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Fall 2014

Homo Economicus, Absurdus, or Viator?

A Brief Philosophical Journey into Modernity.

Giovanni Patriarca

Wavering between the profit and the loss
In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying
(Bless me father) though I do not wish to wish these things
From the wide window towards the granite shore
The white sails still fly seaward, seaward flying
Unbroken wings.

T. S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday, VI

Zygmunt Bauman has contended that an all-encompassing “liquidity” is the best way to understand the contemporary condition of personal alienation and social isolation we call modernity. Faced with an omnipotent sense of fluidity in which every thought beyond the material is considered to be either empty tautology or meaningless representation, this homo adaptabilis seems to have no choice but the mere satisfaction of basic “techno-needs” in a disorderly mixture with corporal appetites and the rejection of any metaphysical aspiration. As a very different writer, T. S. Eliot, put it in The Idea of a Christian Society:

The more highly industrialized the country, the more easily a materialistic philosophy will flourish in it, and the more deadly that philosophy will be. […] And the tendency of unlimited industrialism is to create bodies of men and women—of all classes—detached from tradition, alienated from religion, and susceptible to mass suggestion: in other words, a mob. And a mob will be no less a mob if it is well fed, well clothed, well housed, and well disciplined.

Such materialism is the first postulate of most defences of modernity, and it informs everything from intimate decisions to interpersonal relations, from educational policies to legal systems, as Russell Kirk states:

We suffer from a strong movement to exclude such religious beliefs from the operation of courts of law, and to discriminate against those unenlightened who cling fondly to the superstitions of the childhood of the race.

This modernity, filled with the rhetoric of a spurious humanitarianism, is the main cause of the deconstruction of identity (because separated from religion, community, and history), and a preference for non-binding forms of instantaneous gratification (since such do not require lasting commitments.) It seems that a pathological “massification” has drastically reduced, with a mechanism as subtle as subliminal, the “freedom of thinking” filling this insurmountable gap with a kind of materialistic narcosis. This process began in the last century, and it is no coincidence that José Ortega y Gasset did not hesitate to assert that:

The direction of society has been taken over by a type of man who is not interested in the principles of civilisation. Not of this or that civilisation but—from what we can judge today—of any civilisation. Of course, he is interested in anaesthetics, motor-cars, and a few other things. But this fact merely confirms his fundamental lack of interest in civilisation. For those things are merely its products, and the fervour with which he greets them only brings into a stronger relief his indifference to the principles from which they spring.

The relevance of this short excerpt from his famous The Revolt of the Masses invites us to better analyse some topics, essentially related to the current historical situation characterized by a tragic refusal of values, in which a permanent indifference destroys the realisation of any serious endeavours in a context that disorientates and prefers all kinds of disengaged futile satisfaction. In addition, an insuperable “scientific” interpretation of economic and social analysis is generally accepted in which there is a complete refusal of the concept of person with the theoretical construction of a non-existing personality: the so-called homo economicus.

This abstract “economic person,” with no consideration of anthropological or spiritual connections, is a shortcut resulting from a series of illegitimate and epistemologically limited choices. The attempt to impose, at any cost, mathematical and statistical legitimacy deprives the person of his natural characteristics and bridles him to the jaws of a modern Moloch, indifferent to any suffering and unware of human history. In a critical contribution, the libertarian economist Murray Rothbard affirmed that:

In recent years, economists have invaded other intellectual disciplines and, in the dubious name of science, have employed staggeringly oversimplified assumptions in order to make sweeping and provocative conclusions about fields they know little about. This is a modern form of “economic imperialism” in the realm of intellect. Almost always, the bias of this economic imperialism has been quantitative and implicitly Benthamite, in which poetry and pushpin are reduced to a single level, and which amply justifies the gibe of Oscar Wilde about cynics, that they (economists) know the price of everything and the value of nothing. The results of this economic imperialism have been particularly ludicrous in the fields of sex, the family, and education.

One should not be upset if, in the extremes of these assumptions, even conscience has been reduced to psychological tinsel. Moreover, these assumptions have been joined to a hostility to other, non-reductionist thinking in a secularist ideology.

Thorstein Veblen, with pungent sarcasm and deep concern, outlines a bleak picture of a psychologically instable personality constantly in pursuit of his own pleasures and, at the end, deeply dissatisfied. It seems that in despair man obscures himself, touching, very often, the depths of the absurd. Veblen’s sociological paradigm is explained in a mechanistic reduction of human relations, occasioned by then-incipient industrialization on a grand scale:

It is true, the habits of thought, engendered by the machine system in industry and by the mechanically standardised organisation of daily life under this new order as well as by the material science, are of such a character as would incline the common men to rate all men and think in terms of tangible performance rather than in terms of legal and ancient usage.

The process of further devolution from homo economicus to a simply rootless personality presents us with the challenges of the contemporary nihilism in which the prerequisite of avoiding the “ultimate questions“ is clear in a context of massifying disengagement or overpowering laziness.

This new man, “homo absurdus,” has an ambiguous relationship with himself: even though he is in a kind of perpetual trouble, either he flees the questions of existence, its value, and its end, or he becomes violently accustomed to what he sees as the meaninglessness of life. Both of these premises seem to have no other conclusion than a rending pessimism with a gnostic, sceptical, and nihilist matrix. While waiting for a meta-historical event with a messianic flavour, in the light of a pure terrestrial eschatology, this “absurd man“ loses his identity with a sense, more or less perceived, of resignation and renunciation.

Furthermore the scientific and positivistic a-priori paradox deprives and stifles human experience-setting as a self-sufficient paradigm. A constructive effort, albeit difficult and challenging, has been replaced by the idolatry of the world, depriving the individual of any “meaningful relation.” At this point there is a dilemma: on the one hand, Bauman’s “liquid modernity” presents the Nothing with the consequent annihilation of reason. Yet drawing on Kirk and Eliot, on the other hand, there is a different possibility: a constructive approach which can liberate, at least partially, man from his bonds and give him the ability to “unleash“ his dignity and creativity in a “prospective of sense“ while recognising and accepting his limitations.

In a context of “constant renewal,” in contrast, the person becomes foresighted, ready to accept challenges and sacrifices, contemplative, open to rediscover the virtues and understand the Other in a dialogical vision. In the passage from deconstruction to reconstruction the individual moulds and forms his own trajectory without putting himself in antithesis with his peculiar human condition. This man is the homo viator which, according to philosopher Gabriel Marcel, embodies an inner need for “higher experiences” in a process, as mysterious as real, that from corporality leads to hope and the Absolute. 

Dr. Giovanni Patriarca studied Political Sciences at the University of Camerino (Italy) and Philosophy at the Pontifical Lateran University (Vatican City State). He earned the “Diploma in Islamic Studies” at the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies, a Master in School Management at the University of Macerata (Italy), and a Ph.D. in Philosophy at the Pontifical University Regina Apostolorum in Rome. In 2012 he received the Novak Award from the Acton Institute.

Posted: November 3, 2014 in Essays.

Did you see this one? book cover

Rediscovering a Neglected Conservative Mind
W. Wesley McDonald
Volume 34, Number 2 (Fall 1994)

Deny a fact, and that fact will be your master.

Russell Kirk

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