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What does Aquinas say about “retail therapy”?


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Fr Robert McTeigue, SJ - published on 08/14/19

First in a series of reconsiderations of the 7 deadly sins.

Ever seen these bumper stickers?

Shop Till You Drop!Whoever Dies With The Most Toys Wins!I’m Spending My Children’s Inheritance Right Now!My Other Car Is A Porsche!

And perhaps the saddest of all:

My Other Car Went Up My Nose! (Popular during the cocaine-addled 1980s.)

What would St. Thomas Aquinas say about these banners in favor of conspicuous consumption? Some may call this malady “consumerism”; I prefer John Horvat’s well-crafted “frenetic intemperance.” With a little imagination, some references to Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae and a nod of thanks to Timothy Gordon’s Catholic Republic, I think we can understand our culture’s money madness well in light of Aquinas’ analysis of the capital sin of gluttony.

Some may call this malady “consumerism”; I prefer John Horvat’s well-crafted “frenetic intemperance.”

Aquinas discusses five dimensions of gluttony:

  1. Ardentertoo eagerly: My mother used to say, “That money is burning a hole in your pocket!” We rush to the marketplace as if the best or only goods can be found there. Nothing that we can buy can last; nothing that we buy will satisfy our souls—so what’s the hurry?
  2. Praepropere—too soon (the first form of profligacy): This is the seductive illusion of “Buy now—pay later!” This is the credit card trap—using the magical plastic to buy now what you can’t afford later. As Tom Waits sang: “The large print giveth—and the small print taketh away.”
  3. Laute—too expensively (the second form of profligacy): This is a form of waste. One has not gone into debt, but one has spent too much in relation to other obligations. For such a habitual consumer of the sumptuous, “good enough” can never be good enough.
  4. Nimis—too much of the time (the third from of profligacy): This is “retail therapy” or shopping-as-a-hobby. Here one is consumed with (and by) consuming. Let’s not forget the bumper sticker: I Shop—Therefore I Am!
  5. Studiose—consuming too daintily: It’s all about the label! The logo as status symbol; the branding as a measure of our worth. When one’s identity and one’s worth are not rooted in the spiritual, a sense of belonging and covenant is lacking. Consequently, there arises a strategy (sometimes a conscious strategy, sometimes not) to adorn ourselves with the tokens of a highly-regarded, highly-coveted brand. We don’t offer ourselves, because we don’t value ourselves; we don’t point to our creator by whom we were “fearfully, wonderfully made” (Psalm 139). Instead we become advertisements for what is neither human nor divine. How foolish to link our worth to what cannot last.

Aquinas’ language may be unfamiliar; this adaption of it here is rather novel—but what the language points to, we in the West are all too familiar with, even if we are not guilty of it ourselves. Want proof? You can dial 1-800-GOT-JUNK to have your junk removed. You can hire a “closet consultant” to advise you on re-arranging your closet to make room for even more stuff. You can buy the books, watch the videos, and enroll in classes from Marie Kondo, now renowned for advocating for the “life-changing magic of tidying up.” As a member of her “movement,” you can let her lead you to “tidy your space, transform your life.” If you’re still not sure of how dysfunctional frenetic consumption can be, watch a few episodes of Hoarders.

Boxed Items

Read more:
St. Ignatius’ rules for decluttering your home

Are these not signs that we are in a grip of a mania? Are these not indicators that we are desperately unhappy and don’t know why? What hunger are we trying to feed? How deep is the emptiness we are trying to fill?

God speaks through the prophet Isaiah: “Why spend your money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and let your soul delight itself in rich food” (Isaiah 55:2). That’s the key, isn’t it? We’ve built up an economy, a culture, and a mania on consuming material goods to satisfy spiritual hungers. That will never work. Recall the punchline to the old joke about asking directions in Ireland: “First of all, you should know that you can’t get there from here.”

What to do? Well, we can talk about wants versus needs, etc—that’s not bad, but it’s not enough. That only addresses the material dimension. We need a proper sense of priorities. Philosopher Kierkegaard said, “What’s relative must be dealt with relatively; what’s absolute must be dealt with absolutely.” The only absolute is God. We have to clear the altar of our hearts to find the one and only beloved worthy of worship, the one and only good who can satisfy our hearts in this life and complete our lives in the next.

When I write next, I will continue our series of reflections on a renewed look at the seven deadly sins. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.

Read more:
Pope Francis and the Satanism of Greed

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