Review: Cloutier's 'The Vice of Luxury'

David Cloutier's new book, The Vice of Luxury: Economic Excess in a Consumer Age, is an achievement of the highest order. Not only does he retrieve a moral concern once prominent in Catholic moral theology but he explains why that moral concern diminished and why it should be reclaimed. Most especially, Cloutier took the time to immerse himself in the foundational literature of economics, to confront and defeat the arguments the dismal science has accumulated in defense of luxury. This book should find its way into the hands of anyone who is seriously concerned with Catholic social doctrine.

Cloutier begins by invoking another of my favorite books, Brad Gregory's The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society, and specifically Gregory’s discussion of the shift from concern for "the good life" to an acquisitive, determined fixation on "the goods life." Cloutier quotes Gregory: "Westerners now live in societies without an acquisitive ceiling. ... In the United States, 'excess' has now lost any socially significant meaning." These words were written, and quoted, before we all got use to the marble interiors of Trump Tower.

The introduction to the work identifies some of the unhelpful binaries that frame current moral discussion of the economy, and how they tend to stop short of reaching a solution. For example, he notes that the markets versus state binary quickly descends into stereotyping in which "by focusing on groups of great wealth or severe poverty, the discussion tends to exempt people in the middle. ... The target is always somewhere else. However, the large fortunes held by oil companies or the Walton family — and the meager pay of the gas station attendant or superstore clerk — are all set in motion through the support of millions of 'us' every day." Cloutier also examines the limits of the pro-consumerism versus anti-consumerism and, most interesting for us Christians, the binary between detachment and radical renunciation. While the witness of radical renunciation has enjoyed a remarkable life into our own time (think Catholic Worker), for most Christians through most of history, "pious acts" sufficed to satisfy the Gospel's explicit suspicion of wealth, a satisfaction that is widely seen as inadequate in light of the universal call to holiness that was so central a theme of Lumen Gentium, the Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.  

Cloutier offers a brief analysis of how luxury has been dealt with through history. He notes that the ancient pagan philosophers were unanimous in their condemnation of all excesses and that "a compromise with luxury is the first step in Socrates' book-length description of the gradual decline of the city into tyranny." Not only did the ancients operate with clear understanding of what constituted the good life, luxury's preference for private goods before public goods offended their sense of civic significance. "Israel's scriptures largely accord with these criticisms, although the point of accent is different," Cloutier notes. "In the prophets and even in Wisdom literature, the concern with luxurious living is focused on how it will lead to disobedience of God's law, a disobedience that is not compensated for by empty ritual practices." I confess, I could not help thinking of the traditional Latin masses being celebrated at the Napa Institute, just before the cigar receptions, when I read that line. The New Testament, of course, reinforces the explicit suspicion of wealth in the most unambiguous terms.

The early Church Fathers were unrelenting in their application of both the classical and the Christian teachings about the moral dangers of luxury. The student of Catholic social doctrine will be familiar with some of the trenchant writings of the Fathers, for example, St. John Chrysostom's comment "For our money is the Lord's, however we may have gathered it." St. Basil asked, "What will you tell the judge, you who dress up your walls and leave humans naked? You whose wheat rots, and yet you do not feed the hungry!" 

But, Cloutier exposes us to less prominent authors, for example, writing about Prudentius, a fourth-century writer who set the conflict with "Luxuria" in a dramatic landscape, personifying the vices and virtues in battle. Cloutier writes:

"Luxuria" takes the field "languidly belching after a night-long feast," living 'only for pleasure," making "her spirit soft and nerveless," which serves to "enfeeble and undo her understanding." She wins over the forces of virtue not by using "arrows and lances" but "by scattering baskets of flowers over her adversaries"; they are "struck dumb" and willingly submit to her enslavement, dazzled by her gold-plated chariot and reins. The response comes from "Sobrietas," who (quite sacramentally) reminds his fighters of the counter-celebrations of God's providence, the manna in the desert, and the Eucharist. Sobrietas has no weapons except the cross. This frightens Luxuria's horses, which she cannot control in her softened state. Interestingly, only in the wake of Luxuria's death does Avaritia (greed) take the field to gather her remnants and provoke conflict over these now-scarce prizes. Greed is defeated when Ratio (reason) takes the field, telling the fighters to "inflexibly scorn money." Yet the battle is not quite complete, for then the vice of Frugi (thrift) takes the field and confuses the warriors, who must finally be driven off by "good works." "Good works" finally removes "the weight of money…by taking pity on the needy, whom she had cared for with her kindly generosity."

The passage fascinates. In our Calvinistic America, frugality is not usually rendered as a vice, nor is reason the means for vanquishing vice. American culture could benefit from a deeper reading in the Church Fathers, yes?

The critique of luxury surprisingly survived the acceptance of Christianity by the Roman Empire, but it fell with that empire. Cloutier cites two reasons for the eclipse of the critique. First, in response to the Donatists and Pelagians of his day, St. Augustine found it necessary to defend the Christian creed against perfectionism, and to see the Christian life as "a lifelong process of convalescence." It is a lovely if laconic phrase, suggesting as it does Pope Francis' invocation of the field hospital metaphor. Augustine was right to take on the Pelagians, but this had the unhappy consequence, as Cloutier notes, of lowering the bar "drastically" when it came to Christian attitudes towards wealth. Second, the rise of monasticism gave the wealthy a ready outlet for charity, which took the place of renunciation: The rich could endow a monastic foundation. The two-tier ethic of radical, vowed poverty for religious orders, and charity for the rest of us, was born and the universal call to holiness was circumscribed. The centrality of the critique of luxury in Catholic thought was diminished.

I shall pick up this thread and conclude the review tomorrow.

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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