put down. I'm doing some re-reading to deepen the insights.