Friday, 1 February 2013

Part XXV - Devotional Fitness

This is part of a series discussing The Theory of the Leisure Class,  by Thorstein Veblen.  His sixth chapter is titled Pecuniary Canons of Taste.

In my last post, I told you that Veblen believed that society's views about an appropriate and desirable standard of living  were not just about money, but influenced attitudes in all manner of ways, including

'...the sense of duty, the sense of beauty, the sense of utility, the sense of devotional or ritualistic fitness, and the scientific sense of truth’.  

You may recall that employment by the church was amongst the acceptable occupations for the leisure class and he discusses this more fully in a later chapter.  In chapter six he addresses a slightly different aspect of religious practises.  

The consumption of sacred edifices, vestments and similar, are in large part illustrative of the canon of conspicuous waste.  The splendour of a house of worship has an uplifting effect on the worshipper’s frame of mind.  In contrast, Veblen points out the embarrassment people feel about any shabbiness or squalor of a place of worship.  Even in poorer neighbourhoods, he holds, the house of worship is more ornate in architecture and ornamentation than the homes of the congregation.  He says this is true in nearly all denominations and cults, but particularly in the older religions.   However little if any of the splendour is provided for the sake of improving the comfort of the congregation and everyone seems to feel this austerity is proper.
"Devout consumption is of the nature of vicarious consumption.  This canon of devout austerity is based on the pecuniary reputatbility of conspicuously wasteful consumption, backed by the principle that vicarious consumption should conspicuously not conduce to the comfort of the vicarious consumer."

This strange paragraph goes back to the idea that the wives and servants of the master are well-dressed and appear to have leisure, but they are dressed to reflect well upon their master and their leisure is in fact hanging about waiting until they can serve him.  
"...the end of vicarious consumption is to enhance, not the fullness of life of the consumer, but the pecuniary repute of the master for whose behoof the consumption takes place."

Here he draws conclusions about the expectations placed on the objects and places involved in devout observances, also the way in which church officiators dress.  I think we all are generally aware that there are great differences in the highly decorative decor of some Catholic churches and the painfully austere interiors of some Protestant churches. My own experience is limited to those faiths, so I can't comment on synagogues, mosques or other places of worship.   My reading of English social history informs me about some of the doctrinal background of the Christian religion and how it might influence church decor, but Veblen comes up with another rationale.

He says that in ceremonies where the deity (he supposedly speaks about all religions and cults) is presumed to be present, the religious artifacts and priestly vestments will be richly ornamental, but where the religious official takes more of the role of a consort, these will be very much plainer.  I wasn't sure how to follow this logic.  After discussing it with Bill I looked up the term 'transubstantiation'. Apparently this term explains the (or a) difference between Catholic Eucharist and Protestant Communion.  I love social history, but theological debate bores me rigid, so I doubt I'll ever really take it all on board.  It apparently comes down to whether one thinks one is truly eating the body and blood of Christ or if it is only a representation.  I've yet to visit a Church of England, but after looking at interiors on the internet, I guessed correctly that they reject the idea of transubstantiation. 

Veblen says that priestly demeanor at its best is aloof, leisurely, perfunctory and without any suggestion of sensual pleasure.  Aloof, because of the seriousness of their function.  Leisurely, to fullfil the requirement of vicarious leisure; we generally prefer our religious leaders to have only this one role, not to be a car salesman or an accountant on the side.   Veblen also says it is human nature to imagine the characteristics of the deity and to make these the characteristics of the ideal man, also those of the religious official.  So, according to Veblen, the deity, the priest and the ideal man all share the characteristics of being serene and leisurely.  He doesn't address the issue of sensual pleasure any further...

Veblen says all rituals tend to become perfunctory, particularly in the 'maturer cults' and this is fitting because it acknowledges that the deity actually has no need of truly proficuous (useful) service from his servants.  They are 'unprofitable' servants and it does honour to the deity for them to be unprofitable.  In this, Veblen draws an analogy between the office of the priest / minister and that of footmen, for they are both demonstrators of vicarious leisure.

Thus does Veblen put forth his argument that the pecuniary canons of taste influence about religious devotions.


Beryl said...

It is convenient that there is a necessity of leisure for a priest since this will guarantee his availability when one of his congregation needs him.
One of my favorite sewing projects was a wonderfully ornate chasubles (cape-like robe) for a local priest, which he wore on special occasions. So if you only went the few special days if the year, you would think the clergy's outfits excessive. The rest of the time, he wore things that would be dull even for cheap tablecloths. But my brother (of Lutheran denomination) wears the same robes all the time.

Shelley said...

One of the sewing ladies, Nora, spent a lot of time sewing for Father this or that at her church, if not making banners or other sorts of decorations for her church. I think it gave her a lot of satisfaction. I confess (ha) that when I have attended church, the minister / priest is the last place I look. I'm more likely taken in with the seat and whatever items are in front of me, then the hats / clothes of the people in my vicinity, then the stained glass, statues, etc. If what is being said holds my attention, my sight tends to be turned inward while I listen. In fact, that seems to me to be the point of attendance, to go to a place where thoughts can be turned inward.

Susan Partlan said...

Veblen is starting to sound like a crack pot. I don't buy any of what he says about church vestments and ornamentation, although I do agree that these play an important role in liturgy.

Rituals do not all tend to become perfunctory! In my experience as a long time choir member of my Episcopal church (inherited from the Church of England) participating in weekly liturgy, ritual becomes more, not less, moving over time. It is meditative and peaceful and beautiful. The repetitive aspects of it are comforting to me in marking the cycle of seasons and of life.

Shelley said...

Susan - There is no doubt he has some real crackpot ideas! I think what passed for 'science' or 'research' back in Victorian times is much different to now. And the title of his book is 'Theory' so it's all really just his opinion. One of his difficulties, I think, is having formed his 'theory' he needs to show how it applies widely to society in order for it to be meaningful. I formed the vague idea that Veblen wasn't particularly religious, not just from reading this but from his later chapter about the clergy.