The Acquisitive Society

“More! More! is the cry of a mistaken soul; less than All cannot satisfy Man” — William Blake, There is No Natural Religion

“A wrong philosophy leads to a wrong society”, wrote Rosenstock-Huessy in one of his essays on his grammatical method. The quotation from Blake is a judgement and a statement about that wrong philosophy — a philosophy of accumulation — of acquiring, possessing, and “having”, rather than “being”. This confusion of having and being was also touched upon by Jean Gebser in his book The Ever-Present Origin, as also being the confusion of two distinct and contradictory values — the totality and the whole. This is what Blake is saying above: the mind has confused mere accumulation with integration or fulfillment. This is the fundamental error of the “acquisitive society”.

Here, again, I ask you to bear in mind what I have come to call Khayyam’s Caution, after the Persian Sufi poet Omar Khayyam: “only a hair separates the false from the true”, meaning that the false is, in a matter of speaking, only the shadow of the real and not the real and true itself. As is said, “Satan is but the ape of God”, which has the same meaning.  And that is also Blake’s Zoa named “Urizen”– “Ancient of Days” or “Nobodaddy” — who is Blake’s false God, who has constructed “the Ulro”. The Ulro is Blake’s term for what we call “Hell”. The Ulro is the world we live in and perceive as our everyday reality (also called “samsara“), but which is the false world of shadows or images that have lost their connection to the Source of All (at least, to our perception).

The confusion of having and being, or the totality and the whole (or Blake’s “more” and “all”) is a prime example of that against which Khayyam warns. As Gebser notes (and as we have mentioned before) “totality” probably has some connection with the Germanic term for “dead” — tot. “Whole” on the other hand, means healthy or “holy”. In other words, despite the fact that we treat “totality” and the “whole” as synonyms, they have exactly contrary meanings in terms of the disintegrate and the integrate. This fateful confusion of contraries — or the reduction of the whole to the totality —  bears on the root paradox of existence — the problem of the “many” and the “one”, and it affects everything we do.  In some ways, what is called “the death of God” was the disintegration and fragmentation of the whole into a mere totality, so that modern “totalitarianism” is an artificial substitute for the loss of the Whole/Holy, and a result of this root confusion of the totality and the whole. And this confusion also bears on the reduction of all quality to quantification and materialism. An “acquisitive society” must inevitably drift into a totalitarianism by dint of this confusion.

The intellectual father of modern capitalist economy, Mr. Adam Smith, actually knew the truth about this confusion of having and being, surprisingly, a confusion which aroused the ire of William Blake. Nonetheless, although Smith knew that the “pursuit of happiness” by its postponement to an imagined future condition through accumulation and acquisition was a chimera, he considered it a useful and necessary illusion — what we call “the carrot and the stick” approach used to motivate donkeys. In his musings on happiness in his Theory of the Moral Sentiments Smith understood that happiness was available to everyone in the simple bliss of being — in the Here and Now, only he did not consider this useful for the economic progress of society. Dissatisfaction with being and distraction from the Here and Now were more useful to the economic progress of society. The “pursuit of happiness” was actually happiness postponed — the sense of fulfillment postponed, too. It was a fateful diversion from the sense of Being to Having, and therefore from the Whole (“All”) to the Totality of “More”. And from that arises our worship of Big Numbers — Dow 30,000 or even “body count” as indicators of something we call “progress”.

A “totality” is a mere sum of particulars — an accumulation and an aggregation. The hallucination of Big Numbers as a measure of progress towards eventual happiness is, perhaps, the greatest delusion of contemporary society. Science keeps adding up the facts — accumulating more and more facts or factoids will eventually result in a complete description of the cosmos. The stock market, with its rising and falling of Big Numbers, is assumed to be the barometer of the health or sickness of society — the visible gauge of the success or failure of our pursuit of happiness, just as “body counts” are supposedly the measure of progress in the pursuit of war — an hallucination of numbers. Accumulating body counts; accumulating bank accounts; ever-growing GDP; accumulating factoids all share in the same basic delusion that Big Numbers are sure signs of progress — that “More! More!” will eventually result in “All” — total fulfillment.

That was Mr. Fukuyama’s hallucination of “the End of History”.

There is, to be sure, a growing sense of uneasiness in many quarters with this “reign of quantity”, as Rene Guenon called it — a mistrust of the notion of the postponement of present happiness for future gain and fulfillment through continuous acquisition and accumulation.  “Be Here Now” has become something of a slogan for those who no longer believe in Mr. Smith’s “necessary illusion” as the pursuit of happiness. Big Numbers lie. The GDP keeps increasing even as society disintegrates, infrastructure crumbles, and the middle class disappears. “Body counts” keep increasing even as a war is being lost. Populations keep increasing while resources are being depleted. So many men and women in prison as proof of effective “law & order”. More books, but fewer readers and less public discourse. Bank accounts keep increasing while private and public debt reaches record proportions. We boast of our successes in prolonging the span of life by so many years, when in reality (and this is sometimes freely admitted) we are actually and artificially prolonging the death process. And the more factoids we accumulate, the more elusive seems the final goal of a definitive accounting of “reality” — the “Theory of Everything”.

All that, and much more besides, is contained in Blake’s statement “More! More! is the cry of a mistaken soul; less than All cannot satisfy Man”. This “All” is that sense of ultimate fulfillment that cannot be attained through mere accumulation or acquisition. No “totality” will ever displace and replace the whole — ever. And this is, finally, what distinguishes the Holistic Philosophy from the Mechanical Philosophy.

There will, of course, be those who will (and do) mock, and who insist on preserving the “necessary illusion” — the indefinite postponement of present fulfillment for the mirage of a future happiness that will never be realised, despite the promises of the advertisers, the politicians, and other con-men. A man once told me “everybody can use an extra 500,000 dollars”. He thinks of himself as exceptional. In fact, he’s quite “ordinary” in that sense, being only the product of a social order that mindlessly worships ever-increasing Big Numbers as proof of progress. I know him quite well. He will never be happy. He’s quite dissatisfied, always needing to make that “extra 500,000 dollars”. He’s a workaholic who feels the Devil’s whip on his back constantly. Far from being a “self-made man” as he likes to think of himself, he’s the normal product of an erroneous social philosophy and its “common sense”.

Behind the facade of Big Numbers as being proof of progress lies the unfortunate truth — a society in decay; a society “withering from within”, as Rosenstock-Huessy judged it; an age and era that has already exceeded its shelf-life and sell-by date. It’s a society that has forgotten the difference between what is living and what is dead and treats everything indifferently as being its raw material and grist for the mill, as either producer or consumer, or winner or loser in terms of mere acquisition and accumulation.



10 responses to “The Acquisitive Society”

  1. mikemackd says :

    Dear Scott Preston, Full agreement; many thanks. I tried looking for the part you quoted in Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. Can you provide a page number, phrase or other identifier? I want to cite it in a thesis. Many Thanks, Mike McDermott Date: Sun, 14 Jun 2015 14:47:25 +0000 To:

  2. LittleBigMan says :

    Every word as if it was coming out of my own chest.

    I’m so familiar with this battle between having and being, although I did not think of it exactly in those terms, but putting it in those terms makes it quite insightful and accurate.

    Measuring success in terms of “having” rather than “being” is perhaps one of the most deeply rooted “foreign installations” of our time now. A type of foreign installation that puts many to sleep from which they won’t wake up until it’s too late and death is only a few days away. In fact, the stock market, the banks and the lending culture of a credit-based society, and a college to corporation path have been responsible for the rise of “The Acquisitive Society.”

    But this corporate must-have and must-grow culture also means that no one can blame others for living like a walking dead person and not enjoying every moment of life “just to have it all.”

    Some years back a colleague and a friend of mine who was in his mid 30’s was complaining how tired he was by the time he got home and that all he wanted to do was go to bed and sleep. Imagine how aghast I was when I heard he had found himself an expensive bride and so he had had to take up a second job to pay for the astronomical costs of the wedding, the honeymoon, and the jewelry he bought her. Just recently he bought an expensive house, too, and dragged his even years ago tired body under a mountain of debt and two jobs. Totally insane!

    Cheers to the acquisitive society!

    • Scott Preston says :

      “Have it all” — yes. Thanks for reminding me of that phrase, which has become synonymous with “perfection” or the total fulfillment of one’s being.

      Of course, it’s quite impossible to “have it all” in that sense, through the steady process of accumulation or acquisitiveness, or through cupidity, covetousness, gluttony, or avarice. These were deemed “sins” in the past not for some mere moralistic reason, but because they were destructive misunderstandings — they “missed the mark” they pretended to aim for, being perverse or distorted interpretations of “the perfect life” as the fulfilled or complete life. In fact, things are so bad today, in spiritual terms, that we don’t even really understand the meaning of “sin” any longer, and this is as true of the religious as the non-religious (or even anti-religious).

      “The Fall of Man” into “sin” wasn’t a distinct or unique historical event, but is a spiritual event that is repeated every second, minute, hour, day. It is precisely the thing that Nietzsche describes — “all higher values devalue themselves”. We might call it “orbital decay” today rather than the fall of the angels, etc. “Sin” is this confusion of the higher values (or “noble” values in Nietzsche’s terms) with lower values (or “ignoble” values, in Nietzsche’s terms).

      There is not, however, two separate realms of “spirit” and “matter”. The “fall of man into sin” or delusion is rather the “encrustation” (we might call it that) of perception. In fact, “encrustation of perception” strikes me as a very good substitute term for “fall of man into sin”, which is egoism or narcissism. But that, too, is quite misunderstood.

      The irony of Nietzsche is, that Nietzsche, through his “revaluation of values”, attempted to give new meaning to some very old spiritual values that had decayed and deteriorated and become unrecognisable any longer, including “soul” or “spirit” or “Self” in relation to the Nietzschean “ego”. Wherever the higher is confused with the lower, there you have “fall of man into corruption” or into the Shadow side, which Blake calls “the Ulro”.

      • LittleBigMan says :

        ““The Fall of Man” into “sin” wasn’t a distinct or unique historical event, but is a spiritual event that is repeated every second, minute, hour, day.”

        It seems to me that that’s a very concise way of describing a state of being, too.

        Sometime ago, I was thinking about these various creatures that roam around in my apartment: the various small, bewildered, fast-moving, and harmless spiders; the various flying insects, especially the moth, the mayfly, the blow fly, and the crane fly; and, of course, the silverfish, one of which just fell off a book I picked up from my stacks a few moments ago.

        As a dumb kid and later as a dumb teenager I used to kill these creatures both indoors and outdoors. But over time, as my knowledge of them grew, I stopped killing them and began developing simple ways of catching them indoors and releasing them outdoors without harm.

        Of all these creatures, spiders were most puzzling to me because of many reasons, but mostly because they would enter my living quarters through tiniest of gaps around windows and doors and find a secluded corner and then set up shop with a series of webs. But then they would wait and wait and wait for weeks and months to catch something and often die right there without catching anything. Setting up the web so quickly would indicate an acute interest in feeding, but waiting that long without bothering to move elsewhere would indicate that they are not really interested in feeding at all. After all, they moved there from someplace else, so why couldn’t they just pack up and move elsewhere after waiting and not catching something for weeks and months? Very puzzling.

        The more I observed and thought about the behavior of all these insects, it occurred to me that it might just be that although feeding and mating were things that these creatures did, these activities were only secondary to other actions they were programmed to take.

        In other words, it seemed to me that these insects experienced the desire to feed and mate differently than our own species.

        For a spider, the need to find a warm, quiet, secluded and undisturbed spot to spread its webs seemed more primary than actually catching something with that web. Or so it seemed to me. Crane flies, on the other hand, just wanted to be near a heat or light source. Or so it seemed to me.

        Strangely connected to these observations, it suddenly struck me one day that atheism, substantively, is not a belief or a claim at all, but a state of being.

        What I mean is that a man may claim that he is an atheist. But if he fulfills his daily obligations – just like that spider, or fly, or moth – then he is in fact not an atheist. By contrast, a man/woman may claim he/she believes in spirituality, but if he/she acts without a sense of obligation to what that means, then that individual is in fact not spiritual at all. Hence, the descent into a streaming “spiritual event” that inflicts and repeats “every second, minute, hour, day.”

        It truly goes back to Rosenstock-Huessy’s “respondeo etsi mutabor” ; that is, “I respond, therefore I am.”

        A state of being is really what matters. methinks.

        • Scott Preston says :

          Every creature has its “religion”, so to speak. It’s observances. I know a man who is a militant atheist, superficially at least. But he objects to cursing and swearing and profanity as being sacrilegious. Of course, he doesn’t put it that way, but that’s his “religion”. It is said that human beings “will have the religion of God or the religion of the Devil”. What that actually means is a little difficult to explicate, for it is an intuition about something expressed in symbolic terms — something connected also to the saying that “Satan is but the ape of God”. That is also to say that there is no middle or “safe” ground for anything called “agnosticism”, and this is perhaps connected also to that saying of Jesus: “I would that you were hot or cold, but because you are lukewarm I will spew thee from my mouth”.

          Why is that? Well, because Man is, by virtue of his consciousness, the middle term between the sacred and the profane, or Heaven and Hell, as it were. The profane (or secular) world is what Blake called “the Ulro”. But the Ulro or “the Mundane Shell” is only the shadow of the true and the real, and this bears on Khayyam’s Caution, that “only a hair separates the false from the true”, and in those terms also there is no “middle ground”. Khayyam’s “hair” is Blake’s fragile “shell”, and both were called elsewhere “veil” or “cloud” — as in veil of Maya, or the “cloud of unknowing”. In fact, Blake describes the physical body as a “cloud”.

          There is really no middle ground between the Ulro and the “Kingdom of Heaven”, to put it again in symbolic terms. This bears on something Rosenstock-Huessy wrote: that in “nature”, birth precedes death; but in spiritual terms, death precedes birth. There is no “middle ground” here, but only a pivot or hinge — which is death, in whatever form death takes. We aren’t speaking necessarily or alone of physical mortality. Every death is also a birth; every birth is also a death. This also belongs to “coincidentia oppositorum” or “conjunctio oppositorum”. So, indeed, Rosenstock-Huessy’s social philosophy, which makes much room for the paradoxical, is also “hermetic” philosophy or alchemy.

          It’s simply that the “Ulro” is the reflection or mirror of the “Kingdom of Heaven”, and mirrors are distortions. This pertains to human narcissism, for just as Narcissus confused the image in the reflecting pool with the real, human beings confuse the Ulro with the real and true — ie, the “facts of the matter” with the “truth that sets free”, but there is only a hair which separates these from one another.

          That “hair” by the way is also what Castaneda described as a “gnat” — a little gnat which, nonetheless, he experienced as a 100 foot tall drooling monster — the “guardian” of the “other world”.

          • Scott Preston says :

            That the human form is the middle term between “Heaven and Hell” (or the Kingdom of Heaven and the Ulro, or truth and fact, or the real and the imagined, etc, etc) is the subject of Blake’s “Marriage of Heaven and Hell” — what is called in the hermetic philosophy the hieros gamos or sacred marriage. It is also the subject of the sculpture called “The Representative of Man” that was made by Rudolf Steiner, the only thing that was salvaged from his Goetheaneum that was destroyed by the fascists.

            Here, you see the “Representative of Man” drawing down Heaven even as he raises Hell. This act pertains also to the ultimate conclusion of Buddhism — that “nirvana and samsara are the same” and yet not the same — the marriage, as it were, of the “truth that sets free” with the “facts of the matter”. This is “perfection of existence” or “Ultimate Truth”.

            Steiner's The Representative of Man

            This is Steiner’s sculpture. The Representative of Man might be a little hard to make out, but you see the figure drawing down Heaven with one hand, while raising Hell with the other.

            • Scott Preston says :

              I might add to the above, that despite the lip-service that the Nazis paid to the German greats like Nietzsche, Goethe, Meister Eckhart, they tried to hunt down and destroy anyone connected to them — Steiner was hounded by the Nazis and his Goetheaneum burned to the ground; Jean Gebser had to flee the Spanish fascists into France only to flee from the German fascists into Switzerland. Herman Hesse’s Nietzsche-influenced novels were banned by the Nazis.

              By the way, I came across this quote today from Herman Hesse, and I found it quite impressive, considering what I wrote recently about “God” being a destiny — a future. here’s what Hesse stated about that,

              “You should let yourself be carried away, like the clouds in the sky. You shouldn’t resist. God exists in your destiny just as much as he does in these mountains and in that lake. It is very difficult to understand this, because man is moving further and further away from Nature, and also from himself.”

            • LittleBigMan says :

              Wonderfully enlightening, as always. Thank you.

              “There is really no middle ground between the Ulro and the “Kingdom of Heaven”, to put it again in symbolic terms.”

              That’s precisely what I wanted to say in my account of the behavior of the insects that showed up in my apartment. I did not have, however, had the courage to say it overtly like that, though, for my take on these matters is still undergoing development.

              Those insects are but few examples. The sun too always comes up in the east and sets in the west, and it never fails. There’s more praise to the “Kingdom of Heaven” in that life-supporting pattern than in all of the so called “holy places” built by mankind.

              The similarity between Steiner’s art and Blake’s poetry is quite remarkable. Thank you for mentioning Steiner’s work, the “Representative of Man,” which I had not heard of before, and for drawing a comparison between that work and Blake’s poetry.

              I just had a cursory look at Blake’s page on Wikipedia and found this nugget there quoted from Blake’s “Vision of the Last Judgement”:

              “Men are admitted into Heaven not because they have curbed and governd their Passions or have No Passions but because they have Cultivated their Understandings. The Treasures of Heaven are not Negations of Passion but Realities of Intellect from which All the Passions Emanate Uncurbed in their Eternal Glory. (E564)”

              Very insightful.

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