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509. Splitting apart (X)

Sam Harris is a Marxist not a Buddhist. You can tell this is so because he has said that concerns over meaning, ethics, and values come after our material satisfactions are met. He agrees with the lyric by the Marxist Brecht: “Give us bread, then we’ll talk about morals!” So cry the destitute whores, ragamuffins, and street thugs in The Threepenny Opera. In other words, the standard account from historical materialism: morals, ethics, beliefs, ideologies, and religions are all secondary to material satisfaction—and the way in which your material needs are satisfied determines the form which these beliefs take.

Of course, Harris’s point superficially convinces, especially for men who consider themselves practical and commonsensical: “Get that food first, then we’ll worry about silly ideas and morals—for now, we do anything to survive.” Hence Harris suggests that our societies are more concerned with ethics, morals, and meaning than ever before; it makes sense—these concerns only come about when we have the material luxury to be worried about them.

The picture is upside down. The Pygmies—those diminutive African dwarf-men—used to have a little procedure before a hunt: they would draw a circle in which a hunter was depicted engaged in a kill. The image was what magicians today call a sigil, and it was not an optional extra—or a rational “planning map” as we might think of it today. It was a magical operation that allowed the hunt to be successful, there could be no hunt without the sigil. The procedure was far from unique to the Pygmies. This demonstrates that meaning, ethos, and religion have always been integral to man’s life—even during the most elemental periods and in the most fundamental ways. When modern men, such as Harris, claim that in the brutal struggle for survival men had “no time” for so-called luxuries such as an ethos or belief system they have it the wrong way round—it is modern man, soaked in luxuries, who has debased himself and abandoned the sophisticated systems that generated meaning, belief, and ethos.

So, in fact, your ethos and your bread go together—unless you have the correct sigils, symbols and signs, you cannot hunt a bison or procure bread from a Berlin bakery. It is contemporary scientific modernity that tells you that it is “pointless” to draw an image on the ground before you hunt, just as it is pointless to bless your food before you eat it—at most, this is reduced to the rationalisation “it helps to be grateful for things”, but what if it actually allows you to truly digest your food? So it is the scientific materialist view that is the debasement; it is not that we now have the luxury to worry about what the world means or how we should act—rather it is that in modernity we hardly care about those things at all. “Give us iPhones, then we’ll talk about morals…”

The savage and debased man who just cares about “getting what’s mine” comes in with Hobbes, with modernity—with the view that there is just a struggle for existence and nothing else, and that somehow religious ideas are a distraction from this struggle to “get yours”; he spoke about a war of all against all. Hobbes was among the first modern Europeans to declare that witches do not exist—although, in fact, they do. Hobbes could think that way because he was like Harris, a materialist who did not perceive how spiritual notions could be anything other than luxuries—and quite possibly dangerous illusions that distract from our rational self-preservation.

Yet Christians still say today in the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread…” The action, taken before the day’s “hunt” begins, is no different from the Pygmy who draws an animal on the ground to hunt that animal; and it is an action that precedes material acquisition, the ethos comes before bread—the opposite to what Marx, Brecht, and Harris think.

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