The juxtaposition of old ideas, modern resources, and paradoxes in human behaviour can be fascinating. This Briefing looks to these sources for the light they shed on Western materialism; more especially, on how and why many in Britain and the West, despite acute financial pressure, still choose to celebrate Christmas lavishly … if not excessively!
Speaking personally, Christmas 2022 already seems a long time ago. To many in the UK, it is probably best forgotten. With inflation running at about 11% and a cost-of-living crisis gripping the nation, seasonal ‘joy to the world’ has for many been dulled by anxiety. A YouGov poll found a quarter of Britons (NB. more than 2x as many as last year) were unable to celebrate ‘as they wanted’ because they could not afford it. 54% said Christmas in general has become ‘unaffordable’, with a quarter saying they don’t enjoy the festive season now because of the cost and financial pressure associated with it (NB. this is up from 16% last year); and this with 54% already struggling to pay their monthly bills. How, is it then, 42% of Britons still indicate they would do ‘whatever they can’ to have the Christmas they want and admit spending ‘more than they should’? To put this in context, a poll for BBC News found that a third of those who used credit cards to help with costs this year were not confident about their ability to repay, with the debt advice charity StepChange warning that it may take years for some Britons to repay the money borrowed over Christmas.
You may include yourself in the answers given above. I hope you’d agree, the paradoxes they reveal are fascinating, if not also rather perplexing. But what’s going on? At a time of national and domestic financial strain, how is it people facing a decision to eat or heat this winter, chose to spend heavily on Christmas? It’s not just a UK problem, of course; and not just a problem at Christmas. What drives a culture or community to see austerity as an enemy and debt a friend, and to interpret belt tightening as a kind of self-strangulation?
These questions aren’t new. Critical social commentary on Britain’s consumerist culture has for decades profiled Christmas excess. This year’s statistics and financial crisis point up the issue starkly. Christmas expenditure has, it seems, acquired a life (and death!) of its own; albeit many respondents say they spend as much on others as on themselves. But, the fact remains, even though 50% of total expenditure is on gifts, a significant proportion of this expenditure is ‘borrowed’ money that increases domestic debt. The result is, as we have seen, people spending heavily despite (or even, perhaps, because of?) anxiety while admitting this compromises their Christmas cheer.
If modern polling highlights the progressive impact of consumerism on British culture – perhaps in keeping with its increasingly post-Christian, secular character – what light, if any, does antiquity shed on this problem? My thesis here is simple, namely, that the root cause of contemporary consumerism lies in Christianity itself, or, more specifically, in those aspects of classical Greek philosophy that the early church and Medieval theology embraced and were subsequently integrated into the mind and culture of Christendom.
To explain. One of the metaphysical axioms of classical Greek philosophy is ‘essentialism’; that is, reality is constructed of ‘essences’ (Gk. ousia). The theory goes that each ‘essence’ is made up of a bundle of different attributes, with different identities produced by unique combinations of attributes. The best known and most influential proponent of this idea was the Greek philosopher Plato (ca. 429-347 BCE), for whom abstract attributes are eternal ‘forms’ that each object manifests. Plato’s ideas were taken forward by Aristotle (384-322 BCE), who interpreted reality not only as what exists now (Gk. energeia) but also aswhat is anticipated in tendencies, dispositions and capacities (Gk. dunamis). Christian thinking absorbed this in the 13th century when the scholastic theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) translated Aristotle’s categories into the Latin terms actus and potentia, respectively.
The terms potentia and actus have traditionally been translated into English as ‘potential/potentiality’ and ‘actual/actuality’. Thus, for example, a pile of bricks has the potential to be a house until the house is constructed, at which point they actually form a house (a house in actuality). Aquinas made much of the distinction. To him, God is pure actus, as the source and pattern of reality; likewise, for him, the more something or somebody exists in a state of actus, the more truly it or they really exist. Lest this seems alien to modern thinking, this line of thought lies behind the 20th century German neurologist Kurt Goldstein’s (1878-1965) description of the process of ‘self-actualisation’ that drives human beings.
How does this relate to modern consumerism? Quite simply, a classical ‘essentialist’ metaphysic does not draw a strict line between ‘inherent’ and ‘superficial’ attributes when it comes to defining identity. Hence, even though it is not inherent to a white chair that it be white (it could be painted black), the whiteness of the chair is clearly still part of its current identity. Applied to people, the blurred, permeable, distinction between someone’s inherent and superficial attributes means we have no problem today speaking of someone as kind, athletic and the owner of a Rolex watch. Who they are is a bundle of all these inherent and superficial attributes. But notice – and we will come back to this – how readily modern culture drifts from character attributes to material possessions when describing the identities of individuals. We find it hard now to think or speak of someone without calculating their material worth.
Come back to Kurt Goldstein, who illuminates this further for us. If Goldstein is right that humans have a primal desire for ‘self-actualisation’ (viz. to develop their identity and fulfil their potential) and, through blurring internal and external attributes, have come to see material possessions as expressive of, and included in, self-esteem and self-valuation, it is not surprising the acquisition of goods and giving of expensive gifts has assumed the status it has in modern culture. What, or who, could or would suggest otherwise? The drive to ‘do well’ is blended with, if not dominated by, the will to win and become wealthy.
But notice an important rider to this. If we are dissatisfied with our physical appearance, say, what do we do? We rush out to buy something to improve how we look. After all, it is easier to buy a new outfit than go to the gym! Or, if we struggle to relax after a long day at work, what do we do? We go and buy sleeping pills or a bottle of whisky. Why? Because it is far easier to purchase placebos than change our pattern of work or our career choice. If happiness and ‘self-actualisation’ drive us, it is easier to buy something that ‘guarantees’ happiness now than await some ideal ‘future’. And, of course, for many no time of year promises more happiness, or offers more ways to enhance our material identity, than Christmas. So, those external gifts become tokens of internal satisfaction and their value is sublimated into what I,as both a giver and receiver, am really worth.
Of course, things are much more complicated than this scenario may suggest. Where we are, and how we got here, culturally are not easily explained. What’s more, if we want to trace the roots of modern thinking, we have to reckon with the fact that ideas evolve, transmute, become confused, are wilfully perverted, and all too quickly cease to say or mean what was first intended. This is true of Aristotle’s understanding of reality. In the process of transmission, his thought has been co-opted. But, and this is key, if we re-read Aristotle carefully, we can find a way out of the constraining consumerist cul-de-sac – with all its attendant pressures and anxieties – that so many of us in Britain and the West find ourselves in. But to do this, we need to take what may appear initially a bit of a detour.
To understand what Aristotle really meant, and thus begin to correct misuse of his ideas, we need the Greek of his Metaphysics.It is here we first find the term energeia, a philosophical term he used – indeed, effectively, invented – to convey the broad philosophical idea he had in mind. The English terms ‘actuality’ and ‘actual’ take us some way towards what he meant. To Aristotle, energeia has implications of ‘complete reality’ or ‘true existence’ (Gk. entelecheia), and he frequently uses the term to denote a state of being, as in the example of the finished house referenced above. But when we drill down into Aristotle’s meaning it’s clear that the term energeia also encompasses ‘activities’. In fact, the American philosopher Jonathan Beere (1974) has argued that the original meaning of energeia in Aristotle is the exercise of a capacity to do something.
But notice this: Aristotle invented this new term energeia precisely because he could make it encompass both types of ‘being’ and types of ‘doing’. As Jonathan Beere stresses, energeia is legitimately (and importantly) translated as both ‘activity’ and as ‘actuality’. Put another way, as Harvard philosopher Aryeh Kosman (1935-2021) argued, even where Aristotle’s meaning is ‘actuality’, ‘activity’ remains in the foreground, ‘the activity of a thing being what it is’. Hence, and here we begin, I hope, to see the connection to our theme, for Aristotle, ‘being’ (viz. identity) is indissolubly linked to ‘activity’. In short, we really are what we really do.
The ever-astute Thomas Aquinas realised that translating the term energeia in Aristotle’s Metaphysics was difficult, but also rich in possibilities. In his Commentary on the work, Aquinas points out that the term actus can mean both ‘action’ and a higher form of existence than that denoted by potentia. By using this term as a foundational principle in his theology, Aquinas asserted that the fundamental building-block of reality – ‘that which is actual’, which, for Aquinas, is none other than ‘existence itself’ – is inherently connected to ‘activity’. When later English translations slip into assuming potentia and actus mean ‘potential/potentiality’ and ‘actuality/actual’, they miss the point (and the subtlety and importance) of Aristotle’s thought. He unites existence and invites his readers ever since to avoid dividing reality into ‘being’ or ‘doing’.
So, what does this mean for those of us gripped by a consumer culture? If the fundamental nature of reality is not essence as a static concept but intimately connected to activity, identity shifts in an ‘actualist’ direction. That is, it suggests that attributes which most meaningfully form our identity are those related to our activity. By extension, and this is hugely significant, ‘actualism’ drives a wedge between our character and our possessions, because however much advertising and competition may suggest the opposite, possessions per se (like that fine Rolex watch)‘do’ nothing in and of themselves. Hence, when we describe someone, we may want to say they are healthy, diligent, and compassionate; but a fuller picture of the person would describe the actions that underpin those essentialist terms: they eat healthily, work hard at their job, and volunteer at the local homeless shelter. For, as we know, the ‘essence’ of a person is ultimately revealed in what they do andin how they conduct themselves. Gift giving is good, then, when it is about more than a demonstration of largesse and expresses a generous nature.
This close re-reading of Aristotle suggests a more accurate account of Western culture, and its metaphysical foundation, sees identity as constituted and expressed by the things we do, not by the things we ‘own’ (or ostentatiously give away). To use Kurt Goldstein’s categories (and modern psycho-speak), satisfying ‘self-actualisation’ and ultimate human ‘happiness’ are to be found (as in many of the world’s religions) in ‘being’ and ‘doing’ good to others, not in avaricious accumulation and the parading of personal possessions. This is not only a good reminder of the ancient, altruistic ‘golden rule’ (‘Do to others as you would have them to do to you’), but of the ancient, classical context for ethical thought, namely, the pursuit and realisation of ‘happiness’. In short, gift giving at Christmas is good when it benefits others, but ceases to be good when it undermines ‘happiness’. Likewise, Christmas expenditure is justified as an example of altruism and expression of affection, but it can compromise one’s view of ‘identity’ as always more about who you are and what you do than what you have.
As I said at the start, old ideas, modern resources, and paradoxes in human behaviour, can be fascinating. The conclusion offered here suggests a way out for those trapped by a need to preserve their lifestyle and profile when their finances are tight. It also offers hope to those who, through no fault of their own, are particularly vulnerable in a cost-of-living crisis. Simply put, human worth is, despite powerful contrary cultural pressures, never a matter of pounds, dollars, rupees or RMB in the bank. Rather our personal ‘worth’ is enhanced (to our benefit and that of others) when ‘identity’ and ‘integrity’ unite in a life lived for others regardless of their financial, social, intellectual, or relational ‘value’. Though we too often fail to notice, our mother or father, spouse or partner, colleague, friend, or grandparent, who spends themselves in non-tangible ways for us at Christmas may be and give the best present we ever receive. Such, at least, is one ethical insight from classical Western metaphysics.
Dr Alexander Garton-Eisenacher, Research Associate