Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Giving Thanks

Thursday we commemorate the sacrifices and hardships of our forbears, and that first Thanksgiving feast that punctuated an otherwise difficult and often harrowing existence. We celebrate with tables that will (in many cases) overflow with food, and then with a weekend of shopping in anticipation of the gift-giving of Christmas. We give thanks for all that we have, in many cases, so much more than the Pilgrims whose rugged and threadbare lives we honor.

We know that these are hard times - with more than a tenth of the adult population out of work, with soup kitchen lines longer than living memory recalls, and shelters filled with the homeless. Yet, for many Americans, this is still a time of plenty: our tables will be fuller tomorrow, but not uncommonly so; we will have a greater selections of sweets and desserts, but not uncommonly so; our cars will be filled with purchased products on Friday, but not uncommonly so; our televisions will be filled with images of sports and entertainment, but not uncommonly so.

The contrast between our "feast" days and our regular days has faded nearly to the point of indistinction. In America today, we are more likely to contend with obesity than starvation, with binge shopping than asceticism, with adult diabetes than scurvy. I don't mean to minimize the genuine sufferings of the genuine poor, but many of our disadvantaged people today are far more wealthy and comfortable than even the wealthiest of the Pilgrims; poverty, "the middle class" and wealth are and have always been relative standards, points of comparison that reflect contemporary levels of material want or plenitude.

My friend and Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, Charles Mathewes, has suggested that the problem we may face in the future (if not the present) is not too much want, but too much plenty. How do we, as a civilization, deal with the existence of so much stuff when our operative definition of the world and the economy has been based on the idea that nature is one of scarcity and we need, in response, an ever-increasing generation of more?

Much of modern philosophy - from thinkers ranging from Francis Bacon to Thomas Hobbes, from John Locke to Adam Smith - has held that nature is chintzy and that human freedom consists in extending our mastery over, and control of, the natural world. Freedom is the expansion of the human power to fulfill our wills and desires. Freedom today is so often defined as choice - but more, the power to fulfill choice. If we are so often dissatisfied, it is not that many of our desires go unfulfilled, but that new desires inevitably trail those that have been met, demanding new power and the further extension of mastery. As a result, our one official political policy - regardless of party or leader - is growth.

America has come to set the standard of what "the good life" should look like: as much as we are regarded with suspicion and even hatred around the world, our material standard of living (and our often ostentatious forms of consumption) are seen as the gold standard of what life should be like. When we speak of increasing "development" in the world, we implicitly mean that other parts of the world should eventually attain something like the living standard of the United States. And when we look at the example of rapidly developing nations such as India and China, we see countries that have thrown off their former reigning philosophies or religious guidelines of moderation, and have instead effectively adopted (if implicitly) the modern Western philosophical definition of freedom: freedom defined as the fulfillment of appetites by the expansion of power. When young Chinese and Indians come to American universities to study, they typically do not come to study English literature, philosophy and theology: they come to study science and engineering, those disciplines of applied technique that permit the increase of human power over nature.

I find this fact noteworthy - for it is our older inheritance, once embodied in our humanities disciplines, that offered a different understanding of freedom. By this older definition - found in our classical and Biblical inheritance - freedom is the attainment of self-government over our appetites. Ancient and religious thinkers (ranging from Aristotle to Augustine and beyond) argued that human appetites were infinitely expandable, and that submission to the pursuit to fulfill appetite was an endless and impossible task. To pursue their fulfillment was to make oneself a slave to one's appetites. True freedom, such thinkers argued, consisted in the governance of appetite. By extension, rather than seeing the world as one of scarcity that required our conquest, such thinkers saw a world of plenitude and as gift, one that offered us many goods and even plenitude and required of us in turn good stewardship and moderate appetites. The first Thanksgiving - for all the hardship experienced by the Pilgrims - was celebrated in this spirit, not one that despised the earth for giving us too little, but celebrated creation for offering so much.

The view of the world as miserly is becoming dominant in our world today. Even as America appears to be slipping from its top position in the world, its understanding of freedom appears to be increasingly dominant. Yet, is it possible that the very cause of our own national downfall has its source in our abandonment of that older definition of freedom? So many of the sources of our contemporary trials - ones that had their sources in excessive consumption, over-indebtedness, over-use of resources, excessive speculation, greed, concupiscence, and various other old-fashioned vices (or sins) - are quite arguably the result of our abandonment of that more ancient definition of freedom in favor of that of Bacon, Hobbes and Smith. And, viewing today the rising competitive threat from India and China, we conclude that we need more expansion of power to more fully conquer nature. Humanities are being further downgraded in favor of programs in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). We will command more techniques, but less wisdom and prudence in how to use them.

We will, I predict, continue to confront the problem of too much (though, I would also contend that the source of our contemporary plenitude is theft from the future, particularly the constantly accelerating exhaustion of planetary resources to the disadvantage of future generations). Our response, to date, has been to combat our excesses with the application of more techniques of mastery. Where we become too obese, we seek to find a drug to cure it; when we have exhausted most of the "easy oil," we seek to drill in new and more destructive techniques; where we burn too many hydrocarbons, we seek the invention of "clean fuels"; where we exhaust the topsoil, we clear cut rainforests. All of this is to say, there is growing evidence that our definition of freedom is leading us to a new form of captivity - a captivity of diminishing returns and ultimate want. The great challenge of our time is not to find the right "solutions," but to rediscover an ancient answer: the governance of appetite. The "solutions" to many of our contemporary problems do and have always lie with us, and not the intervention of science or government. We need an ethic of less. For those concerned with global warming: stay put and do more with less. For those concerned with excessive debt: buy less. For those concerned with lifestyle immorality: stop promoting cowboy capitalism. For those concerned with economic immorality: disavow the "if it feels good do it" ethic. We must get beyond our current partisan blinders and understand that there is a connection between an economy and a personal ethic in which everything is permitted.

Changing behavior is difficult, more difficult than getting legislation passed or inventing a new form of indigestible fat. Yet, it is a capacity given to every one of us. This is our challenge and our task. In this, we have much to learn from our Puritan forbears. Let us give thanks.

(Posted at Georgetown/On Faith)

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