Contemporary Classical Composer

Materialism

Review: Pope Francis’ Letter to the World

Pope Francis, Praise Be To You (Laudato Si’): On Care of Our Common Home (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2015).

Pope Francis took his appellation from Saint Francis of Assisi, a figure beloved not only by believers, but by rock stars and hippies. The medieval saint was a friend of animals and communed with God in creation. The reigning pontiff has devoted his first encyclical (the full text of which is available here) to the environmental crisis of the modern world, addressing the economic conquest of humanity which has left polluted air, contaminated water, deforestation, and extinction in its wake. Francis echoes and amplifies the warnings of all the previous popes since Saint John XXIII (1958-1963), and speaks out as the prophets of old warning ancient Israel to repent.

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The Pope today addresses his epistle not only to the Catholic church but to the world, and embodies in his pen the “genuine and profound humanism” that he urges all to embrace in pursuit of a noble and generous society. Several of his comments reminded me of Schumacher (whom I suspect he, as many others, has read), such as those urging self-limitation and condemning the “technocratic paradigm” which promotes mechanized efficiency at the expense of human and environmental dignity. One of my favorites is this: “If architecture reflects the spirit of an age, our magestructures and drab apartment blocks express the spirit of globalized technology, where a constant flood of new products coexists with a tedious monotony.” He continues: “Let us refuse to resign ourselves to this and continue to wonder about the purpose and meaning of everything. Otherwise we would simply legitimate the present situation and need new forms of escapism to help us endure the emptiness.”

In a world of globalized technology which tends to compromise genuine community, create social alienation, and express itself in metropolitan expanses of asphalt, smog, and noise, the Pope commends those who positively overcome the isolation and ugliness, as through compassionate generosity and devotion to community. As an artist, I particularly appreciated the following line: “Liberation from the dominant technocratic paradigm does in fact happen sometimes, for example…when the desire to create and contemplate beauty manages to overcome the reductionism through a kind of salvation which occurs in beauty and in those who behold it.”

To address the urgent crisis, Francis calls for political action, and encourages individuals not to underestimate the impact of a conscientious lifestyle. He invokes scripture while envisioning a world that reflects the glory of its creator as humans care both for the environment as well as one another, especially the poor. Standing in the way of this vision is are “obstructionist attitudes,” which “even a part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions.” The Pope condemns the spirit of pride that refuses to acknowledge a principle higher than the self, as well as the relativism and materialism that leave people ethically bankrupt to attempt change. Quoting Pope Benedict XVI, he says:  “When the human person is considered as simply…the product of chance or physical determinism, then, ‘our overall sense of responsibility wanes.'” Writing in an age when materialistic scientism is the dominant school of thought among intellectuals, he articulates a highly relevant truth: “even if we postulate a process of evolution…our capacity to reason, to develop arguments, to be inventive, to interpret reality and to create art, along with other not yet discovered capacities, are signs of a uniqueness which transcends the spheres of physics and biology.”

While I personally agreed with the vast majority of the Pope’s points, I had trouble with his call for a world authority to enforce international compliance with environmental standards. The Paris Agreement of December 2015 seems to me a better model, in which world nations voluntarily committed to some of the necessary measures. No doubt the extraordinary response in Paris among virtually all nations was in part due to the Pope’s influence.

In any case, Francis’ letter to the world deserves our respect, and his call for change, the ongoing commitment of those who call this earth home.

Schumacher: Two Reviews

E.F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered [1973] (London: Vintage Books, 1993).

This book is a response to the prevailing materialist paradigm of economics that has been the driving force of developed nations since the industrial revolution, especially since World War Two; it is also a vision of what human civilization could be, based on an economics that prizes not only profits, but human and environmental dignity. Schumacher exposes the folly of devout adherence to the notion that “bigger is better,” and urges a “self-limiting principle” to world economies, especially the advanced ones including his own, Britain. Such economic self-limitation is a stench in the nostrils of those preoccupied with amassing material wealth despite any social and environmental costs, and the ego which is the driving force of that pursuit. Schumacher brings balanced wisdom to the economic problems facing the modern world, acknowledging the necessity of economic profitability and individual freedom as well as the social and environmental consciousness which we silence to our own peril. In the end he navigates clear of the noisy extremes characterized by the defiant defenders of unbridled capitalism and the livid champions of the proletariat. Schumacher decries lifeless factory working conditions, the worship of the machine, and unsustainable consumption of energy (or “natural capital”); and urges emphasis on local economies, practical but non-technocratic assistance to developing nations, and proposes a form of common ownership of large businesses. IMG_2155

Despite the age of this publication, the principles it embodies remain as relevant today as ever. His chapter on education powerfully articulates the beauty of bestowing charity and magnanimity to our children instead of the impoverished metaphysics preached by the intellectuals of the nineteenth century–Marx, Darwin, Nietzsche, Freud, etc. The truth-content in this volume is staggering. Many books one must read long and hard to find some silver or brass, and occasionally some gold; every page of this book pays dividends. Some chapters are pure gold. The most challenging part to me was the concluding section in which he proposes 50% government ownership of businesses that grow past a certain threshold in size. Setting aside any prejudice on the matter and considering the argument through the lens of pure reason in the service of love and freedom, I find his idea very difficult if not impossible to find fault with. In short, Small is Beautiful is a beautiful book written by an uncannily gifted but humble intellectual, respected economist, and friend of humankind.

 

E.F. Schumacher, A Guide For the Perplexed [1977] (London: Vintage Books, 2011).

My review of this book was first published in October 2015 on Amazon.

Schumacher’s A Guide for the Perplexed is the author’s response to the philosophical juggernaut of materialism in the western world. In it, he exposes the intellectual and spiritual poverty of the view that man is nothing more than a naked ape with advanced computing power; that there is no essential difference between inanimate matter, plant-life, animal life, and human life; that all these levels of being merely represent different arrangements of matter; that all reality and knowledge can be reduced to the objective measurement and analysis of physics and chemistry. This has been the prevailing view of scientists and intellectuals in the modern age, beginning with Descartes, and remains so today. In this book, as relevant in 2015 as it was in 1977, Schumacher demonstrates the inadequacy of this philosophy, while pointing to the ancient tradition–confirmed by modern writers and mystics–that matter, life, consciousness, and self-awareness represent progressively higher Levels of Being, and that recognition of this hierarchy is essential to a true understanding of the world. He posits “four fields of knowledge”: knowledge of oneself, i.e. one’s own interior existence; knowledge of the interior existence of others beings, achieved indirectly by communication and interpretation; knowledge of how one is perceived by and exists in relation to others; and finally knowledge of the outside material world. “Materialistic scientism” focuses exclusively on the last of these fields. While the study of this material field has yielded breathtaking results in science and technology, the study of all four fields is essential for a true attainment of human progress, peace, and purpose. Those who ignore the first three fields of knowledge remain ignorant of what truly matters.

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This book is offered to those who, like Schumacher once did, find themselves perplexed that the desires and experiences that make us human—the desire to live a self-transcending life, the appreciation of beauty, our yearning for purpose and fulfillment—are reduced to illusory or accidental byproducts of evolution. The author respects and values the advances of science, but differentiates between these and the preposterous metaphysics with which they are clothed. He warns that the modern world cannot long survive in them.

The author’s distinction between the instructional and descriptive sciences is brilliant and essential reading for anyone working to contribute to human knowledge in any sphere. As a musician, I am particularly inspired by his appraisal of the value of art, how its highest value is evident in the communication of truth.

Schumacher’s power of synthesis and wisdom is evident in his appeal to an impressively wide range of sources—ancient, medieval and modern. In his appeal to the various religious traditions of mankind, he assembles a universal chorus that harmonizes in recognition of the deeper realities beyond the superficial layer of the physical. While Schumacher wrote as a Christian, his intended audience is broad, and he makes no demand that the reader even assent to belief in a deity. Meanwhile, the theist can savor the truths he articulates as if at the table of the Lord. In the chapter devoted to the first field of knowledge, Schumacher emphasizes the importance of meditation, characterizing it as an exercise of self-disciplined focus, and celebrating a variety of methodologies. Here religious disagreements may arise; and yet when viewed within the larger context of challenging materialism and of subordinating the intellect to the spirit, any such disagreements will seem peripheral. In any case, the book is indeed a precious and accessible guide for those perplexed by the inconsistency between their desire to live a meaningful, self-transcending life and the materialistic scientism preached by our modern intellectual authorities.