Monday, December 12, 2016

The Ruin of Mankind

Grim just linked to a Vox article on Donald Trump's financial conflicts-of-interest.  I didn't read it, but I can easily see how they would be Legion. Yet Grim points out an odd paradox - as conflicts-of-interest increase, they might tend to nullify each other. (Note also how this mirrors foreign policy - helping anyone in the ME inconveniences two other friends.  Or international charity - giving food puts local agriculture out of business. Tradeoffs, all is tradeoffs.)

But how like Vox to focus only on money as a possible hidden motive.  The entire literature of mankind is taken up with humans who are evil for other reasons, or good men who are tempted and fall for other reasons. Status, power, honor, admiration, security, revenge, romance, adventure, lust - these are the stuff of our myths.  Is there a Greek drama focused on money?  Does any villain of Shakespeare court damnation because of cash?  Even a stereotype like Shylock has other things happening. The Arthurian legends and the Siegfried legends have reference to gold as a motivator, a synechdoche for wealth.  And yet these are not merely greed, for the beauty of gold and its timelessness are also in play.

Chaucer makes fun of the greedy, and Moliere not only wrote "The Miser*" but had other such characters, all comic.  Dickens had evil/humorous moneygrubbers. Does anyone think Darth Vader could be bought?

Is there a tragedy in literature built around simple greed?  The apostles tried to pin that on Judas, but closer examination makes him more complex. There must be one, but I am not thinking of any. Speaking of the Biblical testimony, BTW, the insistence that the love of money is the root of all evil is one reason I am not quite a literalist. Expositors try to find ways to make that so, but it just isn't. Paul is making a poor generalisation here, as the love of money is not the only temptation.  (See Commandments, Ten.)

I invite readers to think through their own reading.  Isn't this focus on the greedy as the main villains much more common in the modern era?

*Anecdote:  William and Mary performed "The Miser" my freshman year. (As an aside, Glennie Wade, now Glenn Close, played Frosine.) The actor playing Harpagon mixed up a line in rehearsal, saying "That man is trying to steal my daughter and seduce my money!"  After we all did a double-take and laughed, the director told him to keep it in, assuring him that Moliere would have preferred it had he thought of it.


Grim said...

You raise a good point about corrupting influences generally. In Greek tragedy, sometimes there wasn't any corruption at all -- the evil came from people who had conflicting duties, not always from anyone doing wrong (e.g., Antigone). Other times, it was lust (e.g., Agamemnon's end) or wrath (e.g., Achilles') or pride (e.g., Narcissus). Other times, it was unjustified in the strict sense that no justification was offered (e.g., Oedipus at Colonus, severed from the more famous story about him).

In the Iliad, the conflict arises from a combination of the play of the gods using mortals as pawns or toys, and a clash between Achilles and Agamemnon over who is due the most respect (as expressed in control of Brises, but it's not about lust, it's about the insult of Agamemnon taking away Achilles' war trophy to put Achilles in a one-down position even though he, Achilles, is by far the better warrior).

On the other hand, Aristotle has a lengthy account of why people who pursue money (as opposed to wealth for supporting one's household) through trade or through work are probably unfit to be citizens. There's a sense that it's unworthy, but not expressed artistically.

In the Medieval tales, even interest in money is considered unworthy of the kind of man who might be a hero. However, that strikes me as having a class component: the nobility were very interested in wealth, but as expressed in fine clothes, land, food, beautifully wrought swords and armor, horses, etc. None of these things are generally portrayed as corrupting, though. They are the proper rewards of virtue and high honor.

Money isn't the issue for the noble men of the middle ages because it isn't even really associated with proper wealth. Proper wealth is the things that come from high position, which means control of land or at least being in the knightly service of someone who controls land.

Merchants (and certainly Jews) were considered too low to be heroes in this kind of story, maybe, too.

Maybe it's the Moderns who are so concerned with it because it is in the modern age that coin-counting men aren't already considered inherently dishonorable figures. So now we have to explore the ways in which money can turn the heart, in ways that earlier ages just assumed it did. It didn't rise to the level of being artistically interesting, I'd guess, rather than that they didn't worry about it.

james said...

Aristophanes has a go at the greedy, and attributes all sorts of things to the power of money.

dmoelling said...

In the past direct conflicts of interest were more or less obvious. You got the King to wage war on a trade competitor or execute a commercial rival. The state could build roads or ports that favored you or tax you to pay for war. Today the possibilities are more widespread and complex. But revenge is still a big motive which usually involves sex in divorce or elsewhere. Rewarding flatterers has always been around but today the use of toadies is only bad if they fail dramatically.

In general though the political issue is if someone is gaining access to special deals unavailable to others. Thus we make a crime of insider trading.

There is a joke about an African Government Minister that comes to Europe for a conference. He asks his European counterpart how he could afford such a lavish home. The European minister replies he was given advance knowledge about a new highway and bought some cheap land in the path of the highway. A few years later the European minister travels to Africa and marvels at the African Ministers home. Asking how he could afford it, he says it was due to the new highway program near by. The European says "What Highway?" and quickly sees the African has jumped to the next level of honest graft!

The public is very attentive to the general unfairness of "honest graft" if not to the inefficiency of a corrupt government.