In the post-modern world, the world of mass consumption, success is measured by your power of consumption, that is, your wealth. Thus we have people who buy expensive goods like cars and clothing not merely as goods to use by themselves, but as goods that will signal their status to others, as things that will project the extent of their consumptive power to the world. Additionally, being consumers, people today define themselves in terms of their consumption patters: the music they listen to, the films they watch, the brands they buy, and so on. The man of the mass consumption era defines himself and measures his success within the framework of consumption. This is also the reason why he is so obsessed with the issue of wealth inequality and the distribution of wealth.
You can break out of this mindset by recognizing at least two other modes of existence. In the era of modernity, the era of the fabricating man—in the broad sense: the maker, the scientist, the artist—success was measured by the outcome of your work. Producing great works and great art won you recognition and renown. But if we go even further to pre-modernity, we find that there the good itself didn’t matter.
The ancients did not try to “build a better world” since for them history was an endless recurrence of events. The Greeks sometimes invited foreigners to make laws in their polis. This was because political life—that is, public life—could only properly begin after the laws were set. Legislation was not a political activity, it was, like its walls and its roads, a part of the city’s construction. The ancients saw life as a theater stage on which they were the performers. Thus, it was not your work that distinguished you, much less how much you could consume, but the quality of your performance, that is, the virtue of your conduct.
The Greeks pursued glory: immortal fame through great words and deeds. The Romans cared more about virtue: remembering those who set the right example. But the principle in both is the same: the measure of one’s life was not some material thing, but the way you lived. The Greeks despised craftsmen and people chasing wealth because in their worldview those were pointless pursuits that pulled you away from public life.
Substituting the life of the stage for the life of fabrication has given us the bloody catastrophes of the 20th century, in which totalitarian regimes tried to reshape the world into new configurations, using people’s lives as a malleable resource for the construction of their Utopia. Substituting the life of fabrication for consumption dehumanizes us even further, closing the distance between man and animal, and turning mankind into a sort of natural force that slowly devours and pollutes the world.
In the pre-modern life of the performance, the life of glory and virtue, the outcome of the deed does not matter as much as the doing of it, since it is in the choices you take that virtue resides and not in their result. It is your conduct that distinguishes you, not the gifts of Fortune. Such a worldview does much to suppress evils like deceit and theft by making them less relevant. Since it is not the result that matters, claiming you’ve accomplished something stands for little, and since material goods are not valued, having more of them does not increase your prestige. Naturally, material goods provide sustenance and comfort, and lies can influence other’s perception, but the center of balance is shifted significantly, away from the material world and onto the person. Chance is replaced by choice.
The word “virtue” is gone from the modern vocabulary. Certainly, the meaning is known to everyone, but few use the word seriously in conversation. It is a kind of antiquated relic, a Romantic notion that is reserved for the pages of a novel. The word has lost its seriousness not because it was never there to begin with, but because the world in which it was born and in which it was valued has since been transformed, and the lens, though which people look upon the world, has since shifted focus.
The point here is not that we should go back to living like the ancients—that’s not possible, nor desirable. The point is that there are more ways than one that we can use to look upon our world, and taking a moment to discover them can transform and enrich our whole experience of it, as well as ourselves. And then, perhaps, a time may come when we can speak of virtue as seriously as we discuss the latest consumer gadget.