society

Montaigne and intellectual courage

I am steadily catching up on the Great Books of the Western World reading list. Today, I finished the last of the selections from Montaigne’s essays designed for July 2015 and will soon be finishing “Hamlet.” I have also already begun reading Locke’s “Second Essay” and Rousseau’s “Social Contract,” both of which I should be able to move through rather quickly as I have read both in whole in the past. With that said, I will keep my thoughts on Montaigne’s essays brief, as with each of the works as I struggle to catch up to my original reading plan.

This was my first serious engagement with Montaigne. I have read a few of his essays in the past, but never more than one in a row. He was one of the writers on this year’s list that I was very much looking forward to reading, given his influence and my relative ignorance of him. And, happily, I was not disappointed.

What stood out most to me about Montaigne and his essays is the intellectual courage he exhibits. This is, unfortunately, a virtue that is hard to come by in modern academics and intellectuals. Montaigne, unlike the rest of us, is willing to subject even his and his society’s most cherished values and ideas to the light of reason and honestly observe and document whether they are able to hold up. His exercises into an early and somewhat clunky version of the science of anthropology provide some very interesting insights which he then uses as means by which to examine the norms, expectations, and assumptions of his own society. This examination of the basic assumptions underlying his society demonstrates a great deal of intellectual fortitude on the part of Montaigne, and this is a characteristic well worth imitating.

The Good of Poverty in Aristophanes’s “Wealth”

In his “Plutus,” or “Wealth,” the Greek playwright Aristophanes presents the possibility of catastrophic consequences resulting from actions otherwise expected to be universally beneficial. In so writing, Aristophanes raises questions not only about the specific subject of the play, wealth, but also wider questions about relationship of want to need.

The play begins with Chremylus and his slave Cario in a chance encounter with the eponymous god of wealth. Discovering that wealth is a blind dotard, they determine to bring him to the temple of the god Asclepius for healing. Chremylus describes this plan as an “honest and god-fearing plan, a plan which is good and full of virtue, a plan which will serve the whole of humanity!” He explains, “If the god of Wealth regains his eyesight, he won’t be wandering aimlessly and blindly about like he does now and he’ll be able to see who’s honest and who’s not and so he’ll go to the good folk and shun all the godless crooks and all the bastards. The result? Everyone will become good and god-fearing … and rich!”

Chremylus and Cairo have concocted a scheme which they believe will result in the establishment of a utopia. Wealth, freed of his blindness and able to move about with  youthful freedom and swiftness, can now bring his gifts to all good people.. As a result, good people will be rewarded for their goodness. All people, then, desiring to partake of the bounties of Wealth, will become good.

After his healing at the temple, Wealth begins to fulfill this plan, going about to reward the good for their goodness. The result of this munificence, however, is not entirely what was expected. Rather than creating a utopian society, the abundance of wealth begins to cause the destruction of society.

Chremylus had desired that “that the good folk, the god-fearing folk, the folk who do an honest day’s work” would be those to benefit from his plan because, he says, they “should be the ones who deserve to be rich, not the dishonest, godless crooks!” Visited by the goddess Poverty, Chremylus is warned, however, that should his plan come to fruition no one will be “do[ing] an honest day’s work.” “If Wealth were to get his sight back and if he spread himself around to everyone,” Poverty warns, “who’d be doing any of the work then or even any of the thinking?” All of the workmen, including the “smiths and . . . the ship builders, . . . the tailors, the cartwheel makers, the cobblers, the brick makers, the launderers, the tanners” and those who “till the soil with the ploughs and then reap” will choose instead to “sit around idly all day, doing nothing and caring about nothing.” Without the threat of poverty, no one will exert themselves or risk their health to do work. “It is I who forces them to do all that work,” says Poverty. “Yes, me, Poverty, whom they all want to avoid and earn themselves a livelihood, it is I who’ll be making them do all that work for you!”

Once Chremylus goes through with his plan, he finds that more dire consequences follow as a result of his actions. Just after returning from the healing of Wealth, he encounters an old woman whose young lover has left her because he no longer relied upon her for her wealth. Within this single broken relationship is encapsulated the two primary relationships that uphold and perpetuate any society, the love relationship between man and woman and the relationship of respect and dependence between the young and the old. With wealth gone, there is no need for anyone to depend upon another for sustenance. The result is that lovers separate from each other and the young, no longer in need of the inheritance passed on by the old, no longer respect the elderly.

The final calamity to result from the new profusion of wealth is revealed to Chremylus by the god Hermes, who comes to inform him that Zeus is “angry [with him] because from the moment you gave Wealth his sight back, we gods received nothing from you mortals! Not a single sacrifice, not a whiff of incense, not a single leaf of bay, not a single barley cake, not one victim, nothing! Absolutely nothing!” Because there are no more wants among men, piety has abated. Men no longer rely upon, and so no longer worship, the gods.

Through his effort toward creating a utopia, Chremylus has caused the dissolution of the primary institutions necessary to the continued stability of society: work, family, and religion. Through his exploration of these unexpected consequences of Chemylus’s attempt to eradicate poverty, Aristophanes also points to the often wide chasm between human want and human need, between what people believe is best and what is really best.

“Productive and Unproductive Labour” in Smith’s The Wealth of Nations

In Book II, Chapter III of his The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith states and explains the distinction he makes between the categories of “productive and unproductive labour.” According to Smith, “there is one sort of labour which adds to the value of the subject upon which it is bestowed,” namely productive labor, and “there is another which has no such effect,” namely unproductive labor. In addition, Smith holds that the productive laborer makes a greater contribution to a society than the unproductive laborer due to the former’s role in “the growth of public opulence.”

The former, productive, class of labor he identifies specifically with the manufacturing class which produces “some particular subject or vendible commodity.” These laborers, in other words, produce some tangible item which contributes to an indubitable increase in the total material wealth of a society. Smith envisions a society in which, through the profuse production of commodities by the manufacturing class and the consumption of these commodities “in adorning his house or his country villa, in useful or ornamental buildings, in useful or ornamental furniture, in collecting books, statues, pictures; or in things more frivolous, jewels, baubles, ingenious trinkets of different kinds; or, what is most trifling of all, in amassing a great wardrobe of fine clothes,” on the part of the wealthy, greater material wealth is made available to all. Because of the insatiable appetite of the wealthy for new commodities, they will eventually “grow weary” of the items they have purchased previously. As a result, “the houses, the furniture, the clothing of the rich, in a little time, become useful to the inferior and middling ranks of people.” The greater the number of commodities produced, the more available all commodities become to all people. The profusion of material wealth creates a trickle-down economy which increases the material wealth of all in a society. What is necessary to create such a system, Smith holds, is a great number of productive laborers of the manufacturing class working to produce said commodities.

Smith contrasts those whom he terms the “unproductive hands” with this productive group of laborers. Among the unproductive in a society Smith classes “the sovereign . . . with all the officers both of justice and war who serve under him” as well as “the whole army and navy.” In addition, “in this same class,” says Smith, “must be ranked, some both of the gravest and most important, and some of the most frivolous professions: churchmen, lawyers, physicians, men of letters of all kinds; players, buffoons, musicians, opera-singers, opera-dancers, etc.” While these are certainly not without value to a society, Smith classes all of these together as “unproductive” because they do not produce any lasting tangible items, or commodities. “Like the declamation of the actor, the harangue of the orator, or the tune of the musician,” says Smith, “the work of all of them perishes in the very instant of its production.”

The distinction that Smith draws between productive and unproductive laborers is quite compelling and insightful, yet fraught with danger for a society which takes it too seriously. On the one hand, Smith admirably rescues the manufacturer and the artisan from the belittlement of the nature of their vocations which had been a mainstay of Western thought since antiquity. Aristotle, who exerted a substantial influence on the Western mind during and following the High Middle Ages, for instance, claimed that “all paid employments . . . absorb and degrade the mind.” To this condemnation, Smith offers a corrective in the form of a reminder of the necessity of these “paid employments” to the material wealth of a society.

It is this material wealth, in turn, which creates the environment which allows the “unproductive hands” of artists, musicians, and men of letters to flourish. A society which continues to exist at a mere subsistence level cannot develop a distinguishable class of priests and storytellers because all hands must be employed in the cultivation and production necessary to the maintenance of biological life. Only with a class of productive laborers of some size and which is capable of meeting and even producing superfluity beyond the basic needs of a society, such as the slave class of Aristotle’s ancient Greece or the manufacturing class of Smith’s 18th century Scotland, does a class of the “unproductive” become possible.

It is not be overlooked, however, that it is this class of the “unproductive” which leads a society beyond mere animal existence. While Smith is right to place great value upon the manufacturing class, it would be a mistake for a society to lean too far in this direction and so devalue the creative and intellectual element. A poverty of thought is as detrimental to human existence as a poverty of the goods necessary to material well-being, a fact Smith would have done well to note.

Chrysostom on wealth

The thought of St. John Chrysostom, the fourth century archbishop of Constantinople and one of the great Greek fathers of the Church, has been a major influence on my beliefs concerning the nature and proper use of wealth, as his thought a compelling commentary on the biblical treatment of wealth and poverty. Chrysostom, as the leading Church figure in Constantinople, an expansive urban center and the seat of power in the Byzantine Empire, was surrounded by extremes. Around him were the highest degrees of wealth among the aristocracy whom he preached to daily in the cathedral as well as the poorest segments of society which he encountered among the many beggars and poor artisans and merchants of the city. As a result of his daily experience of extremes of wealth and poverty, Chrysostom often turned to these topics in his homilies, exhorting the poor to prayer and away from envy and encouraging the rich to charity rather than ostentation. One of his most succinct treatments of wealth is found in his 27th homily on the Gospel of St. John.

There, Chrysostom defines wealth in a manner that draws upon the biblical notion, found in, for example, the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30), that wealth, as the sum total of one’s material possessions, is a loan that God, as the source of all the entire material world, gives to men in the hope that they will use it wisely. Everything on earth, says Chrysostom, is really God’s and God, in his munificence, shares it with the rich. Chrysostom combines this definition of wealth with the identification of Christ with those in need in the discourse on the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46), which immediately follows the Parable of the Talents in the Gospel of Matthew.

Bringing these two together, Chrysostom imagines the poor as the source of the loaned wealth of the rich. “Gladly doth He hunger that thou mayest be fed; naked doth He go that He may provide for thee the materials for a garment of incorruption,” Chrysostom tells his congregation of wealthy aristocrats. Cautioning them against hoarding their wealth, Chrysostom continues, “some of your garments are moth-eaten, others are a load to your coffers, and a needless trouble to their possessors, while He who gave you these and all else that you possesses goeth naked.” Warning his listeners against ostentatious displays of their wealth, Chrysostom exhorts them to charity, saying, “they will not admire thee who wearest such apparel, but the man who supplies garments to the needy.” Because of Christ’s identification of himself with the needy, Chrysostom explains, to share one’s wealth with the poor is not to “bestow as a favor,” but rather the repayment of a debt.

Because the sharing of wealth is simultaneously the repayment of a debt and the assistance of one in need, says Chrysostom, “he who repays both bestows his gifts on a benefactor, and himself reaps their fruit besides.” Chrysostom does not exhort his congregation to charity only “because I care for the poor,” he says, but “because I care for your souls.” Chrysostom even goes so far as to tell his wealthy congregants that “none can rescue you from hell, if you obtain not the help of the poor.”Chrysostom imagines a relationship of reciprocity between the poor and the rich, in which the two act symbolically as Christ to one another, the rich repaying their debt to God through the poor and the poor, in turn, acting to intercede for the rich in prayer and through an ascetical endurance of their state.

This definition of wealth as a loan from God as a means of salvation for its possessor presents a way of understanding wealth that is worthy of consideration as an alternative to current modes of thought on wealth. Chrysostom’s way of thinking is one in which the poor are not reduced to objects of pity and condescension and in which the understanding of wealth as a social good is not reduced to forced communalization of wealth or bureaucratization of charity. Instead, both wealth and poverty are viewed in the light of the redemptive work of Christ, as mutually compatible and even simultaneously necessary means to salvation for all mankind.

Book Review: Christ & Culture by H. Richard Niebuhr

Niebuhr attempts to understand and evaluate the various ways in which Christians throughout history and today have understood the relationship between Christ and culture. These he divides into five types:

1. “Christ Against Culture” — Those who posit that Christ and culture are diametrically opposed and cannot be reconciled.

2. “Christ of Culture” — Those who attempt to domesticate Christ within the confines of whatever culture they happen to find themselves in already.

3. “Christ Above Culture” — Those who believe Christ to be reconcilable to culture, in some sense, yet apart from and transcendent of it.

4. “Christ and Culture in Paradox” — Those who posit that Christ and culture are opposed, yet man must necessarily live within both realms, whether simultaneously or intermittently.

5. “Christ the Transformer of Culture” — The conversionist model, as he calls it, posits that culture can be transformed through Christ.

Niebuhr does an excellent job a number of fronts. Perhaps most importantly, in a work like this, he allows each of these positions to speak for itself. He refuses to caricature and he does not offer criticism of a given position until he has allowed that position to explain itself fully. When he does criticize, his criticisms are consistently fair and incisive.

Niebuhr’s approach allows him to admit each of these positions into the mainstream of the heritage of Christianity and so into the collective Christian consciousness. The end result is one that explains and critiques without being weighed down by judgment and agenda. I recommend this work to anyone interested in the relationship between the Christian faith and the various culture contexts in which it has found itself as well as the new cultural contexts in which it finds itself today, both as it spreads to lands where it has not previously reached and as the traditionally Christian societies of the West experience numerous and rapid shifts in culture and mores.