An Unbridled Power: Divinity, Chrematistics, and the Closing of the Anthropocene

Once upon a time, a sage named Thales lived in Ancient Greece. As the story goes, it was he who first introduced Egyptian geometry and Babylonian astronomy to Miletus, overlaying a mathematical science onto a mythopoetic cultural narrative to illuminate the structure of reality.

Thales’ two major points were these: 1) that water was the first principle of all; and 2) that everything was ensouled, alive. Put otherwise, water is the principle source of a living cosmos.

Questioned as to whether his personal impoverishment negated any relevance philosophy might hold, Thales, according to Aristotle, demonstrated the “practical” value of philosophy by using his wisdom to one year successfully predict weather patterns for an early harvest. He cheaply leased all the olive presses in the area during wintertime, securing large monopoly profits at the harvest.[1] Producing absolutely nothing himself, Thales had managed to become rich.

Thales’ use of philosophy in this way indicated two things: first, the relationship of property to profit; and second, that one could successfully leverage one’s spiritual attunement, integrating knowledge of planetary cycles with the reigning cultural dynamics of the day; all of which derived from a living, cosmic principle. That is to say, in his wisdom, Thales had commodified the principle of life, to make money—capitalizing on a universal energy source.

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Having become rich simply by manipulating the price of property in the area for his own self-interest, Thales performed what Aristotle called “chrematistike,” the art of procuring the necessities of life in kind, a process recognizably distinct from the economy. For money, lacking entirely of any inherent value, is accumulated for its own sake, a commercial endeavor eclipsing and destabilizing the regional capacity for self-sufficiency—what Aristotle referred to as the Autarchy. [2] Early Greek thinkers understood this kind of restless moneymaking to be contrary to nature, a rejection of reason in which a dreamer actively refused to perceive reality.[3]

More than two millennia later, Marx would echo the threat, that chrematistics, unrestrained in its aims towards absolute wealth, no longer regards riches as limited. Rather, the unceasing movement toward profit-making becomes a singular purpose, a “boundless drive for enrichment” whose sole force is hindered only in how much money can be made. Thus the capitalist, or what Marx calls “capital personified and endowed with consciousness and a will,” does not treat use-value nor even a single profitable transaction as an immediate aim, looking instead to the circulation of goods as a source of riches, introducing as the final goal of economics the preservation and increase of money to infinity. [4]

This has, of course, become a hallmark of modern rationality. For just as rational action chooses means in relation to ends, money values a good’s exchangability in lieu of its inherent value, alienating it from the source of life it is rooted in to disrupt its ecological trajectory. To exchange the good in question—in Thales’ case wisdom, Sophia—in a momentary trans-action, transfigures what was once a good and desired joy unto herself into a medium—a commodity bought and sold without regard for her own well-being. The prostitution of Sophia.

In Weber’s study of the relationship between religion and socio-economic life, the implication of the increased “rationalization” of the west disallowed for any course but a life detached from human and worldly desire. Magic was thus systematically eradicated as the means to salvation from a newly-mechanized world; until ultimately, the providential interpretation of specialized labor ethically justified profit-making as deriving its spiritual authority from God.

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This point cannot be overstated: that what Ancient philosophy had demonstrated and diagnosed as an unnatural and existential disorder has since been recognized as the cornerstone of Modern rationality.

Like mana, money amasses social power and spiritual energy, commanding the currency of what we might refer to as a divine economy. Against the external influence of foreign investment, with its power to corrupt traditional values, resistance to capital tends to emerge with the ferocity of a culture facing the existential threat of sorcery and black magic, for instance against dam projects, or water privatization schemes.

Neurobiologically, the effect of money on the psyche is like that of any other technology: It offers the technical means to accumulate a desired good[5]; its story the symbolic tool to measure the emotional currency of a spiritual value. We might understand money, with its power to purchase any good, as a kind of prayer then, a divine supplication to deity: ask and ye shall receive.[6]

Yet research also suggests money inflates one’s sense of self-worth at the expense of others, privileging the accrual of means ($) over a signified ends (Sophia), to promote selfish, destructive, even psychopathic tendencies. The rationale, I would argue, underlying clear-cuts, prostitution, externalizing costs—profits before all else. Before life even.

By constructing for ourselves a myth of value, whose bottom line is inherently exploitative, causally destructive, and forever limiting, we can point to the Anthropocene’s Faustian deal with the devil as a fallacy of misplaced concreteness—the fantasy of absolute knowledge, and with it, the power to control reality; all in exchange for its soul.

The early Church called this magical attempt to accumulate divine power by monetizing the Holy Spirit, “Simony,” the egophanic revolt to idolize and possess the power of God.[7] For in the eyes of the apostles, the vision of the divine could not be contained or limited, reduced or equated totally with mere technical terms to mediate the true value of the self-contained good; it was something sacred, beyond purchase.

Thus the political scientist Eric Voegelin can identify the western crisis as a pneumopathology, a spiritual disease of the mind that omits an essential element of reality from a scientistic system. We are missing something that transcends it.

Christ’s newest vicar, Pope Francis, agrees, that humanity has reduced itself to consumers in the dominant economic paradigm. He explains,

“The current financial crisis can make us overlook the fact that it originated in a profound human crisis: the denial of the primacy of the human person! We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose.”[8]

In consuming this false and malicious reality, we close ourselves off from the source of divine potential by interrupting its accessibility to us.

*

What do we do then, when evil is everywhere, seemingly woven into the very fabric of reality, running even into the depths of our souls? What do we do with advanced degrees in wise relations that reconnect spirit and matter? “What are you going to do with that, now that the heat of a future hell grows hotter in its quickening approach?” That last part was subtext, but the Question remains philosophical to be sure, returning us to the source of eternal mystery that makes a quest for truth possible even to begin. Asked differently Is there a happy ending to our story?

The gift of a divine response was considered a Chrematismos—an oracle, or revelation from God, an answer bestowed upon one in a dream, for instance. To partake of such divinity, and participate in the sacred economy and life of God is called Grace by Catholics, further characterized by Michael Murphy as the process by which “unitive knowing, self-transcending love, and other extraordinary capacities emerge in us, during which such capacities appear to be freely given rather than earned, spontaneously revealed rather than attained through ego-centered effort.”[9]

We might then see the divinity of Jesus’ revolutionary nature not in his titles of “messiah” or “Christ,” nor even in his performed miracles, for there were similar “magical messiahs” at the time. But Jesus performs his acts of healing freely, rendering the spiritual monopoly of the Temple obsolete, threatening Rome’s political control over its subjugated peoples, and destabilizing the corruption of an imperial disorder. In this respect, Jesus’ chremata, his divine calling and invaluable work, responds to the communal desperation of his time by cultivating an abundance of virtue to be shared without regard for compensation.

This is a Socratic revelation even prior, that virtue does not derive from money but rather from virtue comes money, there being no greater good than service to God. The source of the Good Life, then, the means to improve the soul, is Love, whom Socrates remembers in the Symposium as a great daemon, a brilliant wizard, healer, and philosopher, intermediating between mortality and immortality, between ignorance and wisdom and the desirable middle of two extremes—the right disposition that becomes for Aristotle, a “golden mean.”

This golden mean, threading itself through history into our day today, is, I think, what we can call Philosophy proper. The subject of—our—study here: philosophy, cosmology, consciousness– magic.

Loving wisdom lets us approach a situation while remaining open to the perspectives of others, to understand the consequences of our judgment. And though I would be open to doing the work of God and performing divine acts of grace, the journey we are each on is in the first place an inherent and invaluable good unto itself, guiding our maturity to partake of what is true, beautiful, and good.

I’ve come to realize a life freely given in love is evidence of an unceasing transformative power moving beyond itself, to extend an essential relation. The future of this boundless, untamed love is the gift of communing with a power greater than ourselves, given to move freely into and through us if we but let it, attuning to and reciprocating a cosmic-erotic energeia.

This is why a shrine to the Graces would often be set up in a public place, a reminder to return a kindness for the sake of mutual prosperity; the linchpin of a self-sufficient community. The recognition that everything we do matters, from the food we eat, to the electricity we use, to the things we buy, to the people we see and touch every day.

Mother earth is sick, and those of us pursuing doctorates, or seeking mastery in healing arts (as philosophy is) are certainly embarking upon the worthwhile endeavor to alleviate spiritual sickness while attending to the emotional and intellectual exchange between extremes of excess and deficiency.

For myself, reinhabiting my time, my body, my life, my traditions, and learning to live anew, in loving communion with you all, and what we are to become, seems like a first step towards living a good life, in right relationship.

To receive this life, as the gift of spirit, is to embody a divine response as a pathway to the infinite, re-enchanting a creative energy by giving thanks for a loving, immortalizing power that presents itself through us when we reciprocate its virtue.

In my final attempt now to revitalize an Aristotelian, Earth-centered, Christian cosmology, I’ll end with a quote from The Nicomachean Ethics, meant only to facilitate and potentially habituate the practice of giving away something of value for free.

“Pure Benevolence cannot be adequately repaid; the beneficiary must make the best return that he can.”

The End.

[1] For a more in depth assessment of the implications of Chrematistics, see Herman Daly, For the Common Good: Redirecting the Economy toward Community… pg. 138

[2] See “Aristotle discovers the Economy,” in Primitive, Archaic and Modern Economies: Essays of Karl Polanyi, ed. George Dalton. Anchor Books: Garden City, NY

[3] See pg. 322 in “Wisdom and the Magic of the Extreme.” Voegelin, Eric

[4]In Das Kapital Note #50, pg. 261 Volume 1. Marx, Karl

[5] See “How the Brain Responds to the Destruction of Money,” Journal of Neuroscience, Psychology, and Economics © 2011 American Psychological Association, Vol. 4, No. 1, 1–10 http://bsb-lab.org/site/wp-content/uploads/BecchioJNPE11.pdf

[6] As in Matthew 7:7-8

[7] giving something of a temporal nature for the purchase thereof; or in other terms it is defined to be a commutation of a thing spiritual or annexed unto spirituals by giving something that is temporal.”

[8] See Pope Francis: “Apostolic Exhortation of the Holy Father Francis to the Bishops, Clergy, Consecrated Persons and the Lay Faithful on the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today’s World.”

http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20131124_evangelii-gaudium.html#No_to_the_new_idolatry_of_money

[9] Catholic Catechism and Future of Body.

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