Wednesday, January 31, 2007

attachment to material 'stuff'

Here are a few thoughts I had about a year ago, threw into an impromptu email and promptly forgot.  Whether they make sense or not, I figured I'd get 'em out there so they don't keep cluttering up my mind in the meantime.  Note that they are in no way complete.  Please criticize, point out gaffs or slap me around where it could be useful.  Thanks.
Is rejection of excess worldly things necessarily virtuous?

No, because some worldly things can be virtuous (ie music, art, etc) even though they don't serve a direct purpose to my personal survival.

Are those examples necessarily virtuous?

No, because when we lose focus of the world and start to lose our humanity (I know this is a rather ambiguous idea, but hopefully, I'll talk a little more about it later), it makes less of what we have, not more.

How can we see the difference?

I think that the key (at least in the area of art) is inspiration.  When the excess 'stuff' inspires you, spurs you on to better living, character and virtue, it would obviously a good thing.

Outside of art, though the goal is the same, the wording would obviously be different.  For example, if I buy a better bed, I should be asking why I am doing it?  Is it because it might help me sleep better?  This would certainly be leading toward those positive goals.  Or is my old bed just not 'cool' enough (obviously there are more examples and relative questions, but I wanted to display the differences between possible lines of reasoning to demonstrate there can be a difference).

Obviously, this email has turned into a free thinking excercise, so I'd like to throw out some thoughts from Wendell Berry, Kentuckian philosopher and agrarian. 

Improper specialization is when workers cannot communicate and therefore lose touch with the purpose of the whole thing they are creating together
( )

Though this thought (a quotation from a summary of one of Mr Berry's works) falls in the context of the overspecialization of education, I believe it has some relevance to the current conversation.  Ultimately, material things can get in the way when we "cannot communicate" and lose site of our goals.  Though this might seem like an odd idea to transfer into the world of material stuff, I think we can make sense of it by thinking of the consequences of said material things on our relationships with other people.  Buying a robot to fix my computer would be really nice, but would I lose that relationship with my "computer-fix-it-guy"? 

Mr Berry elaborates on this thought more extensively in his "Why I am not going to buy a computer" essay and develops a set of criteria for setting his limits when obtaining new technologies:
1. The new tool should be cheaper than the one it replaces.
2. It should be at least as small in scale as the one it replaces.
3. It should do work that is clearly and demonstrably better than the one it replaces.
4. It should use less energy than the one it replaces.
5. If possible, it should use some form of solar energy, such as that of the body.
6. It should be repairable by a person of ordinary intelligence, provided that he or she has the necessary tools.
7. It should be purchasable and repairable as near to home as possible.
8. It should come from a small, privately owned shop or store that will take it back for maintenance and repair.
9. It should not replace or disrupt anything good that already exists, and this includes family and community relationships.

Though helpful, many of these are formed from Mr Berry's thoughts on enviornmental impact and, depending on your understanding of virtue/vice, may or may not be helpful to this discussion.  But I think #9 directly hits on the point I set out above.

Of course, this line of reasoning leads us to asking possibly convicting questions (or inane ones if you don't care for the idea of communities) about our about current relationships with the members of our community, but that's a bigger question for some other time.
This thought is also a specification of the more general question "What are the consequences thereof?"  Asking this question about each new material 'thing' would probably be a good place to start when discussing the virtue of said things.  Obviously, though, since people's circumstances and characters differ from place to place, from culture to culture, the consequences of the acquisition of things will be different from place to place.  Also, the things themselves will also change as such.  The morality of these choices will thusly be equivalently relative.

1Cor 4:7
7 For who sees anything different in you? F19 What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?

1Cor 6:12,19-20
12 "All things are lawful for me," but not all things are beneficial. "All things are lawful for me," but I will not be dominated by anything.
19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple F29 of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? 20 For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.

27 but I discipline F102 my R359 body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.

Making our 'stuff' our slave, instead of being a slave thereto.

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