Overtaken From Within

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In the study of the market, and the study of economics, there is a mystery. It lies within the human heart, from a wellspring we cannot fathom. It is the mystery of existence; the mystery of “why” and “wherefore.” To reduce man to a homo economicus (a rational and narrowly self-interested actor who seeks advantages) is to miss the big picture: namely, that man does not live by bread alone, that he is not merely rational, not merely economical, and not merely animal. Though some would say it is quaint nonsense, man is a moral and a spiritual being.

In his great book, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, the Psychiatrist Carl Jung wrote, “A man should be able to say he has done his best to form a conception of life after death, or to create some image of it … even if he must confess his failure.” The reason we must make an attempt, said Jung, is that the rich heritage of our inner life would otherwise be lost; what he called “the secret life of the unconscious” would cease to nurture and feed us. According to Jung, “Reason sets the boundaries far too narrowly for us, and would have us accept only the known – and that too with limitations – and live in a known framework, just as if we were sure how far life actually extends.”

In that great essay, The Present Age, Søren Kierkegaard began with the following line: “Our age is essentially one of understanding and reflection, without passion, momentarily bursting into enthusiasm, and shrewdly relapsing into repose.” Here we have lost our instincts. In fact, we override our instincts with economic calculations. In the nineteenth century we built a rational economic engine. We built an industrial economy which has now been digitalized. This economy can give us whatever we want. But the question is, at bottom, what do we want?

Reason can tell us many things. Even so, it cannot reveal to us the heart of the mystery. In practical doings we have to be rational, of course; and capitalism is the best economic system for fulfilling human dreams and desires. Yet capitalism is not the philosopher’s stone, capable of turning base metals into gold or rejuvenating the human body. Capitalism is merely the freedom to buy and sell, to invest and own. Vital though it is, we should not mistake our ends for our means.

Also, it should be recognized that reason has its limitations. “The more … reason dominates,” wrote Jung, “the more impoverished life becomes; but the more of the unconscious, and the more of myth we are capable of making conscious, the more of life we integrate.” But we’ve stopped integrating nowadays and we’ve begun to disintegrate. In fact, the whole of existence is tainted with unreality – with a loss of vitality which Kierkegaard vividly described when he charged modernity with seeking to extirpate authority and nobility, which was the ground of morality itself. What is left, in the end, but a desert in place of the soul?

It used to be said that when something was good, it was “good as gold.” Now goodness itself is regarded as a fiction even as gold is no longer considered to be money. And so we cannot have genuine authority or true nobility; we cannot have goodness, and we cannot have gold for money. In their place we have crooks on every side, we have maniacs who shoot kindergartners, and we have digital money. The explanation which Kierkegaard offered, which is none too flattering, is that people no longer desire a great king, a heroic liberator or an authoritative religion. They don’t want strict rules or high standards. That is because they want an easy time of it. They want a soft existence which can only be guaranteed by eschewing the great and heroic, the true and the noble.

And so we have a sinking dollar. We have the “fiscal cliff.” We have the Federal Reserve. We have the United States Senate. And we have a completely apathetic public. According to Kierkegaard the absurdity of our democratic age is beyond comical, “The public is, in fact, the real Leveling Master rather than the actual leveler, for … leveling is … accomplished … by something, and the public is a monstrous nothing.”

What was once real money is unreal money. The nation itself has become a nullity (i.e., the public). “A public is everything and nothing,” wrote Kierkegaard, “the most dangerous of all powers and the most insignificant….” Imagine what this signifies. Imagine the catastrophe we have been courting. From nothing comes nothing.

Carl Jung and Søren Kierkegaard warned that modern society was self-disintegrative. This is, indeed, becoming apparent when we watch the news. Should we wonder, then, that the economy has become self-disintegrative? Whatever the answer to the mystery of our existence, the inner life produces outer effects; and from the look of the outer effects, something quite terrible has already overtaken us from within.

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About JR Nyquist