Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Is the Money Good?

Simon Critchley

I don't think that I'd ever heard of the philosopher Simon Critchley before, but the man has penned an amusing if rambling essay on money in "Coin of Praise" (August 30, 2009) for an opinion series called "Happy Days" that the New York Times has set up. About this series, the NYT informs us:
The severe economic downturn has forced many people to reassess their values and the ways they act on them in their daily lives. For some, the pursuit of happiness, sanity, or even survival, has been transformed.

Happy Days is a discussion about the search for contentment in its many forms -- economic, emotional, physical, spiritual -- and the stories of those striving to come to terms with the lives they lead.
I suppose that humor must be one of those ways of coming to terms with life, and Professor Critchley has offered us a humorous essay -- at least, I found it amusing . . . but also serious and informative.

But at the risk of taking seriously an off-the-cuff remark meant unseriously, let's look carefully at this passage:
[T]he legitimacy of money is based on a sovereign act, or a sovereign guarantee that the money is good, that it is not counterfeit. Money has a promissory structure, with a strangely circular logic: money promises that the money is good. The acceptance of the promise is the approval of a specific monetary ethos. We all agree that the money is worth -- in the best of circumstances -- more than the paper on which it is printed. To buy and sell in the U.S. dollar, or any other currency, is to trust that each bill is making a promise that it can keep.
Critchley's is an ironic way of putting things, I presume, but let's take him literally for the moment. Money has no "strangely circular logic" on this point, for money does not itself promise that it is good. Rather, it carries the promise made not by the money itself but by another entity, usually the government. Take the analogy of this blog. Gypsy Scholar is not analyzing Critchley's passage; it is bearing an analysis made by the blog's author: Jeffery Hodges (in case you'd forgotten).

Critchley himself knows this -- not about me but about money -- for he immediately goes on to state:
This ethos, this circular money-promising-that-the-money-is-good, is underwritten by sovereign power.
He still insists on his ironic point, but the "underwritten" guarantee is the actual promise that the money is good. But to his 'credit', Critchley immediately procedes to offer up some satisfyingly etymological details:
It is worth recalling that gold coins called "sovereigns" were first minted in England under Henry VII in 1489 and production continues to this day. It is essential that we believe in this power, that the sovereign power of the bank inspires belief, that the "Fed has cred," as it were. Credit can only operate on the basis of credence and credibility, of an act of fidelity and faith (fides), of con-fid-ence. As historians of language have shown, there is a strong etymological link between ideas of belief, faith and forms of economic exchange. The goddess Fides or trust was sometimes depicted on the verso of Roman coins. "In Fed We Trust," as the title of David Wessel's new book has it.
Interesting. Money as religion, as Critchley notes:
There is a theological core to money based on an act of faith, of belief. One can even speak of a sort of monetary civil religion.
Much of this is tongue-in-cheek, I guess, but it has an earnest intent and gives rise to some serious insights about our potentially idolatrous attitude toward money. Perhaps Paul was writing with authentic insight in 1 Timothy 6:10, where -- in what I've long taken as an overstatement -- he maintains:
For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows. (King James Version, Blue Letter Bible Website)
Perhaps Paul meant that those who "coveted" money "erred from the faith" because they had found a new 'faith' -- trust in money above trust in their God. On the other hand, rightly understood, trust in money is necessary -- as is trust in a friend, or a spouse, or anything in which we must place trust.

Even in Critchley, who -- I trust -- has a serious point in his irony and a way with words in coining the phrase "Coin of Praise" and thus deserves some serious attention from a fellow like me who appreciates a good wordsmith.

Labels: , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home