Although money is an integral part of life for many people, few have given much thought to just what money is. Even in academic contexts, the matter receives little attention—accounting courses take money as a given, and economics courses typically devote a one-hour lecture or less to a recitation of money’s functions as a medium of exchange, store of value, and unit of account. Because of its vital role in human progress, in political as well as economic realms, it seems as though money should have deeper meanings. James Buchan states that he set out to discover such meanings; later, however, he reveals deeper purposes for this project.
At the age of twenty-three, seeing little purpose in his life, Buchan decided to begin thinking about questions of his own initiative rather than those posed by teachers or prompted by the media. He was concerned not with social wealth or the operation of money but, rather, with the emotions and sensations behind it. He discovered that this aspect of money was treated rarely in texts concerning economics; instead, he turned to literature. He takes a dim view of economics as a whole, stating that it is not a science because its theories cannot be refuted. Clearly, his will be an unorthodox view of money.
“Money is incarnate desire,” Buchan states, and this is a primary premise of the book. Each person sees money as something different, as what it will or might buy for that person. The main text consists of a mix of historical episodes and passages of literature—more of the former than of the latter—that Buchan believes indicate something about the meaning of money.
Chapter 1 discusses the origins of money in various ancient cultures. Traders discovered that it was efficient to accept a “money good” as payment in exchange for their products or services. The trader might have no use for the money good—often gold or silver but sometimes other products such as animals or food—but it was traded often enough that it had an established value, and no one who received it feared being stuck with it. Early users of money did not see it as a sole end, as Buchan illustrates using the fable of Midas.
Chapter 2 traces conceptions of money through various holy books, principally the Bible. Buchan notes that Jesus is depicted as a pauper, as are many saints. Jesus avoided becoming part of the money culture through a miracle: So that they could pay a tax, Jesus told his disciples to catch a fish, which had the tax money in its mouth. He may have seen money as the agent of his death, explaining his reluctance to pay a tax and his overturning of the money changers’ tables in the temple. This innovative reading of the Bible is perhaps Buchan’s most intriguing literary interpretation.
Payment of taxes or tribute, in fact, constituted the primary uses of many early forms of money. Rulers and landlords did not necessarily want the products of the lands that they controlled or the loyalty of their subjects (involving unspecified duties); tribute paid in money gave them greater choice.
The Middle Ages, a period of religious expansion and conquest, saw many new forms of money, including paper currency and bonds, along with relatively modern bookkeeping. Both religion and money drove the conquests of the Middle Ages, but it was commerce and the search for precious metals that drove expansion into the New World. Chapter 4 discusses Christopher Columbus and his search for precious metals in the New World. The resulting flood of silver into Spain from Central American mines caused a wave of inflation that did great harm to the country.
At this point, Buchan’s text becomes more a series of anecdotes and observations than a connected history. The author steps aside from history to interpret, in an unusual reading, Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote de La Mancha (part 1, 1605; part 2, 1615; English translation, 1612- 1620) as one man’s struggle against capital, or at least as giving the message that failure to see wealth as others did was what made Don Quixote delusional. Buchan steps onto surer ground with his analysis of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice(1596-1597).
Most of the remainder of the book consists of interesting monetary episodes from history. It is clear from Buchan’s sources, spanning wide ranges of time and subject matter, as well as several languages, that he has read widely on his topic of interest and is presenting the most meaningful bits.
The Dutch tulip phenomenon of the 1630’s, for example, is presented as a case of people seeking to obtain future value in the present. In that widely cited historical incident, tulip bulb prices were bid to astronomical heights, with single bulbs sometimes commanding the price of a modest house. The first speculators saw the value of...
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