“Wok down angle” by Dan Bollinger – via Wikimedia Commons
The dictum, “Love of money is the root of all evil,” is widely known but perhaps not so widely believed. It is by no coincidence that the majority of us in the West inhabit economies where love of money is all but mandatory. We may not feel “in love” with money, but our actions betray an attitude of the deepest devotion to money, an attitude heavily conditioned and reinforced by the whole of society.
In our minds only the very rich love money, since only the very rich have enough of it to relax, sit back, and think happy thoughts about their bank balances and net worth. We do not think of ourselves as lovers of money, but we are nonetheless, nearly to a man, devoted to the getting, the storing, and the increasing of our share. We may not feel that we love money, but we are, like respectable men of a past era, intent on doing the right thing by it. And for nearly all of us the right thing is to chase money, accumulate money, loyally devote ourselves to the earning and the increasing of our monetary wealth.
The fact is that when it comes to money we are indeed lovers; unfortunately we are jealous lovers, unrequited lovers, cold and possessive lovers. We are lovers of money who hardly ever feel the love. Yet like a besotted youth or a drunken poet we will admit – in varying shades of fervour or despair – that money means the world to us.
How can love of money be both the root of all evil and the most basic tenet of life’s common sense? How can it be on the one hand evil, but on the other hand such a necessary part of modern life? Should we just accept it as a necessary evil?
The answer may lie in the distinction, made first by Aristotle and reinforced by his Christian interpreter St Thomas Aquinas, between two kinds of wealth, the natural and the artificial.
Natural wealth refers to the goods that fulfil the basic needs of human nature: in order to live we require food, clothing, shelter, and transport. Beyond these mere basics we could invoke the older meaning of wealth as wellbeing, and so include all the other, less tangible aspects of life that enrich us: our families, friends, work, play, and also knowledge, beauty, and even virtue. In this sense even a poor man is wealthy if he has virtue. But in general natural wealth is taken to mean the material necessities of life – the basis of our support and comfort.
Artificial wealth is, as the name suggests, an artifice or product of human cunning. Money exemplifies artificial wealth in an age where our entire monetary store can exist only as a configuration of data on an electronic device. The foundation of artificial wealth is twofold: on the one hand the artifice receives its value from human conventions; on the other hand that value is realised in the acquisition of natural wealth.
In other words, money only works because people respect it, and its ultimate value is found in the ability to exchange it for the natural wealth that meets our material needs. If money could no longer be exchanged for natural wealth, it would lose its value.
This is, typically, how the vice of greed and the warning against love of money are understood. While natural wealth is limited, artificial wealth is potentially unlimited. You can only sleep in one bed, but you can hoard a theoretically unlimited amount of money.
But the logic of the vice goes deeper: because artificial wealth can be exchanged for a multitude of different things including different forms of natural wealth, it is widely considered to be superior, to have greater potential or power. To have a thousand bags of carrots is not as good as having a thousand dollars; if you have a thousand dollars you can buy only as many carrots as you need, at your own leisure. Carrots are a perishable good, and a man can only eat so many of them before his skin turns slightly orange; but a man can own an infinite amount of money without apparent consequence.
As any child knows, if you find a genie in a magic lamp who grants you three wishes, the most cunning wish to wish is to wish for infinite wishes. Money is like having infinite wishes, wishes you can exchange for whatever finite goods you desire.
Artificial wealth is, therefore, a power and a temptation all of its own, hence the Christian warning that love or desire of money is the root of all evil. The love of money for its own sake is a love of power, and love of power is generally a corrupting influence.
But there is a deeper problem for those of us inhabiting societies where money is not merely power but the basis of daily economy. We literally cannot run our households without money; most of us cannot even get hold of a house without huge amounts of money. Money really is everything in our society, yet few of us seem at risk of having too much of it, of being corrupted by its sheer power, of becoming dangerously rich in monetary terms.
You can’t eat money
We have seen that money is powerful, and the power of money refers to its potential to be exchanged for any kind of actual, or natural, wealth. Yet, as any good Thomist can tell you, to be in potential is not as good as to be in act.
Thus, the paradox of a monetary economy is that the wealthiest in monetary terms are wealthy in potential only; they are poorer than those with actual wealth. In the familiar words of Alanis Obomsawim, an indigenous Canadian:
When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realize, too late, that wealth is not in bank accounts and that you can’t eat money.
Despite the psychological comfort of potential wealth, the reassurance of a high income or big bank account, there is also a kind of psychological poverty in relying solely on potential and artifice for one’s existence. The more we rely on artificial wealth, the less stock we put on natural wealth. We can buy whatever food we desire, independent of local climate and seasons, yet in an emergency most of us would starve within a week or so. Our natural wealth is so limited that I wonder if it isn’t a subconscious source of anxiety and fear. My apartment enjoys the modern miracles of electricity, plumbed gas, and hot and cold running water, yet I would die of dehydration in a few days if a mains pipe were to burst.
We are increasingly out of touch with natural wealth. We cannot meet our own needs directly, but must depend increasingly on artificial wealth. And as with any potential thing, when compared with actual wealth potential wealth is lacking in substance. Money comes to us in artificial amounts, through artificial channels, in no intrinsic relation to the work of our hands. By contrast, natural wealth has its own rhythms, its times and seasons, its own varied and unique characteristics.
My own experiments in natural wealth have shown that it enriches life in a way that artificial wealth cannot. The bland and boring accumulation of money bears no comparison to the skill, the effort, the accomplishment and the fun of roasting one’s own coffee beans or brewing one’s own beer from grain. To have a stockpile of green coffee beans, and to roast batches of them weekly or fortnightly as required, not only provides a superior product at a much lower monetary cost, but also provides an indescribable sense of satisfaction, of sufficiency, and of actual wealth. I own coffee, and I have the skill to make use of it. This modest action adds depth and nuance to my life; it connects me to the time and the rhythm of natural wealth – a cycle of production and consumption of which I am now more completely a part. It restores, in even the smallest measure, an historical connection with past generations for whom the creation and accumulation of natural wealth was the substance of daily life.
Ultimately the love of artificial wealth is a poor substitute for the embodied, material, actual wealth we need to meet our daily needs. We may be richer than ever, enjoying a standard of living that would be considered luxurious in any previous generation. Yet perversely our lives are increasingly impoverished by our dependence on a single, abstract source of well-being and security. The thinness of a contemporary consumerist lifestyle is testament to our one-dimensional understanding of wealth in the modern world, a view of well-being ever more removed from the true richness and depth of human nature.
Zac Alstin is a freelance writer living in Adelaide, South Australia. He blogs at zacalstin.com