Saturday, 19 June 2010

Trapped in a Money Bag

We are told how wonderful his life is, all the glorious things he owns and sees, the commercial and natural splendour of his town and residence. Then we read the words of the General.

‘Never let a friend reside for long in your home,
for he may seduce your wife. Rather let him
lodge elsewhere, and send him the necessary food.
Secure your daughters as if they were criminals.
Avoid all parties. In sum, unless you are about
the emperor’s business stay at home with your most
trusted servants, and hoard supplies against emergencies.
Only in this way can a wise man hope to avoid evil.’


Years before John Ash was born Bertrand Russell explained why this should be so: there are two kinds of goods, and two kinds of impulses. There are the material goods and possessive impulses, and their opposites: goods of the mind and spirit, with their creative (or constructive) urges and desires. The former engender most of the moral evils of our time (envy, domination, cruelty…), and tend to be selfish and individual in nature, while the latter can be shared with the whole community, and will enrich and ennoble it:

If one man is a great artist or poet, that does not prevent others from painting pictures or writing poems, but helps to create the atmosphere in which such things are possible…. The more goodwill man has, the more likely he is to create among others.

For Russell:

The best life is the one in which the creative impulses play the largest part and the possessive impulses the smallest.

Back to the General: the more he sees, the more he consumes, the more he wants to keep and to hold. The very richness of his world makes him afraid of losing it; and increases his desire for having more. In the poem Ash writes: “we may assume he wanted for nothing.” Just the problem! Rather than listen to the church music he really needs to create it, rather than buy the exquisite ivories, make them… the prodigiousness of great artists! but their drive for more, their energy to create, and their works, do not steal the goods of others.

The more you construct, the more you leave behind; yesterday’s things become tomorrow’s antiquity. And if today is alive with the excitement of the fresh new thing, then last week will always look somewhat pale. What you own, and what you have done in the past, thus loses importance. Instead you live far more in the present day, on the current occupation, and thus keep a touch of youth – you arrest time, that most precious of commodities, that can neither be bought or sold.

The General believes himself a wise man. All misers do. But build a fortress and live in it – how much of your rich countryside, its beautiful bays, will you never see? That is the wisdom of Cecaumenus.

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