Scripture has a great deal to say about wealth, riches, and possessions: That they do not profit in the day of wrath (Proverbs 11:4), that whoever trusts in them will fall (Proverbs 11:28), and that one’s life does not consist in their abundance (Luke 12:15), just to start. The lesson is clear: however good and necessary earthly possessions are, in them does not lie our greatest purpose and happiness, and therefore we should take care not to obsess about earthly goods, not to become attached to them, not to covet the goods of others, and so on. However difficult this may be to practice, it is straightforward to understand for a Christian. When speaking of money specifically, Scripture is much more dire: love of money is the root of all evil (1 Timothy 6:10). Why are admonitions against wealth in general so sober and practical, and those against money so dramatic and totalizing?
St. Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle, distinguishes between two kinds of wealth: the natural and the artificial. Natural wealth consists in those goods which serve man’s natural needs and desires, e.g. food, clothing, musical instruments, etc. Artificial wealth does not serve man’s natural needs and desires directly, but instead exists for the measurement of things salable and the convenience of exchange. Money is the primary example, but to it we could add things like stocks, bonds, and options contracts.
By the time Jacob returned to Canaan he had amassed a great deal of natural wealth, having “large flocks of sheep and goats, female and male servants, and many camels and donkeys” (Genesis 30:43), but no artificial wealth. Because Jacob was the patriarch of a pastoral tribe, these goods were essential for the flourishing of his clan. As with all natural wealth, it would have been sinful for Jacob to make its accumulation and preservation his primary purpose, but as patriarch he had a special responsibility to provide for his tribe’s earthly needs. The needs and desires natural wealth can serve are finite; the tribe can only eat so much meat, drink so much milk, carry and use so much wool, etc.
By contrast, the desire for artificial wealth is infinite; “whoever loves money never has enough” (Ecclesiastes 5:10). As St. Thomas explains (ST I-II, q. 2, a. 1), artificial wealth is a servant of disordered concupiscence. We know this from experience too. Given the choice, I would always want more money in my checking account, but with enough abundance I would no longer desire more houses, guitars, or even copies of the Bible.
The chief good toward which man’s heart yearns is an infinite good, and so the yearning is an infinite yearning. The desire for artificial wealth is infinite too, but artificial wealth itself is not. Therefore the love of artificial wealth attempts to fill the infinite void in our hearts with what is finite and does not satisfy, leading us away from our ultimate good. Is this why love of money is the root of all evil?
Our analysis so far is incomplete. Desire for artificial wealth is not the only infinite desire that man foolishly tries to fill with anything other than God. They are legion, but erotic love is perhaps the paradigmatic example of an unbounded yearning that humans fail to satisfy despite every disordered effort. Yet love of sex, however disordered, is not the root of all evil. The great financial success of industries like pornography, prostitution, and human trafficking are practically an object lesson; the pimp subordinates the lust in others to his disordered love of money, with disastrous consequences for everyone involved. The danger in loving money then, is not merely in the mismatch between the finite and the infinite. To understand why love of artificial wealth, and money in particular, is so specially dangerous to the soul, we must determine precisely what money is.
The simplest definition of money is “the most widely-accepted medium of exchange”. This bakes in many assumptions, which Aristotle teases out in his Nicomachean Ethics 5: Trade cannot happen unless what is traded is commensurate. There is nothing that makes different commodities (shoes and guitars, say) commensurate, but demand serves well enough for practical purposes. Demand must be measured if exchange is to occur, and society establishes a custom1 of using money to measure that demand and facilitate trade. Therefore, money serves as a “guarantee of exchange in the future”.
This is well and good, but it raises as many questions as it answers. If money is customary, who establishes the custom? If money is a guarantee of future exchange, who is the guarantor? Aristotle further says that money can be “altered and rendered useless at will”. At whose will? He also says that money’s value is subject to fluctuation in demand just as other commodities. Why would that be the established custom? These questions all approach a more fundamental question from different angles: what gives money its value in the first place?
Here it would be helpful to distinguish between a thing’s use value and its exchange value, a distinction recognized by thinkers as diverse as Aristotle, Aquinas, Adam Smith, and Karl Marx. A thing’s use value comprises those properties that make it suitable for serving man’s needs and desires, e.g. the fact that eggs are edible, while its exchange value is that for which it could be traded. The correspondence from use value to natural wealth and exchange value to artificial wealth should be clear.
Money’s exchange value is straightforward; after all, money is specifically established for exchange. But what of its use value? Aristotle says that money can be rendered “useless”, despite his Greek society using coins minted from precious metals. While commodity crops2 and precious metals were historically used as money, money’s primary use value is separate from the secondary uses of the material of the currency. Fiat currency is the best case study here, since it has no3 secondary use value.
The use value of fiat money ultimately lies in settling debts with the sovereign authority. “Sovereign” here is meant very broadly. The shopkeeper is the sovereign of his store, and so has the authority to issue gift cards. These are his own fiat currency for which he exchanges goods from the store. “Debts” is also meant broadly. The US government issues dollars4, and creates demand for them through many avenues: The IRS levies taxes in dollars, the USPS sells stamps for dollars, traffic cops issue fines denominated in dollars, court systems render judgments denominated in dollars, and so on.
The fact that money’s value is tied up in the authority of the sovereign resolves all of the open questions left by Aristotle. The sovereign is the one who establishes the custom by issuing the currency. The sovereign guarantees the future exchange. The “fiat” in “fiat currency” is that of
the sovereign. If our shopkeeper closes his store, he renders all his gift cards in circulation worthless. The value of money fluctuates with the power and authority of the sovereign. I am required to pay US taxes, and therefore I require US dollars. Fundamentally, the authority of the sovereign is what gives money its value.
This assessment of money’s use value is Biblical, and is core to Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 22:15-22. The Pharisees question Jesus about paying taxes to Caesar to “entangle him in his speech”. Jesus’s solution was to get the Pharisees to admit that Caesar’s image and inscription were on the coins used to pay the taxes. When Jesus says “render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s” he is not merely being poetic. Caesar is the authority that issues the money and guarantees its value. Therefore the money truly belongs to Caesar, and without Caesar is it worthless. We’ve all heard homilies about how Jesus evades a political trap, or explicates the relationship between heavenly and earthly authority. Whatever else Jesus did in that exchange, he gave us a very practical lesson on what money is and why it is valuable.
Now we know what money is and why it is valuable. How does this help us understand why love of it is the root of all evil? The reader may object that no one loves money for the authority that imbues it with value. Rather, one might say, they love it by virtue of that for which it can be traded, for the power that comes with the ability to quickly make it into shoes or bread or whatever. If we do this, we violate the First Commandment. To lean on Aristotle and Aquinas again, God is pure actuality, fully being with no becoming, being Himself, having no potency, immutable and unchangeable. Since money has no use value apart from the will of the sovereign to whom it belongs, we’re left only with its exchange value. This is the closest thing man can construct to prime matter, to a thing of pure potency, a thing that can only be said to “exist” insofar as it could later be something else. If the best analogy we have for something is pure potency, God’s opposite, then surely it must be sinful to love it.
If we wish to avoid this pitfall, our relationship with money must be built on its use value, the value rooted in the authority of the sovereign. It then becomes clear why “you cannot serve God and money” (Matthew 6:24). To serve money is to serve the authority of an earthly sovereign. It’s true that we all serve earthly sovereigns every day, but as we said before the desire for artificial wealth, for money, is infinite. When we serve an earthly sovereign through love of the money it issues, we again violate the First Commandment. Love of money is love of the sovereign’s promise over and above God’s promises. We submit to an earthly authority, trusting it to fill the the infinite void in our hearts which is only properly filled by love of the One True God. Many of us don’t trust our local school boards to oversee the education of our children; imagine trusting in the US Federal Reserve to bring fulfillment in life!
When viewed in this light, we see how love of wealth, evil in its own right, takes on an amplified and more perverse character in the love of money specifically. When we trust in our land and labor to provide for our needs without reference to God, we ignore God’s Providence and put ourselves above Him; when we trust in our savings account to keep us from ruin, we put faith in both the continued reign of the current sovereign and the sovereign’s “providence”, his power and will to preserve us, even when it opposes God’s will. When we become attached to earthly goods, we subject our higher needs to our lower desires; when we become attached to money, we subject our higher needs to the state’s preservation.
Money is the ultimate idol, and to love it is to worship the state. It cannot satisfy any of our needs or desires directly, but only indirectly and by the authority of the earthly sovereign. Authority is hierarchical, and all earthly authority exists because God granted it. Therefore the sovereign has the authority to issue money, and we can (and usually must) use it to live out our Christian lives. We exercise prudence when we keep a few month’s worth of expenses in a savings account, save for when we can no longer work, and the like. But we mustn’t love money, we mustn’t invert the hierarchy and put it or the state above Him. We mustn’t lay up treasures for ourselves on earth (Matthew 6:19-21), whether those natural treasures which rust and moth consume, or those treasures which depend, existentially, on earthly authority. God can bring low civilizations at will; how foolish it is to love such contingent things! Let us lay up our treasures in heaven, treasures grounded in God’s authority, and His love, which will last forever, unto ages of ages. Amen.
1. “nomisma” means “customary currency”
2. Biblical tithes are given in crops and livestock, See for example Leviticus 27:30-32 and Ezekiel 45:13-16.
3. Fiat does still have some secondary use values, e.g. as props in movies, as display pieces for coin collectors, etc. Even the paper it’s printed on will do for kindling in a pinch.
4. In the United States, this is done indirectly through the Federal Reserve System, which responds to the spending of Congress by setting interest rates and lending money into existence. The Federal Reserve is not straightforwardly an arm of the federal government. Still, the State established the Fed and delegates its authority to issue currency to it. The fact that the system in the US is complex (or even convoluted) doesn’t change the fundamental realities about money.