Posted by: mattcolvin | July 22, 2013

Augustine on Expressive Individualist Consumerism


I have been enjoying Augustine’s City of God in Marcus Dods’ excellent, if slightly old-fashioned translation (free online).

There are, of course, many good quotations, but this one seems aimed squarely at North American Christians:

For why in your calamities do you complain of Christianity, unless because you desire to enjoy your luxurious licence unrestrained, and to lead an abandoned and profligate life without the interruption of any uneasiness or disaster? For certainly your desire for peace, and prosperity, and plenty is not prompted by any purpose of using these blessings honestly, that is to say, with moderation, sobriety, temperance, and piety ; for your purpose rather is to run riot in an endless variety of sottish pleasures, and thus to generate from your prosperity a moral pestilence which will prove a thousand-fold more disastrous than the fiercest enemies. (City of God I.30)

Murray Jardine calls this religion “expressive individualist consumerism” (hereafter, EIC): that is, Americans, whether professing Christ or not, have as their goal a creative or stylish expression (hence “expressive”) of their selves. The highest sort of self-expression will be a unique outpouring of one’s own sui generis self (hence “individualist”): it will be, in other words, a lifestyle. Only a few – artists, film stars, professional athletes, and other celebrities – have enough personality, style, and creativity to express themselves by what they do or make. Their success in self-expression may be measured by how self-assured, authentic, and original their expression is.

Thus, when a fat person has the “courage” and “self-belief” to wow the judges on American Idol or Britain’s Got Talent, the video clip is sure to “go viral” on social media, accompanied by admiring remarks on how much “courage” the fat singer had. Likewise every sports star being interviewed after the game is sure to regurgitate the same naively revelatory creed of expressive individualism: “I just had to believe in myself”.

Yet we also judge the success of a person by how much imitation and admiration he evokes from others. As James K. A. Smith says, the rest of us are content with participating quasi-sacramentally in this vision of the good life by purchasing consumer goods. Our imitation and admiration of our gods is manifested by purchasing stuff associated with the good life lived by these gods – Paris Hilton’s handbag, Roger Federer’s tennis racquet, pillowcases with a picture of Ryan Gosling, and so forth, ad (vere!) nauseam.

This analysis may go far toward explaining why hipsters are mocked in contemporary media. This mockery is grounded in hipsters’ peculiar approach to each of the three prongs of the pitchfork of expressive individualist consumerism:

  • They express, but their expressions are contrary to the mainstream models that others imitate. They still have gods, but not the deities of the mainstream EIC religion.
  • By meticulous and minutely determined choices, they cultivate an individual style – and yet, because they are all reacting against the same thing, the result is an identifiable set of “hipster” trends.
  • They consume, but at thrift stores and farmer’s markets, thus worshipping at other altars. Yet, they still worship.

Murray Jardine says that EIC is not sustainable as a way of life. Augustine agrees: EIC does not seek to “use blessings honestly, that is to say, with moderation, sobriety, temperance, and piety.” Indeed, the lives of celebrities are themselves the best testimony that this is so: the most successful, highest-paid actor on television was Charlie Sheen; the highest-grossing professional athlete, Tiger Woods. The goal of both these men was surely “to run riot in an endless variety of sottish pleasures.”

Augustine is writing after the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410. In our hindsight, we know that this catastrophe was not really the end of Roman civilization in any meaningful sense. Romanitas would continue, subsumed by the Christian realms of medieval Europe. Yet for Augustine’s contemporaries, the sack of the eternal city must surely have shaken to its foundations their belief in “Roman exceptionalism” – a belief expressed by Vergil’s messianic Fourth Eclogue and the prophecies of Jupiter to Venus in the Aeneid that “the toga-bearing Romans” would enjoy “empire without limit in time or space.” For Augustine and his contemporaries, 410 marked Rome as mortal, and exposed its religion as false.

For me, being an American in the Philippines; surrounded by poverty, yet also by billboards and gigantic malls – to my eyes, these things stand out as the temples and proselytizing of a religion that I know all too well. I feel a bit like C.S. Lewis’ Professor Ransom seeing Professor Weston arrive on Venus.

The Internet has been buzzing of late with the declared bankruptcy of the city of Detroit. Conservatives have crowed over it, with their Juvenal, the vituperative Canadian Mark Steyn, laying the city’s demise squarely at the feet of liberal politicians: “Detroit is an outlier only in the sense that it got to where it is now first. It is the logical endpoint of Democratic left wing social and economic policy.” Perhaps. But have we seen any better from American conservatism? Does Dinesh D’Souza really pursue a different vision of the good life from Tiger Woods?

When Steyn says at anyone who compared “photographs of today’s Hiroshima with today’s Detroit would assume Japan won the Second World War after nuking Michigan”, he is confirming Augustine, who says that our pursuit of a Christless vision of the good life will “… generate from [our] prosperity a moral pestilence which will prove a thousand-fold more disastrous than the fiercest enemies.”

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Lord, have mercy. Have mercy on the United States. Have mercy also on the Philippines.


Responses

  1. A few chapters later, Augustine drops this line:

    “Depraved by good fortune, and not chastened by adversity, what you desire in the restoration of a peaceful and secure state, is not the tranquillity of the commonwealth, but the impunity of your own vicious luxury.”

  2. Matt, thanks for a really good article. Could you list five things to do with our children or teach our children in order to show them what EIC religion is and how to avoid it?

  3. Apologies if I’ve said this to you before, but I just found Jardine astonishing, not so much for his originality (since most of his content I had seen elsewhere), but for his tremendous clarity of vision and expression. I have to remember to keep recommending his book widely.


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