Our Three Kinds of Materialism

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:

when we are sick in fortune – often the surfeit
of our own behavior – we make guilty of our
disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as
if we were villains by necessity; fools by
heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and
treachers, by spherical predominance; drunkards,
liars, and adulterers, by an enforced obedience of
planetary influence; and all that we are evil in,
by a divine thrusting on: an admirable evasion
of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish
disposition to the charge of a star! My
father compounded with my mother under the
dragon’s tail; and my nativity was under Ursa
major; so that it follows, I am rough and
lecherous. Tut, I should have been that I am,
had the maidenliest star in the firmament
twinkled on my bastardizing.

              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 books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.