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The Things of This World

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I’m having a kind of odd day.  After a long time when I’ve had much too much to do, I suddenly have nothing at all to do, at least not on anybody else’s schedule but my own. 

In general it’s nice to have days like this, but this particular day feels like a too-short breather at the beginning of what’s going to be a really long, drawn-out pain in the butt.  If you know what I mean.

And I’m trying to write a publications list that will be accurate and complete, which is harder than you’d think.  I’ve written a lot of different things over a very long period of time.  I don’t even remember all of them. 

This is why there are graduate students.  Except, of course, that I’m pretty sure there are no graduate students devoting their time to me.

At any rate, it’s a kind of weird floaty day, and I’m still reading Augustine.

Which brings me to my puzzle for the day:  why is it that it has ever been the case that people considered themselves more virtuous, and other people more virtuous, because they went without ordinary human comforts?

We’re so used to the idea that there is something virtuous about poverty–or at least voluntary poverty–that it feels a little strange to ask why that should be so.

And yet the answer is nowhere near obvious. 

For one thing, I can’t think of a society anywhere–and certainly no particular society in the West, ever–where poverty has been hailed as a virtue in and of itself. 

In general, we don’t like poor people, and we tend to feel contempt for ourselves and other people if we/they are poor.  Certainly in the United States today, the assumption is that the poor have something wrong with them.  Either they are the unfortunate victims of circumstance–the homeless mentally ill, for instance, or the severely physically disabled–or they are useless reprobates, people who don’t do any work, or who get themselves addicted to drugs and alcohol, or who just won’t finish school and act like grown ups.

Once of the consequences of modernity–of a world in which life is infinitely more stable than it was in, say the Rome of antiquity or the Europe of the Middle Ages–is that we feel that, for most people, poverty or prosperity is a matter of choice.

We feel this way whether we are conservative or liberals.  Conservatives think poor people are responsible for being poor and therefore need tough love.  Giving them welfare payments and food stamps only makes it possible for them to enjoy their poverty and not bother to seek ways out of it.  Liberals think poor people are addled.  They’re too stupid to know how to run their own lives, which is probably “society’s” fault, but whatever it is, they’re to be treated like children rather than adults.  Whatever caused it, they’re now either intellectually or psychologically defective.

And yet the notion persists that there is something wrong with being not-poor, something wrong with enjoying the things of this world and the comforts and the pleasures they can bring.

In a way, this idea made some sense in a world that was far more random and unstable than the one we live in now.   In Augustine’s time, Rome was subject to wave after wave of invaders.  You could live a very nice life for decades, only to see it wiped out in an instant, without warning, because the barbarians decided to invade.

But even your very nice life couldn’t be counted on very far or for very long.  Even if the barbarians didn’t invade, you could have other things to worry about.  In a world without antibiotics, women died in childbirth routinely, even small infections could kill you in a day or two, and the very food you ate was a lurking danger.

Some part of the ancient injunctions to abjure the things of this world must have come from the simple fact that you couldn’t count on them.  Death was not just inevitable but likely to be unexpected and possibly soon.  Destruction of other kinds was equally unpredictable, and happened often.

In a way, the counsel of modern philosophers like Paul Kurtz, that men and women should find the “meaning” in their lives by concentrating on the wonder and joy to be had in this life in this world is a modern luxury, born of modern wealth and modern stability. 

The project only looks plausible because we feel secure in the lives we lead.  We do not expect to die young, and we do not expect to lose everything on the whim of an invader or the collapse of a civilization.  Life, we are convinced, does not work like that any more.   We find meaning in the future because we believe we can count on having one.

You can see where the fault lines are in this idea of the meaning of life by comparing the writings of somebody like Kurtz and the writings of the ancient philosophical school he and philosophers like him claim to admire:  the Epicureans.

Certainly the Epicureans believed that the meaning of life was to be found in the enjoyment of it, but they defined “enjoyment” much differently than modern men and women do.  It had a lot less to do with feeling good than with an iron self control, meant to put each man firmly in control of his passions, his desires and his habits. 

The Epicureans never lost the sense that the world was a dangerous place, violent, vicious, dangerous and unpredictable.   Kurtz seems to think of it as a Club Med vacation, if only we’d stop worrying all the time about what it all means.

And there is also, of course, the fact that there is something about too much  money, and too much stuff, that makes people–off, somehow. 

Not all people, of course, and not everywhere–but still, there is something. 

These days we would probabaly say that acquisitiveness is “addictive,” but I think what it really is is easy.  It’s a little like what happens to so many really beautiful girls.  Almost any real achievement requires hard work and at least some sacrifice.  It requires self control and dedication.  Why bother with any of that if you don’t have to? 

None of us really has much use for people who spend all their time talking about how much money they spent or what their clothes cost.  There is something superficial and annoying about this.  We think these people are not worth much on any other criterion besides money,  and no matter how much some of us may suck up to them, we don’t respect them.

The idea that voluntary poverty is a virtue, however–that not  having things makes you a better person than having them–is much more complicated than that, and much less easy to understand.

Granted there is something intrinsically idiotic about caring passionately about whether you’ll change five-figure ball gowns midway through your debut, it’s less clear why you are a better person for forgoing a good mattress and box spring to sleep on a board, or for living in a fifth floor walk up instead of a four bedroom/two bath in the suburbs.

Some of this, of course, is just moral exhibitionism–especially these days.  Augustine and his fellow bishops often gave up significant fortunes to enter the church, depriving themselves of all worldly goods in order to emulate Christ in his poverty.

These days, people preening themselves on their poverty relative to those evil, greedy, jerks in Scarsdale sometimes spend more on their self-conscious non-acquisitiveness than it would have cost them to acquire serious real estate. 

If you don’t believe me, I suggest you check out the world of eco-vacations, where it will set you back ten to fifteen thousand dollars to spend two weeks being miserable in the rain forest.   Spend five thousand more and the tour company will supply air conditioned tents.

But even with all that, I am left with the original question: why should be a mark of virtue to voluntarily have less money than other people?

Of course it’s a mark of virtue not to think about material things all the time or waste your life chasing after ephemeral “stuff” that you’ll throw out before you use it.  Of course it’s a mark of virtue not to lie or cheat or steal or violate your integrity for money. 

But it makes no sense to me whatsoever that just doing without what you could have, honestly earned, is better than having it.

Written by janeh

January 20th, 2011 at 9:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'The Things of This World'

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  1. The virtue of chosen poverty is the liberation from the things of this world, which in this view are temporary, transitory – but nevertheless capable of distracting you from things of eternal and therefore far greater value. The comfortable bed encourages you in laziness and sloth and the self-indulgence of sleeping in when you could be praying or earning money to give to the poor or even helping out others more directly. There’s also the idea that if you have more than you absolutely need – or even if you have a bit less than you really need, you should give some of it to others.

    I heard a sermon recently on giving to others which was well-enough done to make me rather guiltily aware that I could, actually, live on less than I do and give the rest away instead of merely giving a bit to charities now and again. But I didn’t fell guilty enough to actually do it. I’m not much of a saint.

    Enjoying the good things you’ve honestly earned is just fine, but of course you have to care for the poor you always have with you first, and that takes a lot of your resources if you do it properly.

    In some versions of Western culture, the idea moves from charity to sharing in suffering, often with Christ Himself. In this case, you don’t sleep on the cheapest mattress that your back can endure and give the difference between that and the top-of-the-line model to charity. You sleep on boards, maybe even ones deliberately too short or otherwise designed to make you miserable, and when your back hurts, you contemplate the crucifixion. I think there’s enough suffering in this world without creating more for yourself, but that idea does exist.

    Or you can do it to identify with the poor, like a military leader refusing to eat fine meals while his men are scrabbling for basic rations. That’s a bit harder today when so many of the poor have houses and TVs and beds with comfortable mattresses.

    Finally, some things that are difficult and rather at odds with mainstream society get classified as ‘That’s really admirable because it’s hard to do’. Like climbing mountains because they are there, giving up sports and parties to become a world-class classical pianist, or ignoring the ‘you got the most toys, you win’ mentality. OTOH, you could merely be classified as weird and not fitting in. Which it is depends on the person doing the classifying and how bizarre they find people who don’t keep all their honestly-earned riches for themselves.


    20 Jan 11 at 9:53 am

  2. Land was the basis of wealth in Roman times. One person owning thousands of acres meant that many small peasants were forced off the land. One might argue that one person being rich was the cause of other people being poor.

    But that is not true in our time. Bill Gates being rich does not cause anyone else to be poor.


    20 Jan 11 at 6:09 pm

  3. I don’t think that in earlier times (well, up to the Scottish clearances and enclosure in England) one person owning the land meant that the peasants were forced off. Rich Romans didn’t till their own land – the peasants or slaves were essential. I think at some times and in some medieval places, some peasants were considered quite rich by contemporary standards, but I don’t know how common it would be to have middlingly-rich peasants around Rome.

    The slaves probably worked for their keep on those vast estates – although I think Roman law did allow slaves to earn their freedom – but there were other ways to become rich, such as providing goods and services. The fact that their customers owned most of the lamb didn’t make the builders and manufacturers poor.

    I bet all the Roman nouveau riche manufacturers went out and bought land with their business profits, though. Land ownership had class, and held its value.


    20 Jan 11 at 6:56 pm

  4. I’m not convinced that voluntary poverty as such rates or ever rated respect. (It is true that philosophers, educators and religious figures are often poorly paid and tend to make much of this, but that’s different.)

    Voluntary poverty of itself tends to fall into categories like “couldn’t hold down a steady job” and “never made much of himself”–no more respected in the ancient world than it is today. Take a look at Proverbs someday. Involuntary poverty used to be a lot more common than it is today in the West, but, as Tevye said, it’s not a disgrace “but it’s no particular honor, either.”

    Being poor because you want something else more than money is another matter, and can rate respect. It depends on what that person values. Pat Tillman got a lot of credit for giving up a serious fortune to serve his country. The man who spends a serious fortune on gambling or narcotics is just as voluntarily poor, but doesn’t get much respect. The man who turns down a critical transfer so he can see his children grow up is worthy of respect or a fool–depending on where one places family and serious money in one’s own estimation.

    At the other end, it’s whether you do something with the money, or the money does something to you. Having money doesn’t confer intelligence or respectability, any more than being educated confers virtue or wisdom, but the holders of trust funds can get confused on this. There are millionaires who don’t think this obliges them to drive in luxury cars or have tailor-made clothes–and people with less money having themselves painted in oils and buying fake coats of arms. The first “did pretty well by themselves.” The second “have more money than they know what to do with.”

    And again there is the matter of priorities. Hard work, shrewdness and frugality are one thing. The person who would do anything for money isn’t respected anywhere, or any time, no matter how much money he gets.

    As for the vaunted modern stability, don’t overrate it. Some of the people reading e-mails tonight will be dead by morning, and some of them will die violently. There is hardly a major city in Europe, Africa or Asia which hasn’t been bombed flat or taken over by revolutionaries in the last century. Sudden death and loss of fortune are less common than they once were, but they haven’t left us. Many in the past were more optimistic then turned out to be justified. That will be true for some of us as well.


    20 Jan 11 at 7:26 pm

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