Henry Thoreau and the Patrons of Virtue
By Charles Sullivan
12/03/07 “ICH” — – The form of government we have is anything but the democratic republic it purports to be. The more access to wealth a person has the more responsive to his or her needs the government is. Justice and equality cannot follow where access is denied or restricted. Far from a government of the people, for the people and by the people, we now have a government that is the exclusive domain of the rich and powerful and has the same level of exclusivity as an expensive country club or resort. The poor and disenfranchised are barred from entry and are thus marginalized.
Capital government is the equivalent of a bank’s automatic teller machine. Corporate lobbyists put their money into it and the machine prints out the legislation they paid for. It is a system in which the creator of the machines is no longer their master. We have become, as Thoreau said, “the tools of our tools.”
The people should not, and must not lend their material support to a government that so obviously works in the private corporate interest at the expense of the public well being. To do so is an exercise in self-deception and futility.
Material wealth is only rarely attracted to virtue. Voluntary poverty and simplicity is the usual domain of virtue, as history attests. Conversely, immense wealth is attracted to vice, to the mean-spirited, the selfish, the very aggressive and the morally depraved. The best people throughout history did not possess great material wealth. To paraphrase Charles Dickens, “Humanity was their business.”
What could be more incompatible than virtue and wealth, than business and morality? What could be more opposed to beauty, to truth, justice; to art and poetry, to life—than big business and capitalism? It is telling that our cultural icons are people like Donald Trump, Bill Gates, George Steinbrenner and other business tycoons, not virtuous men like Frederick Douglas and Henry David Thoreau or women like Mary Harris—the fiercely tenacious Mother Jones.
Corporate governance and plutocracy are manifestations of capitalism that invariably appeal to the worst in human nature. Expansive economic self interest is resulting in an ever expanding private domain and a shrinking public commons. The concentration of wealth and power into fewer and fewer hands is not in the public interest; nor is the wholesale exploitation of labor and ecosystems. A system in which means always justify the ends—a values neutral system of production and waste is contrary to the needs of the people, as well as the health of the planet.
The Holy Grail of mature capitalism is the belief that markets should be the final arbiter of all things, the greatest purity that can be attained by unleashing the ravenous dogs of greed upon the world. Free market capitalism does not account for anything that cannot be commodified and traded; and so it assigns them no weight. Hence morality, honesty, virtue, self-sacrifice and public service have no worth and no place in capitalism’s economic formulations because they impose restraints that limit growth. They are as ethereal as the ruddy glow of the morning sky and as unmarketable as the mist rising from a brook.
Any belief system that is not regulated by healthy societal values and the laws of nature is destined to degenerate into a monstrosity. In reality, ecological restraints always exist but they are ignored until catastrophe results and force them upon the public conscience—as in the case of global warming.
Capitalism, with its dependence on ever expanding markets and continuous growth behaves like a planetary malignancy that if left untreated, eventually consumes the host and results in mortality. It persists by virtue of its providing obscene wealth to a few through the exploitation of the many. In this country it is the few who own the political system, not the many. Capitalism would be quickly abolished in a truly democratic society as surely as darkness retreats before the light and ignorance yields to knowledge and understanding.
By participating in capitalism we have created a culture that over emphasizes competition and conquest; a culture that defines greed and lust as the highest expressions of success and as the most desirable symbols of status. It is a culture that feeds at the public trough and gorges itself on imperial wars; a system that pays favors to the legal fiction of corporations while rejecting social justice, the needs of the people and planetary health.
Thus we witness coal companies blowing majestic Appalachian Mountain tops to smithereens: destroying world class biodiversity, polluting streams and rivers and poisoning the air in quest of profits while disregarding the social and environmental damage they cause. The cost is always passed on to the public but the profits remain private. Without massive public welfare, what some might call socialism—capitalism could not exist. Capitalism is always on the public dole.
It is beyond bizarre that corporations enjoy the legal status of persons but without the social responsibility required of real citizenship and personhood. Corporations often serve as masks to hide the faces of criminals operating behind the scenes, just as the white hoods of Klansmen conceal the cowardly faces of those who burn crosses on black people’s lawns in the night. Any force that operates out of public view is liable to criminal intent, especially government.
Corporations routinely commit crimes against earth and humanity but are rarely held accountable. When was the last time that a corporation had its corporate charter revoked for malfeasance? When has a corporation ever been executed for murder?
Under capitalism, competitive advantage is sought at any cost and it is used as a weapon against the competition and the people. The status of the individual is thus elevated above the collective good. The purpose of competition is to rise above others and to lord power over them, rather than for everyone to rise together and share the bounty equally through cooperation. Ideologies that foster equality and fair play are dismissed as unattainable Utopian fantasy or socialist propaganda. We are told there is no alternative to capitalism, so we cease to look for them and make little effort to create something better.
In purely market driven economies—virtue, character and social justice have no use unless they can generate wealth for their owners. Imagine the life of Christ valued only by the income his carpentry brought to his employer; his teachings dismissed as worthless because they did not produce money in great enough abundance.
What remains of the Jewish carpenter’s essence exists outside of the socio-economic paradigm of today’s capitalism and in clear opposition to it. Betrayed by the religious institutions of our time, the prophets of religion have given way to the profits of religion, as documented by Upton Sinclair and others.
With the corporatization of the church, the teachings of Christ were discarded and cast to the four winds in order to give religious authority to capitalism, greed and exploitation. Rather than producing men of virtue like Jesus, who called for restraint and shared wealth, it has yielded a morally depraved leadership as exemplified by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson; men who have risen to prominence to fleece their obedient flock, rather than to enlighten and save them from the ravages of unregulated greed.
Rather than imposing the moral restraints of Jesus upon an unjust society, Pat Roberson and his kind champion the cause of aggressive exploitation, effectively turning the teachings of Christ upside down and using them to justify everything that Jesus Christ railed against and died for. How ironic that the Christian church so often turns out an army of anti-Christs rather than Christians in the image of the man they so eagerly idolize but continuously dishonor.
And so it goes. Virtue, arguably the greatest of human traits, has no presence in the market place and it is slowly sinking into the oblivion of euphemisms and the boiling cauldron of corrupted language from which nothing emerges intact.
Due in part to our unquestioned acceptance of capitalism, we are a people who pay homage to concepts such as democracy, equality, social and environmental justice and freedom, even as we continually undermine them in nearly everything we do. Thus we bear a history of genocide, chattel slavery, racism, sexism, ethnic cleansing, imperial wars and occupation and manifest destiny that have flourished despite the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.
Henry Thoreau astutely observed: “There are nine hundred and ninety-nine patrons of virtue to one virtuous man.” Thoreau hit the nail squarely on the head, as he so often did. We Americans are patrons of virtue rather than virtuous people. It costs nothing to be a patron of virtue; but it requires character and effort to be a virtuous person. Apparently, we have yet to learn the distinction.
We know that Thoreau was a virtuous man rather than a patron of virtue, as demonstrated by certain events in his life. Like Christ, he found himself in formal opposition to the cultural orthodoxy; he lived apart from society—outside of the social and political mainstream, an oddity to his neighbors and often persecuted by them. Thoreau refused allegiance to money and wealth, understanding that the most important things in life could not be bought and sold. For him, property and possessions were burdens, not assets.
Thus Thoreau wisely refused to waste any more time than absolutely necessary in earning a modest living. He did not rent himself to factories and bosses or to any of the respectable professions; he worked sporadically and only when necessary—usually on his own terms. He was a man of principle who refused to pay taxes that he knew supported an unprovoked war on Mexico; a war that sought to expand the territory of slavery; and he went to jail for his beliefs. Thoreau was also a fierce abolitionist who, against the law, put many a run-away slave on board the Underground Railroad to Canada and to freedom.
Like all virtuous people, Thoreau lived by a higher law. He did what was right, not what was legal or considered respectable or expedient. Unlike today’s political leadership and contemporary Christians, he was guided by incorruptible conscience that could not be bribed.
Thoreau’s freedom from menial work also provided independence from possessions and debt. Thoreau was a minimalist. His freedom to explore Concord and vicinity gave birth to several literary masterpieces, including Walden and Civil Disobedience—works that sold poorly in his time and provided but little income; but are known worldwide today. World renowned moralists such as India’s Mohandas Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King were strongly influenced by Thoreau.
If Thoreau’s life could be summed up in three words they would be, “Simplify, simplify, simplify.” To simplify and reduce one’s wants is a paradigm in stark contrast to the ravenous consumption required by capitalism. It was a way of living that eschewed money and markets; a way of being that afforded opportunity for intellectual pursuits and life long learning. Above all, it was a spiritually enriching way of life that was in harmony with the planet; it was gentle, sustainable, and fulfilling.
In contrast to Thoreau, most of us unthinkingly support a system that is fundamentally unjust, unsustainable and superfluous. It is a system that has no room for virtue and character because these characteristics cannot be commodified and marketed; and they impose market restraints. Yet, these are the very traits that can save us from ourselves and make a better world possible. How ironic that the traits of character that are most valuable to our survival as a species are the ones appreciated the least by capitalism.
Markets unregulated by morality and governments unbounded by justice serve no useful purpose to anyone in the long run, even those who champion them. Planetary destruction is not in anyone’s interest. Sustainability is. Sustainability, unlike its economic counterpart—capitalism, requires virtuous people rather than mere patrons of virtue. Virtue requires people who not only understand what is going on but who have the courage to do something about it—a consciousness that knows the distinction between patronage to virtue and actual virtue.
Our current form of government is a spectacular failure because it is an arm of business and capitalism rather than an institution of democracy with powerful ethical moorings derived from the grass roots—a decentralized, non-hierarchal power that radiates equally from the people like the spokes of a wheel from a central hub. As such, it often attracts the worst kind of people rather than the principled and just. The interest of big business is now and always has been at odds with just causes and the public welfare. Corporate interests and the people’s interests must never be confused.
Charles Sullivan is a nature photographer, free-lance writer and community activist residing in the Ridge and Valley Province of geopolitical West Virginia. He welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.