Heaven Hath Limits

XIR3675 Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, c.1555 (oil on canvas) by Bruegel, Pieter the Elder (c.1525-69); 73.5x112 cm; Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, Belgium; (add.info.: Icarus seen with his legs thrashing in the sea;); Giraudon; Flemish, out of copyright

The Prior of the Upstate New York Abbey where I work often describes his cloistered life by using the phrase “living within a sonnet.” A poet himself, he’s naturally attuned to the freedom and abundance found within limits or, to quote Wordsworth, “[w]ithin the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground.” Like the ends claimed by proponents of ordered liberty, true freedom here at the Abbey is not to be confused with limitless license, (which is the mask of freedom). No. In that direction lies shapelessness, perpetual adolescence and, to paraphrase St. Augustine, a crowd of slaves with as many masters as vices. True freedom, instead, is nurtured precisely within a culture of limits.

A society without limits has allure, of course, because it offers a glittering variety of experiences, but what gets lost in that variety is the rich diversity and color also found within the depth of experience which, like most all good things, is an acquired taste. Is your husband or wife the same person you married? Well, yes AND no, (I hope that’s your answer!), and therein lies the adventure: diversity within continuity is what constitutes, in a healthy culture like the monastery, (or one that supports life-long marriage), a veritable petri dish of maturity. What gets nurtured in a diseased culture, obsessed with only variety, however, is what novelist Stephen Vizinczey calls an “episodic sensibility.” Taken from the medium of TV sitcoms, it’s a sensibility that prizes novelty for novelty’s sake with only the merest thread of continuity. And the result of this? Stagnant juvenescence.

How, then, did the idea of limits get such a bad rap? Well, the great virtue of Giorgos Kallis’s fine book, Limits: Why Malthus Was Wrong and Why Environmentalists Should Care is in pointing this out by showing how the idea of limits got conflated with the spectral notion of “scarcity” and in revealing a host of problems which followed from that unholy union, a forced marriage whose presiding minister was none other than Parson Thomas Malthus! Malthus, in popular history, is most famous for his 1798 essay, Principles of Population, which was the work that put forth the idea that the food supply, which increases arithmetically, is condemned to lag behind population, which increases geometrically, or that subsistence cannot keep up with population. In the Neo-Malthusian parlance in which most of us first encounter this particular scientistic watchcry in our state-sponsored social studies or ecology classes, it comes across as “Cap your breeding or you’ll shoot your corporate eye out!”

Kallis, however, a proponent of the “degrowth” movement, points out that, in actuality, Malthus never believed in or preached a call for capping population. Instead, he invoked the specter of scarcity to call for growth! His vocation, in fact, was not that of a pseudo-religious prophet of impending crisis, but as a scientist explaining why there had not been a crisis already. Industry and growth and, in fact, a growing population, (Malthus was no fan of birth control), had been needed and would continue to be needed to stave off the looming threat of scarcity! A summons to greater and greater industry, and not population control, was the intended lesson of his science. Industry must keep expanding more and more and more, and one corollary, of course, was that, if the poor, (like those commoners who were forced off their land in the Enclosure Movement and were now working in factories receiving a wage dictated not by justice but by the science of the “iron law”), were to receive aid as some were proposing at the time, this would of course be deleterious as–horror of horrors!–their incentive to industry might be curtailed. Malthus knew that threat of starvation focuses the mind and body on industry.

There is an important lesson embedded here that Kallis illuminates but, in my opinion, does not make explicit enough: Namely, that it was the scientist in Malthus that was more effective and, in fact, more religious than the parson in him. It is said that Malthus held the first term in the first established chair in “political economy” in the British Isles, and this is important historical symbolism. The medium is the message, as Marshall McLuhan pointed out, and it’s been a long time since the medium of pulpit oratory evoked even a smidgen of the awe that the pronouncements of science induce. Think of the mission of Greta Thurnberg. It began, for her, in religious terror, and it’s spread in the language of religious terror but it’s actually, or so we are told, cold hard science. But, as was said of Jemima Wilkenson, (d. 1819), the “Publik Universal Friend” and one of the female messiahs of Upstate New York, “She do preach up terror alarmingly!”

We can look upon political economy as the study of how Mammon and Leviathan work together and acquire power. Chairs and departments in “political economy” flourished for a time on many different campuses after the time of Malthus. They served, variously I suppose, students trying to understand the machinations of power so as to help fight it or, for others, a plan to acquire and keep it. On my small campus there is a Political Science major in one department and an Economics minor in the business school. This is the norm now on most campuses. As far as the study of the big capital and money working in concert, the curriculum seems to say “nothing to see here.” A quick Google search shows that very few schools have departments of Political Economy anymore. Is the fact that the study was found wanting in insights and discoveries? Or that it was a study only for the few? Princeton and Georgetown have departments, however, so it’s at least in good hands. And custodians of those departments dutifully roll out scientific nostrums such that aid to the poor hurts growth; scarcity is real and so there is not enough for everybody; sharing is an idea best left for kindergartens; money, when it’s in banks, breeds like rabbits; usury and rent-seeking are noble and productive endeavors; unlimited immigration does not drive down wages, etc. These pronouncements are the fuel of empire and drive the military-industrial-scientific complex.

Same as it ever was.

Anyhow, in sum, Kallis makes clear that what I think Eric Voegelin would have called an “intellectual swindle,” (where doxa puts itself forth as science, resulting in ideology) was propagated by Malthusians, both old and “neo,” when they used the supposed population science to teach us to see and believe that, instead of a world of abundance in which we should practice limits, we should see a world of scarcity where we must frenetically work for unlimited growth. Let me repeat: Kallis suggests, (and he invokes many of the Romantics of the time who saw this with clarity), that we have been schooled to lose our perception of abundance and our God-given natural intuition of limits, and this gets replaced by a taught vision of scarcity that turns us into neo-barbarians, all in a Hobbsean war of all against all. As I was reading of these developments and the Romantics’ critique, I heard as a soundtrack in the back of my mind the lyrics from South Pacific, regarding racism, but perfectly applicable to this: “you’ve got to be taught to hate and fear / You have to be taught from year to year / It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear / you’ve got to be carefully taught.” As Blake said, ‘the altering eye alters all’ and our eyes have been altered, Kallis suggests, and not for the better. And political economists like Marcel Mauss and Karl Polayni, who developed their insights from the concrete everyday lives of regular people, and not from an impersonal theory concocted in the disembodied mind, would agree. So would Ivan Illich, (no stranger to degrowthers), as well as Michael Martin and Guido Preparata.

Herein, incidentally, lies the singular beauty of Illich’s critique of compulsory schooling as part of his life-long history of the idea of scarcity. If we again keep in mind McLuhan’s seminal insight about the medium being the message, we get to see that not only the content, (handed down, one might suppose, by the political economists from Georgetown and Princeton), but also, and more importantly, the medium of schooling itself alters our perception towards a vision of the world where are all competitors, and we are emphatically not our brother’s keeper. Schooling, he pointed out, is learning under the assumption of scarcity, confined, as it is, to square rooms under LED lighting with people your own age sitting in front of a person who’s only qualification we can be sure of (intelligence or knowledge of subject matter may or may not be part of the package!), is that they’ve been in this strange environment longer than you. It, the medium of schooling (almost always indoors as recess time vanishes), specifically instructs students NOT to see the lessons of the ‘lilies of the field’ and the ‘birds of the air’: that learning is everywhere! Here is Kallis, (bringing in Wendell Berry’s essay “Hell Hath No Limits”), musing on institutions and teaching that would not train us to this fallen vision of scarcity-which-demands-limitless-growth but, instead, one of abundance combined with limits:

The forest remains abundant, for the assumption that it is abundant comes with institutions and social relations that do not spur conquest and depletion. Western loggers and conservationists, instead, arrive in Northern Congo conceiving of the forest as a scarce resource. Loggers, Lewis reports, want control of precious trees; conservationists, of rare animals. Both see the Yaka as an obstacle and keep them out of the forest. “The perception of scarcity is the ideological bedrock of both these activities, and a driving force in the enclosure, industrialization, and capitalization of [the forest].” As Wendell Berry puts it, “the life of this world is small to those who think it is, and the desire to enlarge it makes it smaller, and can reduce it finally to nothing.”

But he, Kallis, knows the challenges this understanding of created abundance faces because of indoctrination: “Malthus’s frame is so ingrained in our minds that it seems paradoxical that we would limit ourselves if nature were bountiful. Shouldn’t we see that nature is scarce so as to conserve it?” Hence he writes,

The ideological work going on here is evident in the fact that most of us take for granted and reproduce absurd ideas such as the notion that the atmosphere—the sky, that is—is “a sink”(!), a metaphor whose only function is to frame the problem of pollution in the Malthusian terms of scarcity that economists are comfortable with.

First, we need more books that use the great phrase, “the ideological work going on here” as one could define the proper understanding of education precisely as being freed from ideology (one reason to separate it entirely from the State). And second, this is spot on. Kallis sees this Malthusian ideology as having as comfortable a seat in the halls of international climate science as it does in the schools of political economy, and he demonstrates, sadly, how “Malthus’s frame” and the “ideological work” have colonized most of what goes by the name “environmentalism.”

Of course, no study of limits would be complete without an analysis of the unique role of money, and Kallis uses Greek Philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis and British Classicist Richard Seaford (both worth reading at greater length), for an exploration of the role of limits in ancient Greek society, especially as it dealt with the phenomenon of coinage. He quotes Seaford as claiming that “both tragedy and democracy were instituted around 510 BCE, a generation or so after coinage began to be used in Athens. Athenian democracy was to an extent founded as a response to the problems created by the unlimited growth of money.” He also cites Aristophanes who, in his comedy Wealth, noted that desires for sex, bread, music, and honor could be satiated but, with regards to money, portrays a character who has procured 16 talents but “swears that life [will be] unbearable until he obtains 40.” This insanity is timeless as non-perishable money and the phenomenon of usury which it spawns are real problems, which is why Silvio Gesell and Rudolf Steiner will be mandatory reading as we continue, piecemeal, into Spengler’s “Decline of the West.” I suggest to Prof. Kallis that a great follow-up study to Aristophanes would be the much later work of Leon Bloy who, in his Exégèse des Lieux Communs (Exegesis of Commonplaces) showed how virtually all western languages were subtly co-opted by Mammon to bury the lunacy which the limitlessness nature of money produces under pedestrian nuggets of wisdom such as, “I don’t like money; I just like what it can buy,” “Business is business” and many others. The book is apocalyptic, in the sense that it “unveils”.

Finally, and like a 21st century Lasch, Kallis undertakes something of a phenomenology and anthropology of limits, which is an enjoyable and eminently humane ride. A culture of limits, he shows, does not imply the cessation of all exploration, but through the ancient Greek understanding of phronesis (central also to Lasch’s brilliant analysis in The Minimal Self), Kallis shows us what life is like lived not in the embrace of ideology, but as it exists in reality and, therefore, in contradiction, which is to say, in maturity:

Moderation does not have to mean the negation of life and the suppression of desire in expectation of a future return, a Protestant ethic, that is, at the heart of accumulation and expansion; it can be a practice of reflecting on, mastering, and living with our contradictions, as we learned from the Greeks and as the psychoanalysts remind us.

Being Greek himself, he uses his countryman Zorba as an example of a mature, “contradictory” blend of moderation with periods of exuberant laughter and excess. This phronetic activity is the opposite of capitalism’s frenetic activity. Instead of destructive teenage logoi gleaned from places like Star Trek (“where no man has gone before”) and Toy Story, (“to infinity and beyond”), we get this wise, humane truth: “Temporary transgression of a fixed frontier is not the same as capitalism’s imaginary of the permanent transgression of a constantly expanding frontier. An adventure that is constant is no adventure.” [italics mine]

Kallis, I should mention, has a more sanguine view of birth control and free love, and a less central role for Christ and his Church than yours truly, but, with insights like the foregoing, it seems best to discuss those at a later time. Besides, it might have something to do with my Hun-Celtic temperament misunderstanding his Mediterranean sensibilities, of which I’m a bit jealous. Things like this are best discussed face-to-face, and in places like a Front Porch. It’s not uncommon that people who play with the light as dexterously as Prof. Kallis does get joyously burned by the Source of that Light. And it’s not totally crazy to see the Church in something of a negative light these days. I daresay right now—judging from the public pronouncements of the Church, most of which seem, at least in part, to cede territory to the regnant ideologies—we may need his insights more than he needs ours!


  1. I feel as though I was just invited to a large Thanksgiving table loaded with delectable-looking dishes, given the number of fascinating references for followup here. Delicious!

  2. The metaphor of the sonnet is apt and seems to be lost on people. The beauty of a sonnet is not in its words alone, but also in the defined structure. I don’t see a sonnet being limited by its structure, I see a sonnet being beautifully itself precisely because of its structure.

    • The person writing the sonnet chooses to use that form; there is no Department of Poetry or paterfamilias forcing the writer to use only sonnets. When speaking of limits to human behavior in general, there has to be a person forcing those limits on other people. Who makes those decisions? Who enforces them?

          • Olivia says that Nature places limits upon all of us.

            Karen ought to reply:

            “Very good — I agree! Nature places absolute limitations upon the legitimate authority that each human being may exercise over his fellow human beings. We must not ignore those limits in our desire to bring about our desired culture of limits.”

          • Does Nature make decisions about who gets to go to school and who stays home to cater to parents’ whims? Does Nature demand that wives quit their jobs when they get married or that wives be assigned all the crap jobs at home while husbands collect all the money?

            Power is a real thing in the world. Humans who have power keep it and always use it to oppress and mistreat those who have none. Does Nature assign Power only to wealthy white males? If so, why?

          • “Does Nature demand that wives quit their jobs when they get married or that wives be assigned all the crap jobs at home while husbands collect all the money?”

            Let this be a lesson to us all: never put feminism and consumerism in a shaker, as the result ain’t pretty. The last thing the world needs is a combination of Cosmopolitan and The Robb Report.

          • I don’t object to many of the objectives of early feminism, but I do object to what it’s become under the Sexual Revolution and consumerist capitalism. It would take too long to delineate all the particulars, but I believe that it has sold women a bill of goods which has largely served to enable the predatory male, both sexual and economic.

  3. So, most of us receive a fallacious view of Malthus in our schooling, according to which he is making a call for curbing population growth. But “in actuality, Malthus never believed in or preached a call for capping population. Instead, he invoked the specter of scarcity to call for growth!”

    How, then, can it possibly be that:

    “Malthus’s frame is so ingrained in our minds that it seems paradoxical that we would limit ourselves if nature were bountiful.”

    Either Malthus’s “frame” is fallaciously understood by most of us, due to our “state-sponsored” schooling, or an accurate understanding of it is deeply ingrained in our minds. And how can this “frame” be both erroneously taught by the “state-sponsored schools,” and be the vice that’s fueling the military-industrial-scientific complex?

    I think that this essay is confused. Or maybe it’s just confusing, to me, and the fault is my own. But for the moment, I don’t buy that Malthus is the mind behind the cult of limitless growth.

  4. Several comments come to mind:
    1. Malthus gets invoked a lot for a wide range of arguments, and may or may not have made the specific arguments often attributed to him. I don’t mean to quibble with the version presented here. But for many the “Malthusian” race between population and resources is a real one–we see it playing out across the world on a daily basis, and it’s getting more critical for large portions of the human population–and will continue to become more acute as global warming takes its inevitable toll on resources. And in this sense, Malthus only needs to be right once, as David Rieff has reminded us.
    2. Berry has sensible things to say about limits, as readers of FPR are well aware. Getting the concept into broader societal discourse is critical. And that begins with resource limits (or “nature,” to use an apparently controversial term. We are in the process of crossing many of the boundary conditions that have sustained the biosphere in a state supportive of human development for the past 10,000 years. New limits will emerge–ocean acidification, for example, will have significant knock-on effects on terrestrial agriculture. Pretending this isn’t happening is not only nonsense, it’s dangerous.
    3. True terror is looking over the course offerings of the Princeton or Georgetown economics department. It explains a lot about why the meritocracy regards anyone speaking about limits as someone from Mars.

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