Prof. Randall Smith teaches theology, philosophy, and courses related to Modern Challenges to Christianity, at the University of Saint Thomas, Houston, Texas. He is a strong apologist for the Christian faith.
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Copyright © 2001
M. S. Thirumalai
THE TROUBLE WITH TEMPERANCE
OR WHY NONE OF US THINKS WE BUY TOO MUCH
Prof. Randall Smith
"And when [Jesus] had come into the house, his disciples secretly asked him: Why could not we cast [the demon] out? And he said to them: This kind can go out by nothing, but by prayer and fasting."
The Bishop and the Brahmins: Why Temperance Remains Compelling, Even to Those Who Lack It
The Archdiocese of Boston, reeling and wounded after 18 months of nonstop crisis, now awaits the July 30 installation of an archbishop like none this city has ever seen -- a bearded Franciscan friar who once took a vow of poverty, who wants to be called by his first name, who eschews the trappings of princely power, and whose career suggests he means it when he says his first priority is the poor....For many, the simplicity of O'Malley's habit was a striking symbol of his lack of airs, and a contrast to the last archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Bernard F. Law, who was a prince of the church in every way. The contrast is likely to be intensified at the installation, which, if O'Malley's past is any indication, will not include much of the pomp that attended the ceremony at which Law became archbishop in 1984. Boston Globe 7/6/2003
As a robed Franciscan Capuchin friar, the archbishop is opting to emphasize his vow of poverty and share room and board in a working rectory considerably humbler than the palazzo-style estate house of his predecessors. On Sunday, he made a point of visiting one of the worst-victimized parishes, St. Michael's, sorrowfully conceding "how much this community has suffered." Archbishop O'Malley faces an enormous repair task after six decades of documented abuses. His opening moves seem rays of mercy for the archdiocese's bewildered parishioners and a priestly majority who hunger for a credible shepherd. New York Times 8/12/2003
Do Secular Newspapers Ask that We Sell
Everything and Follow Jesus?
This is certainly high praise coming from the editors of The
Boston Globe and The New York Times, two papers
that pursued the infamous pedophile priest scandal during the Spring
of 2002 as relentlessly as any others. It is no doubt understandable
that these two "old lions" would feel they have a vested interest in
a Boston archbishop who is more open and honest. What is not so clear
is why they should be lauding Franciscan Capuchin friar Sean O'Malley
for his dedication to, among other things, "poverty, chastity, and obedience."
Is there anyone so naive as to believe that the liberal editors of the
Times and the Globe were tacitly signaling
their approval of the classic cardinal and monastic virtues? Were they
about to exhort their well-heeled Boston Brahmin and Manhattan financial-district
readers that they should, like the rich young man in Matthew's Gospel,
sell all they have, and come and follow Christ? Not likely.
Why This Insistence on the Vows?
So, why the particular emphasis - not only here but in many other papers around
the country - on Fr. O'Malley's evident dedication to his vows of poverty,
chastity, and obedience? Indeed, given the usual implications in the
popular media - that the crisis was the result of the Catholic Church's
foolish and short-sighted moral restrictions, especially those on what
used to be called our "concupiscible desires - one would have thought
that the sight of a simple priest who had dedicated himself his whole
life to disciplining, nay even renouncing, what everyone in the press
agrees are "very normal" lusts and desires - that this sight would have
been cause for even greater concern than usual?
Shouldn't the Boston Brahmins in their Beacon Hill palazzos and the
New York merchant bankers in their Manhattan apartments be more comfortable
with a bishop who lives in a "palazzo"of his own rather than one who
has renounced all his worldly desires and possessions so as to live
a life more fully dedicated to God and the poor? Perhaps we should compare
these editors to those in the New Testament about whom Jesus remarked:
They are like children who sit in the marketplace and call to one another, 'We played the flute for you, but you did not dance. We sang a dirge, but you did not weep.' For John the Baptist came neither eating food nor drinking wine, and you said, 'He is possessed by a demon.' The Son of Man came eating and drinking and you said, 'Look, he is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners'(Luke 7:32-4).
These are people who can't decide what they want. They are enthralled by the poverty, chastity, and obedience of a simple Franciscan friar, but they despise the Church that preaches the value of poverty, chastity, and obedience to a culture uncomfortable with that message.
Unconscious Recognition of the Truth?
Or perhaps it could be that, tacitly, without fully realizing it or understanding it, the editors and publishers of the Globe and the Times have recognized the truth of what the Church had been teaching for centuries: that you're much safer, in the long run, in the hands of someone who has clearly shown himself capable of tempering and controlling his lusts and desires, than in the hands of someone who shares the same lusts and desires as you? Could it be, in other words, that the editors of the Times and the Globe so detested Archbishop Law because they realized in the end he was so much like them, and that, to the contrary, they are so attracted to someone like Fr. O'Malley, precisely because he is so different? Temperance is undeniably compelling: the temperance of someone like Mother Teresa or Gandhi or even the temperance of the Gulf War soldiers who, unlike the rest of us, are willing to give up so many of the pleasures and comforts America has to offer in order to defend what we hold dear. Such bold and brazen examples of temperance remain strangely compelling, even in (or perhaps especially in) America's unremittingly consumerist culture.
Temperance and the Success of the American Project
Certainly temperance would seem to be high on the list of "much-needed virtues" in contemporary American society. From the greed of the Enron corporate directors to the lust of the pedophile Catholic priests, and from the ubiquitous incidence of divorce among the Baby Boomers to the sky-high rates of consumer debt, many in America find themselves asking (especially after the wake-up call of 9/11): "Can't we Americans control ourselves?" Excess and dissipation don't seem to afflict only the rich and famous of Hollywood anymore: these seem to have become distinctively "American" diseases. In fact, some have theorized that it is precisely because of the widespread resentment of American luxuries, fear of American cultural influence, and scorn toward a perceived American lassitude that terrorists such as Osama bin Laden were able to find fertile fields in recruiting for the destruction of 9/11.
Increasing Softness and Spiritual Exhaustion, Is the West A Model
Indeed, it was another man of the East, the Russian novelist and refugee
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who warned America about its increasing softness
and its "spiritual exhaustion."
But should someone ask me whether I would indicate the West such as it is today as a model to my country, frankly I would have to answer negatively. No, I could not recommend your society in its present state as an ideal for the transformation of ours. Through intense suffering our country has now achieved a spiritual development of such intensity that the Western system in its present state of spiritual exhaustion does not look attractive. A fact which cannot be disputed is the weakening of human beings in the West while in the East they are becoming firmer and stronger. Six decades for our people and three decades for the people of Eastern Europe; during that time we have been through a spiritual training far in advance of Western experience. Life's complexity and mortal weight have produced stronger, deeper and more interesting characters than those produced by standardized Western well being.
It is, in fact, says Solzhenitsyn, precisely the material success of the West that has led to its downfall.
Constant Desire to Possess More
Every citizen has been granted the desired freedom and material goods
in such quantity and of such quality as to guarantee in theory the achievement
of happiness, in the morally inferior sense which has come into being
during those same decades. In the process, however, one psychological
detail has been overlooked: the constant desire to have still more things
and a still better life and the struggle to obtain them imprints many
Western faces with worry and even depression, though it is customary
to conceal such feelings.
The End of History?
Of course, this battle between East and West is thought by many to
be over, the West having emerged victorious. In fact, for some, the
victory of liberal democracy in the West has been complete, signaling
what Francis Fukuyama has described as "the end of history." Fukuyama's
book by that name has been widely hailed by some, vilified by others,
and actually read by somewhat fewer. But he states the question about
the "survivability" and "sustainability" of liberal democracy in the
We have become used to thinking about the question of the survival of democracy in terms of foreign policy. In the eyes of people like Jean-François Revel, democracy's greatest weakness was its inability to defend itself against ruthless and determined tyrannies. The question of whether and for how long the threat from these tyrannies has receded will continue to preoccupy us in a world still full of authoritarianisms, theocracies, intolerant nationalisms, and the like. But let us grant, for the moment, that liberal democracy has vanquished its foreign rivals and for the foreseeable future faces no serious external threats to its survival. Left to themselves, can those stable, long-standing liberal democracies of Europe and America be indefinitely self-sustaining, or will they one day collapse from some kind of internal rot, much as communism has done? Liberal democracies are doubtless plagued by a host of problems like unemployment, pollution, drugs, crime, and the like, but beyond these immediate concerns lies the question of whether there are other deeper sources of discontent within liberal democracy - whether life there is truly satisfying.
The Ultimate Survival of the Liberal-Democratic Project
The question of the "end of history" and the ultimate survival of the
liberal-democratic project, therefore, amounts, says Fukuyama, "to a
question of the future of thymos: whether liberal democracy adequately
satisfies the desire for recognition ...." We will have more to say
about this issue of a "desire for recognition" (which is the driving
force in history for Fukuyama) in due course.
The Driving Force: The Desire for Recognition
Fukuyama goes on to discuss the issue of "the desire for recognition"
in terms of the usual contemporary debates over equality and egalitarianism:
Can the gross social and economic inequalities that liberal democracy
seems to open up be tolerated, or will they in the end tear the society
apart? According to Fukuyama, "Liberal democracy could, in the long
run, be subverted internally either by an excess of what he calls megalothymia
- that is, the powerful desire to be recognized and distinguished more
than others - or by an excess of isothymia - that is, the fanatical
desire for equal recognition. (It is the former of the two that Fukuyama
judges the more dangerous threat in the end.) The question is whether
all members of a liberal democracy will be satisfied with the amount
of recognition provided by having certain rights within the state? So,
for example, Fukuyama comments:
If everyone was fully content merely by virtue of having rights in a democratic society, with no further aspirations beyond citizenship, would we not in fact find them worthy of contempt? And on the other hand, if thymos remained essentially unfulfilled by universal and reciprocal recognition, would not democratic societies have exposed a critical weakness?
Structural Dependence on Unsatisfied Desire
It is not my intention in this paper to explore this particular aspect
of the problem - that is, the relationship between an aristocratic megalothymia
and an egalitarian isothymia in the liberal democratic society; rather,
I wish to explore a particularly troubling contemporary manifestation
of that "desire for recognition" that plays such a central role in the
work of both Fukuyama and Alexandre Kojève before him. So, for example,
what if it turns out that the modern liberal society, such as it has
developed in, for example, the United States, is structurally dependent
upon unsatisfied desire? What if it turns out that the gas that runs
the engine of the liberal state is in fact "the organized creation of
dissatisfaction"? What then? Perhaps then we will have answered Fukuyama's
question about whether liberal democratic societies represent the "end
of history." Perhaps it will become clear that liberal society - of
which the United States serves as a prime paradigm - is not only ultimately
unsustainable, as every other type of regime has been, but more radically,
that liberalism contains within itself the roots of its own demise.
Tempering the Desire for Recognition
Unless, of course, those passions generated by the "desire for recognition"
that Fukuyama describes can be tempered in some way by an overarching
wisdom and strength of character. Thus, if Fukuyama is right that the
future of the liberal democratic project depends upon whether liberal
democratic societies can successfully mediate between the extremes of
megalothymos and isothymos, then would it not make sense to say, in
such a context, that temperance - the virtue whose peculiar role is
to find the mean between too little desire and too much - will be both
fundamental and necessary for the survival of the society. Without widespread
temperance, the society will either rupture because of too many competing
desires for preeminence (due to an excess of megalothymos), or languish
because those desires have become emasculated by the excessive drive
for egalitarianism (due to an excess of isothymos).
Why Should Temperance Be So Hard to Practice?
This is easy to say, of course, but much harder to do. It is easy to
realize the importance of temperance, but much harder to actually become
temperate. But why should this be so? As the sickness of the society
grows worse, one would expect the natural defense mechanisms of the
members to kick in and inspire a measure of temperance - for pure survival,
if for no other reason. This has happened frequently in the past in
America - periods of libertinism tend to be followed by periods of moral
renewal and reform - so why should we not expect the same sort of cycle
to recur again?
And of course, it might. But we face an especially tricky challenge in contemporary American society. The challenge to temperance is not merely that we are a society awash in wealth and material things - although we are; what is more puzzling is that very few of us actually thinks we are. And indeed, rather than being totally "hedonistic," man in contemporary American culture - even the youth in the culture - are actually quite capable of their own kind of discipline in order to achieve their desires. It's not that they lack "discipline" - which is what adults customarily assume - rather, it's precisely that they lack "temperance" in its fullest sense. The difference between the two is critical and will become clearer, I trust, in the course of our discussion.
Mere Exhortation Does Not Help: A Complex Situation
My suggestion will be that it will simply do no good in our contemporary
cultural setting merely to exhort people to "bear up" or "get tough"
or "learn to control themselves." The challenges we face are more complex
than such comments would indicate, and we would do better to understand
why. The problem, in short, is that, for reasons most of us barely understand,
none of us sees ourselves as rich even in the richest country in the
The challenge we face isn't merely the usual one of inability to control the passions. Americans have shown themselves able to do that quite well. They can be dramatically continent, for example, when they choose to be. The problem, as we will see, is much deeper. We are being defeated not so much by our lusts as by our pride. And it is for this reason in particular that Boston Archbishop Sean O'Malley, a member of the Order of Friars Minor - an order whose founder understood better than most the peculiar dangers of societal pride - is indeed an especially important role model for America at this time in our history.
But to understand why this is so, we must begin in another order, although with another mendicant - the Order of Preachers and with Thomas Aquinas - in order to understand the classic Catholic teaching on temperance.
Thomas Aquinas on the Virtue of Temperance: Is Temperance a Private Virtue?
According to Thomas Aquinas, temperance moderates movements of the sense appetite,
in particular by keeping them consonant with the order of reason and
the Divine law. Temperance is similar to courage in this regard in that
it belongs to both to safeguard against the passions that rebel against
reason: temperance, with the passions of the sense appetite whereby
we pursue sensible and bodily goods; courage, with the passions of the
sense appetite whereby we flee from sensible and bodily evils. And just
as courage is about fear and daring with respect to the greatest evils
- namely death - so too temperance orders the strongest sense desires
and pleasures known to humans, namely, those associated with preserving
human life, such as eating, drinking, and sexual activity.
The pleasures associated with eating, drinking, and sexual activity,
are all pleasures of touch, claims Thomas, thus he will conclude that
"temperance is only about desires and pleasures of touch." With regard
to the desire for pleasures of the other senses that also belong to
the bodily allurements or the desires for riches or for worldly glory,
Thomas says: "if a man can control the greatest pleasures, much more
can he control lesser ones. Wherefore it belongs chiefly and properly
to temperance to moderate desires and pleasures of touch, and secondarily
Touch as the Most Crucial Element
Thus two things are clear: First, that for Thomas, temperance deals
primarily with desires and pleasures of touch. We will see the possible
limitations and problems with this view given our modern context in
due course. Second, according to Thomas, "if a man can control the pleasures
of touch, he can more easily control others." We will also be discussing
the continuing value of this insight in due course.
But first, two particular considerations suggest themselves from Thomas's discussion of temperance. One has to do with whether it is sufficient to say that temperance deals "primarily" with the desires and pleasures of touch. The other has to do with whether it is adequate to follow Thomas in identifying temperance as a private virtue. Let us begin in reverse order, with the second of these two.
Public versus Private
While it clear the ways in which virtues such as courage and justice
are "public" virtue, it has sometimes been assumed that temperance is
more of a "private" virtue. It helps the agent control his or her own
desires, especially those most potent desires for food, drink, and sexual
relations. And while drinking and eating can sometimes be social activities,
they are not usually considered specifically public activities. Similarly
with sexual activity: it commonly involves more than one participant,
and yet in no society known to history has it every been considered
an appropriate "public" display.
What of temperance, then? If temperance concerns primarily appetites of touch, such as those related to eating, drinking, and sex; and if those activities are largely private, then is temperance primarily a "private" virtue? Indeed, as Thomas suggests:
the good of the many is more godlike than the good of the individual,
wherefore the more a virtue regards the good of the many, the better
it is. Now justice and fortitude regard the good of the many more
than temperance does, since justice regards the relations between
one man and another, while fortitude regards dangers of battle which
are endured for the common weal: whereas temperance moderates only
the desires and pleasures which affect man himself.
Temperance Is Not A Mere Proper Ordering of One's Passions
While not wishing to challenge the wisdom of the Common Doctor - for
indeed, in an important sense, temperance certainly is more inwardly-directed
than, say, justice - yet I will be suggesting in this paper that the
ramifications of temperance or intemperance are as public and as serious
as a lack in any of the other virtues. The goal of temperance is not
merely, as some might have thought, merely a proper ordering of one's
passions and desires ordained to the end simply of exercising control.
Rather temperance, like all the other virtues is related, as Thomas
says, to the "order of reason and of the divine law." And the end of
the order of reason and of the divine law, as Thomas makes clear repeatedly,
is a communion of persons: that is to say, a friendship with both God
and with one's neighbor. Thus let me be clear: While I will be pushing
the boundaries of temperance beyond those explicitly set forth by Aquinas
in his discussion of the definition of temperance in the Summa, I believe
my analysis will remain true to "the mind of St. Thomas" as it relates
to the meaning and purpose of the virtues as they are understood within
their broader religious and social context. In the end, all the virtues
are public virtues. It might be more accurate, then, to speak of "outwardly-directed"
vs. "inwardly-directed" virtues, rather than "public" vs. "private."
Why, then, should one think of temperance within a more civic or corporate context than that which at least at first St. Thomas seems to allow? Because, I would argue, the kinds of desires that specially challenge contemporary moral persons are more corporate and not merely private, even though they masquerade seductively under the guise of things that define one's "individuality." The specific challenge we face has been characterized well by philosopher and literary critic René Girard under the heading "mimetic desire."
Girard and Mimetic (Imitative) Desire
According to Girard, in most works of fiction, the characters have desires
which are fairly simple. There is, as he says, "only the subject and
the object." So, for example: "When the 'nature' of the object inspiring
the passion is not sufficient to account for the desire, one must turn
to the impassioned subject. Either his 'psychology' is examined or his
'liberty' invoked. But desire is always spontaneous. It can always be
portrayed by a simple straight line which joins subject and object"
[emphasis added]. In such cases, it might be imagined that the classical
virtue of temperance as described by St. Thomas would be the appropriate
rule guiding one's actions. One's desire is directed at a certain object
- let us say a certain type of food or drink, or sex with a particular
person - and what this person needs to emerge victorious in this situation
is sufficient temperance (or at the very least continence): the ability
to control the sense desire for these particular "pleasures of touch."
A Triangular Desire
And yet, there is another more complex type of desire described by Girard - one that involves three elements rather than merely two. Girard calls this sort of desire "triangular desire," or sometimes "mimetic desire." In triangular desire, the individual no longer chooses the objects of his own desire, rather he or she pursues objects which are determined for him, or at least seem to be determined for him, by some model or "mediator" of desire. In triangular desire, there is not a simple straight line which joins subject and object, rather there is a complex "imitation." What the subject desires primarily is to be like another person or perhaps even to be that person, and thus the object that the self or subject desires is what it is because he or she knows, imagines, or suspects the mediator desires it.
Don Quixogte, a Victim of Triangular Desire
Don Quixote, in Cervantes's novel, is for Girard "a typical example
of the victim of triangular desire." Unlike Sancho, whose desires are
often aroused by, say the sight of a piece of cheese or a goatskin of
wine, Quixote desires what he desires in imitation of the chivalric
model set for him by the fictitious figure of Amadis of Gaul. As Quixote
I want you to know, Sancho, that the famous Amadis of Gaul was one of the most perfect knight errants. But what am I saying, one of the most perfect? I should say the only, the first, the unique, the master and lord of all those who existed in the world.... I think ... that, when a painter wants to become famous for his art he tries to imitate the originals of the best masters he knows; the same rule applies o most important jobs or exercises which contribute to the embellishment of republics; thus the man who wishes to be known as careful and patient should and does imitate Ulysses, in whose person and works Homer paints for us a vivid portrait of carefulness and patience, just as Virgil shows us in the person of Aeneas the valor of a pious son and the wisdom or a valiant captain; and it is understood that they depict them not as they are but as they should be, o provide an example of virtue for centuries to come. In the same way Amadis was the post, the star, the sun for brave and amorous knights, and we others who fight under the banner of love and chivalry should imitate him. Thus, my friend Sancho, I reckon that whoever imitates him best will come closes to perfect chivalry.
A Desire According to the Other As Opposed to the Desire According
This chivalric passion in Quixote, claims Girard, is a "desire according
to the Other," as opposed to the "desire according to Oneself that most
of us pride ourselves on enjoying": "Don Quixote and Sancho borrow their
desires from the Other in a movement which is so fundamental and primitive
that they completely confuse it with the will to be Oneself."
Of course one might object that Amadis is merely a fictitious person, and not real. And yet, as Girard correctly points out: "The mediator is imaginary but not the mediation." Indeed, as Quixote's own examples suggest, the figures of Odysseus in Homer or of Aeneas in Virgil, though largely fictitious, have not for that reason failed to provoke substantial imitative or "mimetic" desire over the generations. One need only think of, for example, the importance for our own country's history of the mimetic relationship between George Washington and the semi-legendary story of the Roman general Cincinnatus.
Mimetic Desire Is Not Necessarily Bad
As this last example illustrates, to call a desire "mimetic" is not
to say that it is for that reason necessarily bad. Girard himself makes
this clear repeatedly in his writings. "Mimetic desire" can be the source
of both great good or great mischief. Indeed, one might consider Cervantes's
telling of the story of Don Quixote as something of an extended mediation
on the sometimes ambiguous character of mimetic desire. Is Quixote better
off because he has taken on the ideals and desires of his chivalric
model Amadis? Is Sancho better off when he assimilates the ambitions
that Quixote insinuates into him? Or would his situation at least remain
less complicated if he had been left with his fairly straightforward
desires for things like food, wine, and sex? Do his "mimetic desires"
ennoble him, or merely serve to enslave him more subtly? Such are the
questions with which Cervantes's readers are faced.
Madame Bovary and Desire According to the Other
A clearer example of the mischief that can be done by mimetic desire
- "desire according to the Other," as Girard often describes it - can
be seen in the figure of Flaubert's Emma Bovary. Emma Bovary, says Girard,
"desires through the romantic heroines who fill her imagination." Girard
notes, quoting the literary scholar Jules de Gaultier, that "in order
to reach their goal, which is to 'see themselves as they are not,' Flaubert's
heroes find a 'model' for themselves and 'imitate from the person they
have decided to be, all that can be imitated, everything exterior, appearance,
gesture, intonation, and dress.'" Indeed, it is precisely this obsession
with anything exterior, appearances, and dress that we will find to
be so powerfully compelling in the contemporary cultural setting. We
are much like Emma Bovary who, lacking the necessary internal compass,
has surrendered herself to the desires of the romantic figures who fill
her imagination and whose lives, though fictitious, seem so very much
more real than her own. Like Emma too, we find those imaginative mimetic
desires to be increasingly illusive and unfulfilling, yet they continue
to drive us on nonetheless in an ever more desperate search for the
fulfillment of our dream of wholeness, happiness, and satisfaction.
Adulter as Banal as Marriage?!
Adultery, Emma was discovering, could be as banal as marriage. But
what way out was there? She felt humiliated by the degradation of such
pleasures; but to no avail: she continued to cling to them, out of habit
or out of depravity; and every day she pursued them more desperately,
destroying all possible happiness by her excessive demands. She blamed
Léon [her adulterous partner] for he disappointed hopes, as though he
had betrayed her; and she even longed for a catastrophe that would bring
about their separation, since she hadn't the courage to bring it about
herself. Still, she continued to write him loving letters, faithful
to the idea that a woman must always write to her lover. But as her
pen flew over the paper she was aware of the presence of another man,
a phantom embodying her most ardent memories, the most beautiful things
she had read and her strongest desires. In the end he became so real
and accessible that she tingled with excitement, unable though she was
to picture him clearly, so hidden was he, godlike, under his manifold
attributes. He dwelt in that enchanted realm where silken ladders swing
from balconies moon-bright and flower-scented. She felt him near her:
he was coming - coming to ravish her entirely in a kiss. And the next
moment she would drop back to earth, shattered; for these rapturous
love-dreams drained her more than the greatest orgies.
Mimetic Desire and the "Branding" of American Youth
Those who spend any time around teenagers know that the story of Emma Bovary is being repeated endlessly in middle schools, high schools, and colleges across the country. American youth, who carry with them the desires to imitate the lifestyles they see portrayed on "Friends" or "Beverly Hills 90210" or "Dawson's Creek" or whatever the latest teen rage is at the moment are spread out across the country spearheading a spending juggernaut that generates some 150 billion dollars per year in revenue for those who are ingenious enough to know how to cash in. Youth spending is big spending, and advertisers know it, which is why companies (even those with huge amounts of corporate debt) will continue to spend several billion dollars per year on advertising to the "youth market" (roughly defined as 14 to 35-year olds) year in and year out.
Advertising, of course, is nothing new; but the increasing degree of sophistication with which it is practiced in America is. What consumers need to understand (and particularly the youth who are the primary target of the advertisers) is precisely how adept advertisers have become in discovering, exploiting, and profiting from America's seemingly inexhaustible supply of mimetic desire. Because what contemporary advertisers are selling is not so much a specific product - a type of shaver, a brand of beer, a particular kind of blue jeans - what they are really "selling" is a persona: an identity that goes along with the product (or to put it more accurately, the product goes along with the persona). In other words, they are selling an imaginary "hero" - an imitative model who will mediate the desire for the product to the consumer. It is not enough that the model in the ad looks good in the clothes; he or she must be the right kind of person - the kind of person the prospective buyer wants to be, in the way Emma Bovary wants to be the romantic heroines she read about as a young girl.
No One Model For Subcultures
Just as not all women want to be the romantic heroines that Emma Bovary
does, nor does every old man wish to imitate the chivalric ideal of
Don Quixote, so there is not necessarily one "model" for the various
sub-cultures within America. But in each case, the advertisers must
know the aspirational ideals of that particular group, embody them in
a particular "model," and then associate their product with that imitative
ideal - that persona - or in the case of celebrity models, literally
with that individual person. The Nike slogan "Be Like Mike" illustrates
the practice nicely, but examples could undoubtedly be multiplied by
the reader endlessly.
The result of all this work on the part of advertisers is that the
youth in America are very cognizant of different company brands and
what they signify. Try showing advertisements from any magazine pitched
at the all-important teenager-and-young-adult market to a group of young
people with the name of the actual advertiser blotted out. (I've performed
the experiment myself on a number of occasions with my own classes).
You will find that, from the look of the model or the layout of the
ad (and without seeing the name), almost all your students will be able
to identify the brand being advertised. I've gone through a streak of
twenty or thirty such "blind" advertisements in under sixty seconds,
the students shouting out nearly instantaneously and in unison the name
of the company being advertised, getting more excited and vocal with
each passing correct answer. In one class, however, one poor young woman,
who had clearly been more protected by her parents, looked around totally
bewildered at her classmates and cried out plaintively: "How does everyone
know?" To her, it was something occult: as though everyone else knew
the secret college handshake, and she alone had been kept in the dark.
As author James Twitchell has argued, knowledge of brands is the only
"cultural literacy" that all youth in America share.
Lead Us Into Temptation!
Indeed, few people have commented as incisively and knowledgeably on
the current social consumerism than Twitchell, best-selling author and
Professor of English and Advertizing at the University of Florida. In
his book Lead Us Into Temptation, Twitchell illustrates
with a kind of ironic relish the ways in which advertisers hawk their
wares to consumers by marketing a certain sense of meaning or identity
with which the product is associated. "Meaning is added to objects by
advertising, branding, packaging, and fashion," claims Twitchell, "because
that meaning derisively called status is what we are after, what we
need, especially when we are young." "Social identity created via consumption,"
he says, "may be summarized in the catchphrase, 'you are what you eat.'
So too you are what you wear, what you drive, where you holiday, where
you live, and even what you decide to video graze on....Tell me what
you buy and I'll tell you who you are, and who you want to be." "Buying
stuff," according to Twitchell, "is not just our current popular culture,
it is how we understand the world." His conclusion: "Consumption of
things and their meanings is how most Western young people cope in a
world that science has pretty much bled of traditional religious meanings."
Advertising Shapes Our Worldview
For those who doubt how effective advertising is, or just how precisely
advertisers have been able to tap into our aspirational ideals, one
need only browse something like Michael J. Weiss's book The Clustered
World. According to Weiss, advertisers think of America geographically
in terms of 15 socioeconomic groupings and 62 lifestyle groups or "clusters."
These "clusters" have been given lively and evocative names by the advertisers
in order to aid in identifying them. So, for example, in the top categories,
we have "cluster" groups such as "Blue Blood Estates," which consists
of elite super-rich families; "Executive Suites," upscale white-collar
couples; "Pools & Patios," a group that consists in established empty-nesters;
and "Kids & Cul-de-Sacs," upscale suburban families. All of these are
groups that live in the "Elite Suburbs." When we move to the "Inner
Suburbs" clusters, we find "Upstarts & Seniors," middle income empty-nesters;
"New Beginnings," young mobile city singles; "Mobility Blues," young
blue-collar families, and "Gray Collars," aging couples in the inner
Advertisers have learned to use information about these "clusters" to sell the people in them everything from bear to caffé latté, from hot dogs to sushi, and from Chevy Trucks to BMWs, depending of course on where they live and what cluster group they represent. So, for example, advertisers can tell you that call- waiting is most popular among "Boomers & Babies," "Single City Blues," "Gray Collars," and Kids & Cul-de-Sacs." Salsa is most popular among "Upward Bound," Kids & Cul-de-Sacs," "Boomers & Babies," and of course, "Hispanic Mix." Those most likely to be swing voters in an election are "Towns & Gowns," Greenbelt Families," Sunset City Blues," and "Executive Suites." Thus each of these cluster groups represents what one commentator has called a "brandscape": certain brands are associated with that socio-economic group. And to become (or to remain) identified as a member of that group - whether it be "Blue Bloods" or "Educational Elites" or "Upward Bound" or even "Sunset City Blues" - one has to be able to identify the appropriate brand choices and stay away from those too closely associated with other groups. That is why, as author David Brooks has pointed out in his best-selling book Bobos in Paradise , America's "Bobos" (short for "Bourgeois Bohemians") must look good, but not too good; they must be wealthy, but not look too wealthy; they can have money, but they mustn't flaunt it, or their Bobo membership would be at risk. And this is important precisely because what these mostly-Boomer, high-income earners want is not to be associated with the rich, corporate blue bloods (against whom they railed and demonstrated in their youth), nor however do they want to look poor, look like they haven't "made it," or look, God forbid, like "trailer trash" or garage, grease-monkey red necks. Finding the proper balance between rich and poor is all.
The Spectrum in America: Buy More
But of course this is true across the spectrum in America. The members
of each aspirational group seems to feel that they (and their associates)
have the right sort of balance between "too little" and "too much";
they have the "right sort" of taste in consumer items: the right sort
of house, the right sort of clothes, and the listen to the right sort
of music. Other groups are either "too trendy" or "too straight-laced."
I've sat literally for hours listening to people from what used to be
called "both sides of the tracks" defending at length their particular
set of consumer choices. There was, for example, the stylish woman in
her fifties who had been extremely generous with a poor black family
in her neighborhood. She bemoaned at length to me, however, the consumer
decisions of this family. (This is not uncommon, I have found, among
those of the middle class who enter into the homes of the poor.) "They
have two DVD players," she said to me, "we have none." "They have an
above-ground pool, we don't." "They buy their daughter expensive shoes
and clothes, we never did that with our children." They spent the money
on private schools and an expensive college instead. As for her own
decision to buy a Volvo station-wagon: "That was a good investment."
And it had given the family "peace-of-mind" that they would be safe
while driving. Their stylish clothes and tasteful, but simple house?
"Isn't it better," she asked me, "to invest in 'tasteful, simple' things
- even if they're more expensive - than in the kind of gaudy things
that go out of style?" And "isn't it more important and worthwhile to
live in aesthetically pleasing surroundings with things that enliven
the mind and the spirit, than with things like big-screen television
sets and above-ground swimming pools?" Well yes, I had to admit, it
would be for me.
Tasteful, Simple, In-style Neighborhoods
And yet, what constituted "tasteful," "simple," and "in style" in the
neighborhoods and among the people with whom I (and my friend) frequented
were clearly not the same things that constituted such in the neighborhoods
of this African American family. And while I understood her point about
the relative values of spending money on an above-ground pool vs. educational
advancement for one's children, by the same token, I had spent a good
amount of time when I was younger at a neighbor's above-ground pool,
and I remember it being awfully fun. And as for "ennobling the neighborhood,"
my father had been one of those home-owners who lavished the sort of
attention on his exquisitely manicured yard that this stylish woman
and her husband did, and while I thought it was impressive in its own
right, perhaps from too many hours weeding as a kid, I really had no
desire to keep my lawn and garden in the style that would make Martha
Stewart proud. Given the choice, I would have preferred the above-ground
pool in my neighborhood (and in my own yard) rather than the tastefully
manicured lawn and garden. As for stylish clothes, I usually found them
too hard to take care of, and who wanted to worry about it anyway (an
attitude which probably had a lot to do with the fact that my job was
as a college professor among other, dowdy, rumpled college professors).
And as for the Volvo, that was probably always going to be way out of
my price range on my salary as a college professor and the truth is,
I hate cars and would prefer to walk everywhere anyway.
The point wasn't that her consumer choices weren't defensible; it was simply that they were defensible from within the perspective of a particular aspirational model - one that the poor family on the other side of town didn't seem to share. I've been in the company of others who had criticized my stylish friend for (a) spending too much on clothes, (b) "being a little too high on herself," or (c) being wasteful for spending all that money on a car." (The critic insisted that the "investment" argument was simply a cover for her vanity; a much cheaper car would have been every bit as safe - a contention I had no way of judging, having relatively little knowledge about the different brands of car). Again, the point wasn't that the arguments of this critic weren't somehow defensible. Indeed, I would argue that both my stylish friend and her critic - as well as the members of the relatively poorer family south of town - were all making consumer choices that were fundamental defensive. They bought the things they bought - and eschewed other choices - because they each belonged to certain aspirational groups, and the advertisers had produced for them a mimetic "model": one which told them the kinds of things they should desire and buy, as well as the kinds of things they should look down upon and avoid at all costs. For one group, spending $45,000 on a Volvo was a completely reasonable - indeed temperate - purchase: they hadn't bought the top-of-the-line $60,000 Lexus, after all. For the other group, $45,000 on a car was totally out of the question and seemed a ridiculous extravagance; whereas $3,000 on a large-screen TV or $8,000 for an above-ground pool didn't seem extravagant at all. They, after all, had not only not bought the $60,000 Lexus, they hadn't wasted $45,000 on a Volvo either. Given that standard, their measly $3,000 for a television seemed downright ascetic.
Self-Justifying Desires: Competitive Consumption
This system of interrelated, mutually-rejecting and self-justifying
desires often goes by the name "competitive consumption." Each group
compares itself positively against the purchasing patterns of other
groups: they neither seem to themselves to be spending either "erratically"
or "foolishly" as are other groups of equal or lesser income, nor are
they spending "extravagantly" as balanced against the groups higher
up on the income spectrum. Indeed, such "balance" between "too much"
and "too little" seems precisely the definition of "temperance."
As Juliet Schor, author of The Overspent American has
written: "American consumers are often not conscious of being motivated
by social status and are far more likely to attribute such motives to
others than to themselves. We live with high levels of psychological
denial about the connection between our buying habits and the social
statements they make." "Oddly," writes Schor:
it doesn't seem as if we're spending wastefully, or even lavishly. Rather, many of us feel we're just making it, barely able to stay even. But what's remarkable is that this feeling is not restricted to families of limited income. It's a generalized feeling, one that exists at all levels. Twenty seven percent of all households making more than $100,000 a year say they cannot afford to buy everything they really need. Nearly 20 percent say they "spend nearly all their income on the basic necessities of life." In the $50,000 100,000 range, 39 per cent and one third feel this way, respectively. Overall, half the population of the richest country in the world say they cannot afford everything they really need. And it's not just the poorer half.
Use vs. Consumption and the Problem of "More is Better": How Parents (even "Good Parents") Go Wrong
The English author Margaret Atkins has identified accurately, to my mind, one
of the prime sources of our current problem. "The serious trouble began,"
she suggests, "when utilitarianism was allied with commercialism." The
utilitarian calculus replaced the classical account of happiness, which
had something to do with one's character and "activity in accord with
the virtues," with a notion of happiness based entirely upon seeking
pleasure and avoiding pain. More pleasure equals more happiness. And
while on the classic view, money can't "buy happiness" because you can't
"buy" excellence or virtue, on the modern view, it seems altogether
reasonable to suggest that money can buy you pleasure.
Thus if more pleasure means more happiness; and money can buy you pleasure;
it seems to follow that money can ultimately buy you happiness. So it
is that we often take it for granted that those who are wealthier are
generally happier. Indeed, just today in one of my undergraduate classes,
I asked one of my students what she thought her parents wanted her to
get out of her college education? Her response: "They want me to get
a good job and be happy." The easy identification of the one with the
other is altogether common among my students, and it is an attitude
they have picked up, perhaps most distressingly, not only from the culture-at-large,
but also from their own parents. And it is a world-view which is foisted
upon them under the guise of love and parental concern!
I am convinced that most parents don't understand how much damage they do to their children by filling them with this sort of worldly ambition. So often, when elders and parents think of encouraging "temperance" in the youth, what they have in mind is primarily that they should avoid a "dissolute life" of excessive parties, excessive drinking, excessive sex, and all the rest. The ultimate rationale for this sort of temperance, however, is usually that excessive sex, partying, and drinking will deflect their attention from what the things that are really important - namely getting a good job, earning plenty of money, and making it into the upper-middle-class of American society. No one in America wants to be merely "middle class." Indeed, statistics show that 85 percent of Americans aspire to be in the top 18 percent of income-earners, and only 15 percent would be satisfied by living a comfortable, middle-class life. To be merely "middle class" or, God help us, "poor" in America is, it would seem, to relegate yourself to a wretched state of relative non-existence because of the degree to which Americans identity themselves with what they buy and what they own.
The Cause for the Intemperateness of the Youth
And it is precisely these materialistic values - largely inculcated
in the youth by their parents and elders - that are in large degree
responsible for the intemperateness of the youth. As Margaret Atkins
has suggested: "The new puritanism and the new hedonism are two sides
of a single coin: the idolatry of quantity, or the belief that more
must be better." She describes the situation thus:
[There is] a curious fact about our culture. We appear to be simultaneously more earnest and more frivolous than ever before. Our working lives are driven by competitiveness, conformity, and an obsessive search for quantifiable 'improvements'. Our leisure is spent in an equally restless search for ephemeral stimulation. Correspondingly, our youngsters are both more anxious, more industrious and more obedient in their work, and more passive, more materialistic and more escapist at their play.
I have noticed this paradox in my own students. They are both more driven, ambitious, and in many ways more disciplined than I or any of my classmates were as students. And yet they are at the same time more unrelenting and single-minded in their dedication to partying. Indeed, as I often tell them, they work harder partying than I do working. Their marathon sessions of drinking and debauchery leave them utterly exhausted. And yet, there they are in class the next morning, half-asleep and barely conscious, but dedicated to doing what it takes to get that "A" in my course, get on the Dean's list, and get a good job after college. Their motto: "We work hard, and we play hard." In both cases, the underlying principle seems to be "more is better."
As Ms. Atkins has seen:
There is one crucial difference between the modern and ancient accounts of happiness. St. Thomas thought that one should use external goods for a purpose, and that the purpose set a measure for their use. The new story has abandoned the notion of appropriate measure. The more we have, the more we use, the better. In other words, we have abandoned the notion of use, which is naturally limited by its end, and embraced that of consumption, which has no limits. In the process, we have made the virtue of temperateness unintelligible.
"No wonder," she says, "we live in a society of addicts."
Christian Temperance and the Virtue of Spiritual Humility
At the beginning of his book The Ascent to Truth, Thomas Merton writes:
The earthly desires men cherish are shadows. There is no true happiness in fulfilling them. Why, then, do we continue to pursue joys without substance?" "Because," says Merton, "the pursuit itself has become our only substitute for joy. Unable to rest in anything we achieve, we determine to forget our discontent in a ceaseless quest for new satisfactions.
It is not enough," writes Merton, "to say that the man who is attached to this world has bound himself to it, once and for all, by a wrong choice. No: he spins a whole net of falsities around his spirit by the repeated consecration of his whole self to values that do not exist. He exhausts himself in the pursuit of mirages that ever fade and are renewed as fast as they have faded, drawing him further and further into the wilderness where he must die of thirst.
Sounds dramatic. Perhaps too dramatic. Perhaps, indeed, we will not recognize ourselves in that description. But what else are we to say about a society in which "twenty seven percent of all households making more than $100,000 a year say they cannot afford to buy everything they really need" or in which 85 percent of people aspired to be in the top 18 percent of income-earners and in which only 15 percent would be satisfied by living a comfortable, middle-class life?
What else are we to say about the couple earning $115,000 a year, who
tallied up their necessary expenses of $100,000 a year and complained
that "something's gone terribly wrong with being 'rich.'" What are we
to say about the Hollywood executive earning $72,000 a year who is worried
about bouncing checks: "I have so much paid for by the studio-my car,
my insurance, and virtually all food and entertainment," he told researchers-"and
I'm still broke." What are we to say about the New York City inhabitant
who complained recently: "It's incredible, but you just can't live in
this city on a hundred thousand dollars a year." (I've had students
who have verified this figure - indeed, as being on the conservative
side.) What else are we to say about the Austin, Texas doctor making
over $300,000 dollars a year who said in an article in The New
York Times that, "we have the same struggles as other people.
I feel like a lot of the time we're treading water. America should be
a place where you can get ahead, not get dragged down. With what I do,
I guess my expectation was that I was not going to worry about money.
And here I am worrying about money." Dr. Cline's remedy: "I need a tax
cut." And indeed, given his spending and lifestyle aspirations, he does.
Failure to Moderate the Extremes: A Temperance of Touch and Imagination
It seems clear that we have not solved the problems of moderating between
the extremes of megalothymos and isothymos. Rather, our egalitarian
impulses have caused us to compare ourselves and all those in "our group"
favorably with all those whose incomes are higher, resulting in increasing
desires across the board - increases which are "cloaked" from us because
we all perceive ourselves to be "just barely making it" or "barely keeping
up" with our select comparison group, and not living extravagantly at
What is needed in this generation, therefore, is not merely a temperance of "touch," but a temperance also - and perhaps primarily - of the imagination. We need to understand the degree to which our mimetic desires have been systematically skewed so that we can no longer recognize whether we are truly acting temperately or not. For Aristotle, temperance was a virtue the measure of which depended upon one's relative degree of wealth and one's place in society. In a society where such distinctions were relatively static, such measures could perhaps be relied upon. In a society such as ours, however, where so many of the members are encouraged to desire access to the top tiers of income and power, and where the very notion of a "place" in society is utterly foreign, I would suggest that such relative measures of temperance are going to be almost impossible to determine and nearly useless in practice. Temperance will either be overwhelmed by the megalothymos of the middle classes yearning for access to the upper reaches of society, or dissipated by the resentful egalitarian impulses of the various cultural groups against those who either have more or have something different.
Needed: A Marriage of Temperance and Spiritual Humility
What we need, I would suggest, therefore, is a marriage of temperance
and spiritual humility. If pride, a desire for gloria, and a sense of
"appropriateness" to one's status in society were acceptable ways of
thinking about temperance in Aristotle's day, the kind of ersatz desire
for preeminence that we see being sold to the masses in our own day
is but a pale comparison, and it is clear we must resist it. For us,
temperance must be married to a different sort of goal than it was for
Aristotle. The goal of temperance cannot be for us to become the magnanimous
man in the Aristotelian sense. The polis with its easily identifiable
roles and places in society no longer exists, and our passions to become
"great" are being manipulated too radically. Rather, the goal of temperance
must be a fuller communion with God and with neighbor. Solidarity with
others, not defining our autonomy and separateness from them, must be
Thus along with temperance, we need a profound humility that says "Neither my worth, my value, nor my identity are determined by what I own." Or, to reverse a statement made by James Twitchell (see above), we as a culture must begin again to affirm: "What I buy has little or nothing to do with either who I am or who I want to be."
A New Mimetic Model: "O Beauty, Ever Ancient, Ever New"
It is clear that, if temperance is to succeed in this culture, we need a new and powerful mimetic model, one that can take the place of all the ersatz mimetic models being sold to us by contemporary advertisers. This is why the figure of Sean O'Malley, Franciscan monk and the new archbishop of Boston, becomes so important. What should such a man represent to the people of this culture?
One thing to note is that Sean O'Malley is a Franciscan, and several
things are true of those who have dedicated themselves to follow the
way of St. Francis. Franciscans have never permitted distinctions of
greater or lesser status among themselves. Chapter 6 of the Earlier
Rule states: "Let no one be called 'prior,' but let everyone
in general be called a lesser brother. Let one wash the feet of the
other." That is why to this day Franciscans are called "Friars Minor":
Lesser Brothers. And their vocation is service: washing the feet of
others. What would happen to the mimetic illusions that so allure and
divide us if we took as our mimetic model not some Hollywood celebrity,
but the figure of St. Francis, who took as his mimetic model the figure
of Christ. Indeed, so powerful was this "modeling" in the case of St.
Francis that he actually took on the wounds of Christ in his hands and
Rabbi! What Must I do to Attain Eternal Life?
The very first words of the Earlier Rule, in fact, are
The rule and life of these brothers is this, namely: 'to live in obedience, in chastity, and without anything of their own,' and to follow the teaching and footprints of our Lord Jesus Christ, Who says: 'If you wish to be perfect, go, sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me. Again: If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.
This last sentence, of course, is taken from the famous incident recounted
in Mt 19 between Christ and the rich young man. The rich young man,
who is in fact never named, had come to Christ, asking: "Rabbi, what
must I do to attain eternal life."
Pope John Paul II has commented extensively on this passage in his
encyclical on moral theology Veritatis splendor. He says of the unnamed
"young man," that he represents all of us; and the question he asks,
"What must I do to obtain eternal life," is the question we all ask.
Thus, according to the Pope:
In the young man, whom Matthew's Gospel does not name, we can recognize every person who, consciously or not, approaches Christ the Redeemer of man and questions him about morality. For the young man, the question is not so much about rules to be followed, but about the full meaning of life. This is in fact the aspiration at the heart of every human decision and action....
On the specific passage, "If you wish to be perfect, go sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me" - the very passage quoted in the first line of the Earlier Rule of the Franciscan Order - the Pope comments:
Conscious of the young man's yearning for something greater, which would transcend a legalistic interpretation of the commandments, the Good Teacher invites him to enter upon the path of perfection: 'If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me' (Mt 19.21) Like the earlier part of Jesus' answer, this part too must be read and interpreted in the context of the whole moral message of the Gospel, and in particular in the context of the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes (cf. Mt 5.3-12), the first of which is precisely the Beatitude of the poor, the 'poor in spirit' as Saint Matthew makes clear (Mt 5.3).
A Life in Imitation of Christ
Shall we not say, then, that the Pope calling us in our own day to
the kind of life to which St. Francis was calling his "lesser brothers"
in the thirteenth century? A life in imitation of Christ; in particular,
Christ's ontological poverty. Indeed, the Beatitudes become important
according to the Pope precisely because they are, as it were, "a sort
of self-portrait of Christ." For, as St. Paul tells us: "Have this attitude
in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed
in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped
at, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in
the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled
Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a
cross (Philip. 2:5-8). Indeed, it is precisely this ontological poverty
- this "self-emptying" - that the Pope is calling us back to. "Perfection,
says John Paul, "demands that maturity in self-giving to which human
freedom is called." As the story of the rich young man suggests, the
way and at the same time the content of this perfection consist in following
Jesus, "once one has given up one's own wealth and very self." This
is not primarily a matter of external obedience to certain commandments,
says the Pope, rather: "more radically, it involves holding fast to
the very person of Jesus, partaking of his life and his destiny, sharing
in his free and loving obedience to the will of the Father." And it
is in this free and loving obedience to the Father that Jesus asks us
to imitate Him above all: "This is my commandment, that you love one
another as I have loved you" (Jn 15.12). The word "as," in that passage,
says the Pope, "requires imitation of Jesus and of his love, of which
the washing of feet is a sign: 'If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have
washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet....'" And
so we have returned once again to the very first passage in the Earlier
Rule of the Franciscan Order, which was for the children of the wealthy
in thirteenth-century Italy, as it has been for others for centuries
since, a profound clarion call to imitate the person of Christ.
Why This Model of Christ, and Not Others?
Why this particular mimetic model rather than others? Why this particular model to replace the illusory models that plague us? Because - dare I suggest it? - the model of Christ suggests something more true of the intrinsic character of the human person. By looking at Christ, we see not only a worthy moral model - although we have that as well - but more importantly, we see ourselves: our true and authentic selves, cut free from all illusions and images. As the Pope professes:
People today need to turn to Christ once again in order to receive from him the answer to their questions about what is good and what is evil. Christ is the Teacher, the Risen One who has life in himself and who is always present in his Church and the world. It is he who opens up to the faithful the book of the Scriptures and, by fully revealing the Father's will, teaches the truth about moral action. At the source and summit of the economy of salvation, as the Alpha and the Omega of human history (cf. Rev 1.8; 21.6; 22.13), Christ sheds light on man's condition and his integral vocation. Consequently, "the man who wishes to understand himself thoroughly - and not just in his being - must with his unrest, uncertainty and even his weakness and sinfulness, with his life and death, draw near to Christ. He must, so to speak, enter him with all his own self; he must "appropriate" and assimilate the whole of the reality of the Incarnation and Redemption in order to find himself. If this profound process takes place within him, he then bears fruit not only of adoration of God but also of deeper wonder at himself.
Indeed, it has been the Pope's peculiar genius to overcome the old dichotomy between the concerns of humanism, on the one hand, and theology on the other, by asserting in effect that "God, by revealing Himself to man, reveals man to himself." Thus the Pope quotes in this encyclical a line from the Second Vatican Council that he has quoted in every single one of his encyclicals and which he has admitted in interviews is at the heart of his entire pontificate, namely:
[T]he decisive answer to every one of man's questions, his religious and moral questions in particular, is given by Jesus Christ, or rather is Jesus Christ himself, as the Second Vatican Council recalls: "In fact, it is only in the mystery of the Word incarnate that light is shed on the mystery of man. For Adam, the first man, was a figure of the future man, namely, of Christ the Lord. It is Christ, the last Adam, who fully discloses man to himself and unfolds his noble calling by revealing the mystery of the Father and the Father's love.
True and Authentic Human Person in the Model of Christ
What we see in the mimetic model of Christ is precisely the image of
the true and authentic human person. That is why other mimetic models,
no matter how valuable will, in the end, end up with at best ambiguous
results, as Cervantes brilliantly illustrate by the example of Don Quixote
and the chivalric ideal. All our mimetic ideals must be grounded in
this one fundamental one: to be like Christ. To take other models as
decisive must in the end lead us to something less than fully human
and will fail to satisfy the deepest longings of the human heart. If
the results of the model of the chivalric gentleman can be ambiguous
in the lives of Quixote and Sancho, then how much more problematic will
the images of the "cool," the "hip," or the "successful" man be in our
own time? In the end, I would suggest, we must always return to that
fundamental image or suffer the consequences. In our culture, we've
simply decided to suffer the consequences.
Since the problem is one that involves the perversion of our mimetic desires, the solution must be accomplished by purging that model and replacing it with one that is more authentically human, one that is more in accord with the dignity of the human person, and with the truth of human flourishing. What Christ reveals is the paradox of our humanity: that, unlike material things, which become less the more you give them away; in the case of ourselves, the more we give of ourselves, we have not less, but more. What would it mean for our culture - and for our youth - if we could once again believe that? If the images of St. Francis and, ultimately, Christ would become for us the mimetic ideal?
Temperance Will Become an Unattainable Goal, if . . .
If we do not first seek to "become Christ," then I believe the injunction
to "become temperate" will remain for us as unattainable as the life
of perfection to which the rich young man was being called. Indeed,
do we not have in our country today precisely the modern version of
the "rich young men and women" seeking answers about the meaning of
life? Are we giving the answer that Christ gave, or are we giving the
answer that the Scribes and Pharisees would perhaps have given? "Bear
up and endure." "Follow the law, and you will have wealth in the land."
"Be conscious of your position in society, and act accordingly." Or
perhaps worse yet: "How do you expect to get ahead if you don't bear
down, work hard, and try to excel?" In the end, I believe, these will
be self-cannibalizing exhortations. They suggest a license to self-interest,
which in the end, will almost certainly result in the behavior being
discouraged. Once you open the gates of self-interest, it becomes difficult
- if not impossible - to temper it or restrain it in particular ways.
Which is why we still find "responsible," middle-class businessmen snorting
cocaine, having adulterous affairs, cheating on their taxes, or worse,
as in the case of the executives at Enron, cheating everyone else out
of their pensions and life-savings while protecting their own millions.
It isn't only in the bars and shopping malls of young adolescents that
one finds a lack of temperance and spiritual purpose.
To Restore Temperance
Let me suggest, therefore, that restoring temperance as a viable, operative
virtue within our society will require the following:
- We must first restore to our culture a deeper sense of meaning and
purpose beyond merely the kind of meaning and purpose given by shopping
for items that establish our place within society and within the culture.
Indeed, if parents keep exhorting their children to higher and higher
levels of wealth- and class-identification, then they will not be
able to convince them that "temperance" in, for example, sexual matters,
is either possible or even desirable. Why forego the false pleasures
of the flesh for the false pleasures of wealth and status? Why sacrifice
the false pleasures of the moment for the false pleasures of the future?
- We must instill the notion in people the sense that, in terms of
human fulfillment, "more" is not always better; that when it comes
to human life, giving of oneself is ultimately what results in more
happiness and greater satisfaction. We must realize in a more profound
way that people are not defined by what they buy or what they own,
but by who they are.
- These first can only be accomplished, however, by providing a clearer
and more adequate answer to the question: Who am I? In other words,
we must replace the powerful mimetic models of our present, consumer
culture with the one model really worth imitating - the one model
that reveals to us the true nature of what it means to be human: the
person of Jesus Christ.
So who, we must ask, is to be our mimetic model? Chivalric heroes? Romantic heroines? They are scarcely believable to a younger generation grown increasingly "sophisticated" and jaded by television and movies. One hears all the time the assertion that, "There are no more heroes." That's not true, of course. There are heroes living all around us, living the sorts of quiet heroic lives that most of us rarely notice. But in an increasingly cynical and nihilistic culture, there are either no more believable heroes - everybody, it seems, is in it for the money, or the fame, or the power - or our "heroes" are simply celebrities." But if all our heroes have been brought low, then perhaps we would do well to direct our sights "a little lower," as it were: to those who are washing the feet of others; to those who are clearly not in it for the money or the fame or the status. And this is where a Franciscan such as Sean O'Malley can be invaluable. With such a person - someone dedicated to "washing the feet of others," to living "in obedience, in chastity, and without anything of their own," and to following "the teaching and footprints of our Lord Jesus Christ" - it should be clear that he is defined not by what he owns or what status he holds, or how even how much fame he accrues, but by whom he serves.
THE SPIRIT'S PASSION - A Book of Christ-centered Poems and Free Verse | FETAL PARTS RESEARCH - THE MORAL DIMENSIONS | AN ANCIENT APOLOGY FOR GLOBALIZATION FROM THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES | THE TROUBLE WITH TEMPERANCE OR WHY NONE OF US THINKS WE BUY TOO MUCH | SHAMGAR: GOD'S UNKNOWN WARRIOR | CLICK HERE FOR PAPERS ON PERSECUTION | HOME PAGE | CONTACT EDITOR
Randall Smith, Ph.D.
Department of Theology
University of St. Thomas
Houston, Texas 77006