America: A Philosophical Crisis

What is the problem with knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing?

Religion Economics

U.S. Capitol Rotunda
Wikimedia Commons: U.S. Capitol Rotunda


Oscar Wilde described a cynic as one "who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing." It’s a quip we recite often enough and yet it still resonates with us, even hauntingly so.


What, we might ask, is the problem with knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing? A price is a numerical, purely mathematical appraisal of a thing, whereas its value is something far more mysterious, driven by unseen almost incomprehensible urges and impulses. It’s no wonder then that a price might be preferred by a keenly rational species. A value system expressed in numerical language provides a universal appreciation of the human experience.


Numbers, their wondrously static nature, their crisp and immutable certainty, might seem like a reliable way to organize and reorder the affairs of a deeply complex emotional species. We speak of entire ethnicities as "minorities" as if that’s supposed to explain something meaningful about them. We speak of the will of the people in reference to a neat, fifty-plus-one formula expressed at neat four-year intervals.


We speak of money supply, economic growth, and life expectancy as the most venerated measures of a good life. We’ve constrained the mystery of time so that it marches spasmodically to the rhythms of a ticking clock and the precision/precession of an annual calendar. This has been so effective that most of us cannot conceive of time without these mathematical interventions.


We’ve surveyed the land we live on with a measuring tape and have given a number to each plot. Each plot is subject to a zip code. We don’t find each other by turning left at the big tree or right at the duck pond – both aesthetically meaningful descriptions – but by punching a street number and a zip code into a machine – a bleak, almost numbing method of locating another human being.


We’re giddy with the efficiency of computers which operate in purely numerical code where the one and the zero, the something or the nothing, is so stunningly delineated. The free market – perhaps the centerpiece of the system – generates with algorithmic precision a price tag, attached with alacrity to anything we can think of – an idea, a design, a person, a sensory experience, a numerically measured block of time, all manner of pain and suffering, and even a polluted atmosphere in the form of carbon credits.


We call on political leadership to run our society like a business. In turn, we are congratulated by presidential tweet for achieving record retail sales over the Christmas period. We look to artificial intelligence, more zeros and ones, as a sort of final frontier. Numbers never lie. Soon enough, if all goes according to plan, we’ll be sunning ourselves on loungers, imbibing meticulously measured cocktails while an army of intelligent machines produce whatever whimsical trinket we can think of. They’ll do what society never could: they’ll set us free.


Jean-Jacques Rousseau observed that "man is born free and everywhere he is in chains." Sadly, that’s never really been true.


It is, after all, a grim old world. We cling to a rock with a molten core. It spins and wobbles around a giant ball of flame in a universe of noxious gas. We are protected from radioactive annihilation by a thin layer of something we call the ozone. Here the treasure of life is found. Life! A treasure indeed, but for one small snag: living things spend much of their time trying to eat other living things. It’s a horror story. A trap. No, we are not born free.


And yet, at a glance, and in the face of such horrendous odds, we seem to have performed admirably.


We have driven many other living things into extinction or fenced them off in reserves to take photographs of them or even tamed them into unsustainably large docile herds, corralling them into slaughterhouses. The plant world has been reshaped so that vast swathes of land are divided into neat geometric shapes, one species per plot, each genetically modified against pestilence and disease. We can devastate the lives of insects and microbes with a deft squirt of poison from a spray can bought from the corner shop. And for the viruses, the mutational aberrations, the bacteria that still threaten us, well, we have the best minds in the business spending their days in vacuum-sealed laboratories in search of new methods of extinction.


So much for the natural world.


But the chains to which Rousseau alluded were not those imposed upon us by the natural world. He quite properly observed that we have a tendency to impose the chains on each other. When we speak of freedom today, we rather blithely dismiss our near-complete emancipation from the natural world as if it’s nothing more than our deserved lot. Instead, we are speaking of one thing: our freedom from each other.


True, we might not be eating each other (as much as we used to), but we tend to treat each other abominably in all sorts of other important ways. The chains that constrain us most of all are our own. And on this score, our quest for freedom has met with profoundly unsatisfactory results.


Even a cursory glance at world history will show that there is no unified theory on how best to secure freedom from each other, or even if we should be trying. With an almost infernal stubbornness we wrestle with social constructs in the same way that we wrestle with a bed sheet in a bad dream, always into a state of greater entanglement. Where does the individual end and the society begin? When do we play our part in a vast and obedient congregation and when do we implore the other congregants to stop behaving like sheep, knowing, as we do, that both roles are noble?


Whether we witness the superb collaboration and uniformity of a billion disciplined factory workers in Asia, or in extremis, a military parade in Pyongyang, or the succor drawn from the cohesion of a small, impoverished tribal community in Africa, or the invention of an exhaustive set of rules enforced by vast bureaucracies charged with the protection of individual rights in the West, it seems that a state of true and untrammeled freedom has eluded us all.


Here, we return, wearily perhaps, to the intellectually seductive possibilities of the price tag.


America, the most logical and for a time most celebrated product of the Enlightened era, seemed to exhort the rest of the world to sign up to a democratic, accountable, market-based, rule-of-law theme park at the core of which is a long list of inalienable, individual human rights; rights we are encouraged to enforce against each other, specifically, and society, in general. Beholden to a numerically plotted linear trajectory, America, so we were told, was on the cusp of getting it all down-pat. The individual is rewarded with a wage and society is rewarded with tax revenue. Done!


Done perhaps, but for what appears to be an emerging crisis and, in scale at least, it’s an almost uniquely American crisis. It is a mass shooting crisis, an obesity crisis, a prison population crisis, a student debt crisis, a national debt crisis, a climate crisis, a homelessness crisis, an inequality crisis, a crisis at the border, a mental health crisis, an opioid crisis, a crisis in political leadership and even, tragically, a suicide crisis.


In essence, it’s all one crisis. It’s a philosophical crisis and more specifically, a crisis of cynicism.


Society has always lived in an age of extremes and America is no different. The champion of the West, America’s reliance on a purely numerical value system, most profoundly symbolized by the price tag generated by the vaunted free market, is revealed to be yet one more extremist solution in a long history of extremist solutions.


What might we make of the unfathomable value of life, if not represented by a number? Here we might contemplate our old discarded ideas of God (the one who works in mysterious ways), of duty (the forgotten counterpoint to our rights), of sacrifice (the mythical motifs of the hero), and our willingness to share in the suffering of those around us (to suffer with being the etymological basis of the word, “compassion”).


By reducing the burdensome demands made by society of the individual to a numerically calculable transaction, we have underestimated the full power of the symbiotic relationship between the one and the many; the recognition that they serve each other in a multiplicity of ways, something that a mere appreciation of numbers cannot hope to achieve. Freedom is not found by simply abandoning each other to the machinations of the free market.


We are emotional. Emotions, as fluid, unstable, and quirky as they might be, are an innate aspect of our conscious experience. Human relationships are profoundly, spontaneously, and unstoppably emotional relationships. Emotions are what connect us. They have us making love. They have us shield our eyes when we cry and cover our mouths when we laugh. We are drawn together to share food. We even have an uncanny affection for pets. It is the emotional experience of life that propels us to behave this way.


Emotions are not the relic of a primitive brain – some aspect of consciousness we no longer need. They drive the vast spectrum of feelings that make us laugh and clench our teeth, sweat, gawp, blanch, hug and run away. They are not there to be managed or medicated out of existence. Nor need they be flagrantly expressed at every turn. And there is more – much more – to our emotional experience than fear and desire – the components of the narrow emotional feedback loop offered to the consumer in a consumer society.


Emotions tell us something about ourselves. They are the essence of the most authentic dialogue we’ll ever engage in: our inner dialogue. We are not computers after all. We are not concerned with the zero or the one; the something or the nothing. Instead, we reside in the space between the two.


Emotions eternally frustrate the intellect. They move in irrational but compelling patterns. Confounded by the way in which genius is bound to madness, lust to revulsion, anger to remorse, tears to laughter, fear to elation, pain to pleasure, emotions reveal the stunning possibility that we know very little about the value of the human experience, or at least not enough to fix it with a price. But at least the patterns are there. They are available to us, in constant motion, shifting this way and that, and guiding us towards an appreciation of the interplay between light and dark, creation and destruction, order and chaos, the something and the nothing, the one and the many.


Through every epoch and in every cultural formation, people have recognized the essential mysteriousness and critical importance of the inner dialogue. Socrates proposed that only a life examined was a “life worth living” and Aristotle reminded us of the vita contemplativa as an antidote to the inevitable exhaustion produced by the vita activa. And in a further nod to Oscar Wilde, the self-examination symbolized by Dorian Gray’s increasingly horrifying peeks at his curiously decaying painted image reminds us of the eternal and essential mysteriousness of the self.


In the acts of prayer and meditation, in vows of silence, and the virtues of solitude (often called me time – even if this describes moments of self-indulgence rather than self-awareness) humanity is inexorably urged towards some form of inner dialogue. And ultimately, the inner dialogue is essential to, and quite possibly the source of, all artistic expression. In these traditions and pastimes, the price tag is not only irrelevant, but reviled.


Emerging from these moments of introspective solitude is an almost immediate recognition of how important we are to each other. In other words, we will never stop worrying about what other people think of us and we’ll never stop musing over what we think of them. Society, for all its strictures, its demands and its downright neediness is integral to the human experience.


A renewed appreciation of our emotional experience is not to say that an empirical, rational, or mathematical interpretation of the world is unimportant or of no consequence. It is an inescapable part, and perhaps a justifiably celebrated part, of life. As annoying as it might be, we are still intelligent beings. Perhaps the question to be asked is: to what end? Socrates put it more bluntly and more eloquently than most: how should a man live? Our innovation, our inventiveness – so much of which is predicated on mathematical, numerical possibilities – has yielded spectacular results. The anesthetic? Absolutely. The atomic bomb? Not so much. Might our emotional experience inform us where to draw the line, even if the line is often blurred or never perfectly straight?


America is wonderfully human. The tumult of its political landscape, the upending of elitism, the reinvigoration of a more fluid and less certain discourse can only be explained as a rejection of the numerical stratification of the social experience or what Carl Jung might have described as a mass of statistical averages.


The present upheaval, for all its passion and fervor, is still resonant of a very real crisis and political leadership seems helpless as the crisis deepens. True leadership is spawned by ideas, and ideas emerge from the mythical reaches of our imagination – the inner dialogue. We toy with them. Sometimes we write them down. A leader is one who might inspire others to subscribe to them. But in a political system that is consistently subject to endless accountability (another numerical exercise – a constant totting-up on a scorecard, measured always with the inevitable countdown clock in the corner of the screen) leadership becomes impossible. It loses all political will – an all too common complaint of our time.


The polling data and statistical metrics by which we interpret the attitudes of society – its aspirations and its anguish – tend to subsume ideas, leaving them crushed beneath the hooves of Walter Lippmann’s "bewildered herd." It descends into chaos; a herd leading itself. Here the surviving traces of political leadership are transmuted into little more than populist sloganeering.


Perhaps Sigmund Freud did not have a vision of contemporary America when he recorded that life is deplorable and that we are availed of only three essential coping mechanisms: deflection, substitution, and intoxication. In other words: entertainment, messiahs, and opioids. This is an uncannily succinct summary of our most poignant contemporary obsessions. But it is to the messiahs that we turn. The messianic quality of political leadership in America should be seen as a natural expression, a deep unconscious yearning, for a return to a mythical realm.


One might be forgiven for suspecting that today’s political leaders are unsuited to the challenge. But the real danger is not in our yearning for a return to a mythical realm. It is the attribution of mythical qualities – including providential notions – to political leaders as a substitute for an unknowable God. This is the material of cult worship.


It might be argued that the only reason monarchs were tolerated for so long is because they embodied mysterious mythical possibilities represented by complex symbols. While this should not be construed as a call for a return to monarchy, the crown on the head, scepter in the hand, fingers choking on kissable rings, and cloaks that one might bow down to touch each served as a symbolic marker that something lay beyond the flawed, corruptible, fleshly being on the throne; something mythical. The mythology of God is what we had in mind.


If our world today, a world of crisis and alienation, is indeed deeply indebted to our near-complete deference to constant numerical calculations, then perhaps a reignition of a mythos is our remedy; a mythos which mirrors the patterns of our psyche, and responds to the curious movement of our emotions and even our dream spaces. This is where our ever present mythological images of God reside. After all, no matter the denominational specifics, God at least is presumed to know your heart.



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Philosophy, Religion, Environment, Economy, Capitalism