The Meaning of Money

A Sunday Sermon from The Idler.

Money is making the news – or to be more specific, off-shore money that supposedly affords the ├╝ber-rich a glamorous life that most of us can only dream of.

But it’s odd, the minute you think about it. Take the other big story of last week, the unexpected paternity revelation of the Archbishop of Canterbury. It also carried the distinctive sound of sloshing excess money, though with a very different tone.
Justin Welby comes from a privileged background. He was sent to Eton. When his mother was short of money, the establishment secured her a job at Number 10 and a flat in Hyde Park Gate. The source of DNA for Welby’s deceased father was found on ivory-backed, monogrammed hairbrushes. And yet, it’s quite clear that money bought Welby no happiness. “The poor child was left like a little football,” his biological father is said once to have remarked.

So when we all know that money doesn’t buy happiness, why do we get so excited about it? I think it’s because no-one is quite sure just what money is.

Attempts to answer the question are ancient. The theory that tends to capture the imagination can be sourced to Aristotle. He argued that in complex societies, marked by citizens seeking very different lives, there is a need for something universal that everyone desires. That universal something facilitates exchange. Say that I make shoes and you make hats, but I don’t want a hat though you want shoes. We therefore need some third thing that both of us value. For much of civilized human history that universal something has been gold – or silver or bronze; some type of valuable metal.

It’s left us feeling that money is real; something that can be meaningfully accumulated; something that is worth being jealous of; that is worth organising your life in pursuit of. You can feel the weight of it in your pocket, see the sum of it in your bank. And it’s a plausible theory. A friend of mine, who’s a banker, said he realised he was fascinated by money when as a child he received his pocket-money as a fiver, when his friends only got coins. He was the envy of the playground and he’s been gripped by the power of money ever since.

So here’s a startling thought. Perhaps money isn’t anything real at all. After all, stashed in the bank, or an off-shore account, it does you no good. For that, you have to spend it. The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer had a wonderful expression for stored, inert money: “frozen desire”. Those who live their lives with more filthy lucre than they can spend become a bit frozen, a bit dazzling, a bit dead, he thought. He’s not alone. Plato observed, in the wealthy Athens of his day, that those who have made fortunes are often boring company because they only really value others who have made fortunes.

So Plato offered another answer to the question of what money is. He argued it wasn’t primarily a means of exchange, though it can be that. Rather, it was a symbol. And onto that symbol can be projected all manner of worries, hopes, aspirations, dreams.

I think this idea about the nature of money explains more. For one thing, it’s actually the way the modern economy has gone, since the abandonment of the gold standard in the 1930s. Today, money is usually called fiat money: it is printed by governments at will. It comes with a promise on it. But that promise is in itself meaningless, and that’s the point. Money can therefore come to mean almost anything to anyone. Hence, last week, the prime minister’s off-shore money brought into focus all sorts of complaints and resentments, and there was nothing he could do to stop the vitriol that came his way.

Plato thought it’s worth remembering that money is only a symbol because he hoped that educated citizens would be able to contain what it symbolised. Some things can be usefully bought with money, yes. But other things cannot – for example, happiness

What seems to have happened in late capitalist cultures, such as our own, is that we’ve forgotten to limit our understanding of money. It’s become almost everything. To recall a saying of the person who finally brought Justin Welby happiness, Jesus of Nazareth: the risk is that you serve money like you serve God. But whereas the latter gives life, the former simply cannot.

When it breaks all bounds, money gains a terrible pseudo-divine power over us. But if Plato is right, you can be sure it’s not real. It’s just a symbol. And when we worship mere symbols, our civilization really is on the rocks.

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