Emperor Vespasian famously said, “Money has no smell” when questioned about his decision to tax urinals. The folks here might disagree.
The love of money might be the root of all evil, but St. Paul wasn’t the first to say so. The gnome Phocylides said the same thing (“the mother of all evil”) 600 years earlier.
It’s not surprising.
Money has occupied the human consciousness since we became civilized enough to trade. Money is the thing that gives access to all other things because money is, by definition, a means of exchange: it’s the thing everyone wants because it can provide everything.
That makes money, in the words of the modern Jewish mystic Simone Weil, “power’s master key.”
So . . .
Money is power. Money is evil. Money is serious.
But like all serious things, it’s funny. If humor involves the juxtaposition of two unexpected things, one of those things needs to be serious, and something as deadly serious as money provides a lot of fodder for humor, as the poet Robert Graves (I Claudius) realized when he said,
“There’s no money in poetry, but then there’s no poetry in money, either.”
Graves’ witticism captures perfectly the artistic tension: The artist reaches for beauty, truth, and goodness, but the artist must also reach for food, clothing, and shelter. Does the poet write to capture transcendent truth or does he write to capture earthly money? It’s the artist’s existential predicament.
If the artist is creating in order to become rich, she’s inclined to produce junk.
The thing is, junk sells too, which is why the art critic John Ruskin said,
“There is hardly anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper.”
A piece of junk might sell for a dollar, but if you sell a million of them at a sufficient margin, you’ve made serious money.
Of course, greatness sells too. Contrary to popular belief, some of the greatest artists in history created for money . . . and made a lot of it, like Pablo Picasso, who died a billionaire. Although he was wealthier than Oprah, he appreciated the ultimate truth about money when he said,
“I’d like to live as a poor man with lots of money.”
Picasso’s funny comment reflects the “poor in spirit” that Jesus references in the Beatitudes and the reason Porter Wagoner scored a number one hit in 1955 with “A Satisfied Mind” and its money-excoriating lyrics, like:
“The wealthiest person is a pauper at times compared to the man with a satisfied mind.”
Contentment with little . . . or contentment with a lot. It doesn’t matter. A person wants contentment. The pauper who envies his rich neighbor is no better than the rich neighbor who thinks he’s better than the pauper. Comparison, at root, is a lack of contentment with what you have, which is something that has been lacking in America from its beginnings, prompting Mad Magazine to observe,
“The only reason a great many American families don’t own an elephant is that they have never been offered an elephant for a dollar down and easy weekly payments.”
That’s the Jones. “Keeping up with the Jones.” If the love of money is the root of all evil, comparison to the Jones is the branch that supports the evil fruit. I’ve dealt with a handful of embezzlement cases involving middle-class women who stole for one reason: they wanted their family to have good things like their wealthier friends. Ben Franklin was right when he wrote,
“He that is of the opinion money will do everything may well be suspected of doing everything for money.”
Money reveals one’s character. “Character,” after all, ultimately boils down to “contentment,” as Porter Wagoner and Picasso knew. The contented person isn’t reaching for something else and therefore isn’t tempted; the person who isn’t tempted is a person of high character indeed.
But the person who isn’t contented? He or she shows little character. It’s why the middle-aged woman embezzles. It’s why the young woman sleeps with strangers. It’s why the young man robs a store. It’s why the middle-aged man strangles his soul in pursuit of a career.
And it’s why a rich man jumps off a ledge when the stock market crashes: