If words had reputations, then ‘Materialism’ would be the poor, misunderstood sod walking home alone at each night after being turned down by every girl at the bar. And yet, I call myself a materialist – and proudly so! (this is the same ‘protesting pride’ as is claimed by gay people in their marches. There’s actually no reason to be proud of being a materialist, just as there’s no reason to be proud of being gay). I come from arguably the most spiritual country on Earth (not entirely so, however – Sanskrit has a larger atheistic literature than almost any other classical language and there exists a significant section of Hinduism and Buddhism that is decidedly atheistic and materialist) and I say I don’t buy into any of it. So allow me this opportunity to clear the air a little on just what materialism is… and, more importantly, what it isn’t.
Simply put, materialism as a philosophical stance is merely the disbelief in the existence of anything beyond the physical universe we experience. Unsurprisingly, this goes rather well with being atheist, which I also am (agnosticism is cute, but ultimately comes across as rather indecisive on a question whose answer we shall probably never know).
What materialism is NOT, however, is endless personal enrichment. This is, unfortunately, the source of much of the bad rep that materialism keeps getting – that it’s a worldview that espouses us all to be greedy twats who live only for enjoying every material pleasure possible in this life, since there’s no other. That is a very wrong-headed understanding of what was, and still is in the relevant field, a well-respected philosophical position. Materialism does indeed deny the existence of another existence beyond the current one, or at least says we shouldn’t be concerned about it as we can’t know anything regarding it. But it absolutely does not say anything about how we should live our lives.
For an example, take one the greatest analytic philosophers (and fellow materialist) of the last century – Ludwig Wittgenstein. He was famous, highly respected and his views were much sought after. Given all this, he could’ve been rich (indeed, he even started off filthy rich since he was born into one of the wealthiest families in Europe at the time) if he’d merely accepted those speaking engagements and answered those book requests. Yet he barely ever gave guest lectures and wrote only 2 books (one of them was a children’s dictionary, of all things) in his entire life. Despite knowing the comforts of luxury (from his childhood), as an adult, he lived a life that would have put the Spartans to shame. He constantly extolled his highly-educated university students to go out and do menial jobs (like working as a shop assistant in a department store) as part of his course so that they may have done something ‘useful’ with their lives in that time. Hardly a match for the greedy Wall-Street investment banker image of materialists that is propounded nowadays, is it? Yet Wittgenstein was probably one of the truest materialists that ever lived, besides being an utter genius (Bertrand Russell once described Wittgenstein as “the most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived – passionate, profound, intense, and dominating”).
The main reason why materialism gets such bad press is because of the people who use the word – it’s almost always used by spiritualists who use the excesses of what is more accurately described as ‘consumerism’ to spread their worldview. To them, there is no difference between a materialist and a participant in the modern consumer culture they so despise. This is rather convenient, of course, since they can use the widespread disillusionment with consumerism to enlist more adherents to their way of life. Yet in truth there is nothing in the materialist worldview that inherently drives one to seek purely personal enrichment, just as there is nothing in the spiritual worldview that guards against that. Nor is materialism passion-less – Wittgenstein, for instance, chose philosophy as his vocation (he could’ve easily taken to almost any other subject) because to him it was “the only work that gives me real satisfaction.” If that doesn’t sound like passion, then I don’t know what is.
It probably wouldn’t be a good thing if the entire world turned to materialism. The belief in something ‘beyond’ the universe we know has inspired much of mankind’s greatest works. But rest assured that materialism is certainly not the source of mankind’s current vices and moral depredations either. For that, some of its opponents may do well to simply look in a mirror…