Our values descend from two very different sources, calling for opposite types of behavior. It shouldn’t be wondered at, therefore, that we who live in the wealthiest, most successful country in the world often suffer from a bad conscience.
The Greeks gave us a love of excellence, defined as worldly success. Christianity preached the supreme merit of spirituality, defined as renunciation of the world. Like all raised in the civilization of the West, we Americans are caught in the grip of these irreconcilable commandments.
In practice, we go after success, and – like the Greeks – we idolize the hugely successful, although we tend to focus more tightly on money and fame. We can’t get enough of Bill Gates, despite his goofy looks and anodyne public personality, because of his stratospheric level of worldly success. Nothing else about Bill Gates calls to our attention: only that he’s a billionaire many times over. But that’s enough for us.
At the same time, we find the disproportion between his wealth and success and ours somehow sinister if not downright evil. Bill Gates is a plutocrat, a monopolist, a bully to everyone smaller than himself – which, in the context of money, includes the entire human race. We recall the Gospel saying about the camel and the eye of a needle, and allow ourselves to feel morally superior to Bill Gates. He’s a bloated materialist: a worshipper of Mammon. We abide by purer values.
This struggle occurs at every level of success in American life. In Europe, it’s even more intense, but far less interesting: Europeans restrict bloated materialism to the sphere of the state, and appease their consciences, insofar as they have any, by identifying the state with the community. In America, it’s personal.
I said that we are a successful country. Every last one of us who has enjoyed any degree of material success at length comes to a dark night of the soul, when he must ask: what is it for? Is my striving after money worthy or shameful? Can I simply enjoy the fruits of my labor, or am I going to hell like the Gospel predicted?
Americans are religious but practical: we lack a tradition of spirituality. The most we have ever mustered have been momentary spasms of revivalism and idealism. These were emotionally satisfying, but – except for the occasional failed commune – didn’t amount to much in the way of renunciation. Thoreau, for example, had to purchase his shack from an Irishman who was really poor. His life in the woods was a romance funded by the commerce-minded nation he so deeply despised.
True renunciation belongs to an older tradition, embodied in the life of Francis of Assisi. Born (it should be noted) into a wealthy commercial family, Francis stripped naked to signify his contempt for the worldly vanity of his father’s ways, and embraced dire poverty, humiliation, and self-torture as his own. He was, like Thoreau, a romantic, and served as a model to the writer in his love of nature – but he was in earnest in his craving for spiritual attainment, and never walked away from his own harsher version of the Irishman’s shack. He died in his mid-forties, worn out by mortifications.
The Church never knew what to make of this strange character, at once rebellious and otherworldly. It seemed hard to dispute that Francis had behaved as Jesus prescribed: whether this was good or bad, the spiritual lords of the time were uncertain. In the end, the Church compromised by making Francis a saint while taking over his order, which by then, in any case, had become quite successful and un-Francis-like.
A mythic Francis has lived on in Western literature and film, portrayed as the ultimate bohemian, living refutation of the West’s material strivings. In this guise, his main influence over the rest of us has been to ruin our peace of mind.
High achievers in America end up unloved and unhappy. They have won the race only to wonder why it was run. Most of them, with various degrees of self-awareness, wish to edge toward spirituality, and given their characters and our culture there is but one path for them to follow: they must give back their money to some worthy cause.
The two sources of our moral descent, interestingly, also provide two modes of giving. One goes back to Rome and the idea that the great men of the republic are expected to pay for its public buildings, aqueducts, and highways. This is called magnificence, and it’s done publicly, for show and to earn the admiration of the populace. The other mode was called love by St. Paul, and charity by the Internal Revenue Service. It’s private rather than official, modest – often anonymous – instead of ostentatious, and earns no credit or admiration unless one believes in heaven.
We can see that Bill Gates, in his later life, has been much preoccupied with his money: he desires, after making so much, to give some of it away. His mode is blatantly Roman. It would be tough for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to operate anonymously. He travels in poor countries offering the contemporary equivalent of aqueducts: cash grants. The causes are no doubt worthy, and while all this is to the greater good, our admiration is somehow restrained if not altogether curdled. We appreciate Bill Gates’ magnificence but we understand its mixed motives. It really is the case that money can’t buy love, either in St. Paul’s sense or the typical American’s.
What of the silent givers? They are by definition invisible. The impact of their gifts is unknown. The secular benefit is null. Yet countless Americans who aren’t particularly religious give anonymously. They don’t look to heaven, or to any other reward. Maybe, in their hearts, they feel they have balanced the ledger: they have succeeded materially, and shared the wealth in secret. Maybe in this way they fortify their consciences, or attain some small measure of spiritual grace. But still: to give without hope of reward. That’s curious. It begs a question, and any answer must involve a moral judgment. I find it impossible to explain this large group of Americans unless I endow it with a certain nobility of character.