(Written 19 Apr 2011)
Dear All,
After last weekend’s rant about the possible motives for our fascination for watching physical contests like rugby – and my suggesting that sexual motivations lying deep in the primitive reptilian brain were at play here – it was quite by chance (there are no accidents?) that this week I came across the writings of a fascinating eccentric by the name of Thorstein Veblen (1857 – 1929).
I had suggested that at the very core of the need to ‘bash heads’ – and to watch to the exclusion of all else, our gladiators “bashing heads’ – there is a sexual underpinning, but Robert Heilbroner in The Worldly Philosophers (Penguin, 1995, pg. 232) adds a new dimension when he quotes Veblen, “In order to stand well in the eyes of the community, it is necessary to come up to a certain, somewhat indefinite conventional standard of wealth; just as in an earlier predatory stage it was necessary for the barbarian man to come up to his tribe’s standard of physical endurance, cunning, and skill at arms.” Social acceptance may well be a more fundamental need than simply ‘getting the girl’. So, while the schoolboys are competing at a basic level on the rugby pitch, their parents are engaged in an even more primal struggle in the car park, seeing who drives what.
Incidentally, Heilbroner’s context for this Veblen quote has to do with the roles and interaction of the predatory and non-predatory sections of our society (e.g. businessmen and workers, politicians and voters) and the discussion finally goes on to illustrate the rational and irrational aspects of human economic activity as described by Veblen. Incidentally the main idea here is that classical economic theory rests heavily on the notion that humans are ration beings, but clearly we are only partly rational; as can easliy be seen in the expression of conspicuous consumption shown on Top Billing on SABC3 each week. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conspicuous_consumption .
So dear readers, may I recommend Veblen, even if only to read his biography or a summary thereof. What particularly endeared him to me was his reply to a student who once asked him, “Tell me professor, do you take anything seriously?” “Yes”, he replied in a conspiratorial whisper, “but don’t tell anyone.”