The Black Friday War

1381_Andy-Warhol-Dollar-Sign-628x310

In ancient and medieval philosophy, all ethics came back to a fundamental question, “What is happiness?”  The answer to this question was turned on its head in most modern philosophy.  I suspect that our implicit worldview about happiness has become something like the characteristically modern view which Thomas Hobbes describes in this passage from Leviathan.

“The felicity of this life consisteth not in the repose of a mind satisfied.  For there is no such Finis ultimus (utmost aim) nor Summum Bonum (greatest good) as is spoken of in the books of the old moral philosophers.  Nor can a man any more live, whose desires are at an end… Felicity is a continual progress of desire, from one object to another, the attaining of the former being still but the way to the latter.”

The true radicality of this claim is shocking.  All moral philosophers hitherto had thought that happiness involved the resting of the will in the acquisition of a good.  Hobbes flatly denies that the “rest” of the will makes any sense.  He can only interpret happiness (“felicity”) as being the continual “procurement” of thing after thing.  All men have within themselves a “perpetual and restless desire of power after power,” and happiness means giving that desire room to roam.

We might profitably consider whether this is the “Black Friday” philosophy.  Consumerism tends to direct us to the acquiring of an endless sequence of goods.  Advertisement goads us toward new desires.  The good is desired, appropriated, consumed and discarded—so that one can desire, appropriate and consume yet more.

St. Augustine, of course, had diagnosed this problem over a millennium before Hobbes.  He knew that the endless and restless pursuit of imperfect worldly goods causes weariness and lassitude—boredom.  That restless pursuit is more likely to throw us into an existential malaise (a la Walker Percy’s Moviegoer) than actually to fulfill us.  In selfishly searching for finite goods, we really choose ourselves as our own last end.  In doing so, it is no wonder that we become so stuffed full of ourselves that we end in disgust and not happiness.

This is why Augustine says, “You have made us for Yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in You.” No matter how many partial goods we aggregate, or sequentially dominate, we will never be happy.  Our will wants an infinite good, not infinite goods. What we want is peace—rest in the Good.

Now, even if you’ve just returned from the biggest sale ever, a Hobbesian “perpetual war of all against all,” don’t worry about your eternal soul. I’m not saying that everyone who shops today is going to hell.  This is just a reminder that finite goods, even finite goods sold at fantastic discounts, can’t solve the problems that other finite goods can’t fill, and that we should be vigilant that we don’t try to make them do things they can’t do.  And if we do find ourselves bored, empty, or depressed this shopping season, the antidote might be recommitting ourselves to the pursuit of the one, true good: God. In Him we may have a foretaste of that endless spiritual joy in which no man can be bored. St. Augustine gives us a beautiful prayer to use in times like this:

“Lord God, give us peace—for you have granted us all things—the peace of quiet, the peace of the Sabbath which has no evening… the seventh day is without evening.  The sun does not set on it, because you sanctified it to last forever.  For after all your works which were very good, you rested on the seventh day, although you made all these works in an unbroken rest.  So may the voice of your book tell us in advance that we too, after our works… may rest in you in the Sabbath of eternal life.”

Image: Andy Warhol, Dollar Sign

You May Also Enjoy:

Meeting the Empress The two women gazed at each other through the pane of bulletproof glass: one the Secretary of State of the most powerful nation on Earth, the other the maternal emissary of Earth’s Creator. Madam Secretary stood dressed in a smart red power suit; La Guadalupana was miraculously emblazoned on a humble peasant’s tilma. Unfortunately, their visit had to be short: Madam Secretary had an award banquet to attend in honor of her protection of abortion r...
Beauty Transfigured In Art and Scholasticism, Jacques Maritain argues that there is a certain unity of purpose in all artistic production, despite differences of time, place, and culture. He holds that this unity is discernable in the purest forms of each artistic genre, where the highest intentions and aspirations of both the artist and his societal context find expression. Ultimately, Maritain argues, these intentions and aspirations point toward and are consummat...
Words, Words, Words A couple of weeks ago, I went with a few brothers to the first installment of the Metropolitan Opera’s Summer Recital Series. Gathered around the SummerStage venue in Central Park, we listened—to something. Given the language barrier and the scarcity of bodily expression, I was relegated to the mere appreciation of vocal virtuosity and what touches of style I could detect. Something beautiful was happening, but I felt a touch barbarous, for I was...
Splintered History When the people of Israel complained against God during their wandering in the desert, God sent saraph serpents among them.  It was not until Moses, at the Lord’s command, raised a serpent on a pole that all who looked upon it were cured (Num 21:6-9).  The Church Fathers saw in this a prefigurement of Christ’s mounting on the cross, a promise that future generations would be saved by considering His passion and contemplating its instrument, the c...
Br. John Sica, O.P.

Written by:

Br. John Sica was born and raised on Long Island, NY. He attended Providence College, where he met the Dominican friars. After graduating in 2010 with a Bachelor's in philosophy, he joined the Dominican Order. He made solemn vows in August 2014, and is currently a student at the Dominican House of Studies, where he is finishing his theological studies in preparation for the priesthood. On DominicanFriars.org