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.