Now where to begin… Ah yes!
Let’s start with this fresco of Priapus and his giant penis preserved in the ruins of Pompeii.
We can all agree this is an odd image, but let’s take a closer look at it.
The fertility god depicted in the fresco is most likely an allusion to the owner of the house of Vetti, the mansion where the fresco is found. The figure is weighing his penis on scales, the other scale holding a large sack of gold.
The message is clear.
My penis, both symbolically and literally the locus of my manhood, of my power to create life, to produce pleasure for myself – all this I measure by my wealth. The more gold I have, the bigger my penis must be. And I have lots of gold.
This sort of thinking is all too familiar to us as preserved in the common expressions ‘rich d*ck’ and ‘rich pr*ck’. But that doesn’t make the whole thing any less of a mystery.
Why does a big bank account so easily give you a sense of power, security, and freedom?
Well, ‘Why’ is the easy question. The more money you have, the more other people give you power, security, and freedom.
The more interesting question is ‘How’.
How has money become this transcendent object in exchange for which people are willing to give you anything you want? How has it become an idol for which people are ready to cheat, steal, kill, and sacrifice their dignity?
How has money become a goal unto itself?
ERNEST BECKER ON MONEY
There are many thinkers who we will now go to to answer this question. But it is really Ernest Becker who managed to combine all their ideas in his Escape from Evil – a book I recommend to every student of human nature.
As we explained in our last video, Becker’s work is based on the simple insight that man knows he is going to die. We feel like we can go on living forever, but we know our body is a ticking clock counting down our time left on earth one sunset at a time.
Knowing he is mortal, man is always looking for ways to secure himself at least some kind of immortality. Whether it is raising a family, leaving behind great works of art, building a great company, dying for one’s country or religion… In all cases, man looks for something bigger than himself, something that will outlast his mortal body.
This is how, paradoxically, we sacrifice our actual lives for the hope of a kind of immortality we will never live to see.
The point here is that Becker traces every human endeavour to the same source. That source is that voice inside us all, sometimes loud, sometimes barely audible, but always there – that voice that has driven every cultural achievement in history. The voice that says ‘I want to live… forever’.
Okay, now back to money.
DENIAL OF DEATH
In their legendary song Money, Pink Floyd neatly summarizes the whole thing. They sing:
Money, so they say
Is the root of all evil today
But if you ask for a raise
It’s no surprise that they’re giving none away
No matter what we may say about money, we all act as if it is valuable. Now, if we take Becker’s ideas seriously, we should expect money’s value comes in some way from its ability to increase life.
If Becker is at all right about human psychology – money, this most valuable of human valuables, should ultimately be a tool for immortality. And our economy, the global system of money-making, should be just as religious as all past forms of life-renewing ritual.
So how has money come to be valuable?
The acclaimed historian Grafton Elliot Smith put forward an interesting hypothesis surrounding the origin of money in Egypt. There was a cowrie shell in the Red Sea which the ancient Egyptians liked to collect and give each other as a gift. They associated the shell with Hathor, the Great Mother goddess. They believed that to wear the shell as an amulet was to gain a little bit of Hathor’s vital power.
Here we see the oldest science known to man – that of sympathetic magic. The simple principle of sympathetic magic is the following: like produces like.
The cowrie shell is the symbol of the Great Mother. By having a cowrie shell, I create a bond between myself and the Great Mother. I gain Hathor’s power.
Anyway, here is how Eliot continues the story of the cowrie shell:
The people of Egypt began to make models of these and other magical shells in clay, stone and any other material that came to hand. These were believed to have the magic of the real shells… In the course [ of time they] discovered that they could make durable and attractive models by using [gold -] the soft plastic metal which was lying around unused and unappreciated in the Nubian desert. … The lightness and beauty of the untarnishable yellow metal made an instant appeal. The gold models soon became more popular than the original shells, and the reputation for life-giving was then in large measure transferred from the mere form of the amulet to the metal itself…
So, if Eliot is correct, gold was just another shiny metal before it came to be associated with the life-giving power of the Great Mother goddess. Gold became valuable only after it became an immortality symbol.
THE LONG HISTORY OF MONEY AND IMMORTALITY
But we shouldn’t take just one historian’s word for it, so let’s look at other examples.
In his short essay titled Money, Arthur Maurice Hocart asks the same question I once asked my British flatmate. Why should a nation stamp the likeness of its monarch on its money?
Hocart goes back to the first civilizations who came to use money to find the answer.
In ancient Greece, it was the national god that came to be depicted on the currency. In India, another early adopter of coinage, coins depicted religious symbols such as the sun, wheel, or svastika. (Not the Nazi swastika, of course, but the original Indian one. A symbol of good fortune and well-being.)
So here too we find traces of sympathetic magic. The coin in my pocket contains the likeness of my god, the sun, or some other sacred symbol. Thus, it gives me a tiny bit of the magical power of that which is depicted on it.
But money has not everywhere appeared in the form of coins. In the Solomon Islands, the traditional currency were shell rings. After a burnt offering to the dead, one would hold a ring in the air, wave it around and collect the spiritual power the sacrifice has produced. It is this that gives the ring its value. And this is why others would be willing to trade objects or service to get a hold of the magic-imbued ring. The ring contains spirit-power and as such is a tool for immortality.
If these examples show us anything, it is the following. In the dawn of civilization, to have money was to have power. But a very specific kind of power. Money served as a link between you and the spirit realm. Money was a bridge allowing you to draw life-power from the gods.
This link was achieved through sympathetic magic and Hocart hints that this might also explain the widespread circular shape of coins. In the imagination of early man, the more one object looks like another, the stronger the magical bond between the two. Thus, gold and silver coins came to take the shape and colour of the two most visible heavenly deities – the sun and the moon.
You would be surprised how much of this magical thinking has survived to the present day. As Becker writes:
… the special attraction of gold and silver as primary monetary values was due to their symbolic identification with the sun and the moon … [The] value ratio of gold and silver has remained stable from classical antiquity through the Middle Ages and even into modem times as 1:13,5. Brown agrees with Laum that such a stability cannot be explained in logical terms of rational supply and demand: the explanation must lie in the astrological ratio of the cycles of the divine counterparts of these metals – the sun and moon.
If all these scholars we just quoted are onto something, then it appears the origin of money was religious to the core.
Indeed, we find the first institution to issue money in history were the priest class and the first ever banks were temples. In fact, the words ‘money’ and ‘monetary’ come from the mint in the temple of Juno Moneta on the Capitoline Hill in Rome. Juno Moneta meaning Juno the admonisher.
All this brings us to a fascinating conclusion. Nowadays, we believe money is valuable because you can get things for it. But the original appeal of money was the entirely opposite.
As a token of power, an express link to the gods – money is immortality technology. The original value of money was its magical power. You would work for money; you would trade your produce for money because it was good to have money’s power. The power of the gods packaged by the priest in shiny sun-shaped amulets you could carry in your pocket.
As the psychoanalyst Géza Róheim put it:
‘Originally people do not desire money because you can buy things for it, but you can buy things for money because people desire it’.
A SECRET RELIGION
Now, the biggest mistake we can make is to stop here and say ‘Alright. Superstitious people used to ascribe some magical power to money in the past, but today things are different. I want money because I want freedom. Freedom to buy what I want, to have more free time, to not worry about the rent. I want money because I want better health care, I want to be able to put my kids through college, I want to leave something behind for them and their kids. I want money so others take me more seriously, so I am treated with respect and have a say in things. I want money because it makes life better.’
Well… Let me directly quote Becker here:
… the reason money is so elusive to our understanding is that it is still sacred, still a magical object on which we rely for our entrance into immortality … money is obscure to analysis because it is still a living myth, a religion.
My high-school history teacher, Mr. Altman, once tried to explain this to our class, though I think it went over my head completely back then. He took out a ten-dollar bill (he is American) and asked us ‘What is this?’. After a few confused suggestions from the students, he said, ‘No, no, and no. This here is trust. This is belief. I believe this is worth something and I trust you to believe the same. This is the only reason why this piece of cloth I hold in my hand is worth more than a handkerchief.’
What all this points to is a very simple, yet very bizarre conclusion. Simple, because it is obvious once you study the facts. Bizarre, because it sounds absurd before you study them.
The conclusion is this: our economy is a religion and money is its sacrament.
FAITH IN GOLD
Our economy rests entirely on faith in the magical power of money and this faith is universally confirmed by the fact everyone has it. Imagine what would happen to the world if, say, the US or China suddenly decided they no longer believe money is valuable. This would be as outrageous to the rest of us as the first atheist of the Enlightenment seemed to the Christian world.
As the anthropologist Mary Douglas wrote:
‘Money mediates transactions; ritual mediates experience, including social experience. Money provides a standard for evaluating worth; ritual standardises situations, and so helps to evaluate them. Money makes a link between the present and the future, so does ritual. The more we reflect on the richness of the metaphor, the more it becomes clear that this is no metaphor. Money is only an extreme and specialised type of ritual.’
I encourage you to pause this video and just read that again, slowly.
It should now seem obvious why the Queen’s head appears on UK money. If you ask an official, they would say it’s just keeping with tradition, that it is ‘the way it has always been done’.
But now we have the historical perspective to see where this tradition comes from.
To make a long story short, the power of the god which ancient societies used to draw from gradually came to be embodied in the leader in more advanced cultures. It was the monarch, the queen, the pharaoh, the Napoleon, the Stalin, the Churchill, – it was the leader that became the new symbol of power. So, it was only natural that the leader’s likeness replaced the likeness of the god on the magical talismans people carried around.
And no matter how scientific and rational we moderns like to think of ourselves, we still use money as talismans of power. And that power is still ultimately the power to resist limitation and to gain freedom –resist death and gain life.
The thing that connects money with the domain of the sacred is its power. We have long known that money gives power over men … on top of this it gives literally limitless ability to satisfy appetites of almost any material kind. Power is not an economic category, and neither is it simply a social category … All power is in essence power to deny mortality. Either that or it is not real power at all … not the power that mankind is really obsessed with. Power means power to increase oneself, to change one’s natural situation from one of smallness, helplessness, finitude, to one of bigness, control, durability, importance. [Money] buys bodyguards, bullet-proof glass, and better medical care. Most of all, it can be accumulated and passed on, and so radiates its powers even after one’s death …
RELIGION WITHOUT SPIRITUALITY
In short, money is man’s tool for immortality – for denying the restrictions imposed on him by his animal body.
So far, so good. But what can we walk away with from all this?
Well, when we study the historical and psychological evolution of money, we find one concerning tendency.
Originally, power came from the gods whom man associated with using his magical amulets. Afterward, power stepped down from the heavenly world and came to be embodied by the leader of the tribe or country. Money then became a magical link between the individual and his or her great leader. Fast-forward to today and we no longer have any conception of power outside money.
Money seems to have become a causa sui – a cause to itself. Money is no longer a bridge to a source of power, money is the power.
We have been edifying money as our new, entirely non-spiritual god. The latest step of this process is cryptocurrency. I invite you to ask any Bitcoin or Ethereum trader how they earn their living. It will be the most absurd story you’ll hear for a long time, and yet… it makes good money because enough people believe in it.
Now, if anything deserves to be described as ritual, as magic, as religion – then the ability to produce life-renewing power from moving ones and zeroes around is it.
But… This power money provides is now completely detached from the virtues and moral values once embodied in the national god or leader. Even if you were a rich man, there were once still other ways in which you had to earn the favour of the gods. Morality, ethics, honour, duty… These were no less vital in drawing power from the spirit realm.
Today’s money god cares little for these things. Today, power cares only for power.
Worse still, power buys only power. Money is no longer a means of spiritual satisfaction. Money has become a shallow relief of existential angst. Today we can buy and possess more than we ever could before, and yet… this leaves us empty and thirsty. Thirsty for real rejuvenation, spiritual rejuvenation.
Now, we cannot return to the state of innocence of primitive man. The only path open to us is the path forward. What becomes of money or what comes to replace it will be one of the most significant shifts in the future of our civilization.
One thing that will certainly help us is to come to terms with our true motivations. We do not want to be rich. We want to live forever. As outrageous as this may sound, it is the truth.
And perhaps, indeed, in the end, it will be the truth that sets us free.