Material world

MaterialismReview by Nick Mattiske


Terry Eagleton can usually be relied upon for a left-field viewpoint on religion, politics and culture, both in the senses of the political left and the simply surprising. In his latest book, he investigates the concept of materialism (the philosophical concept rather than the idea of hording riches) in the thought of Marx, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, with major contributions from the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas.

For Eagleton, Marx largely gets materialism right, arguing that the everyday determines how we think about things, rather than the other way around.  Material things should not be a means to an end, as in manufacturing simply for profit, for example.

Nietzsche, while holding similar views, got the practical application of materialism tragically wrong, arguing that the appalling treatment of many human beings in history is simply the price we need to pay to sustain the elite of society such as himself.

Wittgenstein, who is somewhere in-between, thought philosophy was often hopelessly out of touch with reality, but he also undervalued philosophy’s power to change the material for the better. All three thinkers are wary of philosophy, but not in the sense, says Eagleton with his usual wit, that Brad Pitt might be.

Eagleton relies heavily on Aquinas, who is a kind of materialist – one who thought we are more than matter but didn’t dismiss the material, and held that body and soul, emotion and reason, feeling and thought are not so easily disentangled.

It might surprise some to read Eagleton’s argument that Christianity is a materialist religion. Jesus, who is God in material form, spent much time healing bodies, and his ‘spiritual’ advice was typically materialist – don’t get caught up in the struggle for wealth, clothe the naked, take care of the wounded stranger, welcome home the prodigal son with a feast.

Yale Uni Press, available at:
RRP: $34.99


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