Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Seven Deadlies: Gluttony

[Previous: Wrath] [Next: Covetousness or Avarice]

["Repent and believe in the Gospel" is one of the catchphrases of this holy season. As we begin our Lenten journey, I thought I'd post excerpts from the chapter on the seven deadly sins in that remarkable book by Dorothy Sayers, Letters to a Diminished Church: Passionate Arguments for the Relevance of Christian Doctrine, written during WWII. The chapter is called "The Other Six Deadly Sins."]

The third warm-hearted sin is named gula in Latin and in English, gluttony. In its vulgarest and most obvious form, we may feel that we are not much tempted to it. Certain other classes of people -- not ourselves -- do, of course, indulge in this disreputable kind of wallowing. Poor people of coarse and unrefined habits drink too much beer. Rich people, particularly in American and in those luxury hotels that we cannot afford, stuff themselves with food. Young people -- especially girls younger than ourselves -- drink far too many cocktails and smoke like chimneys. And some very reprehensible people contrive, even in wartime, to make pigs of themselves in defiance of the rationing order -- like the young woman who (according to a recent gossip column) contrived to eat five separate lunches in five separate restaurants in the course of a single morning. But on the whole, England in wartime is not a place where the majority of us can very easily destroy our souls with gluttony. We may congratulate ourselves that, if we have not exactly renounced our sins, this particular one at any rate has renounced us.

Let us seize this breathing space, while we are out of reach of temptation, to look at one very remarkable aspect of the sin of gula. We have all become aware lately of something very disquieting about what we call our economic system. An odd change has come over us since the arrival of the machine age. Whereas formerly it was considered a virtue to be thrifty and content with one's lot, it is no considered to be the mark of a progressive nation that it is filled with hustling, go-getting citizens, intent of raising their standard of living. And this is not interpreted to mean merely that a decent sufficiency of food, clothes, and shelter is attainable by all citizens. It means much more and much less than this. It means that every citizen is encouraged to consider more, and more complicated, luxuries necessary to his well-being. The gluttonous consumption of manufactured goods had become, before the war, the prime civic virtue. And why? Because the machines can produce cheaply only if they produce vast quantities; because unless the machines can produce cheaply nobody can afford to keep them running; and because, unless they are kept running millions of citizens will be thrown out of employment, and the community will starve.

We need not stop now to go around and round the vicious circle of production and consumption. We need not remind ourselves of the furious barrage of advertisements by which people are flattered and frightened out of a reasonable contentment into a greedy hankering after goods that they do not really need; nor point out for the thousandth time how every evil passion -- snobbery, laziness, vanity, concupiscence, ignorance, greed -- is appealed to in these campaigns. Nor how unassuming communities (described as backward countries) have these desires ruthlessly forced upon them by their neighbors in the effort to find an outlet for goods whose market is saturated. And we must not take up too much time in pointing out how, as the necessity to sell goods in quantity becomes more desperate, the people's appreciation of quality is violently discouraged and suppressed. You must not buy goods that last too long, for production cannot be kept going unless the goods wear out, or fall out of fashion, and so can be thrown away and replaced with others.

If a man invents anything that would give lasting satisfaction, his invention must be bought up by the manufacturer so that it may never see the light of day. Nor must the worker be encouraged to take too much interest in the thing he makes; if he did, he might desire to make it as well as it can be made, and that would not pay. It is better that he should work in a soulless indifference, even though such treatment should break his spirit and cause him to hate his work. The difference between the factory hand and the craftsman is that the craftsman lives to do the work he loves; but the factory hand lives by doing the work he despises. The service of the machine will not have it otherwise. We know about all this and must not discuss it now, but I will ask you to remember it.

The point I want to make now is this: that whether or not it is desirable to keep up this fearful whirligig of industrial finances based on gluttonous consumption, it could not be kept up for a single moment without the cooperative gluttony of the consumer. Legislation, the control of wages and profits, the balancing of exports and imports, elaborate schemes for the distribution of surplus commodities, the state ownership of enterprise, complicated systems of social credit, and finally wars and revolutions are all invoked in the hope of breaking down the thing known as the present economic system. Now it may well be that is breakdown would be a terrific disaster and produce a worse chaos than that which went before -- we need not argue about it. The point is that, without any legislation whatever, the whole system would come crashing down in a day if every consumer were voluntarily to restrict purchases to the things really needed. "The fact is," said a workingman the other day at a meeting, "that when we fall for these advertisements we're being held for mugs." So we are. The sin of gluttony, of greed, of overmuch stuffing of ourselves, is the sin that has delivered us over into the power of the machine.

In the evil days between the wars, we were confronted with some ugly contrasts between plenty and poverty. Those contrasts should be, and must be reduced. But let us say frankly that they are not likely to be reduced so long as the poor admire the rich for the indulgence in precisely that gluttonous way of living that rivets on the world the chain of the present economic system, and do their best to imitate the rich men's worst vices. To do that is to play into the hands of those whose interest it is to keep the system going. You will notice that, under a war economy, the contrast is being flattened out; we are being forced to reduce and regulate our personal consumption of commodities and to revise our whole notion of what constitutes good citizenship in the financial sense. This is the judgment of this world; when we will not amend ourselves with grace, we are compelled under the yoke of law. You will notice also that we are learning certain things. There seems, for example, to be no noticeable diminution in our health and spirits due to the fact that we have only the choice of, say, half a dozen dishes in restaurant instead of forty.

In the matter of clothing, we are beginning again to regain our respect for stuffs that will wear well; we can no longer be led away by the specious argument that it is smarter and more hygienic to wear underlinen and stockings once and then throw them away than to buy things that will serve us for years. we are having to learn, painfully, to save food and material and to salvage waste products; and in learning to do these things we have found a curious and stimulating sense of adventure. For it is the great curse of gluttony that it ends by destroying all sense of the precious, the unique, the irreplaceable.

But what will happen to us when the war machine ceases to consume our surplus products for us? Shall we hold fast to our rediscovered sense of real values and our adventurous attitude of life? If so, we shall revolutionize world economy without any political revolution. Or shall we again allow our gluttony to become the instrument of an economic system that is satisfactory to nobody? That system as we know it thrives upon waste and rubbish heaps. At present the waste (that is, sheer gluttonous consumption) is being done for us in the field of war. In peace, if we do not revise our ideas, we shall ourselves become its instruments. The rubbish heap will again be piled on our own doorsteps, on our own backs, in our own bellies. Instead of the wasteful consumption of trucks and tanks, metal and explosivse, we shall have back the wasteful consumption of wireless sets and silk stockings, drugs and paper, cheap pottery and cosmetics -- all of the slop and swill that pour down the sewers over which the palace of gluttony is built.

[Note: This is the most fascinating part of this chapter. Like many early 20th century Catholic thinkers there is a suspicion of the industrial economy, and of capitalism. [See Chesterton's Outline of Sanity], for instance, or the depiction of Isengard as a modern-industrial anti-nature hell in Tolkein's "The Lord of the Rings." I have no idea if Dorothy Sayers was a distributist, but I wouldn't be surprised. There's much that I'm sympathetic to, but I am also quite a fan of Hayekian liberalism. How to reconcile all this coherently -- who knows.

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