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Thursday, January 6, 2011

Consumerism and The Good Life

I've written before about Aristotle's Politics, focusing on passages in Book VII that connect the details of urban planning - the layout of streets, for example - with prospects for the happiness of a polis and its citizens.

Well, I find myself once again reading Politics Book VII in preparation for teaching next week, and found a passage of special resonance in the wake of the Christmas season, a holiday I've come to think of as the Feast of Acquisition:
Some think that a very moderate amount of excellence is enough, but set no limit to their desires for wealth, property, power, reputation, and the like. To them we shall reply by an appeal to facts, which easily prove that mankind does not acquire or preserve the excellences by the help of external goods, but external goods by the help of the excellences, and that happiness, whether consisting in pleasure of excellence, or both, is more often found with those who are most highly cultivated in their mind and in their character, and have only a moderate share of external goods, than among those who possess external goods to a useless extent but are deficient in higher qualities. (1323a35-1323b6)
He continues in this vein for a bit, offering an argument from reason to reinforce the argument from experience, and concludes with this:
Again, it is for the sake of the soul that goods external and goods of the body are desirable at all, and all wise men ought to choose them for the sake of the soul, and not the soul for the sake of them. (1323b18-21)
Keep in mind that Aristotle does not take the soul to be anything particularly mystical or mysterious; it is just the living activity of a body organized in a particular way, that is, an organism. Plants have a soul with the capacity for nutrition, reproduction and growth; animal souls have that, plus the capacity for sensation, appetite, and movement; human souls have all that plus the capacity for reason. Moral virtues are a function of the degree to which the animal soul is tamed, as it were, by reason.

I was especially struck, on reading this last short passage, by the parallel in Thoreau:
I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes. If there is not a new man, how can the new clothes be made to fit?
This parallel is not altogether surprising, as Thoreau reportedly spent much of his time at the cabin by the pond reading the classics in Greek.

From Thoreau, the idea finds further echoes in the rhetoric of present-day environmentalism. Consider one of the mottoes of the "deep ecology" movement: "Simple in means, rich in ends."

Recall, though, that Aristotle is writing about the conditions under which a city as well as its citizens can be counted as happy or blessed, while Thoreau and even deep ecologists (in spite of themselves) may be focused more on the lived and felt experience of individuals and the cultivation of individual consciousness and character.

To emphasize the civic dimension of Aristotle's seemingly prescient critique of present-day consumerism, it's worth considering the resonance of the passages quoted with Lewis Mumford's characterization of Athens during the Classical period as, to paraphrase from memory, poor in buildings but rich in citizens.

Unfortunately, I don't have Mumford's book, The City in History, in hand just now, so I'll have to take up this thread later.

Sources
Aristotle, The Politics and the Constitution of Athens, ed. Stephen Everson, trans. Benjamin Jowett, Cambridge University Press, 1996.

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