By Oswald Sobrino, J.D.; M.A. (Econ.); M.A. (Theo.); M.L. (Master of Latin), doctoral student, University of Florida.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Something to Question In Our History and Culture

As many other parents know, one's mailbox can fill easily with various college booklets and brochures sent to high school students. I found of interest one received from the University of Chicago that captured something not so grand in that rather eccentric figure in American history: Benjamin Franklin. The Chicago pamphlet made a point that resonates with my own experience of the absurd materialism that seems to be so deeply buried in too many of my fellow Americans. It is a materialism so absurd that people, today (though not in prior generations), get angrier about losing a capital gain deduction than about "losing" the virtue and honor of their daughters and sisters--if they even deign to notice or recognize such a loss of honor. Below is the excerpt from the college brochure. The excerpt records a seminar discussion in a University of Chicago classroom about German sociologist Max Weber's classic The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905):

Student No. 1: "Would it be fair to say that, to Weber, Ben Franklin represents the spirit of capitalism?

Prof: "I think it would. What aspect of Franklin's homilies does Weber focus on? Franklin's attitude appears to be completely utilitarian, but if you really think about it, there is actually an ethical dimension here. You have a duty towards the accumulation of your capital. What's so peculiar about this?"

 Student No. 2: "Because money is a means, not an end."

Prof: "Traditionally, if there is money around, it's a means, right? It's a means toward another end, such as that house you want, or that college education. Whereas with Ben Franklin, what is the relationship of life and means, according to Weber?"

Student No. 3: "With Franklin, your life is a means for acquiring more money."

Prof: "Right. Your life becomes the means, money becomes the end. And, as Weber points out, from the point of view of the individual's happiness, this is a totally irrational end. . . . "

The Life of the Mind: The University of Chicago 2010 Prospectus, pp. 6, 9 (Labels indicating speakers and emphasis added).