At what point did Americans begin to classify who they are by the stuff they have rather than their essential identity? The idea that, “I could be somebody if I did this or had that” is really a shallow way of looking at life. With my degree in philosophy I’m asked all the time, “Yeah, but what can you do with it?” Of course, being sarcastic my reply is usually something to the effect of, “Anything I want” or “Your job, only better.” After all, a business degree teaches you terminology and what to think while philosophy teaches you how to think. Regardless, a philosophy degree teaches you about the world, how it functions, what moves it, and so on.
But when people ask, “What can you do with that degree,” they essentially mean, “How can that degree get you stuff?” My degree is only as valuable as the paycheck it will bring me. No mother is aghast when her child decides to be a doctor or a lawyer because those vocations create capital. But if that child decides to be an artist or an English major, there is immediate panic; not because these are useless vocations, but because the mother has been trained (via industrial Capitalism) to evaluate degrees based upon the amount of money they produce.
What, exactly, has this produced in our society? There are less artists (or at least people who can legitimately be called artists), less thinkers, and less culture. When we look to a culture, especially the great cultures of history, their thinkers, artists, musicians, literary writers, and even their historians define them. Rarely do we think of a culture as great because of their litigious nature or how much stuff the people had. In fact, a Roman who had a lot of “stuff” means nothing to us; we have better “stuff” now. But a Roman who was educated in philosophy is immortal.
We live in a shallow culture, one that was created by and is now perpetuated by pragmatic Capitalism. In order to make money, companies had to convince people that without the company product, individual lives simply weren’t fulfilling. “Your life isn’t complete until you drive our newest car.” “With our dress you can stick out in a crowd.” “If you drink our brand then people will be drawn to you.” It all plays off narcissism and, in many ways, increases our tendency towards self-centeredness.
In all of this we have adopted an individualistic hive mentality. The use of the contradiction is intentional as we live contradictory lives; we think we’re individuals and we want to stick out in a crowd, but we buy into the hive mentality that x is popular and therefore we’ll wear x in order to “stick out.” At the end of the day, we look like everyone else and have nothing to show for it.
Is it any wonder that kids seem lost today? They seem unsure of themselves and battle insecurities, to the brink that they don’t really know who they are. Television and pop-psychologists attempt to normalize this and say that everyone encounters this and that it’s okay to not know who you are. While this might be true, when such doubt is perpetual it’s simply not healthy. We begin to turn to anyone and anything in order to “find ourselves.” In the past such people were potential cultists; today nothing has changed except the leader of the cult. Instead of following a religious leader who promises eternal bliss, they follow the cult of consumerism that promises temporary bliss for only $19.95 with a 15% discount if you come in between Friday and Sunday.
Ultimately that is what is happening to our generation. They are simply buying into the cult of consumerism with Hollywood celebrities and sports stars as the priests and priestesses. The religious figureheads speak up and tell people how they need this newest brand in order to be cool. Like the ancient Greek priestesses and priests, such celebrities whore themselves out in the name of their god (money) and help the masses consume. In all of this, the true self, the essential self that is not defined by things, but rather by the imago Dei, is slowly hidden away. The overweight girl with bad genetics is left wondering why she can’t look like the magazines tell her to look. The poor boy is left wondering why he can’t dress in a way that would alleviate him of his social ills. All the while, the plutocracy of America continues to grind on, producing more money by saying, “This is how you make yourself!”
As humans, we must get back to a realistic view of ourselves. We must remember that our internal value and not our external goods determine who we are. At the end of the day, we are still created in God’s image and therefore have value. Our value to society, or at least the respect we should have, is ultimately based on if we live a virtuous life, not on the stuff we have. The virtues are eternal and external to humans while our material goods are not. It makes far more sense to attach ourselves to the virtues and conform ourselves to right living (meaning we would use our external goods in a virtuous manner) so that we might be immortal; if we attach ourselves to things perishable then we too are perishable.
Until there is a paradigm shift away from the pursuit of material goods and towards virtuous living, our society will continue to crumble. At some point the individual self will be so vapid, so empty from years of consumerism that it won’t be able to function properly. Industrial Capitalism has trapped us in slavery, making us consumers for the elite few who control the capital, and one day it will destroy us unless we free ourselves from its grasp.