Hugh Nibley on Learning, Working, and Wealth

The STQ: Material Prosperity thread has been a good one to follow; I’ve some strong (if somewhat inchoate) feelings on the whole topic of righteousness and wealth, but haven’t taken the time to put them down. However, both A Humble Scientist and Clark Goble have made reference in their comments to the writings of Hugh Nibley on these matters, and that reminded me of a favorite Nibley passage of mine. This is from “Deny Not the Gifts of God” (in Approaching Zion, pg. 145):

“What are we instructed to do, then, in our falled state? One of the shortest and most concise sections of the Doctrine and Covenants tells us, ‘Let your time be devoted to the studying of the scriptures; and to preaching, and to confirming the church…and to performing your labors on the land‘ (D&C 26:1). The Great Triple Combination–farming, church, and study. Even so Adam was told to cultivate his garden, preach the gospel among his children (a most strenuous mission), and finally to seek ever greater light and knowledge. Let me remind you that this system has worked throughout the ages, whenever it has been given a try.”

Leave aside the fact that Nibley’s reading of the scripture he cites is arguable(does “labors on the land” really mean farming?). I find his challenge a powerful one–the idea that, besides humble physical labor, the work of the church, and studious pursuit of godly wisdom, nothing we do or measure ourselves by in this world is worth much at all. It would be difficult to figure out exactly what kind of social or economic order Nibley is calling for here, but it clearly isn’t industrial capitalism and career specialization, particularly in either the military or business or law (all of which he lumps together and harshly condemns throughout the essay). His “Triple Combination” might be called socialist, republican (with a small “r”), argarian, or communitarian; certainly it is utopian, and I’m enough of an idealist (in a certain philosophical sense) to consider that a compliment, not a criticism. Still, it’s worth contemplating in a larger sense the costs of Nibley’s effort to wean his people away from the lure of profit, comfort and material things. Two points in particular:

1. It’s not democratic. Unless you accept the classic Marxist doctrine that a classless society will be one in which all people do all the work equally and more or less simultaneously, then to eschew economic specialization will simply mean some other form of role-based responsibility will have to emerge, one that will probably be more authoritarian than liberal capitalism has been. That is, someone is going to have to be told to get the farming done, and someone is going to have to do the telling. This needn’t necessarily be troublesome, of course: after all, the church isn’t democratic, and we all get along fine (right?). As long as authority is tied to some more or less “public” truth (i.e., not some secret combination or conspiracy based on bloodlines or backroom deals), maybe liberal freedom isn’t worth missing. But it does seem excluded by Nibley’s vision.

2. It’s not modern. Nibley may not be a Luddite, but his fears about technology–whether literal or organizational or economic–are as obvious as Heidegger’s (I wonder how much Heidegger Nibley read?). His vision is incompatible with complexity–communities must be intimate, humble, homogenous, or else Farming, Preaching and Studying won’t be enough to keep the village (or ward) afloat. Hence, the tools which allow the streamlining and speeding up of modern life, thereby enabling larger and more diverse groups of people to associate together, appear to be problematic in Nibley’s view. Again, this is hardly an insurmountable problem: criticisms of modernity are legion, and many of them are valuable. However, to the extent that our ability to think politically about certain moral concerns–say, for example, “justice”–is a function of our creation of social organizations which can, in fact, affect the status of persons in relation to some political standard, then Nibley’s humble servant society must bypass such projects in favor of simple charity (again, shades of the current church, which–as has been discussed at length on this list–has a tremendous welfare program, but really can’t or doesn’t address itself to the problem of poverty in a systematic way).

Ultimately, where I stand is (like most of us, I suppose) conflicted. In my case, I talk radical communitarian talk pretty well, but I’m a creature of the modern world: to return to a humble, church-dictated, participatory, trusting, insular, agriculture-based, collectivist Amish-style exist in a United Order community is something which appeals to me perhaps directly in proportion to the degree to which I am certain that it’ll never happen in my lifetime. We have a big organizational church now, and maybe the compromise we struck with the modern United States (not really all that different, if you think about, from all the other compromises so many other radical Christian movements have been forced to make over the centuries) really isn’t a bad one. It leaves us personally with the constant tension of fearing that we have become too “wordly,” with chastisements like Nibley’s always floating around us. We end up focusing on such small issues as temple outfits, because we can at least do something about that, as opposed to feeding the world. But better to argue over small acts of consecration, I suppose, than to have lost the ideal entirely.

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11 comments for “Hugh Nibley on Learning, Working, and Wealth

  1. My frustration with Nibley’s social commentary has always been that it is more or less theoretically useless. His relentlessly premodern vision makes it very difficult to figure out what any of his thinking might mean in the world that we actually inhabit. I agree with Russell that it is rhetorically powerful and to the extent that it pricks the conscience and arouses the mind to consideration of issues like social justice, etc. I think it is valuable stuff. The problem, is that once you have identified the topic of conversation, Nibley doesn’t have all that much to say…

  2. In the world and not of it… a difficult task and difficult to define with a definition suitable everyone.

    Consecrating all we have and capitalism are at odds. On one hand, we see that capitalism rewards individual efforts and motivates us. On the other, we are to share everything we have. If we ever did have to combine all our material assets at a ward or stake level, how much easier will it be for the Yugo driver versus the Beemer owner?

    Our ward was formed into companies once and told in a Sacrament meeting to live the next week off their food storage. If they didn’t have enough or any at all, the other company members were to provide. It was a fiasco. Serious inability to work together. In a real emergency, I wonder what would happen. We made plans after 9/11 of where to meet and what to do as a ward. I wonder how it would really work out if needed.

    When I was in high school, I was quite the idealist. Communism seemed like a fine idea. It is a fine idea. Except that it can’t work without a common goal and understanding uniting everyone. Religion provides that goal and understanding but has failed with pride overriding the word of God. The Branch Davidians come to mind here.

    So, um, what’s my point? Good question. LOL Maybe that there is room for both capitalism and consecration but stewardship is desperately relevent and should considered in how we operate as capitalists. There’s other reasons, of course, for responsible stewardship but keep in mind that consecration of our material goods really *could* happen. How will we handle that call?

  3. I’ve actually wanted to go through Nibley’s work and try and draw out a systematic philosophy. I’m 99% sure he’s a platonist although what variety I’m not sure. However I’m not up on platonic economic views or really that much on ethics. Those are, however, his more interesting views. I admit more to be intrigued by metaphysics, epistemology, and language so I’m probably not the man for the job.

    Anyway, I’d say that Nibley does have a real practical philosophy. It could probably be reduced to a kind of intellectual focus. i.e. that ethically we ought to be focused in on *ideas* and not *material*. You can see this in his goods of first and second intent. The idea is ultimately that *any* intellectual endeavor ought to be looking for the ultimate eternal forms of existence. Thus even a lot of “fun” activities I think he’d be against.

    When you try and bring this into the traditional economy all sorts of problems result. Consider, for instance, people “less educated.” How do they fit in? Are their activities, which tend to be more materialistically oriented, bad? What about if someone doesn’t want to spent thousands of dollars on books, but wants to spend it on, say, a suit or an expensive car?

    This is the classic problem in any united order. What if someone wants to “waste” their resources on slightly more expensive meals (although no better) and spend time with their friends. Others decide to work an hour longer but takes that sacrifice and buys a Porsche with it. Who is right?

    This isn’t an insignificant point. I have numerous friends who spend their 20’s going to parties and not exactly working hard. Suddenly they are 30 and are still makign $10 an hour. Then the guys who didn’t date much, lived on ramen, and studied (i.e. didn’t have fun) suddenly are making $75 – $90,000 a year. Now, how are the resources allocated? How do we decide the place of prior sacrifice?

    The old parable of the grasshopper and the ants is quite apt.

    For Nibley, the entire focus is different. Afterall the focus by both groups is wrong. Who cares about anything but ideas? What both should do is change their desires.

    Now I think Nibley is wrong, on the ultimate desires we ought to have. I think things of beauty, fun, and so forth have innate value. I enjoy philosophy, physics and so forth, but I’m not sure I view them as different from my love of hiking, climbing, skiing or the like. I wouldn’t say that my expensive skis are really different from my collection of physics text in value. Nibley would, perhaps justifying the philosophy and physics in terms of both innate ideas and their utility to others. (The Good)

  4. My business partner just brought up a good point. Nibley had a rather large collection of very rare (and expensive) books. Wouldn’t it be more consistent with his views to have photocopied them rather than owning thousand dollar books and given the money to the poor?

    I’m not criticizing Nibley’s charity. I know that he paid the entire welfare for various people in his ward who truly disliked Nibley – all without them knowing about it.

    I just think that ther is some big intellectual inconsistencies in his views.

    I should add that he has donated his book collection recently to BYU and it is being cataloged.

  5. >Wouldn’t it be more consistent with his views to have photocopied them rather than owning thousand dollar books

    Only if he wasn’t interested in following the criminal laws of man. ;)

  6. Generally copyright infringement is not a criminal violation. Rather violation of the copyright exposes you to civil liability. You may have to pay money damages, and a court may tell you to stop doing it, but you aren’t going to prison.

  7. ‘Working Towards Zion’ was written by two authors heavily influenced by Nibley who explore the application of United Order principles to the modern economy. The book has several weaknesses, but it fostered my desire to put theory into practice and has lots of great quotes from the prophets about the social aims of the gospel.

    On Amazon:

  8. I’ll second the recommendation of “Working Towards Zion.” It makes a valiant attempt to understand how Zion principles can be are are implemented in a both developed and developing economies.

  9. Going off on a tangent – I noticed there was no review on Amazon. If you have good books, I suggest reviewing them. Especially with Mormon books it is sometimes hard to find the good ones. Amazon truly is a great resource – especially for people outside of Utah. It once was that finding good LDS books was difficult. With the advent of the internet that has changed.

    One of my goals with my website is to start reviewing my favorite books and then post the reviews to Amazon as well.

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