The contemporary climate is therapeutic, not religious. People today hunger not for personal salvation, let alone for the restoration of an earlier golden age, but for the feeling, the momentary illusion, of personal well-being, health, and psychic security. - Christopher Lasch "The Culture of Narcissism"
“We live in a society whose whole policy is to excite every nerve in the human body and keep it at the highest pitch of artificial tension, to strain every human desire to the limit and to create as many new desires and synthetic passions as possible, in order to cater to them with the products of our factories and printing presses and movie studios and all the rest.”
― Thomas Merton "The Seven Storey Mountain"
The work of Christopher Lasch and Thomas Merton can be analyzed through the lens of materialist thought and critical theory, as their critiques of modernity and consumer capitalism share similarities with the Frankfurt School's approach. Lasch's work, "The Culture of Narcissism," critiques modern society, arguing that consumer capitalism has led to a culture of self-absorption and individualism. Similarly, Merton's rejection of consumerism and individualism in favor of communal life and spiritual discipline in "The Seven Storey Mountain" can be seen as a response to the alienation and disconnection that Lasch argues are products of modernity. Merton's rejection of modern society and embrace of monastic life is a way of resisting the dominant culture and seeking an alternative path.
The Frankfurt School's critical theory is also relevant to this discussion. The School is interested in the critique of modernity and capitalist society. Critical theorists use "immanent critique", a method of description and evaluation that judges social institutions by their own internal values and self-espoused ideological claims . Merton's critique of modern society can be seen as a form of immanent critique, as he is evaluating the dominant culture based on its own values and claims. The similarities between Merton's critique and the Frankfurt School's approach suggest that analyzing Merton's journey through the lens of critical theory can provide a deeper understanding of the ways in which modern society shapes our beliefs and values.
In his book "The Culture of Narcissism," Lasch argues that modern society has produced a culture of self-absorption and individualism that undermines traditional values and social cohesion. He contends that this culture is a product of the rise of consumer capitalism, which encourages people to view themselves as consumers rather than citizens. This emphasis on individualism and consumerism, according to Lasch, has led to a decline in civic engagement, social trust, and a sense of community.
Thomas Merton's "The Seven Storey Mountain" is a memoir that recounts his spiritual journey from a life of worldly pursuits to a life of contemplation and devotion as a Trappist monk. The book is often analyzed as a critique of modernity and consumer culture, and it resonates with Lasch's critique of the culture of narcissism.
Merton's journey can be seen as a rejection of the individualism and consumerism that Lasch identifies as central features of modern society. Merton's decision to become a monk is a rejection of secular values and a commitment to a life of spiritual discipline and community. This rejection of worldly pursuits and the embrace of a communal way of life can be seen as a response to the alienation and disconnection that Lasch argues are products of modernity.
Critics have also noted the similarities between Merton's critique of modernity and the Frankfurt School's critical theory. The Frankfurt School, a group of Marxist philosophers and social theorists, developed a critique of modern society that emphasized the role of mass culture and the media in shaping public opinion and promoting conformity. Like Lasch, the Frankfurt School argued that modern society produces a culture of false consciousness that undermines critical thinking and social engagement.
Merton's critique of modernity can be seen as a precursor to the Frankfurt School's critique of mass culture. Merton's rejection of consumerism and individualism can be seen as a rejection of the false consciousness that mass culture promotes. His embrace of communal life and spiritual discipline can be seen as a response to the alienation and disconnection that mass culture produces. Only through reflection's spirituality and collectivized incentive, does desire reassert itself as something found satisfied in the collective of society, another human, whatever form outside the self:
“I was not sure where I was going, and I could not see what I would do when I got [there]. But you saw further and clearer than I, and you opened the seas before my ship, whose track led me across the waters to a place I had never dreamed of, and which you were even then preparing to be my rescue and my shelter and my home.”
Particularly relevant to Merton's work is the concept of false consciousness from Critical Theory; referring to the ways in which dominant ideologies and power structures shape our beliefs and values, often without our awareness. Merton's rejection of consumerism and individualism can be seen as a response to this phenomenon rejecting the dominant cultural values of modern society, he is attempting to free himself and others from false consciousness and offer an alternative vision of how to live a meaningful life. This leads us to the concept of immanent critiquem, the practice of criticizing society from within, rather than from an external or oppositional stance. Merton's journey can be seen as an example of immanent critique, as he was a member of modern society who became disillusioned with its values and sought an alternative path. By rejecting consumer capitalism and embracing communal life and spiritual discipline, Merton is engaging in immanent critique and offering a vision of how society could be different.
Overall, Critical Theory offers a useful framework for analyzing Thomas Merton's work and understanding the ways in which modern society shapes our beliefs and values. By exposing the hidden power structures and ideologies that underlie our culture, Merton's critique of modernity offers a path towards greater awareness and a more meaningful life; the signifiers of modernity, the role of knowledge, being not substitutes for experiencing the material rigors of society as a true source of wisdom:
“How deluded we sometimes are by the clear notions we get out of books. They make us think that we really understand things of which we have no practical knowledge at all.”
But perhaps it is through Lasch that we might the conceptual links of Critical Theory to Merton's rejection of nascent postmodernism our path back to today from Merton to a collectively incentivized modernity with awareness of the condition:
“The world does not exist merely to satisfy our own desires; it is a world in which we can find pleasure and meaning, once we understand that others too have a right to these goods.”
Lasch's critique of modernity shares many similarities with the Frankfurt School's approach, particularly in its emphasis on the ways in which modern society leads to a sense of alienation and disconnection. Lasch argued that modern society is characterized by a culture of narcissism, in which individuals are preoccupied with their own needs and desires and are unable to connect with others or form meaningful relationships. This critique of modernity resonates with the Frankfurt School's analysis of the culture industry, which argues that modern society is characterized by a mass-produced and commodified culture that promotes conformity and undermines individuality, and so too do Lasch and Merton offer important critiques of modern society and consumer capitalism, rejecting the nascent postmodern condition each in their time and the trajectories of same in each validated respectively by the other's assessment and vantage; their ideas can be analyzed through the lens of materialist thought and critical theory. By examining the ways in which modern society shapes our beliefs and values, we can gain a greater awareness of the forces that influence our lives and make more meaningful choices.
The role of the individual, as Merton sees it, is to, yes, nurture the soul, but that this comes through seeing beyond oneself, in a more just society: “The soul of man, left to its own natural level, is a potentially lucid crystal left in darkness. It is perfect in its own nature, but it lacks something that it can only receive from outside and above itself. But when the light shines in it, it becomes in a manner transformed into light and seems to lose its nature in the splendor of a higher nature, the nature of the light that is in it.”