What might it look like if we learnt to grow and progress and build differently; non-materially? asks Mark Vernon
During 2019, climate change became climate crisis, even climate emergency. The tenor has become more urgent and with that shift are raised further, more nuanced reassessments. One interests me, in particular. What might it look like if we learnt to grow and progress and build differently; non-materially?
Put it like this. The genius of capitalism is to channel the insatiable human desire for more in specific directions. It’s fed a yearning for more technology, more travel, more security, more stuff. But could that longing be redirected?
The good news is that this question has been asked before, many times. It’s a perennial issue in spiritual work. To be human is to realise that you live “between the beasts and the angels”, as Augustine put it. We seek creature comforts and divine delights but routinely confuse the two, so that the former are sought as substitutes for the latter. What, therefore, is it to become more human and foster an awareness that is able to tell the difference? In short, what is it to flourish not fall?
In the medieval period, one of the best known texts to address the issue was The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius. Boethius was a Roman senator in the 6th century CE. He had risen to the top. But then he was accused of treason and, overnight, his luck departed. He spent the last months of his life in prison, facing torture, awaiting a grim execution.
During his confinement, he was visited in a vision by Lady Philosophy. She caused him to question everything and, in particular, what he regarded as his wealth. He had sought glory, fame, riches, friends, she points out, and usually so as to do good and virtuous things. Now, though, the wheel of fortune had turned.
He had lost it all and was broken. But gradually, through this encounter, he comes to see that he had lived his life under a mistaken premise. He had pursued riches, yes, of both material and moral kinds. Only he felt they had betrayed him because he had not realised something fundamental: the glories that come and go in this life are reflections and echoes of a reliable and imperishable wealth that human beings are also capable of enjoying.
Lady Philosophy tells the increasingly astonished prisoner that he possesses this true wealth already. Their dialogue becomes a process, akin to an initiation, through which Boethius awakens to the heart of the matter: he had confused worldly progress with spiritual discovery; renown with glory; accumulation with realisation. If he can disentangle the one from the other, he will find a happiness that lasts. So what’s the difference and might it matter now?
Part of my work at Perspectiva is an attempt to find out; to uncover the side of life that our modern preoccupations tend to occlude.
When we are under this spell, we make assumptions that look like self-evident truths. Take the notion of growth. It seems like a good thing. We must grow as individuals to become adults. We must grow in knowledge to understand more. We must grow as a society to lift people out of poverty and suffering.
But were Lady Philosophy to appear again now, as she can to those in dire straits, I believe she would ask us to reconsider how we understand growth. We must grow, yes, but that growth must be in the service of a joy that, of itself, growth doesn’t deliver. Left to its own devices, it can’t find what it seeks. It turns bad when it forgets what it’s for.
This confusion is the stage our culture finds itself in now. Muddle, mayhem and worse will characterise the 2020s. It’s why we’ve started talking about crises and emergencies, feelings that will be amplified by the fear that whatever needs to happen is not.
But there’s a kind of wisdom in this dark moment. What’s up is not just a problem to be solved, though any means that reduces the destruction is welcome. It’s also a moment to recognise our problem for all that it is. The goals around which we organise life fall short because the way we see life has distorted. Our vision must become unclouded and, like Boethius, a crucial part of the task is to understand what’s happening in depth. Only then might we be transformed.
The writer, Eugene McCarraher, is one person who can help. His new book, The Enchantments of Mammon (Belknap Press, Harvard University), tells the inner story of how capitalism became enchanted by money and unwittingly made our goals monstrous.
Early on in his book, he introduces the poet, John Milton. Milton understood how this can happen and he describes it via the figure of Mammon, one of the fallen angels in Paradise Lost. It’s a revealing section.
When angels fall from heaven they forget that the material world is an image of spiritual reality. They therefore treat the material world as an end in itself. Mammon is the active spirit of this myopia. He possesses us and makes us shortsighted.
What delivered pleasure in Eden is now pursued for profit. The sense of wonder morphs into cravings for accumulation. Mammon twists the revelatory joys of discovery into the desire for new powers of manipulation. He induces panic about what’s scarce and blinds us to what’s abundant.
Even when he was in Heaven, Milton writes, Mammon looked downward, “admiring more / The riches of Heaven’s pavement – trodden gold – / Than aught divine or holy”. The spirit who animates the modern attitude to money teaches us to prefer the “hard liberty” which, from a fractured earth and quarried mountains, builds the capital city of hell, Pandemonium.
At the heart of Mammon’s guile is a lie that desire can be satisfied by amassing, intensifying, commandeering. It’s a clever lie because human beings do desire that which is glorious and inspiring. We’re between the beasts and the angels. In Milton’s cosmology, we are made for nothing less than a conscious experience of the Beatific vision of God. But what Mammon doesn’t tell you is that this is an experience that isn’t gained by growth. As William Blake put it: “More! More! is the cry of a mistaken soul. Less than All cannot satisfy Man.”
Boethius is told the same thing. If you seek material wealth and moral goodness for its own sake, fortune will turn against you. The key is to recall that the wealth which satisfies is reflected in this world and our lives. The goal is not to possess it but see it; not to construct substitutes but discover realities. As another philosopher, the 18th century Anthony Shaftesbury, remarked: a shepherd on a hillside gazing at the blue horizon truly owns the land. The so-called “landowner” is only the custodian and what he thinks he possesses is finite, whereas the shepherd, in his reverie, can reach for the infinite.
That said, Lady Philosophy is not advocating a levelling communism or aristocratic utopia. Neither is she instructing Boethius to become so heavenly minded that he is no earthly good. Her education is more subtle: to know that the material world presences eternal delight; that its inner pulse is wealth and life, much as the sun beams a seamless ray of both physical and spiritual warmth. This world is good when tended for its beauty and cultivated for its goods. But it will only bring happiness when human beings realise that happiness exceeds it.
Economics will have to be informed by an education, not indulgence, of desire, and this must itself be informed by a renewed spiritual psychology.
The difference has been recognised by some modern economists. “We are suffering from a metaphysical disease,” wrote E.F. Schumacher, adding “the cure must therefore be metaphysical”. By metaphysical, he meant the truths which the mind sees in this spiritual light and, so seeing, finds itself filled with delight. Everyone senses it from time to time, say, in the moments they are amazed at the brilliance of existence. My guess is that this is what most people most profoundly want, too.
It’s also why there’s hope because in spite of the terrible things we face, there is a wealth that is lovely, that is already ours and that can’t be taken from us. What’s on offer is more, not less; is glorious, not grim.
Our longings can be redirected towards it, though that will take the reconstruction of our vision. Economics will have to be informed by an education, not indulgence, of desire, and this must itself be informed by a renewed spiritual psychology.
“There is no wealth but life,” John Ruskin famously declared, adding that we must learn to consume it. It is our divine right. And we will do so aright when we know what is meant by true wealth and by life in all its fulness. Lady Philosophy can be a guide, as might Milton, Ruskin and others. One way of putting the task for the new decade is to perceive what they saw; an agenda for the years ahead is to learn how to see it for ourselves.
Mark Vernon is an Associate at Perspectiva, and the author of A Secret History of Christianity
Image: The Worship of Mammon by Evelyn De Morgan (1909)