It is fair to say that whether on the Left or Right, the stability, reach, and meaningfulness of commercial civilization is a central preoccupation, even more so since the credit freeze of 2008. At the same time, honesty requires we acknowledge our civilization’s “audacity for novelties,” a leading marker of vanity. “Centuries of craftsmanship may have made Europe’s great luxury labels indomitable, but newness is what drives fashion” (Rose Hoare, WSJ, Feb. 15). Vanity, as Aquinas puts it, expresses our concern for how we are “manifest” before others. Fashion is role-play. We shop for clothes and a host of other adornments wondering how we will come across to others dressed in certain outfits: will we communicate our membership in a tribe, whether Goth, preppy, outdoorsy, environmentally conscious, sports fan, hipster, earnest retiree, and the list goes on and on. Fashion is inextricably linked with vanity and fantasy.
The management of the border between self and other, Aquinas argues, is a matter of rhetoric. Fashion and design as rhetoric is delicate. Scheler shows convincingly to what degree vanity can trigger social conformity. He darkly describes you and me becoming “spiritual vampires” as we draw our identity from commonly available design objects. Scheler worries that fashion makes us “basic” but personal style signifiers build a degree of eccentricity and help persons emerge from the generic and numerical. Kolnai is equally persuasive when he argues that vanity need not conclude in possession and a suspension of personalism. Fashion ennobles. Kolnai adopts the insight of Hume and Smith that refinement of the arts and sciences generates privilege. And privilege, as Kolnai lavishly demonstrates, offers a place of eccentricity where persons can flourish.
This touches on a significant problem, however. “It is in accordance with their dignity as persons — that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility — that all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth” (Dignitatis humanae, para. 2). If, to some significant degree, fashion is role-play fantasy, how does that sit with truth? More, fashion is really a variant of Augmented Reality – digital data superimposed on the physical world: a reality we increasingly live in, but which has, in fact, been with us since Descartes’s announcement of idealism.
Fashion is a proposal not only about our relationship to truth but reality itself. Does the self-making that happens through fashion also mean an abandonment of the natural, and, if so, what remains of natural law?
My previous books defend the claim that embodiment, our inclinations and sensuality, are an ordered response to values, moral, and aesthetic. I think fashion is a part of this responsiveness and its business form is the estate. Though Brunello Cucinelli is a stand out here, Prada, Patagonia, Tiffany, and other examples from “feel-good” fashion, are all efforts at a Whig-Tory synthesis. Their business plans take seriously the unity of time and space, history and place. They look to stability to inspire their innovation.
These are businesses of embodiment deferring to the principle of subsidiarity, the cultivation of the self. Fashion, as a resource both for style and affirmational business models, can foster well the civilisational projects of persons. And precisely because privilege assumes hierarchy, deference and response, and personal cultivation, humanitarianism — with its accents of equality, administration, the numerical, and globalism — is pierced, and a place opened for God.
Kolnai and Przywara show that refinement and veneration need not be opposites. But it is essential to acknowledge that vanity is a precarious moral appetite. It is not alone. Sexuality, power, war, money are other domains of appetite that carry in-built risk, and surely there are others (AE, 226). In Ecstatic Morality I showed that Aquinas’s natural law is cruciform and in To Kill Another I argued that a cruciform law offers us the best account of our vulnerability. In this current study, I suggest that natural law’s realism respecting vulnerability and risk helps forestall possession, whether social (spiritual vampire), political (totalitarianism), or spiritual (diabolism). Natural law is not just sympathetic to commerce: it is the basis of commerce. As St. John Paul the Great notes, our bodies are naturally communicative and sacrificial. For this reason, we are, as de Vitoria points out, naturally a trading people. And for the same reason, we can safely argue that veneration precedes and is twinned with refinement.
There are grounds for thinking that money has its origins in the partibility of the body and the role body parts play in religious sacrifice. I think Ferdinand Tonnies’s touched upon this when speaking of the “protoplasm of the law.” As I argue at the end of KA, natural law links well to contemporary research in primatology, economics, anthropology, evolutionary psychology, political theology, moral theory, and jurisprudence. This is not to say that natural law assumes the simple unfolding of civilisation. Natural law as cruciform and ecstatic begins with the moral precariousness of the emotions, indeed all our moral faculties. God’s rhetoric is always essential to secure the veneration of persons and must contend with other speech and possession. But we do not need to conclude — with Plato or the darkest moments in Benedict and Francis — that the refinements satisfying our fantasies overwhelm our veneration.
Axiology requires that the Church think in terms of balance and not extirpation. And, of course, by realism, I am not talking of the knee-jerk realism of the person who says, “Ethics is not about the real world. It’s nice in theory but won’t work in practice.” Moral realism is the insight that reality and value stand intimately linked albeit in tension, that there is a landscape or geology of values throughout reality with certain constants, gradations, emphases, and limitations. Business ethics demands that business develop models that do their best to harmonize varied claims upon us: the manifold includes liberty, cleanliness, justice, utility, loyalty, equality, efficiency, integrity, and many other values, and only excludes evil. The Christian love of persons cannot ignore the Smithian love of beauty, nor expect to supplant its inequalities. Evangelization must happen within this manifold wherein values of person and beauty frame and illuminate one another.
 For some of the emerging legal issues, see Brian Wassom, “The Coming Conundra: Real Laws in an Augmented Reality” Side Bar (Winter 2011), p. 2, 19.
 Ian William Miller, An Eye for an Eye (Cambridge, 2005).
 To name only a few, the work of people like Huizinga, de Waal, Bataille, Schmitt, and Bill Miller is of real interest to natural law theorists.