Economic Utopia And Spiritual Nihilism


Man does not live by bread alone – Matthew 4:4

The Bible says that man does live by bread alone. The cultural commentator Michael Novak once amended this as follows: Man does live by bread alone – but he needs a little bread first to realize this. In contemporary American society, we have more than a little bread. While we take it for granted because we’re used to it, it is not too much to say that we are living in an economic utopia beyond the Enlightenment’s wildest dreams.

Take my day so far. I woke up early and worked out at 24 Hour Fitness in Roseville from 2:30-4:00am. Not only is the gym open 24 hours a day so that I can workout whenever I like, but the gym is first rate. It has a swimming pool, a basketball court, all the weights and machines you could desire as well a functional training area. And I can workout at any 24 Hour Fitness in Northern California. For all this I pay $300/year.

At 12:30pm I left my hotel room in Lincoln to run some errands and get lunch. First I went to Starbucks where I got a Grande Iced Latte for $4.95. It was ready in two minutes. Then I went next door to SuperCuts where I got a haircut for $25 in fifteen minutes. Next I went to Target/CVS where I bought some personal care items and office supplies. With self checkout I was in and out and 10 minutes. Then I located a Chipotle on GoogleMaps, followed the directions and bought a Chicken Burrito Bowl for $13. I was back in my hotel room in an hour and 15 minutes and had spent less than $100.

Both the left and right have valid criticisms of the economy. The left wants its bounty to me shared more widely. The right wants government to get out of the way so it can operate even more efficiently. While I sympathize with both concerns, our politics must move beyond a sole concern with economics if we are to confront our real problems.

That’s because coexisting with this economic utopia is a spiritual nihilism. In America, we value economics above all else because it so clearly improves our lives. And yet Americans are on the whole unhappy. Clearly the idea that economic progress is sufficient to make us happy has been proven false. That’s not to say that it’s not worth anything. It’s just not the whole story.

Mental illness, family breakdown, the coarseness of everyday life all testify that something is amiss. And what’s missing is transcendent purpose. Man does not live by bread alone – even if he needs a little bread first to realize this. Human beings yearn for purpose and meaning and while the religion of economic growth sufficed for the 19th century, it can no longer sustain us. Nietzsche prophesized almost 150 years ago that man would need to find a new source of meaning after the Death of God. He feared a catastrophe if one could not be found and devoted his life to the quest. For all the efficiency of our economic system, unless we find a philosophy that meets our spiritual needs as well we will continue to be adrift – or worse.

One recent book I’ve found especially useful on this front is Benjamin and Jenna Storey’s Why We Are Restless: On The Modern Quest For Contentment.

Also see my “Civilizational Top: The Decline And Fall Of Liberalism”, January 9, 2023

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