Modernity’s first inaugurating document stated its commitment to “the pursuit of happiness”.
That word wasn’t used in the Greek sense of eudemonia, which more or less equated happiness with virtue. As a subsequent document, the Federalist papers, explained, happiness was mainly understood in the material sense: money, acquisition, comfort.
By itself, there was nothing wrong with that. But that commitment didn’t come by itself. It came packaged with an attempt to build a new civilisation around the common man and his material aspirations.
That common man, the axis around which the new civilisation was to rotate, was deprived of religion, which is to say a check on his passions and appetites. Love stepped aside as the desideratum of life, to be replaced by greed (provided it was expressed within human laws).
Aristotle warned about the dangers of such an arrangement some four centuries before Christ: “A society that pursues wealth rather than morality will end up using this wealth against itself.”
What we are observing at the moment vindicates that maxim. For the pandemic was largely caused by our voracious appetite for cheap goods and therefore greater comfort.
Hence we avidly do business with evil regimes in the name of free trade and globalisation. However, when we step outside our civilisation, free movement of goods may well result in the free movement of infections.
Communist China has a callous disregard for human lives and the practices that protect them. Hence most major blights have in my lifetime originated there. They include the murderous pandemics of Asian flu in 1957 and 1968, and, emphatically, the current disaster.
Enough has been said about the mechanisms involved. Perhaps the most evil thing those heirs to Mao did was putting their reputation before human lives, which is why they lied about both the onset of the pandemic and its scale.
Yet it’s we in the West who have blithely turned an evil regime into a world power: our greed came before any moral considerations, and now our commercial amorality is backfiring yet again in a crudely material way.
The West has form in such suicidal commercialism. The two most satanic regimes of modernity, Bolshevism and Nazism, wouldn’t have reached maturity without huge injections of Western capital and technology. And today the West spares no effort to absorb the looted lucre of Russia’s kleptofascist regime and the cheap goods flooding in from communist China.
None of my message is a call to poverty. Note that Aristotle was only talking about relative priorities, not absolutes. He warned not against pursuing wealth as such, but only against putting that activity above morality.
Christianity followed the same logic. Its injunctions were aimed not at money in se but at a wrong sense of priorities.
People had traded goods they produced since time immemorial. Since money was sometimes involved as a means of exchange, it was natural to expect that more money would eventually end up in some hands than in others.
Hence labour implicitly presupposed the possibility of enrichment. Yet in spite of that the New Testament contains direct endorsements of work.
These come across in the Lord’s Prayer (“give us this day our daily bread”), in Jesus the carpenter talking about “the labourer worthy of his hire”, in Paul the tent maker saying that “if any would not work, neither shall he eat.”
This was understood by Christian theologians. Thus Aquinas: “The perfection of the Christian life does not consist essentially in voluntary poverty, though that is a tool of perfection in life. There is not necessarily greater perfection where there is greater poverty; and indeed the highest perfection is sometimes wedded to great wealth…”
Note the qualifiers: ‘essentially’, ‘not necessarily’, ‘sometimes’. Rather than issuing a licence to acquisitiveness, Aquinas was expressing the fundamental Christian view on pursuing wealth: Go on then, if you must. Jesus, after all, only said man shall not live by bread alone, not that man shall live by no bread at all. But do remember what comes first.
Addressing seven centuries after Aquinas a world that no longer put God first, John Paul II said essentially the same thing: “It is necessary to create lifestyles in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments.”
That was wishful thinking. A West where wealth could be approached in that manner is long since gone. Yet, though we can no longer be expected to do the right thing, we can still identify it.
As a general rule, we mustn’t trade with evil regimes: lying with dogs can have most unpleasant hygienic consequences, such as catching Covid-19.
As immediate measures, we should suspend all trade with China and impound the looted Russian funds laundered through our financial institutions. We’d suffer some short-term commercial damage, but nothing like the economic catastrophe that’ll follow this pandemic.
We’d still be capable of making as much money as we need. We’d still be able to invest our surplus income. We’d still be able to live in decent comfort, eat good food and wear stylish clothes. Yet we’d be able to do all those things without destroying either our souls or our societies.
For that to happen, we’d have to backtrack to the guiding principles of the civilisation we’ve systematically betrayed. That means it won’t happen: we are too set in our ways, too incapable of learning our lessons. Including the one being taught at the moment.