43 Consumption: On Sumptuary Laws

Writing Montaigne’s essays in order, once a day, leads to happy coincidences from time to time. Today, for instance, I come to Montaigne’s essay about sumptuary laws on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines sumptuary laws as “any law designed to restrict excessive personal expenditures in the interest of preventing extravagance and luxury. The term denotes regulations restricting extravagance in food, drink, dress, and household equipment, usually on religious or moral grounds. Such laws have proved difficult or impossible to enforce over the long term.”

Montaigne, as you might expect, wasn’t terribly fond of these laws. As noted in a previous essay, he believed that social change should be brought about by custom, not law. He stays true to that principle here:

The way our laws make an assay at limiting insane and inane expenditure on table and clothing seems to run contrary to their end. The right way would be to engender in men a contempt for gold and silk as things vain and useless: we increase their honor and esteem, which is a most inappropriate way of putting people off them.

It is wonderful how quickly and easily custom plants her authoritative foothold in matters so indifferent…. Let our kings start giving up spending money on such things and it would be all over in a month, without edict or ordinance: we will all follow suit.

Today, no politician would think of passing laws to limit consumption – our economy depends on people spending more than they can afford. I can’t take the moral high ground on this either – a year ago I was dutifully at the Apple Store on day one, eager to buy the new iPad. I’m relieved that the iPad 2 doesn’t seem like enough of an upgrade to force me to buy again … but I’m sure the consumer itch will return by the time the iPad 3 comes out.

I’ve found the iPad to be an extremely useful little toy, but given that I already owned an Amazon Kindle and an iPhone, it’s one I could have done without. So why do I feel this drive – more like a physical need – to own a shining new toy like an iPad?

In his 1976 book “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind,” Julian Jaynes speculated that until sometime around when the Iliad and the Odyssey were written, humans had no consciousness as we know it today. Their actions were driven by auditory hallucinations – “the voices of gods.” Jaynes believed that humans had no understanding that thoughts were interior actions – that the gods in The Iliad were not representation, but the literal description of what humans heard heads while these events were taking place, as written down by “Homer,” whoever he, she or they may have been.

It’s not an entirely convincing argument, but an adaptation of the idea, where consciousness shifted radically after the proliferation of the written word, seems plausible to me. But if this is the case – if the evolution of consciousness is this new — you might suspect that human susceptibility to suggestion is still hard wired into us.

Maybe we no longer think that gods are whispering in our ears, telling us what to do, but we come to trust certain people and institutions to the point that they become near-gods to us. We are more likely to buy a book that Amazon.com recommends to us, because their algorithm has worked in the past, leading us towards books we enjoyed. We’ll listen to Apple when Steve Jobs calls a product “magical,” because we remember what it was like when we first owned a new iPhone.

The gods of Homer were semi-human, they walked the earth with the mortals. So too do the semi-humans of our era, corporations that have been defined by the Supreme Court as “people” and entitled to the same rights. I’ll refrain from a judgment here about whether that status is a good or bad thing. But I do believe it tells us something important about contemporary American life. There are a multitude of voices speaking to us every day. Regardless of our religious beliefs, we elevate people, organizations and corporations – even fictional characters – to the level of gods. We are highly susceptible to their suggestions.

It makes sense that, from time to time, people and cultures need to have garage sales. We need to sell off the junk that we don’t need – and on an intellectual or metaphysical level, free ourselves of influences that weigh us down or have become destructive. So while Montaigne’s views about cutting back on consumption seem out of place in contemporary America, his ideas about learning to live with less are quite timely.

My wife once joked that the most effective abstinence education program for teenagers would be to run public service advertisements featuring Wilfred Brimley and Bea Arthur extolling the joy of sex. Montaigne might have agreed with that strategy, and here he promotes a similar course for using public shame and embarrassment to change public attitudes:

Zeleucus reformed the debauched customs of the Locrians as follows: ‘That no free-born woman be attended by more than one chambermaid, except when she be drunk; That no woman leave the city by night or wear any golden jewelry about her person nor any richly embroidered dress, unless she be a public prostitute; That except for such as live on immoral earnings, no man shall wear gold rings on his fingers nor any elegant robes such as those tailored from cloth woven in Miletus.’ Thus, with those shaming exceptions, he cleverly diverted the inhabitants of his city away from pernicious superfluities and luxuries. That was a most useful way to bring men to obedience by honor and ambition.

If America ever were to stand on the edge of a trade war with other nations, we could perhaps circumvent international trade laws and governing bodies by following a similar course. Just as hip companies such as Apple do everything possible to have their products placed in popular movies and television shows, our government could conspire to have certain foreign produced goods seen in the hands of the most unhip and despised people in our culture.

A shot of O.J. Simpson driving a Mercedes could neutralize a year’s worth of advertising. Then again, if Mercedes could survive the Nazi era, they could very well be publicity proof. The fact that Tony Soprano drives a Cadillac Escalade has done nothing but bolster the $80,000 SUV’s image.

I recently saw that Chipotle Mexican restaurants now sell Patron margaritas on their menu. That might be more along the lines of a cultural shift that might work – once a product starts reaching the middle class masses and is no longer the choice of gansta rappers, it assumes a different voice. When a chain restaurant’s voice replaces than of 50 Cent, it’s time for the douchebag to find a new favorite drink.

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