Wasteland of Wealth

By Williamson, Chilton, Jr. | The American Conservative, July 17, 2006 | Go to article overview

Wasteland of Wealth


Williamson, Chilton, Jr., The American Conservative


Is the purpose of life-and work-only money?

ARISTOTLE, in the Politica, held that the nature of a thing is its end. From this, he concluded that "the quality of courage, for example, is not intended to make wealth, but to inspire confidence; neither is this the aim of the general's or the physician's art; but the one aims at victory and the other at health." While the political leader, the general, and the physician must earn a living, beyond that necessity wealth is an incidental, not a primary, aim of their profession. "Nevertheless," Aristotle acknowledges, "some men turn every quality or art into a means of getting wealth; this they conceive to be the end, and to the promotion of the end they think all things must contribute." Unlike the citizens of 4th-century Athens, it scarcely occurs to those of the 21st-century West that anyone would think otherwise. That is the principal distinction between the civilization of the ancients and the barbarism in which modern men and women dwell in self-imposed captivity.

For the West, there is ultimately no purpose, no reason, no standard, no justification for, nor comprehension of, anything but the wealth it produces or attracts to itself. Here is the cause of the drab uniformity of secular capitalist democracy, its deadness of soul, its spiritual and social malaise, its intellectual morabundity, its perversity, its destructiveness, its craziness, its fundamental insanity. The industrial wasteland that Eliot described-a wasteland of smuts, dead weeds, rickety typewriters, squalid flats, and foldaway beds-like the spiritual one he also deplored, is the byproduct merely of another, greater wasteland that has since spread itself about the entire world. This is the wasteland of wealth, where nothing can grow but money, and money, like a noxious weed, crowds out and kills all else, since nothing save money can live, let alone flourish, on lucre alone.

A more mundane way of saying the same thing is to remark that today, "It's all about the bottom line." Yet if this amounts to a trite observation, it is also a mostly unexplored and unplumbed one. What, really, are the consequences to a society whose sole criterion by which to assess governmental efficacy, general prosperity, social well-being and content, good health, educational attainment, intellectual, artistic, and scientific accomplishment, enjoyment and appreciation of the natural world, and what used to be called gracious living is the amount of money produced or consumed by these things? A knowledge of history, of course, would give us a very close idea of what those consequences are. However, since the history taught today is largely a smattering of ideological factoids gleaned from rude accounts of uncivilized or semi-civilized peoples, real history is mostly unavailable to all but that tiny remnant, the truly educated. So perhaps an inductive approach to the question is of greater use than the historical one. What are the observed as well as the expectable results for a great nation in substituting a particular end for a near infinity of others to which it is only indirectly connected?

The first thing to be said is that if the nature of a thing is indeed its end, then the end of a thing is its nature-so that, if everything has the same end, then all things are the same. Politics, finance, poetry, music, architecture, philosophy, medicine, agriculture, sports, amusements, cooking-all these supposedly various activities are in fact identical: that is to say, they are commercial.

I recall reading the casual statement "America is a commercial society" and being struck by that simple sentence. I cannot say why I found it striking, as nothing on earth could be more obvious. Perhaps, that is why the fact is so seldom put that way. Rather, we say, "America is a democratic society," or "America is a capitalist society"-better yet, "America is a democratic-capitalist society." "Commercial" by comparison sounds so humdrum, so bourgeois, so small-minded, unheroic, and petty, calling to mind Napoleon's contemptuous dismissal of the "nation of shopkeepers" (in our own case, mallkeepers). …

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