Antonio Rosmini on the failure of materialism to satisfy individual needs.

Recent events have made me think of Rosmini and what he held to be the evils inherent in a purely materialist view of the world. This comes from an e-mail summary sent to friends when I was reading through his “Ethics” so may be innaccurate.

“We have distinguished four classes of desires:
1)Unsatisfiable desires : Essentially absurd and immoral and seek to distance people from contentment (which is the ultimate end of society) and constitute the state of unhappiness.

2)The desire for finite good. This good , however, exceeds available means and cannot, therefore, be attained (these desires differ from those of the first class which set out to attain an infinite good with finite means). Unsatisified desires of this kind do not properly speaking form the state of unhappiness but that of non-contentment. They deprive society of its ultimate end, and draw towards it incalculable harm.

3) Those desires with which we long for the good and for which both means and industry are sufficient. These desires are normally satisfied, although they bring pain and disquiet  to the human spirit every time their satisfaction fails. In these cases they are morally defective; they are too absolute ,they are unchecked and unconditioned. In a word, they do not confirm to truth and the reality of things. The harm caused by these desires affects more individuals rather than society as a whole; the activity they arouse in people is sometimes useful in general and for the future, even if they have no immediate, particular  utility. Nevertheless these desires are defective and, in part, opposed to the end of society.

4)Those desires that harmonise wonderfully well with human beings in the contentment of their spirit. They include moral desires, both for the object they propose and for their upright measure; and desires which generate totally beneficial activity that leads individuals and society even more perfectly their noble end, that is, good, contentment and happiness.

Governmental wisdom must be devoted to promoting  positively  this last class of desires. Every civil government can influence and does influence beyond all belief everything that concerns the desires of the members of society. There is not perhaps a single governmental enactment, whatever it may be which does not produce a good or bad effect on the spirits of the members relative to the desires that the philosophy of government  ought to forsee and calculate .”  from Antonio Rosmini “Ethics” published by Rosmini House Durham trans by Cleary and Watson pg. 409-10

“Inequality (relative rather than absolute) is normally an ample source of desires. When law and usages establish various de iure and de facto inequalities amongst individuals, or, more generally  amongst the inhabitants of a region, people desire more, and find more reasons for comparing themselves who possess or enjoy more that they do. If the inhabitants of a region subject to the same government are divided into distinct classes definitively seperated from one another and carefully determined and accepted as part of daily living, people compare themselves with those of their own class . They rarely make a comparison with between themselves and those of a higher class. Their desires aim for a RELATIVE equality amongst themselves rather than ABSOLUTE equality,that is, equality between all humans of whatever class. The constant seperation of classes leads to limited desires. It is true that too absolute a seperation of classes keeps society overlong in a state of imperfection, but it is also true that it distances the danger of a lapse into corruption. A government over equality amongst members of the same class has done everything possible for security in the society and a great deal for contentment of spirit.

This observation explains the political system reason for castes, and their great duration amongst eastern nations. It also clarifies the origins of the great difficulties faced by governments, which animated by a spirit of humanity, want to enfranchise slaves. Slavery makes people resigned to not desiring the good of freedom. Once the law has set them free, however, their desires and their pretentions are endless. They no longer compare themselves with their fellow slaves, but want to be on a par with freemen. As a result, government with a  single law, immediatly releases within them and incredible number of desires. Such is the kind of influence government, through it enactments, can exercise on the human spirit.” ibid pages 411-412

Rosmini earlier takes as an example the story of the gradual destruction of the North American Indian culture through the intervention of western materialism in offering them a way of life “superior” to their own and forcing them into a form of cultural conflict as a result. The result was that a community that had survived contentedly for centuries living by its own laws was broken up desires for things that they didn’t need and were made to want.

Of course the only real equality and underlying unity which binds these differing social classes together is the divine one and the realisation of the essential personhood of each individual irrespective of which social strata they inhabit. So, in Rosmini’s world a slave would have the same rights and value as a freedman but would simply stay within the confines of the social strata he was born into.He would not be thought of as a “slave” with all the negative connotations that would bring.

In the broader context what I think Rosmini is arguing is that unless you have the financial clout or the influence to follow these mere worldly desires, then they are worse than useless to you and your peace of mind and contentment with life would be spoiled. Materialism, of course, can offer nothing else and therefore it is invalid as a way of life. It waves the same prizes in front of everybodies noses whether they are realistic goals for everybody or not. Instead of generalising about society as a whole, a government should ensure that each strata is equipped with the right level of incentives to keep it content and peaceful.

Although there are a number of negatives that can be raised about this (delineation along racial grounds, the lack of social mobility, the sense of keeping people in their places through the law etc) the sight of hundreds of people who’s only desires seemed to be for a pair of Reboks or a new Playstation as opposed to working towards real solid goals like buying a house etc. made me wonder whether there is just an iota to be said for some of these points. If only it be the obvious degredation materialism has wrought on our community as a whole through making people the slaves of unrealistic and worthless desires.


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