The Origins of Modern Materialism

In The Merchant of Venice, Portia famously describes and praises the quality of mercy. I probably recall this monologue readily because I had to commit it to memory for recitation when I was a freshman in high school. Forty nine years after my entry into high school and three-hundred-ninety-four years after the death of Shakespeare, Portia’s words are striking in a new way—they contrast sharply against the mechanical and starker result of modernity’s neglect of quality itself.

More and more, quality itself has been removed from the center stage of intellectual life; it is eclipsed almost altogether by quantity. Even as qualitative language remains, how frequently is it revealed to be a mere mask behind which there is only the stark and desiccated face of quantity. To illustrate: In my work as a university professor, I am officially encouraged to evaluate students’ philosophical essays by numerical point-system valuing, over such matters as style, organization, clarity, transitions, textual and factual citations, and argumentative continuity. It amuses me, and even more it amuses my students, to know that the grade-system academic evaluation has only a pedigree of one hundred-seventy years in America, and only four centuries in total. What were Plato and Aristotle and Sts. Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas and Francis de Sales doing? They seem to have failed to give grades! I submit that they thought that the cultivation of the most sublime human virtue, wisdom, was not a quantitative matter.

To move our thoughts in an introductory way to present times, it seems that we are enjoined to evaluate even the great array of options presented in life by quantitative comparison—to differentiate better from worse by the numbers. Because any person’s life is the sum of his choices, for better or for worse, this evaluative technique then suggests that one’s life-portrait can be painted by the numbers.

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In some particular examples, this is harmless, and even a good method, such as in fiscal management. Mathematically measurable probabilities pertain also to matters such as the purchase of insurance policies. The mechanical soundness of my automobile can be measured by computers, with their bits and bytes of data. However, as red meat, which is itself a good thing, as a sole diet leads to e.g., dysentery; so also there is more in heaven and earth than what is in the domain of the numerable. However, how shall we think of, appreciate, and value such matters as love and hate, virtue and vice, beauty and ugliness, if we must labor in the prison of the quantifiable? These vital matters of mind, ordinate passion, and life itself, these affairs of the Pascalian heart, will not yield to quantification. May I suggest that they are, nonetheless, rather important?

Quality and quantity bear neither necessary nor universal relation to each other. Is bigger better? Sometimes; is smaller better? Sometimes; but only sometimes. Big is fine for earth-moving equipment, but no so much for cell-phones. No general inference from coincidence is possible.

To submit one’s thought to the reality that causes it requires some suppleness of mind. This ought not be difficult. It is patent to Chestertonian common sense; yet this sort of common sense is rare today. Those possessing it remain as Aristotle’s characterization of Anaxagoras, “like sober men standing in a roomful of drunks.”

It All Began with Lucretius
Let’s look for a moment at some explanation for this environment in which we live, historically and logically. In 1417, as modernity was scarcely beginning, and when Machiavelli was not yet born, at the monastery of St. Gall, in Switzerland, there surfaced a copy of Lucretius’ De Rerum Naturae. Significantly from what might seem to have been a small matter for a library-dweller, there emerged a veritable manifesto for the modern age. Descartes and Hobbes each studied and added marginalia to their personal copies of the book, and by the end of their century there were over thirty Latin editions in circulation in Europe. Long ago having learned from Aristotle the danger of a small mistake in the beginning, we can look backward to understand the catastrophe of the historical tragedy that is only now in its final act. Lucretius, one sees, had an animus as it were against the priests of Roman religion, against the votaries of any religion, and indeed most fatefully, he was the nemesis of any assertion of the spiritual world, whether of Socrates or of the Jews and Jesus. Lucretius found in Democritus a ready-made philosophy that suited his pleasure, and allowed his followers to pile up such teachings for themselves. Simply, Lucretius was a materialist of the strict observance. Nihil est nisi materia; Lucretius would have recognized himself in the mirror of Josephus Gredt’s Elementa. In strict logical consequence, the soul, God, and order were swept away. Absent these, good and evil, virtue and vice, beauty and ugliness, love and hate, purpose and meaning and even happiness—all these vanish. We are left to be Eliot’s “hollow men.”

What is material, physical, is quantifiable, and implies nothing about quality. The versicle of Lucretius can only produce a dogmatic ignorance of quality.

Under such circumstances, a quasi-intuitive grasp of good and evil can only remain if ethical principles are recast in the mold of materiality. The epistemological surrogate for the intellectual grasp of the essences of things becomes mere empirical generalization. For example, when I say that species are identical according to their generation and regeneration, what I really mean is that every time I have seen biological reproduction, the progeny have been identical in species to their parents. Thus, I am unable to grasp the natures of things; in fact, natures are unreal. To illustrate: For David Hume, the nature of man is unknown, and reasoning via conceptual knowledge is “to be cast into the flames”; therefore the “knowledge” of good and evil is really nothing but emotional preference. Hume’s emotivism is today, as Alasdair MacIntyre remarks, the single most common de facto theory of ethics in the English-speaking world. Empiricism impoverishes wisdom by reducing prudence to the suggestion to “go with your feelings.”

In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Lucretius’ testamentary gift has been faithfully received and cherished. Simply, American society as a whole has been forced to reduce quality to the eclipsing fetish of quantity, and therefore tries desperately to operate in a vacuum of prudence and justice, to say nothing of faith, hope, and charity. There reigns a reductionism by which love is reduced to lust, mystery to puzzle, justice to arithmetic, thought to cybernetics, man to machine, and God to fiction. It might be sadly helpful to glance at some general examples.

“Normal” has come to mean “statistically normal,” and natural normal has been discarded. Why honor marriage when most people divorce or cohabit? If most teenagers do not prosper academically in schools, why not lower expectations? If most people misuse drugs, why not make this legal?

This is of course cheek-by-jowl with the very denial of nature itself. Natural differences, e.g., between cats and dogs, are, according to the new orthodoxy, quantitative rather than qualitative. The ultimately identical biochemicals are merely arranged differently. Cats and dogs matter little, but what of human nature? From plastic surgery to sex-change, nature has ceased to be normative; the latter is especially important. A boy, for example, cannot any longer think and act in terms of his mission and vocation to become a man. He may become whatever he pleases, quite quodlibetally, and thus is left to swim in a shoreless sea of life.

Too, thousands of saints by their lives prove the law of the gift, that happiness is never to be found in grasping unto one’s self but only by giving of one’s self. The enabling virtues that make this possible are charity and humility. Even in the natural order, all good, all love depends on God; and further in the supernatural order, this is clearer and fuller, as grace perfects nature. Thus St. John the Divine writes: “In this is love, not that we have loved God, but that he has loved us” (1 John 4:10). Absent the spiritual world, and therefore absent God, charity becomes worthless, and happiness itself is rendered impossible; after all, charity and happiness are not quantifiable.

What is happening all around us is that, from gravity to God, and including justice and charity, the aspiring totalism of quantity levels truth and falsity, good and evil, beauty and ugliness. In turn and ineluctably, this induces ennui, and denies the vivid and blessed drama of history and of each human life. Let to itself, such a world can only spoil, fester and rot, unless saved by the lights of faith and supernatural hope.

St. Benedict, pray for us.


  • Theodore Rebard

    Theodore Rebard has taught philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in Houston for over twenty-five years. He earned his Ph.D. from Boston College.

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