A Timonian Meditation on Money

— Timon of Athens, the “ fierce old man,” was perhaps not much of a political economist; but was he not a philosopher, and had he not a pretty shrewd eye to the nature and effects of gold coin ? —

“We know him out of Shakespeare’s art,
And those fine curses which he spoke,
The old Timon with his noble heart
That, strongly loathing, greatly broke. ”

If it was rather rage than philosophy that drove him from a palace to the woods, and from the enjoyment of gold to a wiser hatred of it, yet the coolest analysis may lead a calmer mind to much the same view. With his heart burning from the falseness of “ mouth friends,” “ trencher-friends,” and the “fierce wretchedness of glory,” he tears at the ground with savage energy, and cries, —

“ Earth, yield me roots!
Who seeks for better of thee, sauce his palate
With thy most operant poison! What is here ?
Gold ? yellow, glittering, precious gold ? No, gods!
I am no idle votarist: roots, you clear heavens!
. . . . . . Why, this
Will lug your priests and servants from your sides;
This yellow slave
Will knit and break religions ; bless the accursed ;
Make the hoar leprosy adored; place thieves,
And give them title, knee, and approbation,
With senators on the bench. . . .
O thou sweet king-killer, and dear divorce
’Twixt natural son and sire ! thou bright defiler
Of Hymen’s purest bed ! thou valiant Mars !
Thou ever young, fresh, loved, and delicate wooer !
. . . Thou visible god,
Think, thy slave man rebels. ”

Then presently he exclaims to the light companions of Alcibiades, —

“ There ’s more gold,
... And let this damn you! ”

And again to the thieves (“charming them from their profession by persuading them to it ”), —

“ Break open shops; nothing can you steal
But thieves do lose it. Steal not less, for this
I give you; and gold confound you howsoever !
Amen !

In all this, must we not admit that Timon cursed better than he knew ? For it is not at all “ to consider too curiously ” to affirm that wealth is in many ways our bad angel. It looks, on the face of it, like power and independence. It is, in reality, weakness and dependence. For money — to go to the very bottom of it — is nothing but the aid of other men. When we pass a coin, we cry “ Help ! ” The gold simply represents so much purchasable service. Now the best service is to a very slight extent purchasable. The aid of other men does not tend to make us strong: it tends to make us weak. What we do for ourselves and for others gives us force ; what others can be hired to do for us gives us only feebleness and helpless dependence. A gold eagle does not represent wheat: you cannot pay it into the earth and receive food in return. Nothing short of the effort of some brain and arm can turn the soil and air and water into bread. If a man would escape the dependence on other men’s help for his meal, he can only say, with Timon, —

“ Gold ? yellow, glittering, precious gold ? No, gods!
I am no idle votarist: roots, you clear heavens!”

So, to have a ten-dollar bill in one’s pocket is only to confess that, to this ten dollars’ worth, one is helpless and dependent. It is of value there in the purse only as we mean to use it; and the use we shall infallibly make of it is to slip it into some man’s hand, and weakly beg his aid. It is a prospective admission that, to this extent, we are not sufficient to ourselves; that we are full of cravings that we cannot by our own strength satisfy ; that, in short, we are looking for somebody to lean against. The only way to taste the delicious sense of being perfectly independent is to feel the pocket perfectly empty.

If the blind king’s banner-motto was “ Ich Dien,” the blind money - lover’s should be “ Ich Verlange.” His device might be an open mouth, rampant. Yonder sleek nabob sitting just before us in the car, as he rides home from “ business,” has a very haughty and supercilious back, disdaining to turn to the right or to the left; but to my mind’s eye that bolt upright and motionless spine is in reality alive with petty personal desires. How else should he be such a moon-calf as to waste his whole allotted lifetime in the treadmill of money-getting ? He is only a slave in the underground mines. His whole year is spent deep down underneath any bright sunshine of the free existence that goes on above him. By a queer illusion, he thinks these bonds and notes in his pocket, which represent only the force and power of other men, somehow are his force and power; and he feels aware of great personal merit and dignity. But he is nothing else than one great unsatisfied want. Our imagination can depict him only in some such ludicrous posture as of a greedy urchin, eyes shut, cheeks fiery and tear-blobbered, squalling after a withheld and dripping spoon.

Depend upon it, whenever we are so weakly minded as to sit back in our chair and heave a sigh and wish we were richer, it is a symptom of relaxed fibre in us. It shows that, in place of planning to do something, we are feebly craving to receive something. If we catch ourselves longing after a full purse, it is a sure sign that we are going to begin to whine for some unnecessary help or service from somebody. But money, as we have said, is but the purchasable aid of other men, which cannot bring us health, or courage, or brains, or new furniture thereof. On the contrary, the really good things are far more likely to he ours with pockets empty than with pockets full. Athletic fibre of mind and muscle, cheerfulness, self-command, personal prowess of every sort, the healthy relish of life, friendships that amount to anything, —not only will money not buy these things, but it will do its best to banish them. This crisp hundred-dollar note, — I could light my pipe with it with a good deal of equanimity. For it represents only the day’s service of a squad of “ hands,” and what do I want of them ? They cannot bring me the only things I need : they would be certain to bring me, if they came, some things I fervently prefer away. The chances are, in any cool calculation, that I myself, within myself (and what other question imports much?), shall be the more of a man a year hence for having put it to smoke, rather than to the use intended.

If money seems to be useful for serving others, we must remember that we had much better give the needy our own service with love than the money representative of alien service for hire. And, moreover, is not he best able, in the long run, to be of perpetual help to others who is best able to forego the perpetual help of others? The man that can stand alone, not the man that requires continual propping, is the one for a time of need. What an element of hurry and fever it would take out of our lives, if Timon could persuade us of his philosophy! The days pass by, irrecoverable, and always we have forgotten to live. Our cry might well be like that of the poor farmer’s wife whom, not long ago, I overheard exclaiming, “ Oh, I’m so drove ! ” And what is it that drives us but this ridiculous eagerness for the “ yellow gold,” instead of the calm enjoyment of the really nutritious and selfobtainable “roots ” of existence?