Posted by & filed under Commerce, life liberty property, materiality, Max Weber, meaning of life, Pop Culture, self-interest, technology, The Enlightenment, utilitarianism.

Life in ancient and medieval times was not enviable. Life was awash with poverty, disease, early death, endless work, crime, cruelty, and war. The ancients talked about virtue and happiness, but they never found a way to achieve it for more than a few aristocrats. The political concern of the Enlightenment was to alter this. Rather than a world of countless suffering serfs, and a few princes living in luxury off of everyone else’s labor, a great humanitarian endeavor was undertaken to lift suffering humanity and provide a good life for all.

To bring about this enormous change there would be a cost, with losses as well as gains. To attain security and prosperity for everyone we would have to stop talking about unattainable virtue and focus instead on accepting, understanding, and caring about human beings as they are. In other words, it was necessary to have a philosophical change as well as a change in material conditions. Instead of thinking about the meaning of life and ways to transcend the mundane realities of life, philosophers would have to become the allies of the day-to-day efforts taking place in the world. The human Mind would have to come down off its lofty perspective and stop seeking after virtue, truth, God and beauty, so that the Body of humanity could be lifted up to a more suitable material state.

The value of this endeavor is undeniable, and we rightly continue to this day to make efforts that will hopefully bring about its fulfillment for all human beings. This is the admirable task of modern commercial society, struggling toward freedom, equality, and prosperity.

But the cost has been enormous. While our human appetites and cravings still persist, the virtues that ruled them have been abandoned, leaving the body and its needs to fend for themselves. About the only remaining truly-respected virtue is self-interest. Everything else has been debunked. Our actions can only be judged according to their utility: do they help preserve and bring comfort to individuals?  “Life, Liberty, and Property” were not the concern of ancient philosophers. Their concern was with the perfection of the soul. But as philosophers and political scientists became exclusively concerned with alleviating worldly human suffering, the soul pretty much disappeared.

Life was better, but somehow empty. People needed more. So a new concept was invented in response to the banality of a purely commercial life. It is called Culture – a vague concept that refers to aspects of life that are somehow ‘higher’, more intellectual, or at least different, than the merely physical and economic aspects. 

But ‘culture’ is not a commensurate replacement for what has been lost. In the hierarchy of importance, commerce replaced religion, patriotism, art, etc. People are willing to strive and fight and even die for God, for country, or any of several other virtues. In many ways, we are undoubtedly better off as these fanaticisms die down. But the new hierarchy leaves little in life to be passionate about. No one is willing to die for culture.

But ‘enjoying culture’ is how we are now expected to alleviate the meaninglessness of our mechanical, commercial lives. Since it never denies the far greater importance of commerce, however, culture carries no real weight.

As Max Weber noted, we have chosen to stake our lives on solid but low ground. A society dedicated to self-preservation does not provide fertile soil for beauty, nobility, or greatness of spirit. Such things have little place in our world – and if anyone suggests otherwise, the Press will quickly come swarming, looking for titillating bits of dirt to help squelch such notions. So the effect of the Enlightenment has been to raise mankind economically while lowering us intellectually and spiritually. 

As a consequence, we have learned to live with coarseness and vulgarity. This is what many people around the world see when they look at America – a veritable circus of consumerism and obscenity, a godless criminal system of unbridled greed, theft, exploitation and vulgarity, a society that is materially strong but morally and intellectually weak, a society that has confused “The Good” with “the goods”. Mass production and advances in technology and communications have only magnified the impact of this horrible impression.

What should we do? Can we, should we, do anything? Please share your ideas!

Did you like this post? Or not? Please Leave a Comment and tell us what you think!

Andrew Cort says:

You’re still referring to “them” — meaning our children apparently. I’m not talking about them. I’m talking about US! Not our parents. not our children. US.

Mark McFly says:

Well, it is still a value judgment. The information itself attains its value to the individual from the perception, so I still say that we just let them get on with it. Our fear for them can casue great interference and actually dis-empower them. Religions or belief systems have always justified themselves as being for the common good, and so far, there is little evidence as to their effectiveness. I say, let go of the need to protect and control. Tather encourage and empower them to navigate the information systems themselves. I don’t know if your parents trusted you enough to let you get on with your life, or were available for a “conversation” rather than a fear-based lecture. That is my intention, and I am sure that I fail at that sometimes, but the intention does at least set the field of possibility, and gives me a point of reference and accountability, for myself.
So, I am back to the same place of leaving them to get on with their lives and letting them know that I believe in them, and I trust them.

Andrew Cort says:

For the most part, maybe even entirely, I agree with what you’re saying. But I’m not talking about “these darn kids today” or anything of that sort. The vulgarity of contemporary commercial society that I’m speaking of certainly affects our children, but it is hardly caused by them. I’m referring here to trends in civilization that have been going on for hundreds of years, negative trends that debase our lives by making the acquisition of poorly made junk a major part of life, that throw overblown images of non-beautiful sexuality, meanness, and violence, into our faces relentlessly as a ‘gimmick’ to sell more stuff, the great use of commercial time and effort to get our money by appealing to our base emotions of fear, hatred, gluttony, etc., rather than appealing to our humanity, intelligence and ideals of love and compassion; and by degrading women and degrading men with music filled with misogyny and TV shows filled with portrayals of fathers as morons; etc., etc. This, of course, is not being carried out BY our children It’s being perpetrated ON them.

Mark McFly says:

Can we, should we do anything?
I am not sure that we need to. It is easy to judge what we see and hear around us, and miss that the younger generation are real people, who just think and experience differently to us, as we did when we were young and beleived the world was ours.
When I step back from my judgment of, and intitmidation by the dress, behavior, expressions of the younger ones, I begin to see a new intelligence that is different to what we knew. I beleive that if we can empower and trust our children, they will perform beyond our fears and dreams.
I have two young children. My son is 15 and my daughter 11. I never told them what to think, or forced my own beliefs on them. Instead I would always ask them questions, and am still amazed and impressed with what they come up with, without my control or indoctrination. I am very pleased with how they are showing up as “whole” people. I am also impressed with their friends.
So, what do we need to do? I beleive it would be most useful for us to empower, encourage and invite them to act on their own inspiration and enthusiasm for the world they would like to live in. We don’t need to control, manipulate or dominate them, “for their own good.” Give them the opportunity that we wish we were given to be the authors of the destiny we desired.