Materialism, and the Liberal Man

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Article published on Joy in Truth.

The World of Matter

The word materialism often evokes the mental picture of excessive consumerism and of abundant material wealth. Materialism, in the popular contemporary sense, usually is understood as a lifestyle and is often associated with the affluence of the modern developed world. But I think, if it were possible to probe this concept, this mental idea, and extend it further, this idea of materialism might well turn out quite differently or at least, it would be possible to apprehend it in its broader implications.

Often, as has been the case in the past and is now the case in the present, cultures, civilizations, are dominated by a single or a set of combined ideas and cultural beliefs which drive their social activity and influence their institutional practices. In this respect, materialism has been such an idea. When we examine the modern world, and western civilization in particular, we realize that the pursuit of material wealth and the realization of practical ends has become the dominant feature of modernity. The modern mind is preoccupied with money, with the ownership of things and the acquisition of the latest technological marvels. It is this fascination, this preoccupation with material things that has exerted since the time of the Renaissance, the greatest influence on the mind of Western society.

In this regard, materialism is primarily an orientation of the mind, a particular spirit, a way of understanding reality and of comprehending the world. It is a feature which is understandable and yet at the same time quite troubling. Keeping this in mind, it is puzzling to contemplate the Western achievement, which has been made possible by the kinds of ideals and ideas that have motivated and driven different men at different epochs, while at the same time realizing the gripping hold that the materialistic world view has progressively exercised on the Western mind. The men of the Enlightenment, for example, had despite their distrust of the sacred and disgust for their medieval past, a very humanistic understanding of society and of the world. But as the progressive tendencies existing within society asserted themselves, humanistic and intellectual progress mutated and became synonymous with more practical and utilitarian ways of evaluating social progress. As a result, Western culture as a whole has tended to become less and less humanistic, a development which has also coincided with a gradual erosion of the spiritual values that once animated the culture.

Western culture, and Material Power

Hence, as Western culture has advanced in material power and knowledge, the materialistic world view has come to govern and dominate the different levels of society. Utilitarianism, for example, seems to have become the only acceptable mode of ethical evaluation as it has provided a very practical philosophy of life and has been an instrumental tool in the weighing of benefits, the determination of social policies and most importantly, it has provided an almost infallible guide in individual conduct. Even further, in the field of economics, it is seen more clearer than ever that, the whole purpose and end of all social and economic activities have become the acquisition of unlimited wealth and the possession of material objects, while all humanistic considerations have tended to cede to the insatiable interests of a growingly capitalistic market. Examples are thus numerous, they abound and testify to this dire fact, this inescapable reality which has made it quasi-impossible for the modern mind to view and understand the world outside of the prism of matter.

But it is necessary to determine what has made materialism so successful as a philosophy but also as a principle of activity, of conduct. It is in fact useful to determine the factors that have contributed to the current situation so as to be able to retrace our steps and assess with objectivity the good, and the bad, the advantages and the disadvantages that are offered to us by such a view of reality.

A Loss of Faith

The human being has always been, more or less, a materialist, an individual driven by his own self-interest and the pursuit of practical ends. Nevertheless, it has not been the case that the human being has always viewed reality in terms of matter, in terms of its concrete applications and to the extent that it could be of particular use. This spirit, this mental frame has been part of Western civilization also but has only come to dominate thoroughly since the time of the Enlightenment and especially the period of the nineteenth century. And if it were possible to synthesize in a few words the sets of factors that have made the materialistic world view possible, it might be said that it has been brought about primarily as a result of a loss of faith, a gradual apostasy and in fact a partial atheism which have essentially manifested in a conscious but virulent denial of the living tradition of faith and of culture that had characterized Western civilization for centuries.

It is this loss of faith, for example, that had originally turned many of the scientists of the seventeenth century into deists, individuals who held to an amorphous and non integrated body of beliefs about the universe, God and man. But deism was a temporary phase since it was unable to resist the impressive onslaught of the rationalist critiques, convinced as they were, of the rational superiority in knowledge of the scientific world view and the utter uselessness of all religious belief as well as the grotesque futility of all philosophical endeavor. Since the scientific world view has come to shape the epistemology of Western culture and has been able, thanks to applied science which we also call technology, to revolutionize his social environment, it has provided a strong justification for a materialistic world view in the same way that it has legitimated atheism. Moreover, it has been one of the chief agents in the construction of the reductionist approach to the human being, a development that has resulted in an understanding of the human being that quantitatively has enjoyed unprecedented explanatory power while at the same time it has spawned a qualitative view that stands in direct contradiction with not only Western ideals but also with the common experience of humanity.

An Anthropological Problem

The sort of dualism that has influenced its understanding of the human being has been striking enough. Nevertheless, it can be seen that with the advent of the strictly scientific knowledge of the human being, this dualism has been greatly accentuated to the point that the Western mind is almost completely unable to hold to an integrated and holistic view of the human being. This is its great weakness and explains why it is on the whole, that is to say qualitatively speaking, relatively inferior to the anthropologies of other different cultures. For the distinctions that are often made between the mind of man, and his body are essentially mental and in reality do not exist since it is seen in practice that the mind and the body collaborate to form the substantive unity of the human person. In like manner, it is difficult to understand the role that gender plays in forming human personal identity when it is seen simply as the reflection of a given organ function. In recent years, this particular flaw has caught the attention and within the framework of education, there has been a concerted effort to create a more integrated and holistic view of humanity by promoting an approach that attempts to be more multi-disciplinary.

Still, it cannot be occulted that this materialism has become the basis and the particular outlook according to which the place of the human being within society has come to be evaluated. In the elaboration of social programs as well as in the determination of social policies, it is seen that the basic assumption has been that the nature of the human being is that of an animal, instead of a rational being, whose ultimate preoccupation has directly centered on the care of his stomach and the acquisition of material utilities. These considerations are true since they are rooted in the anthropological nature of the human being. Yet, they have come to supersede and negate the spiritual values and humanistic ideals upon which the whole social order had been founded. And it is in this sense that the unprecedented production of material goods and the ordering of all social and economic activities to practical benefits has resulted in a progressive disintegration of society with the concomitant erosion of the spiritual ideals that once animated the whole culture. As a result, with the passing of time, Western culture has come to be permeated with a spirit that provides the greatest contradiction to the ideals of its founding fathers.

The men of the Enlightenment, who have been credited as the founders of the civilization of the modern developed world, had a view of man that was quite different from the contemporary one. To them, the human being was more than an animal; he was rather a creature whom they understood as perfectible by the free exercise of rational inquiry and the committed devotion of all cultural resources to the education of his mind, of his habits and of his tastes. It is this conception of the human being, at once humanistic and Christian, that has made the Western democratic achievement possible but which now stands in need of justification and appears in danger of being erased from popular memory by the growing influence that the materialistic world view has exercised on Western civilization in particular, and on humanity as a whole.

Material nature, and the Liberal Man

As a result, it appears that the culture is animated by two relatively opposed and quite contradictory views of the human nature. There is, the liberal tradition, upon which the political and democratic orders are founded, which is a direct inheritance of the Enlightenment but which would not have been possible without the spiritual and cultural capital of the preceding cultural developments that took place within Western culture. This liberal tradition, taken in its classical sense, values human liberty and admits of a human free will as the necessary conditions upon which the ordering of society and the functioning of political government are based. Then, over and above, there is this materialistic understanding which succeeds this tradition, since it is a more recent development, but which thanks to the success of the scientific world view has tended to elaborate the dominant anthropology wherein the human being, even if he were understood as a creature capable of art and of culture, remains nevertheless an animal, a being no different from the other creatures and in whom free will and rationality are not an integral part of his being and of his identity, but simply figure as extraneous and disposable additions to his animal nature.

These two streams of thought have characterized the culture of the West, of the Occident, and have unfortunately been exported throughout the world thanks to the efforts of colonization as well as the penetrating effects of a globalized economy. The relation between the two traditions however, has the unintended consequence of creating a material and social order that ultimately rests on an illusion. Indeed, once the nature of the human being is admitted to be that of an animal with its drives and its instincts, it is difficult to see his moral autonomy, or his free will, and his rational ability as being more than the expression of his biological behavior. As soon as the human being is considered solely in this respect, his free will and his ability to reason, at once disappear behind the predetermined functioning of his biological organs. From this point of view, man is not truly free. In fact, he is conditioned by his drives and his feelings. In like manner, he is not truly rational but he is limited by the mental capacity of the biology of his animal nature. It is therefore seen that the whole social and political order rests on assumptions that the human being is free and rational, which may or may not exist in the reality of his person.

Ultimately, there exists a strained relation between the materialistic world view and the liberal tradition in the same way that materialism taken on its own, is insufficient to promote a true and vigorous humanism. As a matter of fact, a solely materialist world view is incomplete to account for the human achievement of culture as well as the more intricate and organized activity of civilization. Indeed, it is when we admit that man is capable of culture and of art, that we recognize that he can be driven by ends other than the realization of material objectives and the fulfillment of his instinctive desires. In this respect, the achievement of culture and the higher organization of civilization bear testament to an important reality. There is in the human being a different principle, which integrates value and meaning into his material and social activities. Man is, for that fact, a spiritual animal, an ensouled being.

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