Sacred Economics: Chapter 3, “Money and the Mind”

The following chapter is from Sacred Economics: Money, Gift, and Society in the Age of Transition, available from EVOLVER EDITIONS/North Atlantic Books. Return to the Sacred Economics content page here.



When all are isolated by egoism, there is nothing but dust, and at the advent of a storm, nothing but mire.  —Benjamin Constant

The power to induce a collective hallucination of scarcity is only one of the ways money affects our perceptions. This chapter will explore some of the deep psychological and spiritual effects of money: on the way we see the world, on our religion, our philosophy, even our science. Money is woven into our minds, our perceptions, our identities. That is why, when a crisis of money strikes, it seems that the fabric of reality is unraveling, too—that the very world is falling apart. Yet this is also cause for great optimism, because money is a social construction that we have the power to change. What new kinds of perceptions, and what new kinds of collective actions, would accompany a new kind of money?

Here we are on Chapter 3, and I have not even defined “money” yet! Most economists define money by its functions, such as medium of exchange, unit of account, and store of value. Accordingly, they put a very early date on the origin of money, perhaps five thousand years ago with the emergence of standard commodities such as grain, oil, cattle, or gold that served these functions. But when I speak of money, I am talking about something quite different, something that first appeared in Greece in the seventh century BCE. That was arguably the first time that money transcended mere commodity to become a distinct category of being. Henceforward, we could speak not only of what money does, but also of what it is.

Economists’ folklore holds that coins were invented in order to provide a guarantee of weight and purity for the underlying commodity metal. Their value, this story goes, came entirely from the gold or silver from which they were made. In fact, like the barter origin of money, like the assumption of scarcity, this account of the origin of coinage is an economist’s fantasy. It is a fantasy with an illustrious lineage to be sure. Aristotle wrote,

For the various necessaries of life are not easily carried about, and hence men agreed to employ in their dealings with each other something which was intrinsically useful and easily applicable to the purposes of life, for example, iron, silver, and the like. Of this the value was at first measured simply by size and weight, but in process of time they put a stamp upon it, to save the trouble of weighing and to mark the value.(1)

This account seems quite reasonable, but historical evidence seems to contradict it. The very first coins, minted in Lydia, were made of electrum (a silver-gold alloy) that varied widely in consistency.(2) Coinage quickly spread to Greece, where, even though coins were fairly consistent in weight and purity, they often had a value greater than the commodity value of the silver from which they were minted.(3) Indeed, some city-states (including Sparta) minted coins from base metals like iron, bronze, lead, or tin: such coins had negligible intrinsic value but still functioned as money.(4) In either case, stamped coins had a value (which, following historian Richard Seaford, we shall call the “fiduciary value”) greater than an identical but unstamped disk of metal. Why? What was this mysterious power that inhered in a mere sign? It was not a guarantee of weight and purity, nor was it an extension of the personal power of a ruler or religious authority. Seaford observes,

“Whereas seal-marks seem to embody the power of the owner of the seal, coin-marks create no imagined attachment between the coins and their source.”(5 )Rather, coin-marks authenticate the metal as possessing a certain value. And they do so not by transmitting power (magical or otherwise) to the piece of metal, but by imposing on it a form that recognizably assigns it to a distinct category of things, the category of authentic coins.… The coin-mark … operates in effect as a mere sign.(6)

Signs have no intrinsic power, but derive it from human interpretation. To the extent a society holds such interpretations in common, signs or symbols bear social power. The new kind of money that emerged in ancient Greece derived its value from a social agreement, of which the marks on coins were tokens. (7) This agreement is the essence of money. This should be obvious today, when most money is electronic and the rest has the approximate intrinsic value of a sheet of toilet paper, but money has been an agreement ever since the days of the ancient Greeks. Those reformers who advocate gold coinage as a way to return to the good old days of “real money” are trying to return to something that never existed, except perhaps for brief historical moments almost as an ideal. I believe that the next step in the evolution of human money will be not a return to an earlier form of currency, but its transformation from an unconscious to an intentional embodiment of our agreements.

Over 5,000 years, money has evolved from pure commodity, to a symbol riding upon a material, to pure symbol today. Sacred Economics seeks not to undo this evolution, but to fulfill it. The agreement that is money does not stand in isolation from the other systems of signs and symbols by which our civilization operates. We can embody in our money new agreements about the planet, the species, and what we hold sacred. For a long time we held “progress” sacred, the advancement of science and technology, the conquest of the natural realm. Our money system supported those goals. Our goals are changing now, and with them the great meta-stories of which the agreement called money is a part: the Story of Self, the Story of the People, and the Story of the World.

The purpose of this book is to tell a new story of money; to illuminate what new agreements we might embody within these fiduciary talismans, so that money is the ally, and not the enemy, of the more beautiful world our hearts tell us is possible.

It is no accident that ancient Greece, the place where symbolic money originated, also gave birth to the modern conception of the individual, to the notions of logic and reason, and to the philosophical underpinnings of the modern mind. In his scholarly masterpiece Money and the Ancient Greek Mind, classics professor Richard Seaford explores the impact of money on Greek society and thought, illuminating the characteristics that make money unique. Among them are that it is both concrete and abstract, that it is homogeneous, impersonal, a universal aim, and a universal means, and that it is unlimited. The entrance of this new, unique power into the world had profound consequences, many of which are now so deeply woven into our beliefs and culture, psyche and society, that we can barely perceive them, let alone question them.

Money is homogeneous in that regardless of any physical differences among coins, coins qua money are identical (if they are of the same denomination). New or old, worn or smooth, all one-drachma coins are equal. This was something new in the sixth century BCE. Whereas in archaic times, Seaford observes, power was conferred by unique talismanic objects (e.g., a scepter said to be handed down from Zeus), money is the opposite: its power is conferred by a standard sign that wipes out variations in purity and weight. Quality is not important, only quantity. Because money is convertible into all other things, it infects them with the same feature, turning them into commodities—objects that, as long as they meet certain criteria, are seen as identical. All that matters is how many or how much. Money, says Seaford, “promotes a sense of homogeneity among things in general.” All things are equal, because they can be sold for money, which can in turn be used to buy any other thing.

In the commodity world, things are equal to the money that can replace them. Their primary attribute is their “value”—an abstraction. I feel a distancing, a letdown, in the phrase, “You can always buy another one.” Can you see how this promotes an anti-materialism, a detachment from the physical world in which each person, place, and thing is special, unique? No wonder Greek philosophers of this era began elevating the abstract over the real, culminating in Plato’s invention of a world of perfect forms more real than the world of the senses. No wonder to this day we treat the physical world so cavalierly. No wonder, after two thousand years’ immersion in the mentality of money, we have become so used to the replaceability of all things that we behave as if we could, if we wrecked the planet, simply buy a new one.

I named this chapter “Money and the Mind.” Very much like the fiduciary value of money, mind is an abstraction riding a physical vehicle. Like monetary fiduciarity, the idea of mind as a separate, non-material essence of being developed over thousands of years, leading to the modern concept of an immaterial consciousness, a disembodied spirit. Tellingly, in both secular and religious thought, this abstraction has become more important than the physical vehicle, just as the “value” of a thing is more important than its physical attributes.

In the introduction I mentioned the idea that we have created a god in the image of our money: an unseen force that moves all things, that animates the world, an “invisible hand” that orders human activity, non-material yet ubiquitous. Many of these attributes of God or spirit go back to the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers who developed their ideas at precisely the time that money took over their society. According to Seaford, they were the first to even distinguish between essence and appearance, between the concrete and the abstract—a distinction completely absent (even implicitly) from Homer. From Anaximander’s apeiron to Heraclitus’s logos to the Pythagorean doctrine “All is number,” the early Greeks emphasized the primacy of the abstract: an unseen principle that orders the world. This ideology has infiltrated the DNA of our civilization to the point where the size of the financial sector dwarfs the real economy; where the total value of financial derivatives is ten times the world’s gross domestic product; where the greatest rewards of our society go to the Wall Street wizards who do nothing but manipulate symbols. For the trader at his computer, it is indeed as Pythagoras said: “All is number.”

One manifestation of this spirit-matter split that gives primacy to the former is the idea, “Sure, economic reform is a worthy cause, but what is much more important is a transformation of human consciousness.” I think this view is mistaken, for it is based on a false dichotomy of consciousness and action, and ultimately of spirit and matter. On a deep level, money and consciousness are intertwined. Each is bound up in the other.

The development of monetary abstraction fits into a vast meta-historical context. Money could not have developed without a foundation of abstraction in the form of words and numbers. Already, number and label distance us from the real world and prime our minds to think abstractly. To use a noun already implies an identity among the many things so named; to say there are five of a thing makes each a unit. We begin to think of objects as representatives of a category, and not unique beings in themselves. So, while standard, generic categories didn’t begin with money, money vastly accelerated their conceptual dominance. Moreover, the homogeneity of money accompanied the rapid development of standardized commodity goods for trade. Such standardization was crude in pre-industrial times, but today manufactured objects are so nearly identical as to make the lie of money into the truth.

As we consider the form of the money of the future, let us keep in mind money’s power to homogenize all that it touches. Perhaps money should only be used for that which is or should be standard, quantifiable, or generic; perhaps a different kind of money, or no money at all, should be involved in the circulation of those things that are personal and unique. We can only compare prices based on standard quantities; thus, when we receive more than that, something immeasurable, we have received a bonus, something we didn’t pay for. In other words, we have received a gift. To be sure, we can buy art, but we sense that if it is mere commodity, we pay too much; and if it is true art, we pay infinitely too little. Similarly, we can buy sex but not love; we can buy calories but not real nourishment. Today we suffer a poverty of immeasurable things, priceless things; a poverty of the things that money cannot buy and a surfeit of the things it can (though this surfeit is so unequally distributed that many suffer a poverty of those things, too).(8)

Just as money homogenizes the things it touches, so also does it homogenize and depersonalize its users: “It facilitates the kind of commercial exchange that is dis-embedded from all other relations.”(9) In other words, people become mere parties to a transaction. In contrast to the diverse motivations that characterize the giving and receiving of gifts, in a pure financial transaction we are all identical: we all want to get the best deal. This homogeneity among human beings that is an effect of money is assumed by economics to be a cause. The whole story of money’s evolution from barter assumes that it is fundamental human nature to want to maximize self-interest. In this, human beings are assumed to be identical. When there is no standard of value, different humans want different things. When money is exchangeable for any thing, then all people want the same thing: money.

Seaford writes, “Stripped of all personal association, money is promiscuous, capable of being exchanged with anybody for anything, indifferent to all non-monetary interpersonal relationships.”(10) Unlike other objects, money retains no trace of its origins and no trace of those through whom it has passed. Whereas a gift seems to partake of its giver, everyone’s money is the same. If I have $2,000 in the bank, half from my friend and half from my enemy, I cannot choose to spend my enemy’s $1,000 first and save my friend’s. Each dollar is identical.

Wisely, perhaps, many people refuse on principle to mix business with friendship, wary of the essential conflict between money and personal relationship. Money depersonalizes a relationship, turning two people into mere “parties to an exchange” driven by the universal goal of maximizing self-interest. If I seek to maximize self-interest, perhaps at your expense, how can we be friends? And when in our highly monetized society we meet nearly all our needs with money, what personal gifts remain from which to build friendship?

That the profit motive is antithetical to any benignant personal motive is nearly axiomatic—hence the phrase, “Don’t take it personally; it’s just business.” Today, an ethical business movement and ethical investment movement seek to heal the opposition between love and profit, but however sincere the motives, such efforts often mutate into public relations, “green-washing,” or self-righteousness. This is no accident. In later chapters I will describe a fatal contradiction in the attempt to invest ethically, but for now just note your natural suspicion of it, and in general of any claim to “do well by doing good.”

Any time we come across a seemingly altruistic enterprise, we tend to think, “What’s the catch?” How are they secretly making money from this? When are they going to ask me for money? The suspicion, “He’s actually doing it for the money” is nearly universal. We are quick to descry financial motives in everything people do, and we are deeply moved when someone does something so magnanimous or so naively generous that such motive is obviously absent. It seems irrational, even miraculous, that someone would actually give without contrivance of return. As Lewis Hyde puts it, “In the empires of usury the sentimentality of the man with the soft heart calls to us because it speaks of what has been lost.”(11)

The near-universality of the suspicion of an ulterior profit motive reflects money as a universal aim. Imagine yourself back in school, speaking to the career counselor, discussing what your gifts are and how you might use them to make a living (i.e., to convert them into money). This habit of thought runs deep: when my teenage son Jimi shows me the computer games he makes, I sometimes find myself thinking about how he might commercialize them and about which programming skills he could develop next to be more marketable. Almost any time someone gets an exciting creative idea, the thought, “How can we make money from this?” follows close behind. But when profit becomes the aim, and not a mere side effect, of artistic creation, the creation ceases to be art, and we become sellouts. Expanding this principle to life in general, Robert Graves warns, “You choose your jobs to provide you with a steady income and leisure to render the Goddess whom you adore valuable part-time service. Who am I, you will ask, to warn you that she demands either whole-time service or none at all?”(12)

Money as a universal aim is embedded in our language. We speak of “capitalizing” on our ideas and use “gratuitous,” which literally means received with thanks (and not payment), as a synonym for unnecessary. It is embedded in economics to be sure, in the assumption that human beings seek to maximize a self-interest that is equivalent to money. It is even embedded in science, where it is a cipher for reproductive self-interest. Here, too, the notion of a universal aim has taken hold.

That there is even such a thing as a universal aim to life (be it money or something else) is not at all obvious. This idea apparently arose at about the same time money did; perhaps it was money that suggested it to philosophers. Socrates used a money metaphor explicitly in proposing intelligence as universal aim: “There is only one right currency for which we ought to exchange all these other things [pleasures and pains]—intelligence.”(13) In religion this corresponds to the pursuit of an ultimate aim, such as salvation or enlightenment, from which all other good things flow. How like the unlimited aim of money! I wonder what the effect would be on our spirituality if we gave up on the pursuit of a unitary, abstract goal that we believe to be the key to everything else. How would it feel to release the endless campaign to improve ourselves, to make progress toward a goal? What would it be like just to play instead, just to be? Like wealth, enlightenment is a goal that knows no limit, and in both cases the pursuit of it can enslave. In both cases, I think that the object of the pursuit is a spurious substitute for a diversity of things that people really want.(14)

In a fully monetized society, in which nearly everything is a good or a service, money converts the multiplicity of the world into a unity, a “single thing that is the measure of, and exchangeable with, almost anything else.”(15) The apeiron, the logos, and similar conceptions were all versions of an underlying unity that gives birth to all things. It is that from which all things arise and to which all things return. As such it is nearly identical with the ancient Chinese conception of the Tao, which gives birth to yin and yang, and then to the ten thousand things. Interestingly, the semi-legendary preceptor of Taoism, Lao Tzu, lived at approximately the same time as the pre-Socratic philosophers—which is also more or less the time of the first Chinese coinage. In any event, today it is still money that gives birth to the ten thousand things. Whatever you want to build in this world, you start with an investment, with money. And then, when you have finished your project, it is time to sell it. All things come from money; all things return to money.

Money is therefore not only a universal aim; it is a universal means as well, and indeed it is largely because it is a universal means that it is also a universal end, of which one can never have too much. Or at least, that is how we perceive it. Many times I’ve been witness to discussions about creating an intentional community or launching some other project, only for it to end with a disheartening admission that it will never happen because, “Where are we going to get the money?” Money is quite understandably seen as the crucial factor in determining what we can create: after all, it can buy virtually any good, can induce people to perform virtually any service. “Everything has its price.” Money can even, it seems, purchase intangibles such as social status, political power, and divine goodwill (or if not that, at least the favor of religious authorities, which is the next best thing). We are quite accustomed to seeing money as the key to the fulfillment of all our desires. How many dreams do you have that you assume you could fulfill if only (and only if) you had the money? Thus we mortgage our dreams to money, turning it from means to end.

I will not advocate the abolition of money. Money has exceeded its proper bounds, become the means to attain things that should never be infected by its homogeneity and depersonalization; meanwhile, as we have universalized it as means, those things that money truly cannot buy have become unattainable, and no matter how much money we have, we can obtain only their semblance. The solution is to restore money to its proper role. For indeed there are things that human beings can create only with money, or with some equivalent means of coordinating human activity on a mass scale. In its sacred form, money is the implement of a story, an embodied agreement that assigns roles and focuses intention. I will return to this theme later as I describe what money might look like in a sacred economy.

Because there is no apparent limit to what money can buy, our desire for money tends to be unlimited as well. The limitless desire for money was abundantly apparent to the ancient Greeks. At the very beginning of the money era, the great poet and reformer Solon observed, “Of wealth, there is no limit that appears to man, for those of us who have the most wealth are eager to double it.” Aristophanes wrote that money is unique because in all other things (such as bread, sex, etc.) there is satiety, but not of money.

“How much is enough?” a friend once asked of a billionaire he knew. The billionaire was stumped. The reason that no amount of money can ever be enough is that we use it to fulfill needs that money cannot actually fulfill. As such it is like any other addictive substance, temporarily dulling the pain of an unmet need while leaving the need unmet. Increasing doses are required to dull the pain, but no amount can ever be enough. Today people use money as a substitute for connection, for excitement, for self-respect, for freedom, and for much else. “If only I had a million dollars, then I’d be free!” How many talented people sacrifice their youth hoping for an early retirement to a life of freedom, only to find themselves, at midlife, enslaved to their money?

When the primary function of money is as a medium of exchange, it is subject to the same limits as the goods for which it is exchanged, and our desire for it is limited by our satiety. It is when money takes on the additional function of store-of-value that our desire for it becomes unlimited. One idea I will therefore explore is the decoupling of money as medium-of-exchange from money as store-of-value. This idea has ancient roots going back to Aristotle, who distinguished between two kinds of wealth-getting: for the sake of accumulation, and for the sake of meeting other needs. (16) The former kind of wealth-getting, he says, is “unnatural” and, moreover, bears no limit.

Unlike physical goods, the abstraction of money allows us, in principle, to possess unlimited quantities of it. Thus it is easy for economists to believe in the possibility of endless exponential growth, where a mere number represents the size of the economy. The sum total of all goods and services is a number, and what limit is there on the growth of a number? Lost in abstraction, we ignore the limits of nature and culture to accommodate our growth. Following Plato, we make the abstraction more real than the reality, fixing Wall Street while the real economy languishes. The monetary essence of things is called “value,” which, as an abstracted, uniform essence, reduces the plurality of the world. All things are reduced to what they are worth. This gives the illusion that the world is as limitless as numbers are. For a price, you can buy anything, even the pelt of an endangered species.(17)

Implicit in the unlimit of money is another kind of limitlessness: that of the human domain, the part of the world that belongs to human beings. What kind of things, after all, do we buy and sell for money? We buy and sell property, things that we own, things that we perceive as belonging to us. Technology has constantly widened that domain, making things available for ownership that were never attainable or even conceivable before: minerals deep within the earth, bandwidth on the electromagnetic spectrum, sequences of genes. Contemporaneous with technological extension of our reach was the progression of the mentality of property, as things like land, water rights, music, and stories entered the realm of the owned. The unlimit of money implies that the realm of the owned can grow indefinitely, and therefore that the destiny of mankind is to conquer the universe, to bring everything into the human domain, to make the whole world ours. This destiny is part of what I have described as the myth of Ascent, part of our defining Story of the People. Today, that story is rapidly becoming obsolete, and we need to invent a money system aligned with the new story that will replace it. (18)

The features of money that I’ve discussed are not necessarily bad. By helping to homogenize or standardize all it touches, by serving as a universal means, money has enabled human beings to accomplish wonders. Money has played a key role in the rise of technological civilization, but perhaps, as with technology, we have barely begun to learn to use this potent creative instrument for its true purpose. Money has fostered the development of standardized things like machine components and microchips—but do we want our food to be homogeneous as well? Money’s impersonality fosters cooperation over vast social distances, helping coordinate the labor of millions of people who are mostly strangers to each other—but do we want our relationships with the people in our own neighborhoods to be impersonal too? Money as universal means enables us to do nearly anything, but do we want it to be an exclusive means too, so that without it we can do nearly nothing? The time has come to master this tool, as humanity steps into an intentional, conscious new role on the earth.

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1. Aristotle. Politics, book 1, part 9.

2. Seaford, Money and the Early Greek Mind, 132–3.

3. Ibid., 137.

4. Ibid., 139–45.

5. Ibid., 119.

6. Ibid.

7. The exception was coins used for foreign trade—coins that circulated outside the range of a social agreement. Such coins indeed depended on the intrinsic value of their underlying metal. Yet even here, a broader social perception of value was necessary to give them value, since silver and gold were not intrinsically very useful as metals.

8. This surfeit is reflected in the persistent problem of “overcapacity” that afflicts nearly every industry, which is why solutions to the economic crisis usually involve stimulating demand.

9. Seaford, Money and the Early Greek Mind, 151.

10. Ibid, 155.

11. Hyde, The Gift, 182.

12. Graves, The White Goddess, 15.

13. Plato, Theaetetus. 146d. Cited by Seaford, Money and the Early Greek Mind, 242.

14. Among the greatest of unmet needs today is for connection, both to other people and to nature. Ironically, money, with its abstraction and impersonality, attenuates our connections to both. Spirituality, when conceived as an individual pursuit best done apart from the world, does the same. Can we conceive of a different kind of money that bears the opposite effects?

15. Seaford, Money and the Early Greek Mind, 150.

16. Aristotle, Politics, book 1, section 9.

17. The reader may have noticed a paradox: we live in a world of abundance, as described in Chapter 2, yet we are also depleting a limited biosphere. To resolve that paradox, consider that most of our excess production and consumption serve no real need, but are driven by the perception of scarcity and the existential loneliness of the separate self cut off from nature and community.

18. The same goes for the other defining story of our civilization, “the discrete and separate self.” Our money system reifies this story, too, by dissolving personal ties, setting us into competition, and disconnecting us from both community and nature.

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