Filthy Lucre

For hundreds of years in the West it was deemed vulgar to be involved in the making of more money than was required to live on, including lending at interest or simply hoarding. The notion that one would spend his or her time simply accumulating money and wealth was regarded, not only by the Christian Church but also by those “in the know” as beneath contempt. In Dante’s Inferno, for example, the usurers are placed beneath the murderers because they commit a sin against God, whereas murderers only commit a sin against man. Those who lend money at interest seek to make money appear where there was none before, creating money without laboring in any way, creating money ex nihilo. Only God can do this, it was thought. When man seeks to copy God he has stepped beyond a moral barrier that condemns him to eternal perdition. In Dante’s poem the usurers sit at the edge of a burning pit with heavy bags of gold around their necks, waiting for the gold to increase, presumably.

There can be no doubt that the deep prejudices that folks like Adolph Hitler drew upon against the Jews in Europe was based, in part at least, on the fact that the Jews saw nothing wrong with usury or the making of money while those who did not espouse that particular religious view were told in no uncertain terms that it was contemptible and trifling and even vulgar. There was one Jew, of course, who founded a new religion based on the notion that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. But he was an exception and has been widely ignored, especially of late. In any event, the accumulation of wealth as an end in itself was regarded as de-humanizing and even immoral.

How did this view change? How did we get from looking down at money-gatherers to regarding them as the most successful people on earth and worthy not only of our respect but even, in some cases, of our adoration? Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are held in high esteem in our culture. We even have elected a president whose only possible claim to that office is that he was a successful (?) businessman. They are examples of the fact that anyone can “make it” in America. The Horatio Alger myth lives on, though it gets a bit weaker when we discover that many were born with a silver spoon in their tiny mouths and we also discover that Balzac was right: where there’s a fortune there must have been a crime.

In any event, the attitude toward “filthy lucre” has changed radically and it is down to people like John Locke, Adam Smith, and John Calvin. The changes in attitude came in two stages. Firstly, the notion that the acquisition of great wealth, once regarded as a sign of grubby self-seeking greed, had been replaced by the eighteenth century, when capitalism was aborning, by the notion that the accumulation of great wealth was an example of virtuous behavior  — a point of view we find expressed again and again in Adam Smith who wrote that “probity and punctuality are virtues that invariably accompany the introduction of commercial relations into society.” And, secondly, it was said that commerce benefits not only the one who engages directly in the activity, but it benefits everyone else around him as well. It has a “trickle down” effect, if you will. Smith worried that capitalism displaced centuries-old morality, but he felt that, in the end, it was worth the trade-off.

But even before Smith we read that John Locke worried about the possibility that in a state of nature a man could accrue to himself more of nature’s bounty than he could possibly need and in the process leave little or nothing for his fellow humans. This was not a good thing. But once gold and silver were taken to be true wealth and John Calvin insisted that the gaining of wealth was a sign of God’s grace and favor, this no longer was a problem; now one could accumulate as much as he wanted whether he could ever spend it in his lifetime or not. It would never spoil and, presumably, there was plenty left for others to accrue as well. So was born the “Protestant work ethic.”

Thus, in our day, we have heroes who would have been pilloried in earlier times. We now regard the making and hoarding of money as not only acceptable but also as a sign of intelligence, imagination, and hard work, worthy of admiration, a measure of success. In the process the accumulation of capital, has become at the very least an a-moral activity, even though folks like Karl Marx continued to regarded it as immoral — because it necessarily involves the taking it way from others who need it more, who earned it, and therefore deserve to have it. This happens under capitalism in the form of the creation of “surplus value” which we have come to dismiss as, simply, “the earnings of capital.” The wealthy see their immense profits as something they have earned and therefore deserve, whereas others (like Marx) might view it as coming at the cost of unethical acts that involve the exploitation of those who actually do the work necessary to produce the wealth in the first place.

But no matter which way we look at it, the making and hoarding or money, no matter how great the hoard, is now viewed in our culture as a good thing. It is no longer “contemptible and trifling,” unworthy of human beings who have been touched by the hand of God. It is no longer “vulgar.” At the very least it is clear that the making of filthy lucre has become “demoralized.” Ethics and economics simply do not mix in our current commodified culture. No longer do the usurers have to worry about  being placed in a burning pit with heavy bags of gold around their necks through eternity. Now they build high-priced, low-quality mini-mansions, swim in their own swimming pools, and drive large, powerful gas-guzzling cars to Church every Sunday for an hour.  And the rest of us admire them and want to be just like them.

Locke On Property

One of the more fascinating chapters in John Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government explains his position on property. He ties his view in with his doctrine of natural human rights which informed the thinking of our founders as well. In fact, Thomas Jefferson had a portrait of Locke on his walls (one of two I am given to understand) and his “Declaration of Independence” is thoroughly Lockian, as is his Virginia Constitution. In any event, Locke thought that property was a natural right, along with life and liberty. Note that Jefferson borrowed Locke’s phrase which was later changed to “Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness.”

Property is a natural right because in a state of nature, before there are any civil laws to protect it, we have a right to as much property as we can take and use. Note that “use” is a key here. Locke  places a boundary on this type of acquisition–a person may only acquire as many things in this way as he or she can reasonably use to his advantage, making sure to leave some for the next person. If, for example, I chance upon apple trees in the state of nature I have a right to as many apples as I can reasonably consume before the next harvest. I ought not take more than I can eat or so many that others who might have a right to them as well cannot find enough to eat. That is, I should only take as many apples as I can eat before they go bad; if I take too many apples and some of them rot and go to waste, I have overextended my natural rights of acquisition. Others might have been able to eat those apples. One ought only take so much as one can use. Locke applies these rules to land: a person in a state of nature can claim land by adding labor to it–building house on it or farming on it–but only so much as that person can reasonably use without waste.


The invention of money clouds the picture somewhat, but the principle remains the same. The value of money is merely symbolic: it stands for the labor extended in creating products. I have a right to collect more money than I actually need because money does not spoil. But, at the same time, I have no right to more than I could possibly need in my lifetime, especially if it means that others will have less than they need to live on. It’s a “zero-sum” game here — even in the case of money. There’s only so much to go around.

Even John Calvin writing a century before Locke and usually credited with formulating the Protestant Work Ethic, urges restraint — and bear in mind that this is the man who regarded great wealth as a sign of God’s favor:

“. . .many today look for an excuse for excessive self-indulgence in the use of material things. They take for granted that their liberty must not be restrained in any way, but that it should be left to every man’s conscience to do whatever he think is right.  . . but because Scripture has laid down general rules for the use of material possessions, we should keep within the limits laid down. . . . Many are so obsessed with marble, gold and pictures that they become marble-hearted, are changed into hard metal or become like painted figures.”

If we now alter our focus somewhat and think about our own society in which 1% of the people control the vast majority of wealth in the country and the numbers of poor and needy grow daily, thousands of whom have no place to sleep or sufficient food to eat, we can see where Locke might have some serious problems. He was convinced, as was Adam Smith (the father of free-market capitalist theory), that humans would be guided by a moral sensitivity to the needs of others and their natural tendencies towards acquisition would be tempered by that sensitivity, as was urged by such men as John Calvin. In other words, the concept of the “free market” was couched within an ethical framework which stressed human sympathy for those less fortunate than ourselves: people would care about one another out of a sense of shared humanity, as “laid down by Scripture.” The notion that some would accumulate billions of dollars while others around them starve was unheard of, not even considered. It clearly violates the fundamental Lockian principle about the natural right we all have to property. To quote Benjamin Disraeli,

“Riches, position, and power have only one duty — to secure the social welfare of the People.”

In sum, our present situation violates the fundamental moral principle — and Locke’s notion of natural rights was a moral precept, not an economic one — that we have a right only to that which we can reasonably use in our lifetime while making sure there is enough for others who might be in need. On its face it is abhorrent that so few control so much of the wealth in this country and so many of them seem to have no sense of shared humanity with others in need — though there are notable exceptions, such as Bill Gates and a handful of wealthy athletes who make an effort to help those on this earth who go hungry to bed (if they have one) each night. I would argue that those with great wealth have a moral obligation to help others who have less than they do. At the very least, they have no right to more than they require to live a healthy and happy life.

Is Christianity Dead?

My blog-buddy, BTG, recently took exception to my claim that Christianity is dead — or if not dead, then rendered irrelevant by modern life. I want to defend my claim somewhat in this limited space, though I would say at the outset that even if it is true that Christianity is no longer a vital force in our postmodern culture, there are certainly many good people who profess to be Christians and attend church regularly. And there are Christian communities around the world that still share the deep beliefs of bygone days. Perhaps this is true even in this country, here and there.

But when we consider that a study conducted in 1993 concluded that only 19.6 percent of the Protestants and 28 percent of the Catholics in America were in church in any given week, we must pause. If we contrast this with that period of 1000 years in Western history when Christianity was a vital force, say, up to the Renaissance, I think I can make my case without repeating more than necessary what I have said in previous blog posts.

In the so-called “middle ages” atheism in Europe was practically unknown. The majority of men and women attended church regularly, sometimes daily and two or three times on Sunday. In addition, the invocation of saint-protectors, the cult of relics, the division of the day by the bells that sounded regularly from parish or monastic church permeated the air and threaded a sense of security through life’s many uncertainties. But one thing that was not uncertain was the assurance that a good life would be rewarded in heaven and a wicked life would be punished by eternal damnation. This was assured and it gave medieval people a center to their lives and a hope that is greater than anything we can compare it with these days. As Carl Gustav Jung said in his intriguing book Modern Man In Search of a Soul:

“How totally different did the world appear to medieval man! For him the earth was eternally fixed and at rest in the center of the universe encircled by the course of a sun that solicitously bestowed its warmth. Men were the children of God under the loving care of the Most High, who prepared them for blessedness; and they knew exactly what they should do and how they should conduct themselves in order to rise from a corruptible world to an incorruptible and joyous existence. . .

“The modern man has lost all the metaphysical certainties of his medieval brothers, and set up in their place the ideals of material security, general welfare, and humaneness.”

Modern man, as Jung goes on to argue, seeks to fill the vacuum left by the retreat of this all-encompassing spirituality by amassing wealth and engaging in such fads as scientology, encounter groups, therapy, T-groups, creativity workshops, meditation, est seminars, and the like. These replaced the certainties of medieval life and the pervasive influence of the church with its many clerics, priests, monks, friars, nuns, lay members of various religious orders, all identifiable by their costumes — to the tune of from one to three percent of the entire population. The lives of these people were filled by the church and, as Henry Adams argued convincingly, much of the certainty they shared was due to the loving influence of the Virgin Mary whom they considered their own mother who would forgive them, regardless how great their sins, and lead them to eternal joy in the life to come.

There can be no question that religion generally pales today in contrast with the religion of those years. The causes of these changes cannot be identified with ease, but there do seem to be a series of factors that have brought about the retreat of Christianity and religion generally from the lives of the great majority of us Westerners today. As Adams argued, the Protestant Reformation severed the ties medieval men and women had with the Virgin Mary and, as a result, the Church began to retreat from their lives and seem somehow remote and abstract, though some might argue that the Great Schism and the widespread corruption within the Catholic Church created a sense of growing uncertainty. There was also the invention of the printing press, which made available to a great many more people the written word — especially in the form of the Bible which they could read for themselves: they no longer had to rely on someone else to determine how to live their lives. Further, the birth of modern science that lessened suffering and prolonged life on this earth while relegating religion to the dust bin of “superstition” had a powerful influence as well. And, of course, the birth of industrial capitalism, as I have argued in previous blogs, had a powerful impact, especially given the impetus of thinkers like John Calvin who insisted that material prosperity was a certain sign of God’s grace and love, whereas it had previously been regarded as a sign of earthly corruption. Add to this two world wars, recurring plagues and pestilence, especially as modern cities grew more heavily populated, and one can understand why many began to regard this world as “absurd” and ceased to believe in anything but what they could see, hear, and grab for themselves.

What resulted was a growing unwillingness to make personal sacrifices together with the retreat, slowly but surely, of a life centered around thoughts of the world to come as a release from the suffering that seemed inevitable in this world. These were replaced by a world view centered on the self and the security in this world that could only be assured by wealth and a solid social structure shielded by a strong military presence. Perhaps it goes too far to say that Christianity (if not all of religion) is “dead,” because, as noted above, there are sincere believers who seek to live good lives according to the commandments of God. But the number of such people has shrunk to meager proportions as the desire to gain material advantages has increased and spread throughout the Western world. To be sure, there are pockets of resistance to the spread of materialism, and entire communities that can still be called “religious” in a meaningful sense of that word — especially in what we derisively call the “third world.”  Furthermore, there are certain elements of the Christian religion lying buried in whatever is left of our sense of charity, duty, and right and wrong. But as a generalization I think the case can be made that religion, for the vast majority of people alive in this century, is a faint shadow of what it once was: it simply does not comprise the center of most lives; it survives, if at all, on the periphery.

Not-So-Sacred Earth

I wrote recently about our tendency to reduce such things as art and athletics to something that can be measured and counted in dollars and cents. I drew on some of the things Robert Heilbroner wrote in his book The Nature and Logic of Capitalism. There is much to be learned from that remarkable book, and one of them has to do with our attitude toward the earth we are rapidly destroying in the name of “progress” and “profits.”

Heilbroner is convinced that the Judeo-Christian religion combined with modern science to engender an attitude toward the earth that encourages exploitation. He calls it the “desacralization” of the earth. If we loved the earth and regarded it as something sacred, or truly believed the earth is our Mother, as many cultures do, we could not possibly treat her the way we do. It’s an interesting thesis, though some might find it unsettling. In any event, what we have here is a serious type of reductionism indeed: reducing the earth to an inanimate thing to be exploited for our creature comforts.

To be sure, the Judeo-Christain religion teaches us that the earth is there to serve our purpose, whatever that purpose happens to be. Early on there were restraints, of course, as the New Testament taught that wealth in itself is not necessarily a good thing, that the love of money is the root of all evil. But these restraints gradually loosened and there was nothing in our religious tradition to suggest that the earth is sacred: it is there for us to do with as we might. By the time the exploitation of the earth became possible on a grand scale, thanks to a science that reduces reality to “an uncomplaining grid of space and time,” and great wealth became available by exploiting the earth, there was no moral compass in Western culture that allowed us to see that the direction we were taking would be both harmful and wrong. Heilbroner thinks that moral compass disappeared completely when John Locke insisted late in the seventeenth century that “unlimited private acquisition, for centuries the target of the most scathing religious and philosophic criticism, was in fact compatible with both the dictates of Scripture and the promptings of right reason.” Locke was of course simply aligning himself with John Calvin who had argued a century earlier that great wealth was a sign of God’s favor. As science led to the industrial age the way was being paved for capitalist exploitation of both human beings and the earth that supports them. It has now become a fait accompli.

The role of science in Heilbroner’s view is especially interesting. As he put it, the ideological aspect of science “lies in the function played by its deepest conception — an indifferent and inert matter as the ultimate stuff of reality. It thus provides a world view compatible with, and needed by, that required for the limitless invasion of the world for the purpose of surplus [capital] accumulation.” This translated in a remarkably short time into a technical explosion that made it possible to exploit the earth and take from it anything that might increase our wants and needs. Lacking any restraint from our religious tradition the cry went up to take and keep from the earth as much as possible. The result of this thinking was unfettered capitalism, greed with a capital “G,” and an earth that suffers from relentless exploitation, air and water that may not sustain us much longer, and multinational corporations that blindly rush after profits with no thought for the morrow.

Buying Elections

As the dust begins to settle on the failed attempts by the Democrats to recall Scott Walker in Wisconsin, it behooves any blogger worth his salt to utter an opinion or two. So here goes. I was asked by a friend if I was surprised by Walker’s win and had to answer that I honestly was not. In many ways it was predictable.

The Republicans are still crowing — if you’re quiet you can hear them. And the Democrats are acting a bit like a Christian Scientist with appendicitis [thank you, Tom Lehrer]. But the fact remains that the Republicans outspent the Democrats 8 to 1 with the Koch machine cranking out most of an estimated $45 million to keep Walker in office and send a message to the Democrats that America really does love its pocketbook above all else. The Hell with teachers and nurses!

The Koch brothers are a big part of what is wrong with this country. Rumors have it that they plan to spend $400 million of their hard-earned money to get Obama out of the White House and keep control of the Congress. They might succeed, of course, because as we all know money talks and after the Citizens United decision the amount of money that will be spent on the upcoming elections could buy a small country — or a large one that’s deep in debt. After all, the family oil business the Koch brothers own rakes in an estimated $100 billion a year! The sky’s the limit!

But note the irony in the fact that people like the Koch brothers will spend millions of dollars to buy politicians who will guarantee that they get to keep most if not all of their wealth in the future. I dare say they see it as an investment. Some of the wealthy 1%, I understand, even buy politicians on both sides of the political aisle. That way they can’t lose.

The interesting question is what on earth the founders would say about the turn of events. So let’s speculate. There are a number of myths rising from the “spiritually certain” about the religious preferences of the founders, insisting that they were all devout Christians. In fact there were some Christians within the group, but most were deists who didn’t attend church or believe in the efficacy of prayer. And they certainly did not want the church (any church) interfering in politics. They knew and hated England which had a state church and they saw the same sort of influence in France and Italy where the Catholic Church was all-powerful. They knew they didn’t want any of that. The recent tie-in between the political right-wing and the spiritually certain would have been bothersome to the founders.

But they were also suspicious of capitalism in its raw forms. A number of the Colonies had restrictions on the unfettered growth of capitalism, such as laws against primogeniture, the passing on of wealth to the first-born son. They saw that as a sure way to aristocracy which they distrusted almost as much as they did the King. Many were still wedded to the comfortable notion of mercantilism, which favored the involvement of the government in the financial affairs of its citizens. These were wise men who, for the most part, knew that humans left to their own wiles would get into a dog-eat-dog fight over wealth and they didn’t want to see that either. People like Jefferson saw the future of this country in terms of an agrarian ideal in which people would remain close to the earth and earn enough money to be content and have whatever they required to live a good life, but no more. “More” was not necessary and it could lead to moral blindness. Initially the founders, especially the Southerners, didn’t even want a Federal bank, though Alexander Hamilton finally persuaded them to go in that direction — as a matter of necessity. And many of the wealthy citizens helped support the young nation (and the revolution) with money out of their own pockets.

The attitude toward money in this country in the eighteenth century was quite different from ours now. For the most part money was seen as a means to an end, simply. There were remnants of a deep-seated medieval distrust of money and what it did to people — ultimately stemming from Christ’s admonitions in the New Testament. Just read Dante’s Inferno and try to figure out how many of those in Hell are there because of their relentless greed. That attitude took centuries to die out, but it is pretty much a thing of the past as, thanks to people like John Calvin, we now think that wealth is a sign of talent, ability and even, perhaps, God’s favor. You cannot have too much. If you do, you can always go out and buy yourself a country — like the Koch brothers.

Liberals and Conservatives

I have come to the point where I try to remember to put “liberal” and “conservative” in scare quotes. I do so because the words have scarcely any meaning. “Liberal” actually comes from the same root as “libertarian,” which is the school of thought initiated by the very liberal John Stuart Mill in the nineteenth century even though today libertarians are for the most part conservatives. Originally the term stressed minimal government and maximum freedom — as though you needed one in order to guarantee the other. There is some truth in this. But one finds the same concern in diverse thinkers like Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, both of whom insisted that human freedom could only be fully realized when governments were kept at a minimum. Otherwise, with large governments, we would get comfortable knowing that we would be taken care of if we are in need and our freedom would be lost. But one would hardly call either Dostoevsky or Nietzsche “liberal” as both were intellectually conservative and shared a deep distrust of what came to be called “socialism.”  Does this sound familiar? Indeed, it is precisely the concern of modern-day “dollar conservatives” who may or may not be libertarians, but who distrust government and hate socialism, or what they understand socialism to be.

As you can see, the words swim before our eyes. Today, “liberals” tend to be in favor of large government as a buffer to protect individuals against the abuses of great powers in the state that would take their freedom away, such as large corporations. Thus, they see large governments with numerous agencies as necessary for human freedom. The word “liberal” when used derisively tends to be equated with “socialist,” another abused term. Socialists believe that the state should own the means of production, because they don’t trust greedy capitalists to do the right thing. “Conservatives,” on the other hand, tend to be in favor of lower taxes and increased license for business which they tend to identify with the greatest good: what is good for business is good for society — all of us. This, of course, is at best a half-truth. Also, in recent years “conservatives” have gotten mixed up with religious enthusiasts who want minimum interference with individual conscience (theirs anyway) and approve only those laws that prohibit acts they regard as evil, such as abortion and the teaching of evolution in the schools. In extreme forms, these people would just as soon see the end of government altogether. Neither of these main groups of “conservatives” seems to give a tinker’s dam for conserving the environment, so the term seems to have no application beyond promoting their own religious or financial interests.

My adviser at Northwestern wrote an essay in which he claimed that the main difference between conservatives and liberals is that the former believe that the world exhibits ineluctable evil, echoing Calvin’s doctrine of “total depravity,” whereas the latter believe that the world can be improved through social engineering. There may be some truth in this, and it certainly attempts to take us to the heart of a real ideological difference. For my part, I think those we loosely call “conservatives” are fundamentally fearful and want a government strong enough to protect them and their interests, but not large enough to take anything away from them; those we call “liberal” are naively optimistic about the ways human life can be improved and seem convinced that most of our problems can be solved by throwing money at them. In any case, the terms are muddy at best and deserve to be placed in scare quotes, or trashed altogether.