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March 06, 2011

Poets and philosophers have known this for ages

In the section on money in Capital Vol. I, Karl Marx quotes Timon from Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens:


Gold? Yellow, glittering, precious gold? ...

Thus much of this will make black white, foul fair,

Wrong right, base noble, old young, coward valiant.

… What this, you gods? Why, this

Will lug your priests and servants from your sides,

Pluck stout men’s pillows from below their heads:

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: This is it

That makes the wappen’d widow wed again;

... Come, damned earth,

Thou common whore of mankind.

Shakespeare’s lines, which were written around 1607, are useful for Marx’s critique of money, which was written around 1867 – two hundred and sixty years later. Timon, a bitter misanthrope, self-exiled in the woods, delivers one of the harshest critiques of gold in all of world literature. Interestingly, his words prefigure Karl Marx’s critique of capitalism: that it causes a greed for wealth; that money is an alienated abstraction that comes to gain power over those who wield it; and that the use of money causes surreal inversions in society. What is interesting to me is that, if we assume that both Shakespeare’s and Marx’s writings are products of their times, then Timon’s critique of money must have been relevant in both 1607 and 1867. Indeed, a look at early modern plays (Jonson’s Volpone, Spenser’s Faerie Queen, and many of Thomas Middleton’s plays) and early-to-mid-nineteenth century writings (some of Heine’s poetry, early communist tracts such as Moses Hess’ On the Essence of Money, and, in British fiction, many of Dicken’s portrayals of nineteenth century life) reveals that this sort of critique of money was popular in both time periods.

Immediately below the Timon quote, Marx inserts a quote from Creon in Sophocles’ Antigone:

Money! Nothing worse

In our lives, so current, rampant, so corrupting.

Money – you demolish cities, root men from their homes,

You train and twist good minds and set them on

To the most atrocious schemes. No limit,

You make them adept at every kind of outrage,

Every godless crime – money!

These lines were written by Sophocles around 442 B.C.E., about two thousand and nine years before Marx’s Capital! Through exploring the intertextuality of Marx’s economic critique, a series of dots can be connected, linking nineteenth century Europe to early modern England and to Classical Greece. The thread that connects the three societies is a fervent hatred of the effects of money on humanity.

In his economic writings, which include not only Capital Vol. I, but also a series of drafts for it, only a few of which were published, Marx quotes Shakespeare’s plays nineteen times. He also uses quotes critical of money from Aristotle, Virgil, and a number of minor Greek and Roman poets. In Goethe’s early nineteenth century play Faust, Marx found lines to use as a metaphor for the power that money affords its owner:

“What, man! Confound it, hands and feet

And head and backside, all are yours!

And what we take while life is sweet,

Is that to be declared not ours?

Six stallions, say, I can afford,

Is not their strength my property?

I tear along, a sporting lord,

As if their legs belonged to me.

These lines are from Mephistopheles’ argument persuading Faust to sell his soul to the devil in exchange for vast amounts of power. Marx writes about money’s power:

That which is for me through the medium of money – that for which I can pay (i.e., which money can buy) – that am I myself, the possessor of the money. The extent of the power of money is the extent of my power. Money’s properties are my – the possessor’s – properties and essential powers. Thus, what I am and am capable of is by no means determined by my individuality. I am ugly, but I can buy for myself the most beautiful of women. Therefore I am not ugly, for the effect of ugliness – its deterrent power – is nullified by money. I according to my individual characteristics am lame, but money furnishes me with twenty-four feet.…Does not my money, therefore, transform all my incapacities into their contrary?

The devilish nature of money and its seductive power haunts Marx’s metaphor. Then to firmly root his imagery about money in a conceit of evil, Marx quotes Revelation 17:13 and 13:17:

These have one mind, and shall give their power and strength unto the beast…And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.

The mark of the beast is, for Marx, the commodification – the expression of monied value -- of all that people need and desire. He writes this quote five times in his economic writings, usually placing it close to his quotes from Timon of Athens. Marx uses powerful imagery from world literature, including (even though he was an atheist) from the Bible, to persuade his readers that capitalism is inhumane.

My research has uncovered an intertextual web of conceits, metaphors, allusions and quotes that stretches widely across human time and space. At a purely academic level, one can securely say that world literature had an influence on Marx’s writings. If one were to step back and glimpse how widely this intertextual web of the critique of money spreads – across eras and continents – one might realize that a central human problem has been discovered. This realization might support the activist claim that a society based on money is not healthy for humans; both poets and philosophers have known this for ages.


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