The Love of Money

Since my senior year in college when I wrote a senior thesis about the inherent conflict between capitalism and Christianity, I have been fascinated by the effects of money on ordinary people. A few years ago I wrote this post about the demise of the notion of the “gentleman” and the Victorian values that have always fascinated me — given their absence in our commodified culture. In any event, as I try to stay away from the ugly world of today’s politics, I find myself reflecting once again on the writings of such extraordinary people as Anthony Trollope, he of the 41 novels, 12 short stories, 18 works of non-fiction, and 2 plays — all while working full-time for the Post Office, who saw what was coming and also worried about the effects of rapid change and sudden money on ordinary (and extraordinary) people.  Accordingly, I decided to repost an old post, with modifications, that was largely ignored but wasn’t too bad.

The two major forces that brought the Victorian age to an end were industrial capitalism and the demise of the Christian religion after the First World War, the “war to end all wars.” The death blow may have been landed by Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group of writers and critics who saw only the evil that lurked behind what they regarded as the Victorian facade.

Anthony Trollope
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

What lies at the heart of this struggle for survival of the paramount Victorian values, as we see it working its way out in the conflict between the social classes in England at the time, and in the expansion of suffrage, is the struggle between Self and Other: which is to be paramount? Victorian intellectuals, such as Anthony Trollope, were greatly alarmed by the coming of the steam engine and the rapid changes it entailed. Among other things, it meant the displacement of birth and privilege by wealth. This was disturbing because for the Victorians birth and privilege implied duties on the part of the landed gentry to those of lower social standing, those upon whom life itself depended and who were assumed to be in need of guidance.  And while there were abuses of this responsibility (as George Eliot showed in Adam Bede) in large measure the landed gentry cared about their dependents and saw their own good tied up with those who depended upon them — enlightened self-interest, perhaps. We get a glimpse of this in the recent popular TV show on PBS, Downton Abbey. It was by no means clear that the new, wealthy landowners in the provinces, many of whom had moved from the large cities as they acquired wealth, would feel the same obligations to those who worked for them.

As capitalism grew by leaps and bounds and wealth changed hands from the “well-born” to the nouveau riche, power also changed hands. It was a painful process, as those who saw their power and prestige slipping away regretted the sudden appearance of those “middle-class upstarts who want to rank with gentlemen, and think they’ll do it with kid gloves and new furniture,”  as Rev. John Lingon remarked in Eliot’s Felix Holt: The Radical.  Anthony Trollope, like his contemporary, William Makepeace Thackeray, saw the issue clearly, as he struggled for years trying to determine what exactly makes a “gentleman”;  whether the term could even be said to apply in an age of increasing wealth and prestige among the lower and  middle classes, given the corrupting effects of money, especially upon men and women who had never had much. In a remarkable passage in Trollope’s The Three Clerks, the narrator tells us that one of the three clerks, hovering between virtue and vice, is learning what there is to know about

“the great utility, one may almost say the necessity, of having command of money; he was beginning  also to perceive that money was not a thing to be judged by the ordinary rules which govern a man’s conduct. In other matters it behooves a gentleman to be open, aboveboard, liberal, and true; good-natured, generous, confiding, self-denying, doing unto others as he would wish that others would do unto him; but in the acquirement and use of money – that is, its use with the object of acquiring more, its use in the usurer’s sense – his practice should be exactly the reverse: he should be close, secret, exacting, given to concealment, not over troubled by scruples; suspicious, without sympathies, self-devoted, and always doing to others exactly that which he is on guard to prevent them doing unto him – viz., making money by them.”

To simplify somewhat, then, we can say that the growth of industrialism and capitalism and the accumulation of great wealth in the hands of the few helped promote the sense of self-importance we see so prevalent today — along with the desire on the part of the poor and middle classes to imitate the wealthy and identify success and happiness with wealth and position rather than the obligations we have toward others and the desire to make the world a better place. We see this especially today as the very wealthy in this country flounder about in the polluted waters of politics seeking as much power and influence as possible, blind to any notion of the “common good.” The Victorian era had its many problems, to be sure, but when we rejected its values we seem to have thrown out the baby with the bath water.

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Gold As God

Have you ever wondered what makes people like the Koch brothers tick? What possesses a person to want to accumulate more and more wealth when they already have enough to buy a small country? Clearly, it’s a mania, but how does one penetrate into the psyche of such a type and figure out what lies deep within? Apparently this question, or one very like it, has occurred to a number of novelists who have examined miserliness. The classic example, of course, is Molière’s Harpagon. And then there’s George Eliot’s Silas Marner who is a bit of a miser but who comes out of the darkness in the end because of the love of a young girl he has allowed into his life. Eliot shows herself to be an old softie here, since Silas isn’t true to the type: misers love only money.

The writer I am most familiar with who seems to have been fascinated by the miserly type is Honoré de Balzac who wrote 92 novels, a number of which deal with the type. Balzac was deeply concerned about the consequences of the growing fixation around him for wealth in all its forms. It becomes a recurring theme in his novels, as it was in the novels of Anthony Trollope, George Eliot, and Charles Dickens. But the miser is a special case. There is the filthy rich Jérome-Niclas Séchard in Balzac’s Lost Illusions who is quite willing to see his only son, his daughter-in-law, and his grandchild starve rather than give them any of his money. But even more sinister is Eugénie Grandet’s awful father who whose first name is mentioned only once in Balzac’s novel by that name. He is simply referred to as “Grandet” who “towered above the other actors in [his town], exploiting enormous profits from [others’] pretense of friendship. . . . There, incarnate in a single man, revealed in the expression of a single face, did there not stand the only god that anyone believes in nowadays — Money, in all its power?” Old Grandet refused to spend a sou unless he absolutely had to. He gave his wife an allowance, a mere pittance every now and again when necessary — keeping her large inheritance for himself. And he insisted that she pay for all household expenses out of her allowance. He allowed his daughter to buy the material to make herself a dress every year for her birthday. They used the cheapest candles, and very few of them. And his rooms rarely saw a warming fire in the fireplace. His house was cold, bleak, and run down and he insisted on making essential repairs himself. He had a locked room in the attic where he went to count his gold and calculate rates of interest on his investments. In Balzac’s mind the miserly type was the result of the sudden awareness of the possibilities (very real in his day) of accumulating huge amounts of wealth. He saw this not as mere avarice, but as a sickness that drove the sick person to madness or even tragedy. As he put it

“Misers hold no belief in a life beyond the grave, the present is all in all to them. This thought throws a pitilessly clear light upon the irreligious times in which we live, for today more than in any previous era money is the force behind the law, politically and socially. Books and institutions, the actions of men and their doctrines, all combine to undermine the belief in a future life upon which the fabric of society has been built for eighteen hundred years. The grave holds few terrors for us now, is little feared as a transition stage upon man’s journey. That future which once awaited us beyond the Requiem has been transported into the present. To reach per fas et nefas [by fair means or foul] an earthly paradise of luxury and vanity and pleasure, to turn one’s heart to stone and mortify the flesh for the sake of fleeting enjoyment of earthly treasure, as saints once suffered martyrdom in the hope of eternal bliss, is now the popular ambition! It is an ambition stamped on our age and seen in everything, even the very laws whose enaction requires the legislator to exercise not his critical faculties, but his power of making money. Not ‘What do you think?’ but ‘What can you pay?’ is the question he is asked now. When this doctrine has been handed down from the bourgeoisie to the people, what will become of our country?”

As is clear from this stinging passage, Balzac connected the miser’s love of money with a spreading disease that has serious ramifications for the whole of an age and a people. It’s not only that the miser’s heart turns to stone — a phenomenon he explores in great detail in Eugénie Grandet — but that his disease is spreading. But what is of singular interest for my present purpose, especially if Balzac is on to something here, is the perception that the miser’s love of gold becomes all-consuming and his feelings die within his breast as passion takes over and those around him become mere instruments for the gathering of more and more wealth. There is no question why? since the miser doesn’t even consider the possibility of spending it. There is simply the question “How?” and the all-consuming passion for more and more of that which he already has in abundance. Balzac makes the following penetrating observation regarding Grandet:

“A miser’s life is a constant exercise of every human faculty in the service of his own personality. He considers only two feelings, vanity and self-interest: but as the achievement of his interest supplies to some extent a concrete and tangible tribute to his vanity, as it is a constant attestation of his real superiority, his vanity and the study of his advantage are two aspects of one passion — egotism. . . . Like all misers he had a constant need to pit his wits against those of other men, to mulct them of their crowns . . . . To get the better of others, was that not exercising power, giving oneself with each new victim the right to despise those weaklings of the earth who are unable to save themselves from being devoured? Oh! has anyone properly understood the meaning of the lamb lying peacefully at God’s feet, that most touching symbol of all the victims of this world, and of their future, the symbol which is suffering and weakness glorified? The miser lets the lamb grow fat, then he pens, kills, cooks, eats, and despises it. Misers thrive on money and contempt.”

I suppose this takes us part way, at least, to an understanding of modern-day misers who can see nothing beyond the process of maximizing profits at whatever cost to satisfy their own bloated egos. They have no better nature to appeal to: an appeal that is based, say, on the very real possibility that they are blind to the deterioration of the world around them, a blindness that will eventually destroy them and a great many others along with them. They care not: their only urge is to amass a larger and larger fortune. It becomes an end in itself. The means simply do not matter.

Victorian Values

The two major forces that brought the Victorian age to an end were industrial capitalism and the demise of the Christian religion after the First World War, the “war to end all wars.” What lies at the heart of this struggle for survival of the paramount Victorian values, as we see it working its way out in the conflict between the social classes in England at the time, and in the expansion of suffrage, is the struggle between Self and Other: which is to be paramount? Victorian intellectuals, such as Anthony Trollope, were greatly alarmed by the coming of the steam engine and the rapid changes it entailed. Among other things, it meant the displacement of birth and privilege by wealth. This was disturbing because for the Victorians birth and privilege implied duties on the part of the landed gentry to those of lower social standing, those upon whom life itself depended and who were assumed to be in need of guidance.  And while there were abuses of this responsibility (as George Eliot showed in Adam Bede)  in large measure the landed gentry cared about their dependents and saw their own good tied up with those who depended upon them. We get a glimpse of this in the recent popular TV show on PBS, Downton Abbey. It was by no means clear that the new, wealthy landowners in the provinces, many of whom had moved from the large cities as they acquired wealth, would feel the same obligations to those who worked for them.

As capitalism grew by leaps and bounds and wealth changed hands from the “well-born” to the nouveau riche, power also changed hands. It was a painful process, as those who saw their power and prestige slipping away regretted the sudden appearance of those “middle-class upstarts who want to rank with gentlemen, and think they’ll do it with kid gloves and new furniture,”  as Rev. John Lingon remarked in Eliot’s Felix Holt: The Radical.  Anthony Trollope, like his contemporary, William Makepeace Thackeray, saw the issue clearly, as he struggled for years trying to determine what exactly makes a “gentleman”;  whether the term could be said to apply in an age of increasing wealth and prestige among the lower and  middle classes, given the corrupting effects of money, especially upon men who had never had much. In a remarkable passage in Trollope’s The Three Clerks, the narrator tells us that one of the three clerks, hovering between virtue and vice, is learning what there is to know about

“the great utility, one may almost say the necessity, of having command of money; he was beginning  also to perceive that money was not a thing to be judged by the ordinary rules which govern a man’s conduct. In other matters it behooves a gentleman to be open, aboveboard, liberal, and true; good-natured, generous, confiding, self-denying, doing unto others as he would wish that others would do unto him; but in the acquirement and use of money – that is, its use with the object of acquiring more, its use in the usurer’s sense – his practice should be exactly the reverse: he should be close, secret, exacting, given to concealment, not over troubled by scruples; suspicious, without sympathies, self-devoted, and always doing to others exactly that which he is on guard to prevent them doing unto him – viz., making money by them.”

To simplify somewhat, then, we can say that the growth of industrialism and capitalism and the accumulation of great wealth in the hands of the few helped promote the sense of self-importance we see so prevalent today along with the desire on the part of the majority to imitate the wealthy and identify success and happiness with wealth and position rather than the obligations we have toward others and the desire to make the world a better place. The Victorian era had its many problems, to be sure, but when we rejected its values we seem to have thrown out the baby with the bath water.

Why Manners Matter

As humans emerged from the “dark ages” they began to show greater interest in their behavior toward others. It was an essential element in what Norbert Elias called “the civilizing process.” In 1530, for example, we find Erasmus admonishing folks to be “reasonable, courteous and respectful in word or gesture.” One of my favorite of his admonitions was his insistence that “it is impolite to greet anyone who is urinating or defecating . . . A well-bred person should always avoid exposing without necessity those parts to which nature has attached modesty.”  These concerns were coupled with admonitions not to be like “the rustics,” which reflect a conviction that some people were simply regarded as better than others. Classes, evolving from the Feudal age, were beginning to form and they would take firm hold well into the age of capitalism and industrialization when they would begin to blur. But the point was that people were becoming aware that others mattered; the “higher” classes were beginning to learn manners and they were also determined that they needed to take care of those who were their responsibility (no doubt because the “rustics” provided them with their living. Here we have a sense of duty born of self-interest). Thus came into being, I would think, social “forms,” which were prevalent well into the Victorian age in England and, to a lesser extent, in this country as well.

But then came the growth of capitalism and the sudden birth of a wealthy class which blurred the old social classes and the “new rich” began to imitate the “well-born.” The blue bloods had been taught from birth to behave well in company and to take into account the impact of their behavior on others.  But right and wrong became lost in the confusion over whether or not wealth was a good thing as a waning Christianity weakened the restraints of morality and the Other became less and less important.  Manners began to deteriorate as the new rich took up the same forms and tried to mimic those they regarded as the paradigms of society, their “betters.”

This is what was happening in New York in the early part of the twentieth century as reflected in many of Edith Wharton’s novels: ethical restraints were tottering and the new rich were social climbers who took up behaviors that were not natural to themselves and those behaviors became mere empty forms — though those “born to the manor” whom the new-rich imitated increasingly lost sight of what those forms had once meant. I don’t think Wharton had any quarrel with the forms themselves, after all, they were built around a genuine concern for others and focused on what she would have called “good manners.” But when the forms were empty they became a sham, and the young, especially, saw that and also saw the hypocrisy and pretense that hid behind a false front. So the young during Wharton’s era started looking for new paradigms and saw around them the more “natural” behaviors of others who smoked, were disrespectful of their elders, and were increasingly preoccupied with themselves. This they found an easy model to copy and it became the norm.

Again, Wharton’s quarrel was with the pretense and falsehood of the empty forms that were being grafted onto wealthy social climbers who modeled themselves after a “higher” social class who had begun to forget why the forms were invented in the first place. In the shuffle something terribly important was being lost, namely, a determined effort (for whatever reasons) to behave toward others as one would have them behave toward oneself. Indeed, the sense of “other” was soon lost entirely. That, I think, is what bothered Edith Wharton. It bothered George Eliot and Anthony Trollope as well who saw it happening around them in England a generation before Wharton. And we are the inheritors of this legacy. The loss of “good manners” was nothing less than the loss of a sense that the “other” mattered in the least. Thus, if manners are a sign that we have become civilized, then the loss of manners would suggest that we are reverting to a sort of new barbarism in which the individual is the only one who matters.

A New York Minute

I thoroughly enjoy reading Sports Illustrated and have done for years. It is well written, timely, and insightful. I nearly always find food for thought as I am interested in sports and the numerous scandals that surround professional sports that I have myself written about and which SI always covers in depth. In the most recent issue, the editor holds forth on the short attention span of the American sporting public. No sooner have we experienced Tibomania than we are bored and move on to Linmania, which lasts until Jeremy Lin has a couple of bad games. This is assuredly true, though the exception is the sporting public’s fascination with Tiger Woods. But this exception simply proves the general rule. The editorial also provided the following gem, which has larger implications:

“Our culture moves at warp speed, no question, the weekly or even daily news cycle long since replaced by an up-to-the-second Twitter feed or Facebook update. We said goodbye to thoughtful consideration the day we moved over to microwave popcorn — because who could possibly wait for the stove-top variety. That’s our reality.”

The phrase I want to focus on is “we said goodbye to thoughtful consideration…” That does seem to sum up one of the salient facts about our culture. Not only do we have a short attention span that requires snippets rather than lengthy explanations, we also want our news to be entertaining and we also cannot stay focused on the latest sensation long enough to savor it fully. That is a shame. And it says a lot about us as a people. Teachers are finding it out about their pupils in the classroom and newspaper editors are finding it out about their shrinking readership. We want what we want in small, easily digested thought-bites and we want it now. We don’t relish the uncertainty of anticipation even though it increases delight. We cannot focus on an issue long enough to probe its depths and discover its hidden meanings. In a word, we cannot pause and think about things because our attention is brief and shallow.

It has been known for some time that kids need “down time,” a time when nothing is scheduled and they can simply be by themselves with nothing particular to do. I have always felt that adults need that as well, though I have never seen anyone make this claim. I know I prize my down time — which the Greeks called “leisure” and put a high price upon. It is a time when a person can be most creative, most productive. I find it in abundance as a retired person in the small town I am lucky enough to live in, where I am out of the “loop” and the world seems to go by in slow-motion. But not everyone is as lucky, and things seem to happen to most of us in too much of a hurry for us to assimilate what is going on. Thus frenzy replaces leisure. And this is the problem.

One of the things Victorian writers like George Eliot and Anthony Trollope worried about with the coming of the steam engine in the nineteenth century was precisely this: the pace of life would now becomes so fast that we would no longer have time to digest what is happening to us, to thoroughly enjoy the moment and discover what it really means. These writers never imagined the jet age, of course, and were not around to see the microwave replace the oven. But they knew what they were talking about. We have become a “me-here-now” culture that demands immediate satisfaction and doesn’t have time to stop and think. Furthermore, we don’t seem to be able to imagine the consequences of our actions or plan ahead. Our focus on the immediate present seems to have cost us our imagination, though part of that loss must be attributable to a media industry that is prone to overkill. In any event, we have  indeed “said goodbye to thoughtful consideration.” The payoff is predictable: anxiety blended with mistakes resulting from lack of foresight. These are certainly two of the most obvious symptoms of our age.