March 14, 2009

Avarice and Secularism: George Herbert's view

MONEY, thou bane of bliss, and source of woe,
Whence com'st thou, that thou art so fresh and fine ?
I know thy parentage is base and low:
Man found thee poor and dirty in a mine.

Surely thou didst so little contribute
To this great kingdom, which thou now hast got,
That he was fain, when thou wert destitute,
To dig thee out of thy dark cave and grot.

Then forcing thee, by fire he made thee bright :
Nay, thou hast got the face of man; for we
Have with our stamp and seal transferr'd our right :
Thou art the man, and man but dross to thee.

Man calleth thee his wealth, who made thee rich ;
And while he digs out thee, falls in the ditch.

Avarice is a poem by George Herbert, Anglican divine and metaphysical poet. What I find so interesting about the poem is that it is of course not about avarice- it is about the state and furthermore it is about the relationship between the state and religion. Avarice hardly features in the poem at all- and we shall return to why it is titled avarice at the end of this essay. What Herbert is interested in here is the process that gives money value: there is the process whereby metal is transferred from its 'cave or grot' and hammered into coins and then just as importantly there is a process by which money is hammered with man's face. What Herbert means by that is that money is given a face, a stamp, a right to command the labour of men and the produce of the earth. We make money both physically and through our consent- we turn it into something that has value. And of course whilst we possess money, we think that we are wealthy- but as Herbert points out in his ironic last line, the value of money is perpetual and our possession of it is ephemeral.

The base meaning of the poem- the sentences and the way that they come together is obvious. But as ever with Herbert, the point is more interesting and it bears reflecting on, if we are to understand the way that Christianity and government relate and have related in the West. Government, as Locke was to argue years after Herbert wrote his poem, is often about tacit consent: we consent to believe that the copper coin in our hands (worth less than nothing) is actually worth anything up to two pounds or that a scrap of paper is worth 100 dollars or a million pounds. Consent is the basis for our monetary system and in that sense maintaining the money supply and its value, and our belief in its value, is not merely an economic question reflecting on inflation but a political one that reflects upon the authority of the state. In a sense, the actions of the state, without which civilised government of any stripe is impossible, tend to obscure this relationship.

Herbert draws our attention to it because he wants us to see that the consent and contract upheld by the state can become a competitor to his own view that humanity is a God driven and purposed entity. If our priorities are only heavenly- and if you strictly believe the words of the Bible how else can they be- then money and the whole apparatus that protects earthly happiness (the state itself) is a disguise- a disguise that may lead to doom. Christ of course turned down the kingdoms of the world and Herbert is suggesting that we too should turn down a money that cannot accompany us when we drop into our ditch and that is a 'bane of bliss and source of wo'. Money and government are the insignia of sin: not merely in the sense for Herbert that they perpetuate sin (the Rousseauian and Marxist point) but that merely by existing they are the definition of sin, they create a goal, a God to worship over God.

Money in Herbert's vision is only valued as an expression of man's intentions- his earthly desires. Herbert of course believes that fallen man can never acheive any happiness- money is thus a source of wo and bane of bliss because it is created by man and not by God. Herbert's title is crucial to interpreting the poem- by calling this Avarice he wants us to analyse the poem in the Augustinian way that I have done. What Herbert offers us as a definition of Avarice is a poetic definition of money and that poetic definition of money ties money right into the political acts of consent that create it. You don't have to endorse Herbert's view of the world- Augustinian and profoundly Christian- to understand the power of his point. His argument is that Caesar and Christ can never be followed together: render unto Caesar what is Caesar's- the coin of the empire (and remember at this point England is an 'empire entire to itself') and render unto God what is God's (the soul). Too much preoccupation with the former leads to a neglect of the latter and consequently what Herbert argues for here is both quietist and revolutionary: he does not argue for a new kind of politics or economics, he argues against politics and economics as ways of thinking about human kind.

It is worth considering this, even if you disagree with Herbert's line of thinking, because what it reminds us is how secular modern politics actually is. Everyone today is a secularist in Herbert's view. Herbert did not see a political system as evil- he saw political systems in themselves as a perversion of the higher aims that we all should have. Money for him is a part of the political world- it is created by consent afterall- raised to become a King. But his argument is that as soon as we care about money, we lose the ability to care about God. I do not agree with this position- but it is worth understanding that it exists. Herbert's world view is more foreign from that of Newt Gingrich than Karl Marx's world view is, because it denies the very legitimacy of any argument about political systems or political entities save as a pathway to heaven. This radical Christian impulse- and it is shared in other religions- is an important strand in the theology of politics: in a sense it goes back to Augustine for whom the civitate mundi was filled with conflict and destruction, the civitate dei was the only refuge. Herbert would have endorsed that.


Virtual real estate said...

Secularism is such a sensitive issue. It plays such an important role in democracy.

Gracchi said...

Of course it is! But it is interesting going backwards as well to look at the parameters of old arguments and see that they do not ressemble todays.