The Consumer and the Aristocrat
In my continuing readings into brand culture and commercial society (which some designate as the “bourgeois society” and bourgeois values) I’m also struck how the apologists for it generally make the great mistake of thinking that consumerism is the “democratisation” of the luxury, sumptuousness, fashion, conspicuous consumption, even profligacy that is assumed to be the preserve of aristocracy. Mass production and advertising, they argue, has democratised the lifestyles previously associated with aristocracy.
What these promoters and apologists for consumerism fail to understand at all is that the luxuriousness, self-indulgence, conspicuous consumption, the pudginess and profligacy of the aristocracy they deem worthy of emulation (or really, envy) were symptoms of the decadence and degeneracy of aristocratic culture and the ideals of nobility. What was, in fact, the diseased and degenerated condition of aristocratic culture is today held out as the ideal, and as being worthy of emulation!
In its most vigorous stage, aristocracy or nobility, had nothing to do with consumption, luxury, style, or sumptuousness. The ideal of nobility was just the opposite. “Noble bearing” meant the ability to endure great hardship with confidence, equanimity, and equipoise, and to be strong enough to assume the gravest and greatest of responsibilities without falling to pieces. This is still the meaning of Nietzsche’s idea of the noble virtues: “what does not kill me makes me stronger”. It is not the least bit true that aristocratic culture was ruled by the pursuit of the “pleasure principle”. That was true only of the decadence of the aristocrats of the ancien regime who had become soft, pudgy and self-indulgent, and who were ultimately overthrown for that reason.
This is always the first objection to those who hold forth that consumerism is “democratisation”, by which they mean the democratisation of aristocratic “values”, privilege, luxury, conspicuous consumption, self-indulgence, style, sophistication, and the pursuit of the pleasure principle. What they deem worthy of envy and emulation is, ironically however, the degenerated and corrupt stages of aristocratic culture, when the aristocratic classes had already isolated themselves from, and seceded from, history and the populace.
And what madness and insanity is it that thinks that what was a diseased state is worthy of emulation and imitation, and which holds it up as an “ideal”?
The German mystic Meister Eckhart once wrote an essay called “The Aristocrat”. This aristocrat is the same as Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “oversoul“. It is what is genuinely noble in the human form. It is that awareness that lies “beyond good and evil”, and beyond pleasure and pain, because it is the inherent strength that can face good and evil, or pleasure and pain with perfect equanimity and equipoise (or what we call “unflinching”) without losing its marbles, and is for that reason what we call “peace of mind”.
And you may note, too, that a lot of contemporary advertising presumes to sell this very “peace of mind” as a commodity — as a good or service. Maybe even as a firearm, an alarm system, an insurance policy, a pill, a gated-community, and so on. Does anyone really believe that they can purchase real “peace of mind” by consuming these things, and which offer “fast, fast, fast relief” from their Angst and anxieties? It’s illusionism. It isn’t real. Yet, “peace of mind” is probably the biggest selling brand in the market today.