Wednesday 28 January 2009

the pursuit of consumer goods

Current environmental arguments about consumerism, the good life, and plain living, have their origins in 17th and 18th century disputes.

This seems evident from a new book by the acclaimed Oxford historian Keith Thomas (left), author of two classics, Religion and the Decline of Magic and Man and the Natural World.

His latest The Ends of Life is subtitled 'Roads to Fulfilment in Early Modern England'. An extract from the chapter on 'taste' appears in the current History Today (hat-tip: A&L).

The online essay tracks the birth of the consumer society and the new appetite for shopping and household possessions. This led in turn to a backlash against 'immoderate purchasing' and the 'inordinate and unsatiable desire of having'.

Some felt luxury was effeminate and sapped the martial spirit. These critics harked back to a time of primitive simplicity. But others argued that consumption was the object of the economic process. Thomas writes,

'the values of civility, respectability, refinement and politeness were invoked to legitimise the unceasing acquisition of goods.'

'What we see during the 17th and 18th centuries is the gradual emergence of a new ideology, accepting the pursuit of consumer goods as a valid object of human endeavour and recognising that no limit could, or should, be put to it.'

(Portrait: Paul Brason.)

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