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.
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.
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.” 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.
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.” 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.
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.
Charles Eisenstein, Sacred Economics: Money, Gift and Society in the Age of Transition
When pre-experimental man conceived of the unknown as an ambivalent mother, he was not indulging in childish fantasy. He was applying what he knew to what was unfamiliar, but could not be ignored. Man’s first attempts to describe the unknown cannot be faulted because they lacked empirical validity. Man was not originally an empirical thinker. This does not mean he was self-deluded, a liar. Likewise, when the individual worships the hero, he is not necessarily hiding from reality. It may also be that he is ready and willing to face the unknown, as an individual; that he is prepared to adopt the pattern of heroic endeavour in his own life, and to further creation in that manner.
The great myths of Christianity – the great myths of the past, in general – no longer speak to the majority of westerners, who regard themselves as educated. The mythic view of history cannot be credited with reality, from the material, empirical point of view. It is nonetheless the case that all of western ethics, including those explicitly formalized in western law, are predicated upon a mythological world-view, which specifically attributes divine status to the individual. The modern individual is therefore in a unique position: he no longer believes that the principles upon which all his behaviors are predicated are valid. This might be considered a second fall, in that the destruction of the western mythological barrier has re-exposed the essential tragedy of individual existence to view.
It is not the pursuit of empirical truth, however, that has wreaked havoc upon the Christian worldview: it is confusion of empirical fact with moral truth, to the great detriment of the latter. This confusion has produced what might be described as a secondary gain, which has played an important role in maintaining the confusion. That gain is abdication of the absolute personal responsibility imposed in consequence of recognition of the divine in man. This responsibility means acceptance of the trials and tribulations associated with expression of unique individuality, as well as respect for such expression in others. Such acceptance, expression and respect requires courage in the absence of certainty, and discipline in the smallest matters.
Rejection of moral truth allows for rationalization of cowardly, destructive, degenerate self-indulgence. This is one of the most potent attractions of such rejection, and constitutes primary motivation for the lie. The lie, above all else, threatens the individual – and the interpersonal. The lie is predicated upon the presupposition that the tragedy of individuality is unbearable – that human experience itself is evil. The individual lies because he is afraid – and it is not the lies he tells another that present the clearest danger, but the lies he tells himself. The root of social and individual psychopathology, the “denial,” the “repression” – is the lie. The most dangerous lie of all is devoted towards denial of individual responsibility – towards denial of individual divinity.
The idea of the divine individual took thousands of years to fully develop, and is still constantly threatened by direct attack and insidious counter-movement. It is based upon realization that the individual is the locus of experience. All that we can know about reality we know through experience. It is therefore simplest to assume that all there is of reality is experience, in being and progressive unfolding. Furthermore, it is the subjective aspect of individuality – of experience – that is divine, not the objective. Man is an animal, from the objective viewpoint, worthy of no more consideration than the opinion and opportunities of the moment dictate. From the mythic viewpoint, however, every individual is unique – is a new set of experiences, a new universe; has been granted the ability to bring something new into being; is capable of participating in the act of creation itself. It is the expression of this capacity for creative action that makes the tragic conditions of life tolerable, bearable – remarkable, miraculous.
The paradise of childhood is absolute meaningful immersion. That immersion is a genuine manifestation of subjective interest. Interest accompanies the honest pursuit of the unknown, in a direction and at a rate subjectively determined. The unknown, in its beneficial guise, is the ground of interest, the source of what matters. Culture, in its supportive role, extends the power with which the unknown can be met, by disciplining the individual and expanding his range of ability. In childhood, the parent serves as cultural surrogate, and the child explores under the umbrella of protection provided by his parents. The parental mechanism has its limits, however, and must be superseded by the internalization of culture – by the intrapsychic incorporation of belief, security, and goal. Adoption of this secondary protective structure dramatically extends and shapes individual capability.
The dragon limits the pursuit of individual interest. The struggle with the dragon – against the forces that devour will and hope – constitutes the heroic battle, in the mythological world. Faithful adherence to the reality of personal experience ensures contact with the dragon – and it is during such contact that the great force of the individual spirit makes itself manifest, if it is allowed to. The hero voluntarily places himself in opposition to the dragon. The liar pretends that the great danger does not exist, to his peril and to that of others, or abdicates his relationship with his essential interest, and abandons all chance at further development.
Interest is meaning. Meaning is manifestation of the divine individual adaptive path. The lie is abandonment of individual interest – hence meaning, hence divinity – for safety and security; is sacrifice of the individual to appease the Great Mother and Great Father.
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief
Patterns in language yield patterns in thought. Extensive research has now demonstrated that differences between languages can yield differences, often subtle ones, in the cognitive habits of their speakers. This finding, commonly referred to as linguistic relativity, has now been supported by dozens of studies on topics like spatial awareness, the perceptions of time, and the categorisation of colours. For instance, “where” the future and past “are” depends on the language you speak. Similarly, the manner in which you recall and discriminate colours is affected in sublte ways by the basic colour term inventory of your native language. Our tour of the numberless worlds ultimately led to the conclusion that numeric language also yields difference in how people think. Number words, present in the vast majority of the world’s languages (though not all of them), certainly influence quantitative cognition. Only those people who are familiar with number words and counting can exactly differentiate most quantities. The presence of numbers in a language does not just subtly influence how we think about certain quantities, then; it also opens up a door to the world of arithmetic and mathematics. The first step through that door is the realisation that quantities, regardless of size, can be precisely differentiated. But how exactly do numbers first open this door? And what happens after we walk through it?
The findings from numberless worlds suggests plainly that we need numbers to really “get” quantities in ways that are uniquely human, but, this raises a paradox. If we need numbers to appreciate most quantities precisely, how did we get numbers in the first place? How could we ever name the amounts in particular sets of items, if we could not recognise the amount?
Given the apparent intractability of this paradox, some have concluded that humans must be innately predisposed to acquire number concepts. But, if we are predisposed to recognise different set sizes as separate abstract entities, then what is the limit to this predisposition? Are we naturally predisposed, for example, to eventually realise that 1,023 is not 1,024? This seems fairly implausible. Framed differently, nativist views on numbers just delay the point at which we reach the paradox.
James Hurford noted that number words are names for the “non-linguistic entities denoted by numbers.” That is, the number words label conceptual entities. In a related vein, Karenleigh Overmann recently suggested that “quantity concepts must surely precede their lexical labels, or there would be nothing to name… A method of invention cannot presuppose that which it invents.” This latter stance is understandable, but it arguably trivialises the extensive evidence, according to which, words for quantities beyond three do not simply label pre-existing concepts, because these concepts do not exist for most people until they actually learn numbers.
In my view, this is the key to resolving the paradox: words for quantities beyond three make concrete the precise numerical abstractions that are only occasionally and inconsistently made by some people. Some of these people may eventually invent numbers, but if they do not, their fleeting abstractions are not transferred to others. The naming of such ephemeral realisations is what eventually enables people to consistently show the ability to make a simple but powerful realisation, the realisation that sets of quantities greater than three can be identified precisely. This simple realisation has led, in all likelihood more times than could be documented, to the invention of symbols for such larger quantities. These symbols are chiefly verbal in nature, judging from the fact that the overwhelming majority of the world’s cultures have words for such quantities though most cultures traditionally lack written numerals or elaborate tally systems. Some people invented number words to concretise the potentially transient recognition of the existence of exact higher quantities.
Does this mean that number words simply serve as labels for the concepts? Not really. The truth seems a bit more nuanced than the forced dichotomous choice assumed by the paradox. Number words are not simply labels, yet they do describe conceptual realisations that some people make some times. The term ‘label’ implies that the words simply denote concepts that we all think about: concepts all humans are born ready to appreciate (at least eventually), regardless of their cultural environment. But clearly not all humans have such concepts at the ready even as adults, and likely most people would never make the relevant realisations that can be described via numbers. Just as clearly, though, some people have made those realisations, even if inconsistently. In those real historical cases in which people managed to describe that realisation with a word, they invented numbers. The concept they named was subsequently recognised by other members of their culture through the adoption of the relevant word(s). Number words are conceptual tools that get passed around with ease, tools most people want to borrow.
Caleb Everett, Numbers and the Making of us: Counting and the Course of Human Cultures
More from Danny Shine.
Nature is that which has always been there. This is the thinking of Heraclitus. In his eyes, it has always been made up of the world (cosmos) as what “was, is and will be.” This is to make Nature finite, to diminish its power. Nature did not create itself, that is to say permanently structure itself into the world, but unceasingly and tirelessly builds itself and becomes finite by forming itself into a multiplicity of worlds. This means that it breaks up into innumerable worlds that are not at all eternal, but are born and perish. It is like a perpetual laboratory of endless and multiple trials because it is not only one order (cosmos) that is born of Nature, but all systems of the order are born of it at one time or another.
By his cosmology, Heraclitus is the ancestor of Plato’s followers. However, by his panta rhei, “everything flows,” he is the prime example of all the philosophies of movement, from Montaigne to Bergson, before and after. Furthermore, what is the Tao, according to Lao Tzu, but “perpetual mutability itself,” that is to say Heraclitus’s river? Yet it must be added: with certain characteristics of Anaximander’s Phusis, because the “Path” (Tao), which is infinite in that it is unqualified, undetermined, and conceptually incomprehensible, is also the source and principle of birth and growth for individual beings: differentiating themselves and becoming finite, it thus deploys a generative force, Te – a word which is generally translated as “Virtue.” Nothing prevents this “Virtue” from showing itself in innumerable worlds.
Steven Pinker is, of course, both clever and influential, and there is much that I would agree with him about. So when he makes what he calls an impassioned plea for an understanding between science and the humanities, something that I feel strongly about, too, and indeed believe to be of the greatest importance for our future, it seems churlish to find fault, especially as I am grateful to him for the opportunity to explore in more detail issues about which it is obvious we both care very much. But for all that he claims to be setting out to reassure his colleagues in the humanities, I doubt that his essay will have the desired effect. In fact I fear that it may appear to some to exemplify everything that those in the humanities fear to be the case about the contemporary science establishment.
The marriage, or at any rate the peaceful cohabitation, of science and the humanities is essential for the health of our civilisation. I speak as someone who has a foot in each camp, and an interest in their rapprochement. I agree wholly with Professor Pinker that each can learn from the other. And Professor Pinker is right to recognise that all is not as well as it might be in this relationship. Perhaps he feels he is offering therapy.
However in any relationship there are at least two points of view, and two stories to tell about where the trouble lies. And to engage successfully in therapy you need to see both.