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Our Three Kinds of Materialism Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Thursday, 10 January 2013

The twelve days of Christmas just came to an end, and with them, waves of crude materialism and a desire for sheer stuff. As if that isn’t bad enough, market analysts worry that the whole business won’t be big enough to keep the economy moving, while moralists worry that it’s become so big it crowds out almost everything else.

There’s something to be worked out here. If our economy is really so dependent on Christmas sales, even those of us who generally think markets do about as good a job as can be done in a fallen world towards allocating goods and service must pause. It’s not that we’re a commercial society – to a certain extent, all societies are and must be. It’s the kind of materialism that’s now hooked itself deeply onto a religious feast.

Maybe it’s because of the many other worrying signs about America these days, but I find myself a little less bothered about this mad shopping fit than in the past. Mostly, it means just another year in which, even though your wife has twenty pairs of shoes and a closet of clothes, she “has nothing to wear.” Women, in my experience, find shopping relaxing, while most men would prefer being water boarded to a long day at the malls. Men do typically have a lust for power tools and the latest electronics, but all this normal consumerism, though spiritually dangerous, doesn’t hold a candle to other kinds of modern materialism.

Because a second kind of materialism has emerged in our society that I find exponentially more worrisome: the reduction of all human activity to a bundle of animal behaviors. You don’t have to look far, for example, to find some article claiming that an anthropologist or primatologist has “explained” male and female shopping patterns by connecting them with the needs of ancient hunter/gatherers (for some reason, life on the African grasslands 2 million years ago usually comes into the picture).  

Women, you see, had to forage for food and firewood, while the men lolled around sharpening spears to protect the group. I am not denying there are material bases for many human things that emerged by evolutionary processes. But with regard to why people do things today, these kinds of “explanations” are on a par with astrology. Besides, a lot else can happen in 2 million years

We’re hardly the first to attribute our acts to material forces. In King Lear, the villain Edmund, an illegitimate son of a dissolute father, tartly tells the truth about such excuses – and himself:

              Black Friday at a Target store. Materialism, yes, but not the worst kind.

That’s already bad enough. But a third kind of materialism has emerged lately, even more radical. We’re starting to hear – from neuroscientists, literary theorists, philosophers – the belief that there is no substantial self at all. That it/we are exchanges of energy and matter all the way down. And the self is an illusion.

Now, there are more or less honorable versions of this view in Stoicism and Buddhism, and even the Bible reminds us of our nothingness. But this new perspective is a nihilism that stops at absolutely nothing.

Not even at common sense. Anyone of even modest philosophical habits hearing such arguments will wonder who “knows” such things or why he thinks it necessary to speak of them, since there’s no one to know or hear. It’s no accident that once science, which by definition does not deal with entities like persons or souls, is taken as all truth, our sense of ourselves as selves evaporates. 

This is far from an abstract argument and is likely to have bad consequences. Twenty-five years ago, William Barrett, who became famous for his book Irrational Man, which explained existentialism in an American idiom, turned towards an already pressing problem. In Death of the Soul, he defended the commonsense view that we do not regard people we care about – spouses, children, parents, friends – as carbon-based mechanisms. And we would think anyone who did a monster.

Yet that is where we’re starting to find ourselves as a culture. Easy abortion and the looming threat of euthanasia stem from the weak sense of something sacred in the human. Paradoxically, governments everywhere, even in the most “advanced” countries, in one way encourage absolute autonomy (there is no human nature only inexplicable, naked will – unless we’re talking about homosexuality, which decent people know is a fixed and, therefore, unfixable biological given).

And at the same time, we’re convinced that the modern state now can reach into all human activities, except for the few we place off limits – for now – out of a residual humanitarianism. But even those exceptions are already shading off into the deep cultural meme that scientific experts know things that mean the rest of us don’t much count.

There are many materialisms in the world, to be sure, and all potentially deadly. Only a transcendent view of God and persons really responds to this whole crisis. We’ll soon see if homo sapiens inherited enough from those African grasslands to save himself from self-negation.

By comparison and given the alternatives, I for one look relatively serenely at a little excess shopping.   

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (25)Add Comment
written by Jaki blue, January 10, 2013
Thank you, Dr. Royal for summarizing the regression to materialism in our U.S. culture. well done!

Michael Polyani was writing against all three forms of materialism back in the sixties, while Barrett was cozying up to unrepentant Nazi, Martin Heidegger.

Some forms of materialism are driven by the obliviousness of modernity; others by ignorance or ideological blindess; but the worst is a conscious lie told by demonic forces. I have always admired C.S. Lewis' Space Trilogy as the perfect depiction of how these types of materialism cooperate in degrading the moral life of humanity.
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, January 10, 2013
There is a sense in which those who deny the existence of the “self” are right enough. Under the baleful influence of Descartes, we have too often turned this innocent reflexive pronoun into an hypostasised abstraction.

Aristotle, the philosopher of common sense was right, when he defined man as a rational animal, a living human body, with the power or faculty of reasoning. As the Catholic philosopher, Elizabeth Anscombe pointed out, “If the principle of human rational life in E.A. is a soul (which perhaps can survive E.A., perhaps again animate E.A.) that is not the reference of "I.” Nor is it what I am. I am E.A. and shall exist only as long as E.A. exists”

Self-consciousness is not consciousness of a “self,” but of the activities of “this living human body,” and “I” is no more a referring expression than “it” is a referring expression in “it is raining.”
written by Other Joe, January 10, 2013
The bad consequences of nihilism appear in headlines almost daily. Murder and suicide for nothing, for no gain, but merely as an expression of disappointment have become events within our normal expectation. Saying the perpetrators are crazy is a tautology. The latest (as of this writing) was reported to be high on meth for 4 days. The only thing in common with all of the events is that the protagonists believed in nothing. It is a great evil to tell those on the margins with known poor impulse control that they and those around them are meaningless. Interestingly many of the mass shooters have been described as smart. Perhaps they could put zero and zero together.
written by Manfred, January 10, 2013
Last evening my wife and I were guests at a small supper at which some priests and laity were present. One attendee was Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J., the former editor of the Homiletic and Pastoral Review. For about twenty minutes we watched a video of "Life is Worth Living" featuring lectures by Bp. Fulton J. Sheen, which ran in the 1950's. I believe that every Catholic in this country would benefit enormously from purchasing and watching these videos as, while they are replete with erudition of theology and philosophy, they are geared for the "average" person. I am confident that this material would counter the forms of materialism which Dr. Royal describes. Footnote: Fr. Baker related that Bp Sheen, while he appeared on this TV program, received 8,000 letters each day and he brought many people into the Church including many Jews. Bp. Sheen's cause is under consideration for sainthood.
written by Mack Hall, January 10, 2013
Well said, Mr. Royal and commentators.
written by Clement Williams, January 10, 2013
It is fascinating that Mr. Royal has brought up the issue of the Human species. I have been pondering this very same thing since I heard a sermon by a young priest where he preached that we are still stuck on the 6th. day of creation. The question came to mind, are we stuck at the morning, noon or the evening of the 6th. day. Having had a very erudite teacher in high school, I got an understanding of the theories of both Lamarck and of that of Darwin.

I realized that to be worthy of being a member of Homo sapiens, I had to have the Gift of Wisdom which the Holy Spirit brings with Him, as promised by Our Lord Jesus Christ before His Ascension and recognized by Our Church in The Pentecost and the Sacrament of Confirmation. Here comes the rub. Jesus, God incarnated as Man so that we SEE, HEAR and TOUCH HIM and to set the stage for the Holy SPIRIT, The Lord, The Giver of Life(Nicene Creed), The God WE CANNOT SEE to enter our lives and DWELL within us bringing with Him WISDOM who KNOWS and UNDERSTANDS EVERYTHING "From His Highest Heaven, From His Throne!"(Wisdom 9)

I realized then what I am - Stuck on the 6th. Day of Creation, in evolutionary and anthropological terms at the stage of Homo habilis – with the newly acquired smattering of KNOWLEDGE, just enough UNDERSTANDING AND A TINY AMOUNT OF WISDOM, to be DANGEROUS to SELF AND OTHERS! – that is what Mr. Royal has so very ably put into focus for me today– suffering from all three kinds of materialism – until GOD INTERVENED and cast down the self-adoring, self-idolizing, proud me from MY MOLE HILL of a MOUNTAIN and gave me the GIFT of PIETY meaning HUMILITY – that I might gain Wisdom and take a step forward towards HOMO sapiens through the Sacrament of Confirmation in GOD THE HOLY SPIRIT!
written by Grump, January 10, 2013
I remember when I was into golf I couldn't stop buying clubs. My wife would ask me, "Why do you keep buying golf clubs?" And, I'd respond, "For the same reason you keep buying shoes and purses."

Now that Obama has threatened to take away our guns, he has proved to be the greatest arms salesman in history. Tell someone they can't have something and they'll want it immediately. I have been buying ammo and hi-cap magazines as fast as I can find them.

Expanding materialism has certainly ruined the Christmas season. When I see holiday displays right after Labor Day and hear Deck the Halls played in stores for three straight months, I get more than a bit jaded. When we were kids my brother and I were content to get one nice gift; usually a firetruck or a water pistol. Now, on the wrong side of 70, I see grandkids getting more than 10 gifts each, mostly electronic and beyond my understanding, and by the end of the day they look bored.

O tempora! O mores!
written by Stanley Anderson, January 10, 2013
Wonderful column. I'd like to make some astute observations and draw a couple prescient conclusions, but I'm content now to say that my favorite line in the column, simply in terms of drawing a lighthearted smile across my face, was "Besides, a lot else can happen in 2 million years."

And the last line, "By comparison and given the alternatives, I for one look relatively serenely at a little excess shopping," reminded me of that old paraphrase of the famous line by JC (Julius, not Jesus), "Veni, Vidi, Visa" -- i.e., "I came, I saw, I went shopping." And come to think of it, I suppose that triplet nicely summarizes the Fall of Man and brings it into (admittedly somewhat twisted)alignment with Robert Royal's column: "I came (into existence), I saw (the tree of the knowledge of good and evil), I went shopping (for the forbidden fruit -- and paid an exorbitant price to boot -- the small print is a killer.)"
written by ib, January 10, 2013
Elizabeth Anscombe was one of the greatest philosophers of the past 100 years. Yet few know her work. No significant Vatican document, including Papal encyclicals for the past 50 years, have referenced her work (or the work of the other "analytical" Thomists). This is a terrible shame.

Roman Catholic theology for the most part has eschewed analytic philosophy and chased after Continental snarls. For example, Tracey Rowland recently wrote (in an article in The Tablet) that in the view of some who had attended the Second Vatican Council, it "was all about the Heideggerisation of Catholic theology." Perhaps that may change, but analytic Thomism seems pretty dead at this point. More's the pity.
written by Wollie, January 10, 2013
Please allow me to muse...
I have to smile when i read articles on the materialism of the season. The basis for the materialism is still the giving of your talents (in this case money) to do something good for someone. At this time of year I believe most people truly learn, if only for a brief moment, that in giving you receive. Still, the cautionary warnings of materialism are justifiably necessary.

I for one relish the Christmas season with the lights and the music and the shopping and the gift giving. Materialism be damned, for me it all ends too soon. The materialism fades to the background on Christmas Day after the gifts are given and I can be with my family with the laughter and the food and the wonderful drowsiness of an exhaustive full day.

I smile and thank God that He has given me a Church which still celebrates the birth of our Savior for weeks afterward through the Epiphany. The only thing that makes me sad is driving home from Mass Christmas morning and seeing the nearly empty parking lots of the other churches on our way—many of our Protestant and evangelical brothers in Christ don't even go to their own church services to celebrate. (My sadness however is tempered by the fact that celebrating Christ's birth was a non-event in the early Church.)

I wish that Easter had more of the "Xmas materialism" beside the giving of candy.
written by DeGaulle, January 10, 2013
As, Karl Popper described, regarding all these pseudosciences, which waste so much paper,any theory "...which is not refutable by any conceivable event is non-scientific", and that maxim certainly applies to the unverifiable and untestable 'theories' of these codologies. As regards the Self, it is unsurprising that they would begin to deny its very existence, as science is wholly unable to explain or even define this phenomenon, as it is a non-materialistic one, and there's the embarrassment they simply can't admit to.
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, January 10, 2013

Miss Anscombe was my tutor at Oxford. Reading an essay to her and defending it for half an hour, once a week, for eight weeks, was the most daunting experience of my life.

written by Frank, January 10, 2013
Great column! I recently spoke about the soul and the body to our RCIA group. I emphasized that we are one human being, one person that is body and soul which is unity. Death, the wages of sin kills the body but not the soul which is immaterial and immortal. Hence, death is the very viciousness of sin to us as God’s creatures and at the same time reveals the reward of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ to reunite the body and soul. Our creed tells of this fact. There was dead silence. It has been ages since anyone heard of this basic tenet of belief of the unity of the body and soul and subsistent nature of the soul from the altar or anywhere else in affirmation. There is plenty to reduce the soul to the “Force”, or consciousness, or feelings or, or spirit or whatever. The PR campaign against the true nature soul is doing very well.
written by Ib, January 10, 2013
@Michael P-S

You are a very blessed man to have had such a powerfully wise tutor.

My own knowledge of her is purely through reading her work. In my grad studies such thinkers were pooh-poohed even by the Thomists, who had a much greater interest in Heidegger and phenomenology ... In the last place I taught, the Library had none of her works. I ordered 10 or so volumes of her work. The librarians had never even heard of her (a few of my departmental colleagues vaguely remembered she had something to do with Wittgenstein ...)
written by Dave, January 10, 2013
I had a glance of passing familiarity with EA while in grad school and taking a course on Wittgenstein. The professor loved Wittgenstein but his admiration for Miss Anscombe was boundless. Years later, recently, I read an article of hers on the irrationality of artificial birth control. "Splendid" only begins to describe it. Thanks very much.
written by Jack,CT, January 10, 2013
Mr Royal,
Refreshing and great as always,thanks!
written by Jack,CT, January 10, 2013
@Grump, I have so much in common with your
past and I see as well a "gaggle" of kids
so bored they take breaks from opening
the pressents!
I recall I recieved 3 gifts as i child
and 2 of the gifts were clothing,I was
never deprived and felt loved,I am one of
seven children and I still am amazed my
parents had the money for all they did.
I find myself very "self depriving" in
every day life,ironically at a time in my
life I could be a bit more
I guess old ways are hard to die!
God Bless you
written by Ib, January 10, 2013
Amazingly, the present Renaissance of analytic philosophy in U.S. Evangelicalism traces its roots back to the influence of analytical Thomism at Oxford in the late 50s and 60s. The analytical Thomists provided an example how the ways and means of analytical philosophy could be used to discuss and develop topics of Christian faith. However, by adopting analytical-philosophical methods, U.S. Evangelical philosophers were able to evade the historical aspects of philosophy, and not have to consider the earlier traditions of Christian faith and philosophy. For most analytical Evangelical philosophers, real philosophy began about the middle of the last century; before that was just emptiness or foolery. The very fact that American evangelicals do any philosophy at all is a major departure from the way that branch of Protestantism constituted itself in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Of course, this dismissal of history was never the attitude of the analytical Thomists and cannot be laid at their feet.

OTOH, to take an example from Continental philosophy, there has been almost no interest from U.S. Evangelicals in the philosophical work of Saint Teresia Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein). Perhaps that is why the Pope has quoted from her work in several documents and there are many, many references to her work on the Vatican website. The Continental way has won and analytical Thomism is now a dead letter.

One last thing: I have never understood why people continue to use the honorific "Miss" with Elizabeth Anscombe. She was married to Peter Geach for 60 years and had 3 sons and 4 daughters. This is not Japan after all ...
written by deb, January 10, 2013
Thank you st Jude for intercession to jesus for prayers answered.
written by Louise, January 11, 2013
Robert, are you telling me that it is not true that I shop therefore I am? ha ha.
Wow, stupidity is reaching its end point quicker than I thought possible.
written by Louise, January 11, 2013
Perhaps I'm being a bit too harsh on the new "unthinkers"?
There is a certain logic to it all...since we are made in the image and likeness of God it makes a sort of sense that someone who can't reason to the existence of God, may one day be unable to reason to the existence of self.
written by today-anonymous, January 11, 2013
To both RR and the readers,
I had considered responding yesterday after I read this 3 different times. Maybe it is not too late for readers to possibly offer a comment back to me.

I have one question that keeps rolling around in my mind after reading this: isn't the idea that my own existence is an illusion the most pronounced and possibly the most distracting from truth when I am enslaved by sin (my own or those of others)? I know that's seems like a "duh" question since one could say "yes" to that for everything. I mean specifically in reference to this post's topic.

Here's the reason I bring this up. When I was but a 4 year old little girl, 2 things occurred that are burned in my memory decades later. My father (who was 22 and already addicted to pornography) began sexually abusing me. AND I had a distinct encounter with Jesus Christ. I knew He loved me, was real and that He died to bring me to Heaven. (I grew up in a Calvinist home.) I clearly remember walking on the beach at around 7 years old, looking at all the people who seemed so care free and happy and wondering if I was "the only one" in the whole world in pain: who had feelings, confusion, mistrust, intense love, and a "what did I do that was so evil?" sense that the God of Love was "letting" this happen to me. I deserved severe punishment for sure, but where was the hope that I would get better as I got older? Then it dawned on me! Right at the beach. THIS IS ALL A DREAM. I DO NOT REALLY EXIST. THIS IS A STORY IN SOMEONE'S IMAGINATION. WHAT IS REALLY REAL AFTER ALL?

I am not kidding. I couldn't have been more than 7 or 8 at the time. Looking back, now converted and full of the grace of the Sacraments, and having been through some intense therapy, I understand so much more than I ever could have at that age. But this article made me recall that moment on the beach, and so I wonder.
Is the self-centered idea of illusion a more exaggerated trap of the evil one when a soul is in the bondage and blindness of sin? A great hopelessness blanketed my heart at that time, and yet Grace was still Present, keeping me alive until that moment when He would "just say the Word (my name) and my soul would be healed."
And if this is so, then isn't the source of all illusion (the illusion of worldly security, the illusion of a friend truly knowing and unconditionally loving you, etc.) really a snare of the enemy?
I think so. But I am interested in your thoughts. (And Louise, if you are still reading, please respond.)

written by ib, January 11, 2013

I am so sorry to hear of your suffering. You are in my prayers. May God continue to lead you to healing.

Many abused children adopt a variety of coping mechanisms in order to function in as normal a way as possible with those outside of the abusive relationship. Some sort of psychological disassociation from the painful reality they are living within is very, very common. The disassociation acts as a barrier between the abuser, the uncaring world and the abused child. It is a psychological defense and you were perfectly justified in acting in self-defense. Of course, it doesn't mean that what you told yourself as part of that defense was true, but as a child of 7 or 8 caught in a horrendous situation, that is of much lesser concern.

This is a different thing than philosophical or religious notions of no-self. Knowing whether such notions are true or not is at the heart of the philosophical or religious enterprise. What you went through was not philosophical inquiry, but evil.

Again, may God continue to bless you with love and life and healing!
written by Louise, January 12, 2013
Today-anonymous, I concur with what ib said. Even if a person has this sort of disassociation from self sort of experience as a coping mechanism, the self is still considered as something that exists if only in the dream. Whereas Robert is describing a scenario where a person is doubting that there is any unifying principal in a human that could be called "you". Do you see the difference?

Your story reminds me of that country song by John Michael Montgomery called, "The Little Girl". Have you ever heard it? I can never listen to it without crying because it sounds so true. The girl's father kills her mom and then himself while she hides behind the couch. Here's the final lyrics,

And some people from the city took the girl far away
To a new mom and a new dad
kisses and hugs everyday
Her first day of Sunday school the teacher walked in
And a small little girl
Stared at a picture of Him

She said I know that man up there on that cross
I don't know His name
But I know He got off
Cause He was there in my old house
and held me close to His side
As I hid there behind our couch
The night that my parents died

Thank you for your beautiful witness!
written by yesterday-anonymous, January 12, 2013
Dear Ib and Lousie,
Thank you very much for your time and spiritual insight. I do appreciate your words.

It's so funny; I am so "used to" my childhood being "mine", and I have come to see that God indeed "works all things for the good", that I didn't realize how I have blurred the lines between the "philosophical" and "psychological" within my own mind. And I did not have the opportunity (for crazy family reasons) to go to college, so any "education" has been on my own - not the best professor, I assure you.

Both of your responses were clear, direct and actually stilled a "gurgling" place in my mind. Thank you both very much. And now that I have "found Him Whom my soul loves" Who "loved me first" I have actually been given the grace to pray for my father's soul (deceased) and some good progress in truth has been made with my mom and a brother. So, God is indeed the God of the Living, the God Who bends so low to dwell among us, the God of the Resurrection after the Cross.
We are all blessed beyond our understanding! His Peace be with you.

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