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Economics and Spirituality

by Paolo Scroccaro

translated from Italian by Chuck Salvo


«For who reasons well, wealth in compliance with nature has its limits and its border, traced all around by need as by a compass» (Plutarch, The Passion of Wealth)


The terms that make up the title are not necessarily antithetical, as common opinion for the most part is inclined to believe; an accord, an organic nexus can reappear anew, as it had already occurred in pre-modern periods. By imposing a curative "measure" to the economy and technology, following the guidelines already discussed, revitalizing the interior possibilities of individuals, restoring to them those qualities that the fanaticism of "mechanical" work had eclipsed, the presuppositions are also recreated for a concomitant revivification of the sense, now lost, of worship, holidays, and the contemplative life. All this is in harmony with the teachings of traditional wisdom.

The productivistic fury, spreading the obsession for boundless action and unlimited speed in every field, has rendered impossible a dignified existence to persons and other beings in a world continually distorted by the illusory promise of profit and the Gross National Product; with the decline of the economic paradigm, of which the signs have been noted previously, life will finally be able to return to taste those natural, slow, refreshing rhythms that the idols of progress had taken away.

«In the world ravaged by technology, a new hospitable dwelling will miraculously be able to flourish again, just as the tenacious blade of grass manages to crack open a living space in the asphalt of a neglected road.»

It will likewise be possible to recover the social bond that the ethics of commercialism had marginalized, and with it the non-utilitarian community spirit, respectful of all the human beings such as they are, sensitive to the sacredness of the order of the universe, able to set at the top of its attention care for the disinterested knowledge and the inner fulfillment of the individuals, in harmony with the cosmos that it freely nourishes and supports.

Between the politico-economical dimensions and spiritual needs, there can be intimate connection or, to the contrary, opposition; how well Aristotle and the ancients knew, a virtuous community ordered on the civil and economical level, favors also the spiritual quest, since the "dianoetic" virtues, which form the natural peak of the individual and of the polis, have as presupposed those "ethics". Therefore, to say with Saint Thomas,

«for the perfection of the community it is necessary that there be men dedicated to the useless life of contemplation».

In our time, unfortunately, among the times mentioned, only disputes can dominate, since philosophical wisdom, besides being very rare and mixed up in cultural deformations of various types, is even more opposed in the name of the productivistic drive, structurally incapable of respecting what does not pertain to its project of domination. Its supporters, lagging behind, continue to impose it as the only medicine for our civilization, which really finds itself gravely ill because of it; they therefore well deserve the judgement facing the medical charlatan in an ancient comedy:

«Your medicine only makes the disease worse.»

If a radical reform now becomes indispensable, it can only take off from concrete examples, formed from what are capable of bearing witness in advance to those that at most do not yet prove to be visible, having need of waiting for the further precipitation of the events, it is worth saying, the deepening of the crisis of productivistic civilization.

«Reform must begin from itself. Lectures to others, magnificent articles that pretend to save the world [...] to think that all that can bring a solution is equivalent to being wrong [...] can neither speak nor think of transforming the world, if it does not begin with those closest to me.» (R. Panikkar, Ecosophy)

At the same time, it is true that «man cannot reach salvation, human fullness, as a person [...] if he does not fulfill himself in the polis.»

Individual and community represent here the microcosm and the macrocosm, the community is in a certain sense the projection of the individual, as Plato said, whose political proposals merit reconsideration.

True statecraft is not the technico-beaurocratic apparatus, turned to the direction of power and the existing, as is today happening everywhere, on the right, in the center, and on the left. The great politics, that is, the "royal" art of statecraft that Plato spoke of, which takes care of the polis in depth and not superficially, that is, according to the Idea, not according to the pragmatic calculation of the moment: but the times don’t seem yet mature for such a rebirth of politics, it is necessary to be patient and in the meantime to prepare the earth and to seed, so that something more in the future, can germinate. While waiting, individual testimonies can count for much, they can spread better and more wisely collective behavior, for those the saying of Solon must not prove to be wasted: "We will not exchange our virtue with their riches".

The emergence of individuals capable of so much is possible where a gradual transformation of the level of conscience, oriented toward an expansion of vision and not of possession, is established : at such an end, it is essential to learn to surpass the attachment to the limiting forms, that is, to coarse objects (money, Gross National Product, more and more powerful technological means, superfluous, if not harmful, consumer goods …) and the narrow (prestige, celebrity, sentimentalism, superficial moralism…); in this way making, one teachs itself more and more to control that desiring tension that incessantly pushes toward the things, transforming life in existential torment, since

«the desire too intense toward every thing excites the most intense fear of remaining deprived, and in such a way, our divine joy becomes weak and uncertain, like flames exposed to the wind» (Plutarch, Inner Serenity);
furthermore, it is necessary to remember that «the sweetness and smile of life do not come from the outside». (Plutarch, Virtue and Vision).

In consequence of said expansion of consciousness, the agitated, fast, and obsessive psychic impulse becomes calmer; one learns to appreciate slowness, the rhythm that returns on itself, typical of the inviolate cosmological reality: and since «the men in the city, too eager for vanities or for disruptions, manifest insanity» (Pindar), to attain this spiritual station it is today more than ever necessary to be based on that support that is given by avoiding as much as possible the noise of the city, just as H. D. Thoreau did1, and to seek relief and inspiration in wild nature2, or at least, not too convulsed by technological assault.

«Believe in him who has experience of it: in the forests you will find more than what is just in books. The tree and the rocks will teach you that you cannot learn from teachers.» (St. Bernard de Clairveau, Letter to Enrico Murdach)

One then starts experiencing and tasting an existential lightness, previously unfamiliar, since mental energy, pressed continuously by artificial stimuli, typical of urban decay, was insidiously attracted toward centrifugal and heterogeneous goals; with the inevitable implications of confusion, anxiety, inner rupture. To live like that turned out to be perennially unstable, confused in the irregular flux of becoming, of consumerism, of desire: it was, that is, devoid of a "center", now instead it acquires gradually dignity, sedateness, pride, unshakable stability ... just as the majestic fir tree at the upper edge of the forest, solidly rooted in the welcoming ground, can conquer the harshness of the place that, steep and precipitous, can only appear inhospitable to the novice occasional traveler.

In all this we already have some suggestions of the typical condition of the ancient gods, because one is installed in a preliminary dimension respect for the achievement of absolute imperturbability dear to Julian and to other classical philosophers of the East and West, those who considered the pax profunda, the perfect "non-agitation" (that is the condition of transcendence in respect to arhythmic and clumsy transformation ) as the inalienable peak to which the path of realization leads3.

Not by chance, also in the Bible is prescribed: «Be still, and know that I am God» Psalms 46:10)

That which is valid for the individual, is valid for the whole: the chaotic society is characterized by the senseless productivistic agitation, which well suits the judgment of Plutarch:

«The senseless despise and neglect even the goods of which they have because in their minds they are perennially leaning toward the future.» (Inner Serenity)

Such a society lacks stability and harmony, and reproduces necessarily (that is by essence and not by accident) conflict, exploitation, dissatisfaction, sadness... a collective composed and led by nutty and psychically unstable individuals, will never be able to be reorganized artificially through pretentious sociopolitical megaprograms that, possibly in good faith, propose in the abstract ideals of peace, of ethical character, of solidarity, which do not correspond adequately to personal realizations4, even of the promoters of such programs... Only persons of inner peace, capable of autonomy in respect to the domain of the socially dominant megamachine, can ripen, in the suitable place, the seeds for a community capable of harmony and reciprocity, operating day after day for its appearing not in the dreariness of noisy political offices, but in the discrete propriety of testimony, since the example has an extraordinary force, that of the final cause that attracts rather than forces, as Plutarch well knew, who wrote, not by chance, the Parallel Lives:

To conclude with the greatest simplicity:

«When so many small men in so many small places make some small things, they change the face of the world.» (Traditional Proverb)



1- «I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least -and it is commonly more than that- sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.» (H. D. Thoreau, Walking).

«A township where one primitive forest waves above while another primitive forest rots below -such a town is fitted to raise not only corn and potatoes, but poets and philosophers for the coming ages.» (Walking).. back to text ^

2- A Naess has praised at the right moment the experience of "living in a hut" with these words:

«In the Scandinavian countries, the energetic awareness is developed at the end of infancy through the tradition of friluftsliv, that is of life in contact with nature. After having spent some time in a hut, the return to a life in which the energy is used in the usual way, the fact that so much wealth is borne without joy, the incredible waste of which it is the object, have always a strong emotional impact. The tradition of life in the hut is one of the ecosophical elements more effective in permanent watchfulness against the destructive behavior of modern life.» (Ecosophy).

Obviously, such experiences not only educate for moderation in the field of consumers more than a thousand sermons: more in general, and consequently, contribute a make appear that contemplative sensibility to which Saint Bernard also alludes in the cited Letter to Murdach and in others. back to text ^

3- Just as the Absolute is indicated in the religious and philosophical texts as complete, self-sufficient, non-dependent, in the same way the person and the community will seek to bring to act the qualities capable of imitating such "fullness" of being, with the quiet that that follows from it: "All at once the wind stopped, and it was dead-calm, without a breath of wind: a God put the waves to sleep" (Odyssey)
The proximity to interior peace and to the contemplative state, or anyway the preparation for it, demands certain constants in individual and community life, that follow the line leading from "the limiting that which is the cause of abnormal psychic motives", in the name of the suitableness of the cosmic rhythms, images of the time of eternity, supratemporal, as the ancients said. From here they descend the discipline of desire, of passions, of consumption, the praise of independence, of self-sufficiency, of the serene slowness free from agitation and of the ordered and stable economy, not suitable for profit, but to the common good. back to text ^

4- «[...] Who governs must first acquire control over himself, to make straight his own spirit [...] who is unseemly can not give composure, who does not have order inside of himself cannot give it to others.» (Plutarch, Who governs must have paideia)

The line from Euripides is also of value here: «You act the doctor of others, and you are covered with sores». back to text ^


Paolo Scroccaro

translated from Italian by Chuck Salvo



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Articolo inserito in data: venerdì, 8 dicembre, 2000.

Ultima modifica:

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