"I wonder not at what men lose but at what they throw away". The late Dr. A.M. Woodbury, I am told, used to quote this saying. I am not sure who first said it but it seems to me to be a particularly apt way to respond to what is happening in our society today.
We are familiar with the expression "the throw-away society". This was initially coined to refer to our use of material things or economic goods. In previous times some things at least were made to last, whether they were what we still refer to today as durables, as opposed to perishables, amongst household goods; or whether they were more substantial things still, such as motor cars or even buildings. The trend in modern times has been, quite noticeably, towards a reduction of all usable things to the same level as it were of perishables, or in more modern parlance, consumables. Hence we tend to describe modern society as "the consumer society". Everything is regarded as having a limited (useful) life and if not used (up) quickly, is thrown out, like a rotten apple, and replaced by a new one.
This is not quite what the quotation above is referring to. But I believe that this modern trend does throw some light on the now wholesale abandonment (and even wanton destruction) of a great deal of our cultural heritage, both material and spiritual. So it may pay us to have a closer look at the reasons for this inclination to "consume" things. Where might it have come from?
My guess is that it is connected with the way we have come to produce things. That is to say it has a connection with modern advances in industrial technology. Let us call that the "objective" aspect of the matter under discussion. It also seems to me to have something to do with a change in our "psychology" regarding things, which I would identify as an increasing passion for "new things", or the novel. That is as it were the "subjective" side of the matter.
The close connection between these two aspects of modern life was noted as long ago as 1891 by Pope Leo XIII. Indeed his now famous encyclical on the condition of workers issued in that year is officially entitled Rerum Novarum ("Of New Things"), from its opening words, where he refers to the prevalence in society at the time of a passion for the new. As one may well appreciate, such a fact of social psychology has not diminished in the interim. If anything, it is more pronounced than ever today; indeed I would suspect that it has "progressed" in somewhat the same proportion as (industrial) technology in the last 100 years.
We may then relate the "objective" reason for the growth of "the consumer society" to the Industrial Revolution of the modern era, in as much as, with the aid of ingenious inventions and mass production machines, production (and reproduction) of goods became more and more "efficient", things rolling as it were off the "assembly line", with the result that the quantity and range of goods (but not necessarily their quality or durability) increased and became more available to the user, soon dignified with the name of the "consumer". Many things, and their equivalents or replacements ("substitutes" in economic jargon), being thus put at our disposal, we naturally tended to treat them as "disposables".
This increased facility of mass producing goods and materials for the production of goods has extended to virtually all kinds of things, even those of the most massive kind, or of the most complex composition, such as multi-storied buildings and aeroplanes.
With this facility for replacement of things seems to have come an urge to do so, with a passion for novelty and a corresponding contempt for what is "old" or "out of date". Serious errors in our political thinking, such as the blind belief in social "Progress" of the nineteenth century, and strange aberrations in our economic behaviour, such as the obsession with the psychology of "Persuasion" (Advertising's "buy, buy, buy") in the twentieth, may be traced to this general mentality.
I am talking generally here, for there is an undoubted respect and even reverence in some for things which have lasted. Some might refer to this general social tendency as the "american disease". But whilst it is true that the modern advances in technology have been most associated with the USA, or the New World, and the recognition of the value of the old more characteristic of Europe, or the Old World, the origin of the Industrial Revolution is to be found in the Old World and there are certainly many Americans who value things of lasting usefulness.
By some strange alchemy, however, this general appetite for novelty has passed beyond the material order of economic products or "wealth" to the order of things pertaining to human culture and in our day even to the order of things religious or spiritual. That is not to say that the desire for some sort of "renewal" has not always existed, nor that such a desire is not good and necessary. For there is a sense in which the old needs to be (continually) discarded and the new taken on. But this is another (more fundamental) thing altogether from what we are discussing. The difference between the two depends upon an understanding of the qualitative (not quantitative) difference between "substantial" and "total", a distinction which has also been lost (or thrown away) in modern society, so there is a difficulty in seeing the difference. Perhaps some idea may be gathered, however, by considering the difference between a building classified by the National Trust and one not so classified. Both need "renewing" from time to time; in the case of the former this definitely does not include demolition, whereas in the case of the latter it may, and there is a definite preference for a (totally) "new" one.
So even in relation to the things of lasting value, there has always been a desire and a need for "renewal", but it does not alter (our desire to retain) the "substance" of what we have. It is curious that in very modern times just as we have begun to "lose" the things we should most value, we have come to re-appreciate the value of conservation but only as it applies it to the natural (and built) environment. This move to conservation is of course something to be grateful for but what a strange inversion of values! It seems that, as a society, the passion for novelty has to run its course at different levels before we realise the mistakes we've made.
At the moment, then, this love affair with novelty is still very much alive, if there are also signs of our falling "out of love" at least to some degree. Technological advance has not abated but has instead accelerated, forcing all sorts of changes in our social relations, apparently inexorably. What is most disturbing is that at last it seems that the very core of our social fabric has succumbed to the pressures of technological change and to the craving thereby induced for a new social order at all levels, whether it be economic, political, cultural or religious. In respect of our cultural and spiritual heritage this is indeed an alarming development, one courting disaster.
As usual this career into the (unknown) future is led by the younger generation (and those for one reason or another out of sympathy with things as they are) and most likely amongst these, the most sure of themselves and their "vision" (who tend to be also the most culturally ignorant and politically arrogant). In all such adventures, a little knowledge is dangerous, but ignorance is bliss.
I believe that this social phenomenon of modern times is (partly) the reason for the current situation in the Church. We have as a social "body" (not of course the Church as the Mystical Body; ie sociologically not theologically considered) finally been exposed to the "american" influenza, just as everybody else now is. This does not mean that anyone in particular necessarily succumbs to it nor that it is a fatal disease. We might say that for years we generally managed to avoid such exposure simply by not "going out in public", but that could not continue indefinitely. It behoves us now though, to take appropriate protective measures against contracting the condition. Otherwise we are in grave danger of losing the Faith "of our fathers", or rather of throwing it away for something "new".
Don Boland is a lecturer at the Centre for Thomistic Studies, in Sydney, Australia.
This article posted March 1999. It was published in Universitas, Vol 2 (1998), No. 1.
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