Thursday, May 04, 2006

Emerson on The Weight of Money

Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay on "Wealth" wrote:

Money is representative, and follows the nature and fortunes of the owner. The coin is a delicate meter of civil, social, and moral changes. The farmer is covetous of his dollar, and with reason. It is no waif to him. He knows how many strokes of labor it represents. His bones ache with the day’s work that earned it. He knows how much land it represents;—how much rain, frost, and sunshine. He knows that, in the dollar, he gives you so much discretion and patience, so much hoeing and threshing. Try to lift his dollar; you must lift all that weight. In the city, where money follows the skit of a pen, or a lucky rise in exchange, it comes to be looked at as light. I wish the farmer held it dearer, and would spend it only for real bread; force for force.

The farmer’s dollar is heavy, and the clerk’s is light and nimble; leaps out of his pocket; jumps on to cards and farotables; but still more curious is its susceptibility to metaphysical changes. It is the finest barometer of social storms, and announces revolutions.

What an extraordinary concept Emerson was articulating. Money has relative weight depending on what it is measuring. Clearly the dollar the farmer earns and spends is the same dollar with which that city clerk is gambling. So, on what basis would Emerson make his claim? First I must state the assumption that Emerson was imagining what we call purchase money (rather than loan or gift). The money is nothing more than a physical expression of value, but value does not really exist except at the moment of a transaction. What we normally call value is determined as a result of the pattern of multiple transactions in circulation or currency--a virtual mean created of fluctuating values. Real value is establish by the parties to the purchase transaction based upon a constellation of personal feelings, perceived needs or desires, and the environmental context of the transaction. Consciousness brought to this aspect of the transaction, the sympathy of one party to the transaction to the condition of the other, is what I believe Emerson was referencing in his estimate of the relative weight of the farmer's money. The point is that if we enter into a purchase transaction from a position of empathy (we are engaged in meeting each other's needs) rather than antipathy (I am meeting my needs) that other metaphysical world to which Emerson refers will be more present, as will real value. Emerson was a visionary in many realms. In his view of wealth, he was arguing for an altruistic rather than egoistic economy.

John Bloom © 2006

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