Alan Watts was a fascinating character. His profession was philosophy. I often wonder about that as a chosen field. When applying for a mortgage or car loan are you instantly denied if you state that as your occupation? Apologies, I digress and so early in this missive.
Watts once asked, “What would you do if money was no object?” It is an invasive, uncomfortable question. Our answers reveal who we are, what we want and what we need. It lays bare where our head is at and where we are on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
The notion of wealth plagued Watts and, in my opinion, it ended up killing him. He wrote 25 books between 1932 and 1973 before dying in 1974. Five of the books have “Zen” in the title. Watts popularized that tract of Mahayana Buddhism to Western audiences. Other titles of his books include The Meaning of Happiness, Psychotherapy East and West, and Does It Matter?: Essays on Man’s Relation to Materiality.
Why I believe such exploration led to his demise is because Watts drank like a fish and died from alcoholism. He sought a nirvana and implored readers to pursue a life of common sense, one not driven by money and materialism. Yet, he lived a lie. He was trapped in a commercial world.
Eschewing rampant and conspicuous consumption is something I too have wrestled with. Still, I am a Costco member, possess all the latest technologies, and am high-up in three frequent flyer programs. I know how to spend and I do. Watts wrote and lectured. He collected his pay and drank it away. That is hardly a Zen life but it is one that endears when you acquaint yourself with it.
Philosopher Watts came to my attention through one quote, one succint line from all of his thousands of pages. This is what hooked me, “The moral challenge and the grim problem we face is that the life of affluence and pleasure requires exact discipline and high imagination.” There are about seven tensions in that sentence. Watts recognized all of their ironies and felt them viscerally. He was called a mystic but struggled with society’s and his own inconsistencies and hypocrisies.
On the subject of confusing money with wealth which is the focus of this piece, Watts saw it as an inclination to mistake symbol for reality, which he considered “the peculiar and perhaps fatal fallacy of civilization.” He then goes deep and takes a huge stab at the thought we are bringing our world down by spending but not living.
Civilization, comprising all the achievements of art and science, technology and industry, is the result of man’s invention and manipulation of symbols — of words, letters, numbers, formulas and concepts, and of such social institutions as universally accepted clocks and rulers, scales and timetables, schedules and laws. By these means, we measure, predict, and control the behavior of the human and natural worlds — and with such startling apparent success that the trick goes to our heads. All too easily, we confuse the world as we symbolize it with the world as it is.
Even with the evolution of credit cards, block-chain technology and crypto-currencies, the most toxic and manipulative symbol is the concept, use, and pursuit of money. He wrote:
Money is a way of measuring wealth but is not wealth in itself. A chest of gold coins or a fat wallet of bills is of no use whatsoever to a wrecked sailor alone on a raft. He needs real wealth, in the form of a fishing rod, a compass, an outboard motor with gas, and a female companion. But this ingrained and archaic confusion of money with wealth is now the main reason we are not going ahead full tilt with the development of our technological genius for the production of more than adequate food, clothing, housing, and utilities for every person on earth.
Undeniably money is a measure of wealth. Or as I have always looked at it, a necessary by-product of what is hopefully a valued and valuable profession. Watts recognized, there is enormous cultural resistance to such awareness, one reinforced by our shallow and materialistic nature. It is strange how quickly we humans replaced good sense with what is in our wallets and purses. Consider Watts’ observation:
It is not going to be at all easy to explain this to the world at large, because mankind has existed for perhaps one million years with relative material scarcity, and it is now roughly a mere one hundred years since the beginning of the industrial revolution. As it was once very difficult to persuade people that the earth is round and that it is in orbit around the sun, or to make it clear that the universe exists in a curved space-time continuum, it may be just as hard to get it through to “common sense” that the virtues of making and saving money are obsolete.
A clear distinction between money and wealth may help us realize that “there are limits to the real wealth that any individual can consume”. He notes that we can’t really “drive four cars at once, live simultaneously in six homes, take three tours at the same time, or devour twelve roasts of beef at one meal.” What he is getting at is, “I am trying to make the deadly serious point that, as of today, an economic utopia is not wishful thinking but, in some substantial degree, the necessary alternative to self-destruction.” Now that is big thinking.
Our fascination with celebrity, McMansions, and cars with ten cup holders is equated to the fall of civilization. We buy our own ‘bread and circuses’ and doze in perceived contented bliss in front of Netflix. We are zombies with credit lines.
Rather than going completely negative with these developments, Watts saw a silver lining. Although we have too easily become habituated to comfort, affluence, and pleasure, Watts believes the extra time, our leisure time, can progress culture to previously unimagined and unattainable heights. In other words, we have to manage and redirect our indulgences:
A leisure economy will provide opportunity to develop the frustrated craftsman, painter, sculptor, poet, composer, yachtsman, explorer, or potter that is in us all — if only we could earn a living that way. Certainly, there will be a plethora of bad and indifferent productions from so many unleashed amateurs, but the general long-term effect should be a tremendous enrichment of the quality and variety of fine art, music, food, furniture, clothing, gardens, and even homes — created largely on a do-it-yourself basis.
Where this all leads to is an examination of our own will. That is, our choices, those individual, everyday choices are critical to our own happiness and the world at large. If we choose well we may influence those who hold power in the world, both commercial and political. Watts noted that “many corporations — and even more so their shareholders — are unbelievably blind to their own material interests.”
Watts called for a return to common sense and hoped we would confront our illusions and ego while recognizing our interconnectedness with the world in all its material and metaphysical manifestations. Watts saw how we have mistaken money for wealth and symbols for reality:
The greatest illusion of the abstract ego is that it can do anything to bring about radical improvement either in itself or in the world. This is as impossible, physically, as trying to lift yourself off the floor by your own bootstraps. Furthermore, the ego is (like money) a concept, a symbol, even a delusion — not a biological process or physical reality.
These are big issues, big theories and big challenges. Watts believed it starts and ends with imagination, “There are a great many people accumulating what they think is vast wealth, but it’s only money… they don’t know how to enjoy it, because they have no imagination.” He saw self-awareness and imagination as a solution to any problem the world presents.
Give any of Watts’ books a read. Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems concerning matters such as existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. He probed all of these and his work is worthy of our attention, if not, action.