Philosophers, disciples, and even Bob Dylan agree: Money is bad… right?


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“But it is pretty to see what money will do.” So says London diarist Samuel Pepys in his March 21 1666, entry. And he’s right. Money can “answereth all things” according to Ecclesiastes; it “doesn’t talk, it swears” according to Bob Dylan; it’s “good for bribing yourself through the inconveniences of life” according to Gottfried Reinhardt; it’s that “clinking, clanking sound” that makes the world go round” according to the Cabaret emcee; “it’s better than poverty, if only for financial reasons” according to Woody Allen. Money can even purchase the wherewithal for a personal credo: “I believe in meditating in the tub with some very nice bath products,” Oprah declares. “Origins Ginger Bath is one I use a lot.” Well, I suppose meditating is a fine and centering thing, as long as one meditates with rather than on pricey bath products. Somehow, though, I suspect the Mahareshi Mahesh Yoga, founder of Transcendental Meditation and spiritual guru to the Beatles, did not require ginger bath, nor recommend it as a personal mantra.

Ah, money, and the stuff it enables us to buy; our admission ticket to the buyorama, our membership card in the buyocracy. We are buyological creatures. And we feel so guilty about it because we have been admonished and upbraided and condemned for it, for so long, by so many. We are told it is a form of stupefying idolatry. We are told that it botoxes the soul, palsies the mind, addles priorities, transforms social relationships into cage-match bouts of competitive purchasing. We tell ourselves we shouldn’t; we agree with Martin Luther King that we should “shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society;” we nod when Oliver Goldsmith asserts that “our possessions [are] but an inlet to new disquietudes;” we feel abashed at and apologize for our getting and spending, and yet we keep on, as if recognizing we shouldn’t and saying we shouldn’t are identical to not doing it.

We keep on. Stuff is our whispering muse and singing siren. So many things to buy, and we buy them for so many reasons. We buy out of impulse, out of need, out of boredom, out of duty, out of faith, out of hope, out of love, out of keeping up and keeping ahead; we buy for an experience, for a reward, as a form of therapy; we buy as a gratifying self-embrace, as a refuge, as a summoning purpose, as a beckoning pillar of clouds. And, as the mad men of Madison Avenue have long known, each thing we buy means more, much more, than the function for which it was designed. Each thing we buy in some way tells the story of us, narrates us, to ourselves and to others.

I often wonder if the guilt, imputed and felt, is justified. Could it not be that the drive to acquire is basic to human nature? Could it not be that what we acquire is conditioned by what the social context offers for acquisition? Could it be that austere, anti-stuff injunctions are so impossible to fulfill that they devalue themselves? Could it not be that, as Northwestern University media professor Laura Kipnis theorizes, social structures create the personality profiles that best perpetuate themselves, that best insure the coordination and management their energies and forces, that most efficiently instill coherence among their parts? Could it not be that social structures effectually generate and summon forth the felt experiences and emotional architectures in their members that best serve their purposes? Economists tell that consumption constitutes 70% of our economy. Undoubtedly, buying stuff, craving stuff, new stuff, keeps bottom lines fat and sassy and makes capitalism capital.

One of the more familiar and famous anti-stuff stories is recounted in the New Testament. According to Mark 10: 17-25, as Jesus and his disciples are leaving Judea for Jerusalem, a rich young man (“a certain ruler” in Luke) kneels before Jesus and asks what he must do to “inherit eternal life.” Jesus says, “Thou knowest the commandments” and ticks off six of them, but the young man protests, “all these have I observed from my youth.” Jesus responds, “one thing thou lackest,” and tells him to sell all his possessions, give the proceeds to the poor, and, having thus built up “treasure in heaven . . . come, take up the cross, and follow me.” And this the young man cannot bring himself to do. He walks away, saddened, “for he had great possessions.” He lackest the inclination to lack. Jesus then eyes his disciples and says, “How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God.”

The disciples are “astonished,” for Jewish tradition looks upon wealth as a sign of God’s favor and as an obligation to support religion and alleviate the distresses of the poor. Jesus repeats his assertion adding, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” The disciples are now “astonished beyond measure,” and, I must confess, I am, too. At the very least, I am confused beyond all measure. Here’s why.

Luke 10: 25-37 contains an even more familiar and famous story, The Good Samaritan, who most assuredly has money, a good bit of it, for he gives two denarii to an innkeeper, with the promise of more, to meet the expenses of housing and caring for the injured traveler. Did the Samaritan, in using money, not observe what Jesus himself declared one of the most elevated of commandments, to love one’s neighbor as oneself? And what about Jesus’s accepting the necessity of rendering unto Ceasar? One must have possessions to be taxed. And what about the parable of the good steward, who increases the wealth entrusted to him? And what about Romans 12, which states that, as part of Christ’s body, we are enjoined to share our wealth with those less fortunate? And was not Judas the disciples’ treasurer, carrying the wallet from which the coins were extracted to purchase the group’s food and other necessities?

Invariably, anti-stuff screeds are extreme and offer only glittering abstractions in place of the isness, the thisness, of things. “Cultivate poverty like a garden herb, like sage,” says Thoreau, punning on the word “sage” to imply that sagacity, and not an often crushing depravation, somehow inheres in poverty. Easy to say, perhaps, for one who never married and has no encumbering family responsibilities; one who does a bit of day-labor surveying when the spirit moves him; one who refuses for six years to pay taxes, is jailed, and released the next day when someone pays them for him; one who, squatting on land owned by Emerson, can support himself by spending six weeks growing beans for sale. “Absolutely speaking,” Thoreau proclaims, “the more money, the less virtue.” The “moral ground” of a man with money “is taken from under his feet” because it makes his life too easy, “comes between a man and his objects, and obtains them for him.” I guess Henry forgot he’d just worked six weeks out of fifty-two to get the money to obtain his objects, meager though they be. And I guess it slipped his mind that he’d been “in haste to buy” Hollowell Farm simply to “be unmolested in my possession of it.”

Wordsworth bemoans that in “Getting and spending we lay waste our powers,” though, other than to criticize our alienation from Nature and the “glimpses” it affords to make us “less forlorn,” he never quite defines what those powers are. John Ruskin maintains that “the reward of labor is not what one gets by it but what one becomes by it,” though he’s conspicuously silent on what precisely we become. John Updike claims that our engaging in the getting-and-spendingorama is “to step aside” from “the very realm where we exist and where all precious things are kept — the realm of emotion and conscience, of memory and intention and sensation.” But does this realm stand dematerialized in some sort of idealized Platonic skybox? Are there not tangible things, things we have purchased, things we hold and listen to and look at, that partake of this realm, things that resonate with experiential value, that harbor emotion and memory and sensation, that express intention?

I understand, of course, that accumulating stuff can be as excessive as the proscriptions against it, that it can be dysfunctional, that beneath it sometimes sounds the howl of the desperately lost and lonely and unhappy. Too often, however, I think a kind of renunciatory astringency grips us, a kind of puritanical asceticism, maybe a kind of “spiritual snobbery that,” according to Camus, “makes people think that they can be happy without money.” Perhaps we forget that Timothy 6:10 says “the love of money is the root of all evil,” not money itself.

In Batman Begins, the caped crusader says “it’s not what I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.” I agree, but with this proviso: what I do, what any of us does, is shaped by the context of what we are underneath. The inner and the outer are mutually entailed. That’s why I agree with Emerson: Money may be, he observes, “the prose of life,” but he’s surely correct in saying that it can be, “in its effects and laws, as beautiful as roses.” And I agree, without proviso, with Ishmael, who comes to realize that “attainable felicity” is not located “in the intellect or the fancy; but in the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country” — all tangible things, the first held close by the second, a doing and being, its laws and effects the poetry of life; the others–more prosaic but beautiful nonetheless–purchased stuff. • 15 October 2011