Sunday, July 29, 2012

Ambivalence, Money, and Evil

Whenever we face issues of any complexity, especially those involving strong feelings, we are bound to feel ambivalent. We have mixed feelings about our own bodies and sexuality, about pleasure in general, about love and marriage and God and death and, especially, money.

I was reminded of this from a recent article by Sarah Payne Stuart in The New Yorker. She talks about growing up in New England, in Concord, Mass., a town with strong Calvinist roots, where those who have wealth must look as if they don't. Their big homes must be in the fashionable part of town, she says, yet the owners must claim that they really can't afford to live there. There is in New England a "deep respect for the money it loathes."

Stuart escaped from Concord, where the women spend their lives saving money, mending their own swimsuits and never touching their guest towels. I remember a few of my wealthier relatives in St. Louis spending money for European tours and cars yet skimping on the heating in winter. I was always puzzled by such behavior. Whether its origins are necessarily in Calvinism is doubtful; it seems that we are ambivalent about money, generally.

In the course of her otherwise revealing article, Stuart makes one common error: she says she heard plenty in Concord about "money as the root of all evil."

In fact, the line (from the opening of Paul's first epistle to Timothy in the New Testament) says, "the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil," in a good, modern translation. Or as Chaucer's Pardoner says in the Canterbury Tales, quoting the Latin scripture, "Radix malorum est cupiditas."

But "cupiditas" for the medieval theologian does not mean money; the Bible does not say that money is evil but that our attitude toward it can lead to evil. Avarice or greed, the excessive love of money and what it can buy, is a form of spiritual death--a point made dramatic clear in the story the Pardoner tells about three revelers who set out to eradicate Death and end up killing themselves over a pot of gold.

At issue is selfishness, which is the broader meaning underlying avarice: we care so much about ourselves and our own pleasures that we ignore others, failing to love anyone but ourselves and thus failing as citizens of the community. Love is life-giving; selfishness is cold-hearted and deathly. This theme is found in much great literature, most particularly in Dante. See the icy lake in which Lucifer is encased at the bottom of Hell.

No wonder we are ambivalent about money, even if we quote 1 Timothy 6:10 correctly. Money can be used for good, selfless purposes, as Bill Gates and other philanthropists show, or it can lead, as it did for those women in Concord, to shrivelled lives and hearts. It has a power to change us, often not for the best. It is no wonder that those on the spiritual path are advised to cultivate a poverty of spirit--no matter how many investments they have. It is always the attitude we have toward material things that matters.

To say that the money is the source of evil is to simplify the meaning of evil, which resides in and emerges from within us.

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