Le Culte de L’Argent

A friend of mine – who happens to be a philosophy professor (bear with me) –  recently explained to me a philosophical distinction, first made by Aristotle between two visions of money and its role in society.  The one he (Aristotle) called oikonomia (economics) and the other he called khrematisike (chrematistics). The first, basically, is perceived as good and the second as bad. The first – economics – refers to the useful and beneficial function of money as related to the ‘natural’ process of producing and exchanging goods, while the second – crematistics – refers to the ‘unnatural’ art of money begetting money and includes mechanisms like speculation and debt.

According to this same friend, the glamorous French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, describes Aristotle’s theory in the following terms: “For Aristotle, it is a matter of an ideal and desirable limit, a limit between the limited and the unlimited, between the true and finite good (the economic) and the illusory and indefinite good (the chrematistic).”

Reading this, another French thinker, Alexis de Tocqueville, springs to mind. He went to America in the nineteenth century and described what he saw in the following terms: ‘The Americans cleave to the things of this world as if assured that they will never die, and yet are in such a rush to snatch any that come within their reach, as if expecting to stop living before they have relished them. They clutch everything but hold nothing fast, and so lose grip as they hurry after some new delight.’(1)

Does the Anglo-Saxon consumerist model encourage us to chase after the next new thing of this world, urging us to borrow in order to do so – the next handbag, the next mortgage payment etc. – and so induce a culture of endless postponement of ‘true’ pleasure?

In a fit of exasperation at seeing his nation repeatedly compared to Britain, Georges Pompidou once said to his Minister, Alain Peyrefitte, “We’re not like them! If we were we’d know about it! For nearly three centuries we’ve been idealising Anglo-Saxon society, starting with Montesquieu, who allowed himself to be manipulated by the Intelligence Service…This society that we worship is one of Money!”

(1) De la démocratie en Amérique