The Dangerous Idealization of Material Success

Modernity is, or was, the age of the triumph of practical reason, and the flourishing and harnessing of an emancipated desire for earthly wellbeing and individual self-determination. Its definitive political development was the limited republic, the premise of which was that normal human beings left to their own devices will sort themselves into a reasonable public shape beneficial to all, and the necessary condition of which — frequently noted by the great classical liberal political philosophers and statesmen alike — was a community well-grounded in the virtues of moderation and justice, and hence responsible and spiritually-mature enough to withstand the intrinsic risk of liberty, namely that freedom might devolve into license and thereby devour itself.

Now that modernity’s political achievement has indeed undergone, or is undergoing, precisely this devolution, and in its disarray has left itself without any effective intellectual or moral defenses against encroaching progressive totalitarianism, part of the process of preserving the best of the modern idea for posterity involves analyzing the causes of disintegration with a view to seeing more clearly where and how the wheels fell off.

One of the great revolutions of modern liberty, with its foundation in universal natural rights, including property rights, was its elevation of commercial activity, i.e., wealth-getting, from the status of a somewhat demeaning or slavish social necessity, to respectability as both evidence and source of practical efficacy and self-reliance. And thus the individual wealth-getter himself, the man living the commercial life, was gradually elevated from being perceived as a socially useful but politically subordinate character, to being appreciated as a social benefactor and respectable citizen worthy of a seat at the policy table.

To put it synoptically, the honored status traditionally accorded old money was gradually displaced in favor of the honor of new money. Specifically, the model of the “self-made man” — a direct limitation, if not rejection, of previous societies’ deference to ancestry and family tradition — became a practical ideal. In a world of relative economic freedom and natural equality, the very concept of a static social hierarchy based on inherited wealth and position becomes almost impious, at least among the popular majority who lack such family privilege. And so, in the context of modern liberty, the wealth-getter, or as defenders of economic freedom are more inclined to say, wealth-producer, becomes not merely more respected than he was in classical social hierarchies, but even celebrated as a type to be admired and emulated — as though material success per se were an ultimate human good, and commercial efficacy itself a mark of moral worth or good character.

The danger of celebrating the man of commerce as the model of self-reliance or as societal benefactor, however, is that, due to the inherent and complacency-inducing appeal of the fruits of material success (comfort, convenience, social elevation, the easy satisfaction of basic needs), a civilization so inclined may gradually lose the more profound perspective on human nature that actually made this emancipation of material efficacy possible. The natural attractive force of the practical ease and enhanced reputation derived from material success answers directly to Hobbes’ all-too-modern reduction of human motivations to fear and vainglory. Thus, a society that has divorced its judgment of wealth-getting from any broader hierarchy of human endeavors based on a standard beyond physical security and pleasure will, as a result of the extended and increasing proximity to the tangible advantages of physical comfort and the gratification of our pre-rational (i.e., immature) need for social approval afforded by material success, gradually begin to conflate the defining goals of commercial endeavor per se with the ultimate ends of human life, and therefore to confuse the great wealth-getter with the great man.

The successful commercial man, as such, thus tends to become an accepted model — for some people even the highest model — of a successful human, equivalent in stature to earlier civilizational standards of human perfection, such as the courageous warrior, the lover of wisdom, or the pious man. The difference between this standard and those earlier ones, however, barely noticeable to most of us now, is that the old standards were all upheld specifically due to their spiritual transcendence, which is to say that their model men — Achilles, Socrates, Jesus — though radically distinct from one another, were all alike in being exemplars of bravely overcoming the spiritual limitations and moral weakness of excessive attachment to our isolated bodily existence, thus teaching ordinary men how to aspire to a life beyond the soul-diminishing obsessions with immediate gratification and security. The commercial life, taken in isolation from any higher ideal or purpose, is, by contrast, precisely a means of anchoring one’s soul more firmly to one’s mere physical being, through the very effective forces of pleasure and safety. In this way, the great earthly boons of individualism and political republicanism developed by the ancient philosophers have become, through modern atomism, relativism, and egalitarian simplification, a spiritual downward spiral from human nature’s theoretical-rational spire to its practical-bodily foundations, until the human cathedral’s basement — solid and spacious, but dark and damp — comes to define the entire range of our self-understanding and “aspiration.”

In other words, modernity’s outsized emphasis on the value and moral legitimacy of wealth-production and material progress, though nobly-intended and humane in its origins, tends to obscure or relativize the position of the theoretical life and its aims within the hierarchy of being, just as surely as Plato’s extreme emphasis on the hermetic philosophic life obscured the practical indispensability of the productive “appetitive class” in the overall health of a political community. In modern societies grounded in practical freedom (which of course includes economic freedom), classical liberalism’s limited or qualified apologetic for material acquisitiveness slowly becomes the unlimited or unqualified aggrandizement of material acquisitiveness, a perspective which the early modern philosophers rejected as deleterious to the moral framework necessary to support liberty, and which the ancients openly scorned as the vulgar slavishness of the human animal deprived of his natural directedness toward the divine.

This problem manifests itself not only in the private moral life of a community — which would be serious enough, as general moral beliefs affect the meaning and goals of education, and thus the diminished soul propagates itself, slowly squeezing out alternatives — but it also, inevitably, corrupts the community’s political core.

Socrates, in Plato’s Republic, teaches that the only man constitutionally suited to govern a city that wishes to avoid a decline into tyranny is the man whose defining fulfillment is found beyond the realm of material gain altogether, for he is the only man not susceptible, in theory, to being corrupted by practical power — that is, by access to the socially-sanctioned coercive apparatus of the state — because his personal life goals are not achievable through such material-practical means. In other words, the devoted theoretical man, whose goals are rational and intellectual, sees no possible personal advantage in holding the reins of government, and therefore will not even be tempted to abuse the power of law, taxation, police, military, surveillance, and so on, for his own benefit. It is in response to the question of how such an ideal could be put into practice that Socrates develops his proposal of philosopher-kings.

The absolute reversal of Plato’s unrealizable ideal is the view, which has become disturbingly common among the last substantial faction on Earth still clinging to a semblance of the essentially modern project of individual practical liberty — i.e., American conservatives — that the only man fit to govern is precisely the man who has devoted his life to material gain. Hence these conservatives’ ill-conceived dream of the “CEO president” or “management skills president,” who, because he supposedly “knows how to run a business” or “knows how to manage people and budgets,” will, it is presumed, know how to “run” a nation and “manage” an economy. (As though a free republic and free economy were designed to be “run” or “managed” by a powerful central figure in the first place.) For an example of this perspective, one need look no further than the Republican Party’s mainstream voting block, which has selected its presidential candidates on this basis as often as not for many years — and that includes, most obviously, the current figurehead, who was alleged to be an anti-establishment muckraker, but who, when criticized for his leadership skills, knowledge, or economic policy, is invariably defended by his idolaters with the cliché that “He knows how to run a business,” or, as he laughably boasts of himself, he “only hires the best people.”

And what is the result of this absolute reversal of Plato’s governing ideal, and of the ethico-political devolution that precipitated the reversal? A once-free society that has come to identify wealth with wisdom, aggressive self-seeking with strong leadership, “winning” with principled statesmanship, and pragmatic opportunism with American individualism. 

What Plato was primarily warning against in the Republic is epitomized in modern form by Hillary Clinton: the politician who literally conflates material self-seeking with the desire to govern, and her material advantage with the common good. But Plato’s warning, filtered through the modern philosophical apology for, and popular aggrandizement of, private commercial success, is epitomized by Clinton’s old friend and donor, Donald Trump.

Even leaving aside such extreme, almost parodic cases, however, the modern free world, and especially its freest exemplar, America, is replete with cautionary tales of the catastrophic error in this elevation of wealth-getting to a moral principle. Few if any men, for example, have done more for U.S. economic growth than J.D. Rockefeller. And few have done more to promote the concept of the commercial man as moral agent than Rockefeller, through his extensive philanthropic activity. And yet, few men have done more direct harm to the U.S. republic than J.D. Rockefeller, through his extremely effective progressive activism in the fields of education, central banking, and general social engineering. He was in fact one of the definitive models of the “progressive mastermind” type that had such a revolutionary impact on the world at the beginning of the twentieth century.

And this point is essential, as it reveals the greatest practical political danger of idealizing the commercial man. Having cultivated a character and taste skewed by the boundless quest for practical gain and material possession, and as a corollary having cultivated the fears and insecurities intrinsic to the obsessive devotion to material aims — which devotion will necessarily and inescapably come at the expense of the spiritual development that diminishes one’s concern for material and social outcomes — the great commercial man will tend to lack not only the philosophic perspective that overrides materialism, but even the more basic restraints of civic virtue, such as the acceptance that one has no moral authority to artificially protect one’s long-term elite status by exploiting the coercive power of the state to calcify social structures that circumscribe or predetermine life options and opportunities for “the common man.”

In fact, although it may seem superficially paradoxical, it should come as no surprise that many of the great American “capitalists” who have become famous in part for their public-spiritedness have been strong advocates and material supporters of various paternalistic social projects aimed at controlling or manipulating populations in one way or another. From Rockefeller and Carnegie to Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, self-seeking materialism, as it turns out, is a sensibility much better suited to progressive utopianism than to constitutional republicanism — which ought to serve as a warning to those conservatives who increasingly equate wealth-getting with freedom and righteousness, in the manner outlined above. The principled defense of, and respect for, freedom and individual rights for all, stems from precisely the kind of perspective on man’s rational-spiritual nature and its highest needs that is undermined by unrestrained material acquisitiveness, which by contrast tends to foster and give free rein to the soul’s lowest urges, in direct opposition to its highest longings.

The popular presumption that the successful “capitalist” must be inherently at odds with progressive paternalism is based on a false perception of progressivism, in which its aims are judged according to its deceptive propagandistic rationalizations, rather than according to the realities of progressivism in practice. To put this in a way that is only superficially paradoxical, there is no one with a greater vested interest in socialism than a wealthy capitalist; for socialism, its self-descriptions aside, is nothing but a forcibly static social hierarchy, achieved through the regulation and indoctrination of carefully-defined social roles aimed at meeting the needs of collective stability, and is therefore well-calibrated to establish a permanent “competitive advantage” (i.e., secure position) for those with a hand in designing the hierarchy. As to whether a given successful “capitalist” (commercial man) will or will not tend toward progressivism, the only question is whether he has also managed to cultivate a moral perspective on the ultimate value and meaning of his material appetites that allows him to resist the temptations to coercive self-protection that are the essence of the progressive ethos, those temptations being in no essential way inconsistent with the character of material acquisitiveness itself.

In other words, commercial endeavor detached from a moral perspective according to which wealth-getting is understood not to be a virtue in its own right, will devolve into just another variation on the age-old lust for power, which by definition has no moral limits. This probably explains why small business owners generally seem more inclined toward limited government, and corporate billionaires more toward interventionist government. (For more on the true meaning of political progressivism, see my “Parasitocracy.” For more on the nexus of unrestrained profit-seeking and the progressive impulse, see my “Profit Motive, Greed, and Tyranny.”)

All of this demonstrates, in a modern setting, Plato’s argument that the only just ruler would be a mature philosopher, whose life has, as fully as possible, detached itself from the body and its inclinations, i.e., from those aims which can be furthered through the exercise of coercive power and which therefore almost invariably corrupt the political interests of unphilosophical men.

Until modernity recognizes the error of confusing the real but secondary benefits of wealth-getting with ultimate human goods — in other words, until we stop reducing human nature to its physical necessities, and human fulfillment to material comfort and security — our only realistic hope of saving the continuity of civilization against the progressive tide, namely a free republic grounded in enlightened individualism, is doomed to self-destruction. For when, through popular distortions and exaggerations of early modernity’s paean to practical efficacy and its criticism of ancient and medieval notions of a hierarchy of human ends, the various possibilities of human life are placed on equal footing, morally and rationally, material gain is thereby implicitly legitimized as not merely a necessary but also a sufficient condition of wellbeing. Hence, the morally neutral activity of wealth-getting (which derives moral worth only from the ends it serves) assumes the mantle of a standard of excellence in its own right, as though there were no such thing as human nature at all — or as though human nature were purely physical and appetitive.

The arc I have described, if the American example is any indication, may turn out to be the tragic flaw or nemesis of modern liberty. Unleashing the material productiveness that makes a limited representative republic practically viable and successful may also, gradually and inevitably, untether material acquisitiveness from its naturally subordinate position in the hierarchy of human endeavors, thereby undermining the free society by universalizing and legitimizing the corruptive elevation of physical comfort and security to the status of primary goods — effectively a decapitation strike on civilization.

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