When it comes to Wall Street's taste in philosophy, it would seem that the preferred choice for investors is unequivocally Ayn Rand. This is really no surprise, given Rand's belief that human relations in a civilized society are best regulated by and structured through money. Perhaps this is why economic luminaries such as former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan spent so much of their time as part of her retinue.
While many of Rand's fans admit that she wasn't necessarily the most eloquent writer, considerably less is made of the fact that she has probably never been considered a "real" philosopher either. Indeed, Rand's so-called "objectivism" might be one of the few things that both logic and continental branches of the academic philosophical establishment can agree on without much, if any frction.
But this too is perhaps no surprise, especially given what philosophers have said about money, wealth, and its effects on human life. Some excerpts should serve to demonstrate the point quite forcefully:
Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)
Schopenhauer was never one to mince words. The author of the hugely influential The World as Will and Idea, a work that testifies to a heavy influence of Eastern philosophy, was well known for his intolerance of impoverished ideas and the so-called philosophers that expressed them. One anecdote describes this perfectly; in 1820, Schopenhauer began lecturing at the University of Berlin, where his astronomically more successful contemporary G.W.F. Hegel was also lecturing. Schopenhauer had always dismissed Hegel as a “charlatan”, and decided it would be a good idea to schedule his lectures at the same time as those of his colleague.
This little act of arrogance did not turn out favorably, however, as Schopenhauer never had more than five students in attendance at his lectures at any given time, and it was not long before he left academia altogether. His acerbic commentary was not only reserved for his more successful colleagues, however, and his extensive readings of Vedantic and Hindu texts sharpened his criticism of materialistic behaviors, such as the love of, or desire for money:
“Money is like sea-water: The more we drink the thirstier we become; and the same is true of fame.”
“Money is human happiness in the abstract; he, then, who is no longer capable of enjoying human happiness in the concrete devotes himself utterly to money.”
Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)
Widely considered one of the earliest prefigurations of existentialism, the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard is best known for a number of challenging works, such as The Sickness Unto Death, and Either/Or, that explored how individuals dealt with difficult life-choices.
An incredibly innovative writer who published different works under various pseudonyms in order to bring viewpoints into dialogue or conflict, Kierkegaard was also a vocal opponent of the State Church in Denmark, preferring as he did a more radical and subjectively-oriented experience of Christian teachings.
Little surprise then that he also had a dim view of money and its effect on the human character:
“In the end, therefore, money will be the one thing people will desire, which is moreover only representative, an abstraction. Nowadays a young man hardly envies anyone his gifts, his art, the love of a beautiful girl, or his fame; he only envies him his money. Give me money, he will say, and I am saved…He would die with nothing to reproach himself with, and under the impression that if only he had had the money he might really have lived and might even have achieved something great.”
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)
It is hard to describe the scope, magnitude, and influence of Nietzsche’s books, especially because the German philosopher-poet was appropriated by the Nazi propaganda machine after his death. The association has stuck, unfortunately, but those who’ve spent any amount of time reading the breathtaking prose of Beyond Good and Evil or And Thus Spake Zarathustra will know that Nietzsche himself was a bitter and unsparing critic of the racism/nationalism that had already become popular in the Germany of his time.
As the philosopher who called for the “revaluation of all values”, one might expect some bitter or dismissive tract about materialism and especially money. But the following excerpt provides a truly fascinating, and typically poetic, take on the origin of the value of gold, one that is very much in keeping with his other observations on the nature of truth:
“But tell me: how did gold get to be the highest value? Because it is uncommon and useless and gleaming and gentle in its brilliance; it always gives itself. Only as an image of the highest virtue did gold get to be the highest value. The giver's glance gleams like gold. A golden brilliance concludes peace between the moon and the sun. Uncommon is the highest virtue and useless, it is gleaming and gentle in its brilliance: a gift-giving virtue is the highest virtue.”
Walter Benjamin (1892-1940)
The German critic, philosopher, and political thinker wrote extensively on capitalism in his short life. In one of his best-known works, the essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, he examined how the nature and meaning of the work of art had been drastically changed, if not greatly devalued, by the advent of industrial capitalism.
Western Europe prior to and during World War II was not a the safest place to be a Marxist, and this was exacerbated by the fact that Benjamin was also Jewish. In September of 1940, he was attempting to escape from France into Spain with a group of Jewish refugees that included his brother, as well as the author Arthur Koestler. His group however was ordered back into France by the authorities, practically guaranteeing that he would be picked up by the Gestapo. Rather than suffer the inevitable fate, Benjamin committed suicide by overdosing on morphine pills.
Despite his relatively early demise, however, he left behind a substantial body of work that endures to this day. The following are choice quotes regarding the capitalist system as a whole:
“One can behold in capitalism a religion, that is to say, capitalism essentially serves to satisfy the same worries, anguish, and disquiet formerly answered by so-called religion.”
“First, capitalism is a pure religious cult, perhaps the most extreme there ever was.”
Heraclitus (535-475 BCE)
It is perhaps no surprise that philosophers have approached the subjects of money and wealth since the earliest days of the discipline as we now know it. Heraclitus was one of the pre-Socratic philosophers, and what exists of his thought evinces a disdain for humanity, an embrace of the permanence of change, and an affirmation of the unity of opposites. Furthermore, there has been some indication that he suffered from melancholy, a condition that may have interrupted his philosophical work.
Needless to say, his thoughts on wealth are succinct:
“No one that encounters prosperity does not also encounter danger.”