The late High Nibley was right about many, many things. The auto-didactic BYU Professor/Super man popularized Mormon apologetics and may be the single smartest Latter-day Saint ever. I will never forget the first thing I read of his, and this was before I joined the Church as an adult: “No Ma’am, That’s Not History,” his evisceration of Fawn Brodie’s ridiculous biography of Joseph Smith. I had read Brodie’s “No Man Knows My History” and found it strange because it was, even to my then non-LDS eyes, so clearly ahistorical and, frankly, laughable. So when I read Nibley’s response I thought: “here is a man, like HL Mencken, who knows how to bury the absurd.”
Since joining the Church, I have read everything I could find by Nibley, and I have even listened to many of his lectures, which you can now find on Youtube. And, like many of you, I have enjoyed almost everything I have read and watched. I love Nibley’s writing style, his use of sources and his wide range of knowledge. There is no disputing he was a very great man and a great scholar.
But even great men can be wrong about some things, and in Nibley’s case he is as wrong as he can be about the whole issue of real-world economics and how it applies to our lives today. I refer here to the essays in his book “Approaching Zion,” all of which I have read many times.
These essays, at least some of which were delivered in live talks, are thought-provoking and deliberately shocking. And I like thought-provoking and deliberately shocking essays because they challenge my belief system. Taking another look at your paradigm is never a bad thing, and this is clearly Nibley’s goal.
And many of Nibley’s points are surely correct: our world is too materialistic, we do not spend enough time doing good in the world, we should voluntarily consecrate ourselves and our talents to the Church. These reminders are welcome and on point.
But Nibley goes much further than this: he proposes that the way almost all latter-day Saints live today is evil and on the side of Satan, rather than God. An honest reader cannot peruse these essays without seeing that as his primary message. Nibley has the same dripping sarcasm and disdain for us that he has for Fawn Brodie’s very poor book on Joseph Smith.
I want to make it clear that by all reports Hugh Nibley was an incredibly kind man who really did consecrate his life to the Church. Unlike most people with his politics, he lived what he preached. He was also a very good teacher, husband and father. I do not want any reader to go away from this post thinking I have anything but respect for the man and the scholar.
But if we are going to be serious about Bro. Nibley, we must accept what he wrote. Repeatedly. And there we find things like this:
“When I first came to Utah in the 1940s, it was a fresh new world, a joy and a delight to explore far and wide with my boys and girls. But now my friends no longer come on visits as they once did, to escape the grim commercialism and ugly litter of the East and the West Coast. We can watch that now on the Wasatch Front. The Saints no longer speak of making the land blossom as the rose, but of making a quick buck in rapid-turnover real estate. All the students I have talked with at the beginning of this semester intend eventually to go into law or business; Brigham Young University is no longer a liberal arts college. They are not interested in improving their talents but in trafficking in them.” (“How Firm a Foundation! What Makes it So”)
And in that same piece we have this:
“The mental paralysis of our times strongly suggests that God has withdrawn his Spirit from among men, as he said he would. Quite recently the newspapers and journals have been full of the alarming decline in mental capacity and learning among the rising generation, in which, I sorrow to say, Utah leads the parade with its appalling 26 percent drop in Scholastic Aptitude Test scores and the lowest rating in all the land in mathematics—the one subject that requires some real discipline.”
According to Nibley, latter-day Saints are stupid capitalists, and nearly every profession they practice is unholy and ungodly (From “Our Glory, Our Condemnation”):
“What do we find today? Zion’s Investment, Zion Used Cars, Zion Construction, Zion Development, Zion Bank, Zion Leasing, Zion Insurance, Zion Securities, Zion Trust, and so on. The institutions of Mammon are made respectable by the beautiful name of Zion.”
“Well, here we have it: the world we have made and are making is not the world God meant us to have, and the world he made for us in the beginning is the world we must have. With our present limited knowledge we could devise a perfectly practical order of things in which there would be no need for doctors, lawyers, insurance men, dentists, auto mechanics, beauticians, generals, real estate men, prostitutes, garbage men, and used-car salesmen. Their work is justified as an unpleasant necessity, yet there have been successful human societies in which none of those professions existed, any more than dukes, earls, and kings need to exist in our society.”
So, according to Nibley, doctors and lawyers and auto mechanics are as unnecessary to society as dukes and earls? In a word, yes. In fact, Nibley says there are only a few honorable professions:
“What are we instructed to do, then, in our fallen state? One of the shortest and most concise sections of the Doctrine and Covenants tells us, “Let your time be devoted to the studying of the scriptures; and to preaching, and to confirming the church . . . and to performing your labors on the land” (D&C 26:1). The Great Triple Combination—farming, church, and study.”
Nibley’s message over and over again in “Approaching Zion” is that there are only two paths, the one righteous path he has taken of being a professor, and the unrighteous path of doing just about anything else in your life except working for the Church and being a farmer.
It is not hyperbole to say that he believes most professions are against God’s law and are on the side of Satan. He repeats several times in “Approaching Zion” that the only righteous things to do with your life are to study, work for the Church or be a farmer. We may be able to argue that it might – perhaps – be OK to be an artist because he states he has nothing but contempt for the people who decide to go into business because they can’t make any money being an artist.
We can chuckle about the absurdity of Nibley’s approach. Who, after all, is going to print the books he wants to study if not for the printers who must make money to hire workers and buy paper, and who is going to heal the farm animals if not for the veterinarians who presumably are unnecessary? Nibley says there is no need for mechanics, so I guess he would only allow farming by horse or oxen. Would he permit plows? If so, who would make the plows and the harnesses for the horses and oxen? Nibley has no patience for these types of questions, of course, because he has one of the approved careers, that of an academic. Everybody else needs to simply have faith that it will all work out – as long as they don’t choose one of the unapproved careers, all of which are obviously condemned by God.
Nibley wants Zion now and today, and he wants latter-day Saints to act as if they are already in Zion, even though the rest of the world is not. In one essay he makes fun of his students for unacceptable answers on what they would do if the Millennium arrived today (some of them say they would be bored). It apparently never occurs to Nibley that the vast majority of devoted Saints would act very differently if the Millennium were actually here and we did not have to go to our dreary jobs to pay the mortgage. I love capitalism, but I would retire literally today if I could get away with spending all day in the temple or in homeless shelters. But we all, except for Prof. Nibley I guess, must work in our dreary jobs or our families will starve.
In addition to these types of questions, I have several other problems with Nibley’s approach. The first and most important one is that no modern-day prophet (despite his many talents, Nibley was not a prophet) has ever said anything close to what Nibley is saying here. To be clear: prophets have warned repeatedly about loving money more than God. They have warned about doing your best to serve the Lord and to doing your callings. (Would Nibley accept the fact that the prophet today was a doctor, and many of the apostles were businessmen and lawyers and pilots?) And the prophets have also – repeatedly – warned about being lazy. They have told us to be self-reliant. They have told us to help the poor and provide a good home for our families. The obvious question is: if we can’t get a job because we insist on being an artist or working in the temple all day, how are we supposed to provide for our families and how are we supposed to be self-reliant? Does Nibley really think that the 35-year-old living in his mother’s basement is the model for today’s young people if that young person goes to the temple every day?
The second point is that these conclusions lead Nibley to an unfortunate brand of socialist politics that has caused nothing but human misery. He is against private property and any kind of profit at all. He is a militant environmentalist who insists at the same time that 1)land must be protected but 2)it also must be free to all who want it. (I wonder if he ever saw the contradiction). He decries being labeled, but clearly he embraced left-wing politics. One of Nibley’s favorite magazines was The Nation, a leftist magazine where I worked as an intern in the 1980s, and a magazine I have read regularly since then. The Nation has been wrong about nearly everything: it praised Soviet and Chinese “equality” and very often ignored the resulting tens of millions of deaths. It praised Fidel Castro in Cuba and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, ignoring the millions of starving and imprisoned victims of socialist repression.
And of course one of the worst things about socialism is that a few tyrants benefit while the majority suffer. Victor Navasky, the editor of The Nation when I was there, lived in a multi-million dollar apartment in New York while hypocritically calling for a socialist uprising against the rich in the United States. Bernie Sanders has three houses while he complains about other people who have three houses. Such tyranny is a feature, not a bug, of socialism: Stalin, Mao, Castro and Chavez all ruled over their poor countries from massive, opulent presidential estates.
It is not an exaggeration to say that socialism leads to Babylon, not Zion. Yet Nibley was unapologetic about his corpse-strewn politics.
Meanwhile, there has been a massive worldwide movement away from Babylon, and it has taken place through the free market economics that Nibley hates so much. Hundreds of millions of people in China, India, Vietnam and Indonesia have escaped extreme poverty because these countries have adopted economic measures that promote human freedom and prosperity. In fact, extreme poverty was cut in half worldwide in just two decades from 1990 to 2010 because of a decline in socialism and an increase in economic freedom, ie capitalism. You can read more here:
Nibley’s approach is also wrong because it encourages members of the Church of Jesus Christ to believe they are never good enough. One of the primary scourges of Church members these days is the feeling that they will never measure up. The result has been mass depression and even suicide in the Church, caused in part by feelings of inadequacy. This is one of the reasons you will never hear General Authorities talk the way Nibley does – such calls to repentance are usually counter productive and very often harmful. How is it helpful to insist – repeatedly – that you are on the side of Satan if you start your own business or work as an auto mechanic?
From a pure practical standpoint (and to be clear, Nibley hates being reminded that he is not being practical), the great professor has nothing to offer to most latter-day Saints regarding their careers. His approved careers – being an academic, working for the Church or farming – don’t offer much of a future for most of us. It turns out that there is a surfeit of academics in the world today, and if you speak to anybody in a liberal arts PhD program they will say their major concern is the huge number of applicants for a small number of jobs. And given the closing of so many colleges and universities, the future looks increasingly grim for liberal arts academics. (And of course many academics hate facing the reality that their colleges and universities would not have any jobs at all if it were not for a capitalist system that brings in tuition money and other funding).
And being a farmer and making a living at it is increasingly difficult in a time when corporations are taking over more and more family farms. And of course you need money to buy land for a farm, but Nibley says money isn’t necessary, so if you don’t already have a farm you are just plain out of luck.
Think of all of the otherwise good people condemned by Bro. Nibley: bankers, business people of all stripes, lawyers, publishers, venture capitalists, people who work in factories, doctors, etc, etc, etc. Can you imagine, if he were still alive, what Nibley would say about Mitt Romney, who made many tens of millions making businesses more profitable? And despite my political differences with Bro. Romney, there is no doubt he has done more good than bad in the world. Yet, Hugh Nibley would have nothing but contempt for him. Remember, in the world of Prof. Nibley, Mitt Romney is literally of the devil.
I can recount many conversations with people about immoral jobs they would never do. I have several friends who say they would never be policemen because policemen beat up innocent black people. In various conversations, it has been made clear to me that anybody working in the gambling industry is immoral, not to mention anything having to do with the alcohol or cigarettes.
My perspective is completely the opposite. Most people are good people just trying to make a living. All of us have student loans to pay off, and hopefully families to raise. Most of us have mortgages and Christmas gifts to buy. Are we really stuck in Babylon because of this?
According to “Approaching Zion,” yes, we all are.
Never mind that you have $100,000 in student loans, which causes you to take whatever job you can to support your family. Never mind that you go to the temple once a week, do your calling and volunteer at the local homeless shelter – in Hugh Nibley’s mind you are nothing but a promoter of Babylon and condemned by God.
Now, let me make this very clear: if you are the kind of person who has quit your corporate job to go work at a non-profit, I say: more power to you! Presumably you have analyzed how to continue to support your family and get by with a lot less money. And I would say there are huge advantages to this. It is true that when you are a materialist you begin to be controlled by your own “stuff.” You want a boat, so you buy a boat, but then you need a truck to haul the boat, and then you need to pay for a slip at the marina, and gas and boat repairs, and all of a sudden one-third of your monthly paycheck is going to maintain this boat that you use six days a year. It is obvious to me that the better solution would be to go rent the boat rather than buy it, or maybe find another hobby. But our materialistic society pushes you to buy the boat.
But Nibley goes way too far. He sees modern society with all of its horrific commerce as nothing but violent competition. What he refuses to see (because it does not fit his ideology) is that the vast majority of people, using commerce, are engaging in peaceful, mutually beneficial exchange.
Let’s say I am good at making cupcakes – I spend my time making them and selling them to people who want them. You want a cupcake, but you are not good at making them. You are willing to give me $2 for a cupcake, which I will gladly take because I can then go make more cupcakes, which I enjoying doing. Both of us are happy.
The vast amount of transactions in a free, capitalist society are like this. Every time you go into a store to buy something you are engaging in “commerce,” which Nibley hates, but in fact most people enjoy doing. In the real world, the only alternatives to mutually beneficial exchange (ie, commerce) involve force and theft. So, in a less free world, people with guns prevent you from making or selling cupcakes, or they try to tell you what price you can sell at, or they tell you that cupcakes are bad for you and can’t be allowed, or they tell you that you can’t sell things at all. And of course there are people who may tell you that you should give away the cupcakes you make, but of course in the real world you will eventually run out of money to buy ingredients, so no cupcakes at all will be made.
So, we have two choices today: 1)the free, voluntary, mutually beneficial exchange of goods, which is called commerce and is actually a good thing that makes almost everybody happy and 2)all of the alternatives, which only makes tyrants and busy-bodies happy. Which one is closer to Zion?
I want to be clear that Nibley, even in “Approaching Zion,” says many things that are true. For example:
“So we have the paradox: the body serves us best when we are least aware of it, and so with money. We have to have some, but to “set our hearts on riches”—that is what the scriptures keep harping away at. “The love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6:10). That is a quotation from the Pseudepigrapha,11 which is quoted by Paul, and it is also quoted in the Book of Mormon. To set our hearts on riches is, in the Book of Mormon, the ultimate disaster.” (From “Gifts.”)
It is also almost certainly true that Nibley did not expect the people hearing his lectures to all suddenly quit their jobs and spend the rest of their lives in the library. His intent was surely to get people to consecrate themselves to the Church more than they already did.
Most people appear to take these good things from Nibley’s writings and lectures and ignore his true message, which is that he sees almost all latter-day Saints as iniquitous. You cannot read the essays in “Approaching Zion” without coming away with this message. We all may be iniquitous in our various ways, but it is not because we are not farmers or academics or working for the Church. It is truly unfortunate that Nibley felt it necessary to leave such a message to us all.