The modern image of the knower and ethical agent as one who constructs a blueprint of how the world ought to be, and then remakes the world according to his or her own design, simply misunderstands and forfeits a philosophical life. This is life without wisdom, guilty of a basic impropriety that confuses wisdom with the possession of a body of knowledge. Wisdom, more properly conceived, has to do with the patience, courage, and strength we need to remain true to our situation and condition as we work our way thorugh it. Put in most simple terms, wisdom is the capacity to remain faithful and true to reality as we encounter it, wihtout falsifying, evading, or destroying it. [italics added]
As has already been suggested, one of the hallmarks of the modern and postmodern worlds that makes the acquisition of such wisdom difficult is our growing disillusionment and disenchantment with the world. Fueled by otherworldly [his critique here is of 'otherworldly religion' that trashes the planet in preparation for leaping off into a harp chorus] attachments or by anxiety, boredom, and disaffection in the face of a valueless universe, we find fewer instances in which people deeply or responsibly love their bodies, their homes, or their habitats. We see this in the growing trend of self-mutilation practices among young adults and in the ashamed desire to make our bodies something different (hopefully more sexually appealing) than what they naturally are. We see it also in the inability of most people to care for and maintain their living spaces (for these tasks we hire professional cleaners, fixers, builders, and sanitation experts) and their communities (for these we hire childcare workers, therapists, and nursing home providers). What is lacking is the sense of the abiding connection between ourselves and our worlds; because of this disconnection we cannot exercise the virtues of love (such as attention, patience, affection, resilience) that would enable us to be the caretakers of the world and ourselves that we should be.
Our love, in other words, has become abstract, cut off from a deep (and practical) immersion in and commitment to place and community. What we fail to see, oftentimes, is how a ubiquitous consumer mentality directly contributes to this abstraction. Consumerism does not refer simply to the purchasing of many (often unnecessary) things. It is, rather, an approach to reality that fundamentally alters the ways we engage and relate to the world around us. As consumers our attention is focused primarily on obtaining or anticipating (since the future is the primary temporal mode) for ourselves the commodities that will satisfy desires manufactured and induced by the market. Our engagement with an external world, now increasingly characterized in terms of commodity exchange, has less to do with reality itself than with marketable images that determine production and spending. Our perception and reception of the world are thus made oblique. We do not encounter reality on its terms, but in terms of the much narrower orbit of of market concerns. A consumer mentality, in other words, contributes to our overall ignorance about the truth of reality, just as it works against a life of wisdom, because we now relate to the world ephemerally as the scanners and purchasers of it.
This way of speaking will sound strange only until we consider the fact that in our time, when we claim to “know” more about the world than ever before, we are also responsible for its most widespread and systemic exhaustion and destruction. Our much trumpeted knowledge has not led to a sympathetic or affectionate understanding that would induce us to take care of the world, because our knowledge is the sort that is content with knowing about rather than knowing from within, from the perspectives of intimacy and practical engagement, the character of our world. Our knowledge has become increasingly economic and simplistic, reducing things to their exchange value, and thus abstract, much like our love. It has become improper [without propriety -SG] and without art, oblivious to whether or not our understanding results in a greater “fittedness” with the wider world.
We can see how a consumer society and mentality contributes to abstraction if we compare it to the disciplines of production as they have been practiced in many traditional and indigenous cultures. To be a producer, an artisan for example, is to submit oneself to a socially/culturally defined discipline or craft that requires extensive training and patience. One must learn the art of design, which means that one must gain a sense for the deep reality of things, have a qualitative grasp of things as they naturally are. To know the nature of things means that one grasps their essential and manifold characteristics as they connect with the world of which they are a part. Building on Aristotle’s famous account of how knowledge is achieved, we can say that someone who genuinely knows will be able to answer the following questions: What type of material will make the product good? What are a material’s (and habitat’s and community’s) limiting conditions? What methods of production will yield the best (and the most sustianable and safe) results? To what end or purpose should the products be made, and how well does this goal fit with broader social and ecological ends? What form or design will best promote quality, durability, beauty, functionality, i.e., excellence? To answer these questions is to enter practically into a complex, moral dimension that takes seriously the places we are in and the character of our dwelling within these places. They demand the sort of democratic and public conversation that has all but disappeared in our time. None of these questions can be adequately or truthfully answered without patient, detailed attention to place, or without sustained commitment to place and community. True knowledge and understanding grow out of our productive engagement with the world, the engagement serving as the corrective and guide to our fanciful and flight-prone ways.
The contrast between a producer and consumer is thus fundamental. Insofar as we are primarily consumers of the world (engaging reality in terms of our desires and wishes), we limit and distort our knowledge of it, and thus our ability to care for it properly. But as we take up productive roles, become active participants in the construction and maintenance of the flows of life — as when we grow food, become intentional about parenting, celebrate communal contributions, and develop a sense of civic responsibility — the claims and benefits of place will become more richly felt and appreciated. This is not to say that we will cease to be consumers or that we will all suddenly become good. Rather, we will become responsible consumers who now more honestly appreciate the costs and requirements associated with living.
The difference becomes clear if we consider the example of food. To grow food requires that one become knowledgeable about biological and chemical processes, that one be attentive to topography and weather, that one be mindful of the particularities and peculiarities of place, plant, and community. Success is thus directly tied to our ability to get our egos out of the way and fit in and work with natural processes going on around us. To eat the food one has grown is thus to become aware of the gifts and limits of place — we cannot master growth, only gratefully assist and receive it as it comes — and the costliness of those gifts, since the processes of life are always intertwined with the processes of death. If we are merely the consumers of food, we will fail to appreciate these costs, and thus more likely take for granted or abuse the natural contexts that make food production possible. But, actively involved in food production, we will come to see our own lives enveloped in a much larger drama that is life-giving but also vulnerable to exhaustion and destruction. The responsible, sacramental sense that we must care for this natural drama, see that it is maintained and not destroyed or compromised, will be a natural outgrowth of our sustained engagement with it.
What this means for the moral life is that the matter of first, and perhaps greatest, importance is that we not think of ethics as primarily constructing blueprints for action, particularly if these blueprints are drawn up by a disembodied or disenchanted mind.