In this week’s commentary, I examine the link between delayed gratification and civilization. I use the image of children waking up on Christmas morning to a cornucopia of presents under the tree. But for many this year, the delivery of presents was delayed.
Ray Hennessey writes over at Entrepreneur that our consumption habits and expectations, which exemplify an ethic of instant gratification, have a lot to do with delivery failure. As he writes, there is plenty of blame to go around, but the buck stops, so to speak, with we the buyers: “consumers taking to Twitter and Facebook claiming the shipping giants are modern-day Grinches should spend a moment this Boxing Day examining what role their own habits had in stopping Christmas from coming.”
My advice if your presents didn’t arrive by Christmas morning? Keep calm and Christmas on. There are, after all, a whole eleven days after Christmas morning to continue the celebration!
This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the publication of William Goldman’s The Princess Bride, and over at The University Bookman I have written up some thoughts on the modern classic, “As You Wish: True (Self-)Love and The Princess Bride.”
Those familiar with the story know that the tale develops around the conflict between Prince Humperdinck and Westley (aka The Dread Pirate Roberts) over Buttercup, the most beautiful woman in Florin. I frame my piece with the confrontation between another prince and another pirate, an encounter which Augustine famously relates in his City of God. As Augustine writes, Alexander the Great rebukes a captured pirate for his crimes, only to hear the pirate’s retort tu quoque.
In “The Use of Alexander the Great in Augustine’s City of God,” Brian Harding describes Alexander’s “restless ambition for further conquests and power,” which leads him “to search constantly for new lands to conquer; in the same way the pirate captain is always on the look-out for merchant ships which he can harass.” Similarly Humperdinck’s constant competitive drive and lust for power are exemplified in his hunting prowess and his designs to conquer Guilder. He is a prince who would be emperor.
In my Christmas commentary this week, “Gratification and Civilization,” I examine the connection between making your kids wait until Christmas morning to open their presents and the development of civilization.
Self-denial and self-sacrifice form the basis of human life together. As Matthew Cochran puts it in a piece last week at The Federalist, “Civilization depends on the tendency of men to produce more than they consume for themselves.”
A key factor of driving forward the development of civilization, then, is the family unit. For Cochran rightly warns that civilization “depends on masculine ambition.” The ambition to grow a business for someone “could mean feeding himself & his workers, along with any family they might have. His ambition could be a huge boon to society. Take that away, and you have a bunch of men doing what they need to do to stay comfortable, but nothing more—nothing for any women or any increasingly hypothetical children.”
The Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck explores the link between family and civilization in his study of The Christian Family. Bavinck describes the triad of father-mother-child:
The two-in-oneness of husband and wife expands with a child into a three-in-oneness. Father, mother, and child are one soul and one flesh, expanding and unfolding the one image of God, united within threefold diversity and diverse within harmonic unity.
These relationships are of civilizational significance:
This three-in-oneness of relationships and functions, of qualities and gifts, constitutes the foundation of all of civilized society. The authority of the father, the love of the mother, and the obedience of the child form in their unity the threefold cord that binds together and sustains all relationships within human society. Within the psychological life of every integrated personality this triple cord forms the motif and melody. No man is complete without some feminine qualities, no woman is complete without some masculine qualities, and to both man and woman, the child is held up as an example (Matt. 18:3). These three characteristics and gifts are always needed in every society and in every civilization, in the church and in the state. Authority, love, and obedience are the pillars of all human society.
One can hardly discuss the family during this season of the year without also reflecting on the holy family, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Bavinck describes them as “the divine counterpart” to Adam, Eve, and their children. “The holy family is the example of the Christian home,” writes Bavinck.
And on this Christmas let us remember and be thankful for the greatest gift of all, the birth of Jesus Christ!
When we think of our freedoms and how they are basic to our society yet freedoms seem to be out of control in so many ways since the 1960s, we probably need to pull back and consider those freedoms from a new perspective. So let’s consider playing the piano. I am free to play the piano in that pianos are available, piano teachers are available, and there is no regulation or social stigma that prevents me from acquiring or learning the piano.
I have liberty when it comes to pianos. However, I am not currently free to play the piano well nor can I demonstrate any such ability nor can I know the joys of learning, memorizing, and playing a piece such as I heard at a Second Sunday concert this month. I have two liberties here: the freedom to acquire a piano and the freedom to do the hard work of learning to play it well. I must not confuse the two liberties.
As for American freedoms I must not think that because I have the liberty to get a job I should be paid as if I were already trained and experienced or just because I have endless freedoms in moral areas that I can choose any path and still have satisfying relationships at home, with friends, or at work.
By the way: almost 80% of 493,000 pianos made in 2012 were low-end Chinese ones. Chopin and Debussy’s pianos were made by Pleyel a French company that is going out of business this month.
At last week’s Acton on Tap, I discussed the economic teachings of the Heidelberg Catechism, beginning with the divine origin of material blessings as expressed in Lord’s Day 50, which explores the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread.” The catechism emphasizes God as “the only source of everything good,” echoing the classical Christian understanding of God as the fons omnium bonorum, a Latin phrase meaning the font or source of all good things. This formula appears in many places, notably in the work of John Calvin.
The conclusion from such an understanding is, as the catechism puts it, that we are “to give up our trust in creatures and trust in you [God] alone.” So even though the bread we normally consume each day is brought to us by the work of others, including farmers, millers, and bakers, we are to look beyond these secondary means to the origin of all good things, giving thanks to him.
In his guide to the Heidelberg Catechism, the Rev. Cornelis Vonk provides us with a powerful image connecting the divine origins and the human means by which our material blessings normally are provided. Vonk writes,
Someone might nonetheless ask, “How can we ask the Lord for bread when it is already prepared and ready on our table?”
We see the same thing when a child takes an apple from a bowl on the table, after first asking, “Mother, may I take an apple?” The child does this even though those apples were purchased for him. But Mother is the owner. In the same way, before we enjoy a finely furnished meal, we acknowledge our heavenly Father as the owner by saying, “Please.”
The Lord’s Prayer is a way of gratefully acknowledging that God has provided for our material needs, most often through the work of our neighbors, and asking in faithfulness that such provision continue.
Several months ago, in the wake of Detroit’s bankruptcy and the flurry of discussions surrounding it, Chris Horst and I co-wrote a post on how Christians mustn’t forget or neglect the role of business in our attempts to rebuild, restore, and reinvigorate failing cities.
In the latest issue of The City, we return to the topic, expanding a bit more on what exactly businesses contribute — materially, socially, and spiritually — and how Christians might adjust their imaginations in response. If a city’s economic future is driven in large part by entrepreneurialism, high levels of human capital, clustering of skilled workers and industries, or in the case of North Dakota’s Bakken region, bountiful natural resources, what role should the People of God play therein?
Of course, churches musn’t pretend to be economic chess players — surveying cities and placing pawns accordingly — but certain economic drivers and actions are bound to influence the way our witness ultimately takes shape. What do we miss if we ignore such factors? (more…)
Each Thanksgiving brings with it another opportunity to pause, meditate, and express our gratitude for the great blessings in life. As one who recently welcomed a new baby boy to my family, it seems particularly evident this season that the greatest blessings are not, after all, material.
Yet material need is a persistent obstacle, the dynamics of which wield significant influence over the entirety of our lives, from the formative effects of our daily work to the time, energy, and resources we pour out out in the service of others. Thus, it should be no surprise that Thanksgiving is often accompanied with reflections on the material: how we’ve been blessed with food in our bellies, shelter from the cold, a means to provide, and so on.
In the spirit of such reflections, Reason.tv released a nice, albeit excessively cheeky, video aimed at prodding our gratitude beyond the bread on the table and toward one of the systemic features that helps bring it from the field to the baker to the boca: property rights. (more…)
I don’t explore it in the review, “Capital Vices and Commercial Virtues,” but for those who have been following the antics of Banksy, there is a similar performance artist character in the novel that has significance for the development of the narrative.
As I write in the review, the vice of envy, captured in the foreboding phrase, “We Want What You Have,” animates the book. Capital “provides a richly textured and challenging narrative of the challenges of affluence, the temptations of materialism and envy, and the need for true human community expressed in a variety of social institutions.”
I note the insights of my friend and colleague Victor Claar in the review, and for a more thorough academic engagement of the ethics and economics of envy, check out our co-authored paper recently accepted for publication in Faith & Economics, “Envy in the Market Economy: Sin, Fairness, and Spontaneous (Dis)Order,” as well as my piece slated to appear in Philosophia Reformata, “The Moral Challenges of Economic Equality and Diversity.”
Capitalism is routinely castigated as an enemy of the arts, with much of the finger-pointing bent toward monsters of profit and efficiency — drooling only for money, caring nothing for beauty, and so on. Other critiques take aim at more systemic features, fearing that the type of industrialization that markets sometimes tend toward will inevitably detach artists from healthy social contexts, sucking dry any potential for flourishing as a result.
Yet while free economies certainly introduce a unique series of challenges for artists and consumers alike, and despite the wide array of bottom-dollar record-company execs and merchandising-obsessed Hollywood crackpots that demonstrate such obstacles, recent increases in economic empowerment have also led to plenty of artistic empowerment in turn.
Empowered to Create
The more obvious and overarching examples of this have to do with the simple ways in which widespread prosperity has freed up our time, energy, and resources. As collaboration and innovation accelerate, folks are continuing to discover new ways of doing more with less. As result, the tools and time needed to participate in a variety of artistic ventures, from hand-painting to stage acting to music production, are closer to common fingers than ever before.
Of course, market forces aren’t perfect. As channels of culture, they mostly funnel what they funnel, and that includes squalid appeals to the lowest common denominator. But neither are such forces limited to the hands of the tasteless and trite. Indeed, despite the best efforts of the powerful and privileged, many artists are now finding themselves increasingly equipped to bypass the big shots altogether, taking their art and their audiences with them, from the purchase of their paintbrushes to the publication of their portrait.
As a young boy, I dreamed of one day becoming a filmmaker. After working only two summers at minimum wage, I was able to save up enough cash to put that dream to the test, purchasing a-state of-the-art video camera and my very own digital editing equipment. Thanks to the innovations of others, and the basic freedoms that unleashed it all in the first place, at the age of 16, I was able to secure the tools needed to begin my work — tools that, only a decade prior, were confined to the hands of Hollywood bigwigs. (more…)