What is money? What is avarice?

I am Covetousness, begotten of an old churl in a leather bag; and might I now obtain my wish, this house, you and all, should turn to gold that I might lock you safe into my chest. O my sweet gold!

— Marlowe, Doctor Faustus

Money is absolute potential. Money as such has no actual characteristics at all. Gold is heavy and yellow and malleable, but none of those properties belongs to money qua money, which can just as easily take the form of banknotes or cowrie shells or computerized data. Money is spiritual; the material form it happens to assume is of no consequence.

Money’s only property is the fact that it can be exchanged for something else. It is not even a possession, properly speaking, but a mere potential to possess things. The moment you actualize that potential, you no longer have money.

There is therefore a sense in which money is the opposite of God — which latter Aquinas defined as pure actuality with no potential characteristics. (This may seem a counterintuitive way of describing the Being traditionally called “omni-potent,” but it must be remembered that Aquinas’s God exists outside of time and cannot change. There is nothing he can do because it is all done already from eternity. To quote another Faust, “In the beginning was the act.”) This suggests another way of looking at certain biblical passages which make money the antithesis of God: “Ye cannot serve God and mammon” — and “the love of money is the root of all evil.”

The love of God is the root of all good. But the root of all evil is declared to be — not the love of Satan or sin or the pleasures of the flesh, nor even the love of nothing at all — but specifically the love of money.

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Avarice, one of the seven deadly sins, is the love of money. It is the love of money as such, as an end in itself. Note how Marlowe’s personification of avarice wants only to lock the gold safe in a chest, not to buy anything with it. He who wants money as a means to status or comfort or pleasure does not love money; he loves status or comfort or pleasure. Money is pure means — literally nothing but a means — but avarice makes it an end. The ambition of avarice is to possess the one thing in this world which by its very nature cannot be a possession. Avarice seems pedestrian enough, a shabby downmarket sin almost beneath our notice, almost unworthy of fellowship with such grand wickednesses as wrath and pride and lust — but it is something deep, spiritual, metaphysical. It is the root of all evil.

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Those who despise money — or think they do — think avarice has no hold on them. They forget that money is something metaphysical, that the material form it assumes is of no consequence. Avarice is the love of potential as potential, and the desire that it remain potential and not actual. The familiar trappings — banknotes and dollar-signs and all that — are neither here nor there.

The love of “free time” — as such, distinct from the desire to do anything particular with that time — is avarice. And it is even less sane than the more familiar monetary version, since it is at least possible to hoard money, whereas time must inevitably be spent one way or another. There is no chest in which to lock it up safe, no possible way to keep it always potential and never actual. But the impossibility of fulfillment does not change the nature of the desire. The deadly sins are not actions but dispositions — vices — and they retain the same character even in cases where the action they characteristically inspire is impossible. It’s impossible to murder Emmanuel Goldstein, but anger is still anger; it’s impossible to commit adultery with pixels on a screen, but lust is still lust.

Looking back after the conclusion of a much-anticipated stretch of “free time,” the time-miser is inevitably disappointed. He has been forced to spend what he had hoped to hoard, and whatever purchase he may have made, it is unsatisfactory simply by virtue of having been a purchase. If he spent his time on pointless time-killing amusements, he thinks, “All that free time, and I just wasted it!” If, on the other hand, he spent it on something productive, he thinks, “I didn’t end up having any free time at all.”

One of Dante’s interesting ideas is that the devils in hell can know nothing of the past or present but see only the future — only what is potential rather than actual — with the consequence that when time comes to an end, their consciousness will be entirely extinguished. “It is everlastingly too late, and your destruction is made sure; yea, for ye have sought all the days of your lives for that which ye could not obtain” (Hel. 13:38).

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Dare we generalize from these examples and conclude that the love of freedom is the root of all evil? Can such an idea even be processed in this freedom-worshiping age? It is bound to be misinterpreted as meaning that slavery or compulsion or mechanicality is good, which could not be further from the truth. What is good is agency — to act, and not to be acted upon — which is obviously the opposite of compulsion, but (less obviously) in some sense also the opposite of freedom. Agency is willed action, but freedom is the mere potential for action — and action is destructive of potential. As soon as you take a particular course of action, you are no longer free to have done otherwise. The lover of freedom (as opposed to the lover of agency) wants nothing more than to “keep his options open,” to avoid doing or committing to or becoming any particular thing, for fear of losing the potential to do otherwise. This is the spirit of avarice.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “What is money? What is avarice?

  1. Samson J.

    The love of “free time” — as such, distinct from the desire to do anything particular with that time — is avarice.

    Looking back after the conclusion of a much-anticipated stretch of “free time,” the time-miser is inevitably disappointed. He has been forced to spend what he had hoped to hoard, and whatever purchase he may have made, it is unsatisfactory simply by virtue of having been a purchase. If he spent his time on pointless time-killing amusements, he thinks, “All that free time, and I just wasted it!” If, on the other hand, he spent it on something productive, he thinks, “I didn’t end up having any free time at all.”

    Speaking as a sometime time-miser, WM, I have to call this a brilliant, first-rate set of observations. When I’ve had very busy seasons of life (throughout medical training, e.g.), I have often coveted “free time” in exactly the manner you’ve described. “Wouldn’t it be nice if I could just retire at the age of 30 or whatever?”, I would sigh – but the truth is whenever I got some free time, I seemed invariably to experience the feelings you’ve described above.

    “Free time” needs to be contrasted, I guess, with leisure time, which I would say is a genuine human need. And I wonder if there is some relation here to “work” as a Good Thing.

    Dare we generalize from these examples and conclude that the love of freedom is the root of all evil?

    Sounds promising, although it may depend on what we mean by “love”. It may be more accurate to say that *worship* of freedom is the root of all evil.

  2. Samson J.

    It’s worth adding that, as my wife could attest, when I would get some “free time”, I would often counter-intuitively become crabby and miserable, and this would worsen as the period of “free time” progressed and dwindled, because “darn it, my free time is running out!” It’s not that there was anything I particularly wanted to do with it; I just wanted it for its own sake.

  3. I’m not sure about this…

    This is quite likely a personal thing, but I have an absolute necessity, a psychophysical necessity – for unstructured time. This might be what you mean by free time.

    I realize that such a need does not justify free time, but it creates something like a crescendo of desperation if I lack this; and it is in the unstructured time where I generate my ideas and writing.

    I find the idea (and the actuality) of a busy and wholly-filled life to be a thing of absolute horror and terror. I would envy no man such a thing – and it would not matter how the time was filled, no matter with what pleasures or satisfactions or duties.

  4. I’ll need to think some more about what exactly the distinction is, but I do think the desire for “free time” is something different from the legitimate need for unstructured leisure time in which to think and reflect. Certainly a Sabbath of some kind is a necessary part of the good life. A busy life is a lousy life.

    I think the litmus test is how you feel after the time period is over.

  5. George

    It seems “one of those things” where on the surface the differences appear subtle, but in practice profound. I too seek out “unstructured time,” but find it most satisfying where things like reading, thinking, meditation, completing some small tasks are finished. On the contrary, I have often had “free time” where the only goal seemed to be a general pursuit of pleasure or happiness, but was usually wasted fruitlessly on some entertainment product.

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