Money is the magic word of modern society that conjures up all kinds of myths, associations and superstitions. We don’t quite understand it, yet we want it nonetheless. On some of us it casts such a powerful magical spell that we are ready to trade our souls for it. But what lies behind the mystery of money, and why is it such an enigma?
On a practical level, we certainly know that money is a medium that facilitates trade and makes our lives easier. If you have money, you can exchange it for food, shelter and other commodities and conveniences. As such it’s a tool for survival, but somehow it’s also much more than that.
Money has this magical, almost supernatural feature which can’t be explained in practical terms. If money was only about survival, why would so many people go crazy about it? The truth is that money is not just money. Money equals power, status, prestige and even promises immortality.
To understand the true meaning of money, we have to go back to its origins. Primitive men used all sorts of things as money before coins appeared: feathers, teeth of wild animals, shells and so on. Even back then, money was not a mere object, but a symbol in itself. The feathers symbolized the ability of flight, the teeth stood for brute force, and the shells could be seen as fertility symbols.
Before the modern invention of paper money, commodities, which had value in themselves, were used in trade. Originally people do not desire money because you can buy things for it, but you can buy things for money because people desire it. But as I just mentioned, people didn’t desire money for the commodity value alone, but also for its symbolic or spiritual qualities.
Money has always been historically linked with religions, and collecting money has become a religious act in itself. It all goes back to Egypt, where the most important god was the Sun, and there was plenty of gold lying around. Artisans created small statues, tokens, talizmans and amulets in the form of their gods that people could carry around with themselves to ward off evil and bring blessings and luck.
Soon enough, Egyptians noticed the similar color that gold and rays of light share, and began to make these amulets solely out of gold instead of the usual materials like clay or shells. They also adopted the circular shape of the Sun, and this is how the gold coin was born, and with this, gold became God.
From this we can see that originally, money had no utility in itself, but what it had was purely spiritual or supernatural value. Money had spirit powers, and if you had a coin in your pocket, you could be assured that God was always with you, you didn’t even have to go to the temple. And the more coins you had, the more protected you could feel.
If money was sacred, then it’s also not surprising that the first banks were temples, and the first issuers of money were priests. The word money comes from the name of the temple where it was first minted: Juno Moneta situated in Rome. Only priests were allowed to deal with the gods, thus money making was monopolized, and counterfeiting was equal to sacrilige.
Initially, representations of gods were printed on gold coins, later faces of divine kings, and nowadays leaders and presidents of countries. This is how money became the symbol of God, and this is why we worship money with religious zealotry. The United States is a pool of various people with various cultures, but one thing is common: in God we trust just as much as we trust in the value of the dollar.
This trust is the very basis of the monetary system. As long as everybody believes that the dollar is valuable, it will remain valuable. You accept a sheet of paper for the inherently valuable goods you sell, because you also trust that this bill will be accepted when you want to buy something. But the moment people stopped accepting money for payment, it would be worth only as much as the paper it was printed on: close to nothing.
Here, we could briefly think about the concept of value for a while. If we cut to the core of the matter, we can say that ultimately the only value in life is life itself. Therefore, different things are valuable to the degree they create or sustain this life. God is valuable because he is the alleged creator of life. Time is valueable because it’s the measure of life. Money is valuable because it’s the sustainer of life.
If you have money, you have everything, at least you can buy every material thing. Nowadays, money is equal to power, because almost everything can be bought. It’s one thing that you can physically sustain your body by exchanging money for food, shelter and healthcare, but that’s just the start. Beyond the basic necessities, money can make you a king, you can feel almost as powerful as a living God.
Money can buy you social status, so people will admire you and look up to you. Money can buy you lovers and easy access to sex. Money can buy you slaves who will work for you, sacrificing their own time and free will. With enough money, you can make almost anybody do almost anything. You can control others and you can control your own destiny, you can take life into your own hands.
Money is power, but why is it that humans crave power so much? Because we need power to live and power to avoid death. There are powers that help us and powers that threaten us, that are beyond us. And the biggest such power is the power of death. That’s why we want to control our environment so much: we want to escape death, and the more wealth we possess, the more we can secure and prolong our lives.
Polynesian people understood life as two opposing power structures. They gave us the word mana which implies influence, authority, efficacy and powers derived from gods. The contrasting force is symbolized by an even more well-known term: taboo, which we can most easily translate as danger, or anything related to death. The more mana you accumulate, the more easily you can escape death. And the modern mana is of course nothing else than money.
But we are not satisfied with only one lifetime, our ambitions are unrestricted, we want eternal life beyond death. For a limitless life, we then need limitless mana, which leads to limitless accumulation of money and unrestrained greed. Even though you might not know this consciously, the real reason you want wealth beyond your needs is because you are afraid of death.
I see this all too well in my father, who is a pure materialist. He equates himself with his body and his personality, and so he is even more afraid of death than religious people, who at least console themselves with lies. In the era of science, religious dogma is less and less believable, but that doesn’t mean that non-believers are able to accept death.
They desperately need a substitute consolation, and if they can’t achieve literal immortality, they want a symbolic one at least. Subconsciously, secular people want to immortalize themselves in the wealth they leave to their children, in the mark they leave on the world, in the buildings they erect in their names. But even when one doesn’t have enough money for these, a small stone will be at least erected for everybody: a tombstone inscribed with a name.
Money is not the root of evil, it’s the denial of death, as I explained in the episode titled “How to escape from evil”. Money is just a means to deny death, but it’s not the only one. However, nowadays it seems to be the most important one, which explains the insatiable greed, the limitless accumulation and unrestricted consumption of our society.
We have made money our God, and our infinite ambitions take a toll on the finite resources of the planet. Unless we understand and uproot our addiction to money, we endanger not only our own mental health, but the future of our entire species and all other forms of life, as well.
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