MIND ON MY MONEY / MONEY ON MY MIND

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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

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TRUTH AND CONSEQUENCES

Humanists believe that if we know the truth we will be free.  In affirming this they imagine they are wiser than thinkers of earlier times.  In fact they are in the grip of a forgotten religion.

The modern faith in truth is a relic of an ancient creed.  Socrates founded European thought on the faith that truth makes us free.  He never doubted that knowledge and the good life go together.  He passed on this faith to Plato, and so to Christianity.  The result is modern Humanism.

Socrates was able to believe that the examined life is best because he thought the true and the good were one and the same:  there is a changeless reality beyond the visible world, and it is perfect.  When humans live the unexamined life they run after illusions.  They spend their lives searching for pleasure or fleeing pain, both of which are bound to pass away.  True fulfilment lies in changeless things.  An examined life is best because it leads us into eternity.

We need not doubt the reality of truth to reject this Socratic faith.  Human knowledge is one thing, human well-being another.  There is no predetermined harmony between the two.  The examined life may not be worth living.

The faith of Socrates in the examined life may well have been a trace of an archaic religion:  he ‘habitually heard and obeyed an inner voice which knew more than he did … he called it, quite simply, “the voice of God”’.  Socrates was guided by a daimon, an inner oracle, whose counsels he followed without question, even when they led him to his death.  In admitting that he was guided by an inner voice, he showed the lingering power of shamanic practices, in which humans have immemorially sought communion with spirits.

If Socratic philosophy originates in shamanism, European rationalism was born in a mystical experience.  Modern humanism differs from Socratic philosophy chiefly in failing to recognise its irrational origins – and in the hubris of its ambitions.

The bequest of Socrates was to tether the pursuit of truth to a mystical idea of the good.  Yet neither Socrates nor any other ancient thinker imagined that truth could make mankind free.  They took for granted that freedom would always remain the privilege of a few; there was no hope for the species.  By contrast, among contemporary humanists, the Greek faith that truth makes us free has been fused with one of Christianity’s most dubious legacies – the belief that the hope of freedom belongs to everyone.

Modern humanism is the faith that through science humankind can know the truth – and so be free.  But if Darwin’s theory of natural selection is true this is impossible.  The human mind serves evolutionary success, not truth.  To think otherwise is to resurrect the pre-Darwinian error that humans are different from all other animals.

An example is the theory of memes.  Memes are clusters of ideas and beliefs, which are supposed to compete with one another in much the same way that genes do.  In the life of the mind, as in biological evolution, there is a kind of natural selection of memes, whereby the fittest memes survive.  Unfortunately, memes are not genes.  There is no mechanism of selection in the history of ideas akin to that of the natural selection of genetic mutations in evolution.

In any case, only someone miraculously innocent op history could believe that competition among ideas could result in the triumph of truth.  Certainly ideas compete with none another, but the winners are normally those with power and human folly on their side.  When the medieval Church exterminated the Cathars, did Catholic memes prevail over the memes of the heretics?  If the Final Solution had been carried to a conclusion, would that have demonstrated the inferiority of Hebrew memes?

Darwinian theory tells us that an interest in truth is not needed for survival or reproduction.  More often it is a disadvantage.  Deception is common among primates and birds.  As Heinrich observes, ravens pretend to hide a cache of food, while secreting it somewhere else.  Evolutionary psychologists have shown that deceit is pervasive in animal communication.  Among humans the best deceivers are those who deceive themselves: ‘we deceive ourselves in order to deceive others better’, says Wright.  A lover who promises eternal fidelity is more likely to be believed if he believes the promise himself; he is no more likely to keep the promise.  In a competition for mates, a well-developed capacity for self-deception is an advantage.  The same is true in politics, and many other contexts.

If this is so, the view that clusters of false beliefs – inferior memes – will tend to be winnowed out by natural selection must be mistaken.  Truth has no systemic evolutionary advantage over error.  Quite to the contrary, evolution will ‘select for a degree of self-deception, rendering some facts and motives unconscious so as not to betray – by the subtle signs of self-knowledge – the deception being practiced’.  As Trivers points out, evolution favours useful error: ‘the conventional view that natural selection favours nervous systems which produce more accurate images of the world must be a very naive view of mental evolution’.

In the struggle for life, a taste for truth is a luxury – or else a disability:

only
tormented persons want truth.
Man is like other animals, wants food and success and women,
not truth.  Only if the mind
Tortured by some interior tension has despaired of happiness:
then it hates
its life-cage and seeks further.

Science will never be used chiefly to pursue truth, or to improve human life.  The uses of knowledge will always be shifting and crooked as humans are themselves.  Humans use what they know to meet their most urgent needs – even if the result is ruin.  History is not made in the struggle for self-preservation, as Hobbes imagines or wished to believe.  In their everyday lives humans struggle to reckon profit and loss.  When times are desperate they act to protect their offspring, to revenge themselves on enemies, or simply to give vent to their feelings.

These are not flaws that can be remedied.  Science cannot be used to reshape humankind in a more rational mould.  Any new-model humanity will only reproduce the familiar deformities of its designers.  It is a strange fancy to suppose that science can bring reason to an irrational world, when all it can ever do is give another twist to the normal madness.  These are not just inferences from history.  The upshot of scientific inquiry is that humans cannot be other than irrational.  Curiously, this is a conclusion few rationalists have been ready to accept.

Tertullian, a theologian who lived in Carthage sometime around AD 200, wrote of Christianity: Certum est, quia impossible (it is certain because it is impossible).  Humanists are less clear-minded, but their faith is just as irrational.  They do not deny that history is a catalogue of unreason, but their remedy is simple: humankind must – and will – be reasonable.  Without this absurd, Tertullian-like faith, the Enlightenment is a gospel of despair.

John Gray, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals.

 

DREAMS OF FLYING

I have recently been reading a most enjoyable novel called The Dream Illuminati by Wayne Saalman (Falcon Press, Santa Monica, 1988). Mr. Saalman has found an epic theme – dreams of flight, and the achievement of flight.

Historically, dreams of flying appeared in the collective unconscious before the reality of flight existed in technology, and it seems plausible that if we understood our dreams better we would use our technology more wisely. Our machines manifest our dreams in matter crafted to coherence, and a psychoanalysis of our culture could easily derive from an examination of how we use science to materialize our fantasies and nightmares.

Mr. Saalman’s science-fantasy made me wonder: Why have we always dreamed of flying, and why have we built flying machines? This question seems “eminently” worth pondering in a world where 200,000,000 people pass through Kennedy International Airport every year, flying the Atlantic in one direction or the other.

To understand the profound, it often appears helpful to begin with clues that seem trivial. I suggest that we contemplate what our children look at every Saturday morning on TV. One of the most popular jokes in animated cartoons shows the protagonist walking off a cliff, without noticing what he has done. Sublimely ignorant, he continues to walk-on air-until he notices that he has been doing the impossible,” and then he falls. I doubt very much that there will be any reader of Magical Blend who has not seen that routine at least onec; most of us have seen it a few hundred times.

It might seem pretentious to see a Jungian archetype adumbrated in crude form in this Hollywood cliché, but follow me for a moment.

When Hollywood wishes to offer us the overtly mythic, it presents Superman, who can “leap over tall buildings in a single bound,” and a more recent hero named Luke Skywalker. Continue reading “DREAMS OF FLYING”