‘Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.’ – Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
This famous quip by the wittiest man of the nineteenth century resonates as much now as when he wrote it in 1890 – if not more so. Since the disgraced dramatist went to his grave, ideas of price and value have become so inextricably conflated that few people distinguish between them any longer. Value is almost exclusively about money and little else.
These days other more noble values rarely even get a mention. Virtues such as honour, decency, altruism, duty, truth and above all, beauty have been largely trashed in the dog-eat-dog sprint for wealth. Other values such as selflessness, service, compassion, honesty and diligence are frequently seen as amusingly archaic, possibly with an olde worlde charm to them but with little or no bearing on the modern monetised world.
Money has absolute rulership over everything from our health and well-being to the work we do and how we spend our leisure time. It dictates every aspect of our lives and suffocates most other aspirations. Money, or certainly the way we use it, is a weaponised force. It allows no competitors. Everyone wants more of it – especially those who already have far too much. (Billionaires are usually unhappy people because they know that there is always someone even richer than they are and for them this is intolerable.)
However, conflict, like gin and tonic, is a time-honoured reviver. Chaos, uncertainty and major shocks to humanity have a way of resurrecting and re-energising values we believed were no longer relevant. As our flimsy certainties begin to crumble, the subversive re-emergence of more lofty sentiments can happen very quickly indeed. We can see it in front of us right now.
And there’s nothing so potent as death to change people’s minds and re-purpose their lives. As the English writer Samuel Johnson eloquently put it: ‘…when a man knows he’s to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.’
In the materialistic world we’ve created and sustained, until very recently only the gods of greed and profit were allowed to be worshipped. All the other deities were exorcised and banished from the pantheon in disgrace.
But here’s some hot news for you. These once reviled gods are coming out of exile to resume the fight against the venal, the grasping and the mean who’ve come to dominate our globe and virtually every aspect of life on it. They’re stepping on to the invasion beaches and are already beginning to build bridge-heads. Then the battle can unfold.
The bulk of humanity won’t suddenly forsake mammon and embrace truth and beauty overnight. They may not immediately stare across a beautiful landscape in awe rather than buying a new Volkswagen. There won’t be a sudden global uprising against the rich and powerful or a sudden political revolution. But major change is inevitable. This is because many people are suddenly becoming aware of and actually appreciating values they previously imagined had been consigned to the history books.
A few are beginning to realise the sheer absurdity and fragility of our beliefs and clapped out political and economic systems.
Let’s not underestimate the virulence with which this viral worldwide convulsion is slapping humanity round the face with all the passion of a spurned lover. It will leave a long trail of death in its wake. But it will also herald a more welcome form of death. Over time it will gradually intensify the destruction of failed systems, threadbare beliefs and illusory values.
The re-awakening of true human values has begun. Its manifestations remain relatively modest. They may be incremental but they’re also cumulative.
Acts of self-sacrifice, generosity and self-discipline have turned from a muddy stream into a swollen river and may become a raging torrent. Armies of people have spontaneously arisen to treat the sick, help the vulnerable and grow and harvest food. It appears that selflessness could be coming back into vogue.
Paradoxically, despite the distancing, people are engaging verbally and directly with one another more than they did a few weeks ago. Rather than sending texts to neighbours or even someone in the next room, people are actually talking again. And sometimes they’re even communicating as well. Remarkably, even mobile phones are being used for their original purpose rather than playing games, paying bills, taking selfies or accessing pornography.
It’s not just values which are being transmuted but more tangible aspects of human life. Air pollution has plummeted as cars stay locked and planes no longer criss-cross the skies. Hardly anyone is scurrying about with the usual urgency. Time has suddenly elongated. A minority of people may use this as an opportunity to exercise that most precious but neglected human asset – the mind – and start thinking.
And there’s also another astonishing benefit from the lock-down. Researchers in Greece who’ve been monitoring the effects of the shutdown have found that there’s been a significant reduction in seismic noise levels which began as soon as restrictions were imposed. Curfews on people, bans on travel, less busy factories and an overall decline in almost all human activity had an immediate effect. For a brief period at least, Mother Earth is no longer screaming back at her recalcitrant children and spewing out molten lava in protest as she convulses in grief at the way she is prostituted and abused.
It seems clear that there’s a connection here. Our quest for money and material possessions – and all the destructive things we have to do to achieve this – has a hugely detrimental effect on our host planet. This realisation has been growing for decades via the environmental movement but now this direct connection is in all our faces, up close, dirty and personal. It’s been injected direct into our blood-stream.
If we transvalue our attitude to money and start questioning our needless fetish for ever-increasing amounts of material goods, those armies of neglected values can begin to reassert their rightful place in the world. They may even achieve victory.
We cannot abolish money because we will always need some form of exchange. But we should radically consider the way we regard it and not view money as an end in itself or as a means of manipulation.
And there’s a lot of value in that.