A celebrated philosopher wonders if everything we believe about money is all wrong.
Pascal Bruckner is a writer who defies categorization -- sort of but not exactly a philosopher, sort of but not exactly an historian, sort of but not exactly a political scientist, sort of but not exactly ... well, you get the point. Perhaps it’s best to think of Bruckner as a latter-day philosophe, that species of public intellectual that emerged in 18th-century Europe, particularly France, who committed themselves to applying the world’s great store of accumulated knowledge -- as well as trenchant wit -- to real world problems, thereby freeing learning from the cloistered confines of the university. For Anglophone audiences, the late Christopher Hitchens might serve as a contemporary example, though of an acutely polemical kind.
In a somewhat similar vein, over the past few decades Bruckner has established himself in France, and Europe more generally, as a gadfly committed to rigorously evaluating commonplaces and conventional pieties, often those associated with progressive or leftist ideology, and discovering their source in the less than virtuous motivations and atavistic impulses of self-abnegation and oppression of others. For example, in the hand-wringing discourse over the numinous phenomenon of “climate change”, Bruckners find a contemporary incarnation of the doctrine of original sin, and an obsession with the apocalypse, dressed in the garb of modern science.
So one should not be surprised by his latest work, the very title of which will certainly be taken as a provocation by some:
Not so fast. Readers of Bruckner’s previous works will know to expect at least as much judicious examination as sly provocation. The basic argument here is that sufficient money (or wealth, if one prefers) is essential to a good life -- let’s say the life of a modestly successful writer and public intellectual living in one of the world’s great cosmopolitan cities. A life, in other words, a lot like that of Pascal Bruckner. (If this seems a cheap shot, it’s worth noting that Bruckner himself makes the point upfront. After reflecting on the bohemian pleasures of his youth, he writes of his own attempts to develop an appropriately equipoised relationship to money: “Being neither the heir to a fortune nor a financier, I have never been rich enough to forget money or poor enough to neglect it”).
In short, one must be responsible but an obsession with accumulating ever more -- particularly if it entails foregoing the “higher” pleasures of the mind -- is the philistine’s sure road to unhappiness.
It’s hardly a novel argument. Indeed, it would appear to be one of humanity’s oldest and most enduring, if the musings of innumerable ancient philosophers are any indication. But that doesn’t make money itself wrong or not worth making. Indeed, Bruckner’s energetic and cosmopolitan approach -- drawing on history, philosophy, economics, and much more -- everywhere indicates the relevance of his argument, especially when he calls out and deftly diagnoses money sickness among today’s international elite.
But too often Bruckner’s commonplace argument tends toward the trite, for several reasons. The most significant is that the wealth of materials -- personal anecdotes, news stories, films, books, television shows -- grows to such an extent over the course of the book’s nearly 300 pages that, in the end, proliferation of objects of analysis -- rather than any kind of evolving argument -- seems to be an end in and of itself. Indeed, inexplicably there are scattered throughout the book brief essays -- typically of a page’s length or two -- marked out from the surrounding content in a kind of gray textbox format. It’s an odd formatting choice and gives the reader the impression that Bruckner simply refused to leave any material on the cutting room floor.
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The proliferation also leads to a maddening habit of intermingling both actual and fictional examples to substantiate a given point, often in a single catalogue. Now, it should be noted that fiction and other arts -- broadly construed -- can be powerful instruments for indexing or understanding the psyche, so to speak, of a given group of people or society, but here the technique too often leads to rather discordant passages as in this example, taken from a meditation on “branding” and capitalism:
A more egregious example is that of Scrooge McDuck, whose “biography” Bruckner repeatedly cites as an example of the motivations for and deleterious psychological consequences of obsessive accumulation, a habit that led this reviewer eventually to mutter in exasperation, “Um, does he realize that Scrooge McDuck is not a real anthropomorphic duck?”
The approach also leads occasionally to virtual thickets of pronouncements and would-be aphorisms that seek to scale the mountain of wisdom but fall into the void of obviousness:
“Charity done out of vanity is better than vanity without charity.”
“Philanthropy is the continuation of business by other means.”
“The worst affront occurs when a beggar to whom we have given nothing thanks us effusively ... He kills us with affability.”
In these instances and throughout, Bruckner appears to be trying too hard, to spin common sense as profound insight, which is a shame because in its best passage The Virtue of Money offers judicious good sense, suggesting that Bruckner’s endeavor might have been better realized in a relatively slender monograph or collection of essays.