David Gore, University of Minnesota Duluth
Attitudes toward the pecuniary are peculiar. One reason we misunderstand money is because it defines and answers to both our animal nature (necessity) and our symbolic nature (property). In this paper I trace the genealogy of Kenneth Burke’s attitudes toward money in the “Epilogue: Prologue in Heaven” to show how Burke’s logological approach toward money is original and in tension with claims offered by competing, economic attitudes toward money. Money sits forever at the nexus of our animal and symbolic nature because it simultaneously holds the place of value and signifies what we value. By stressing animal limits and symbolic infinity, Burke invites us to ponder the extent of human cooperation and the boundaries of human strivings. As attitudes, these invitations reveal that Burke wanted to re-appropriate the money symbol to the realm of logology and religion – away from capitalism – to exhibit the potential justice at the heart of human experience. That justice, however, only inheres so long as the tension between animal and symbol is respected in our pursuit of needs through symbolic action. Burke strings the tension between animal and symbol along the lines of a conversation between The Lord and Satan. Along the way he shows us a Lord sympathetic to our money crimes as well as all others and a loyal opposition that laughs at our infirmities. In this way Burke works to redeem human commerce from its worst propensities by showing its relationship to the Word.
ATTITUDES TOWARD THE PECUNIARY ARE PECULIAR. Both pecuniary and peculiar, according to the OED, share a common etymology in the Latin word for money, even earlier the word for property, and even earlier the Latin word for a flock or herd of farm animals. “Pecuniary” and “peculiar” tell us what belongs to a person and what characterizes them as distinct from others. How happy Kenneth Burke would be to observe again the symbolic origins of money and human character in animality, specifically the domestication and possession of animals by other animals. Who could imagine a greater number of perspectives from which to understand attitudes toward money together with all the ambiguities of possession, ownership and commerce? Originating from a shepherd’s love for his sheep, money and commerce can hardly be only or always crass. And yet our attitudes toward money are rarely understood with sufficient irony so as to appreciate the damning and redeeming qualities of the money symbol. One reason we misunderstand money is because it answers to and shapes both our animal nature (necessity) and our symbolic nature (property). Money helps provide for the creature in all of us as well as creature comforts, leading to great murkiness about what we need, what we want, and what we value. In this paper I trace the genealogy of Kenneth Burke’s attitudes toward money in the “Epilogue: Prologue in Heaven” to show how his logological approach toward money is original and in tension with claims offered by alternative, economic attitudes toward money. Burke’s attitudes toward money update classical ideas of political economy to suggest avenues for capitalism to avoid its worst propensities and potentialities.
What are the attitudes toward money in Burke’s “Epilogue: Prologue in Heaven”? What are plausible sources for some of these attitudes? How is it that we share symbols and compete for them? As part of Burke’s larger object of criticizing criticism, he blends long-held attitudes toward money by treating money as a universal symbol of human aspirations and a particular symbol of human limitations. Money sits forever at the nexus of our animal and spiritual nature because it simultaneously holds the place of value and signifies what we value. By stressing animal limits and symbolic infinity, Burke invites us to ponder the extent of human cooperation and the boundaries of human strivings. By attending to our animal nature, human economies can better respect sheer scale and at the same time avoid a love of money for its own sake. By attending to our spiritual capacity to see beyond our animal natures we can better contain money as a means toward human flourishing rather than mistake it as a transcendent end. Burke’s attitudes in the “Epilogue: Prologue in Heaven,” which appears as a beginning at the end of Burke’s book, The Rhetoric of Religion, functions as a longing to rebalance inequality by rescuing money from the logic of its own reproduction. The longing to resolve inequality comes together with a mature appreciation that such rebalancing tactics are limited and prone to inducing further inequalities. These attitudes toward money are ironic and the irony is the means of re-appropriating the money symbol to the realm of logology and religion – away from capitalism.
Those familiar with Burke’s ideas know that plausible springboards for them are Aristotle, the New Testament, and Karl Marx. This genealogy of Burke’s attitudes toward money is wonderfully knotty and allows for considerable perspective by incongruity wherein Aristotle and the Gospels lay the groundwork for Karl Marx and Marx in turn agrees with, even adopts some of Jesus’ attitudes toward the pecuniary. As such, the dialogue is a hodge-podge of ideas about money, but the hodge-podge turns out to be a delicious stew as the parts coalesce in a new logologically and theologically perfected vision of money that, as I say, re-appropriates money to its rightful home in the study of rhetoric and religion. By raising money to the level of universal symbol, Burke enters the realm of theology by way of money or the realm of political economy by way of religion. Either way, his approach rounds out The Rhetoric of Religion and invites us to see money as more than a devil-term.
What has money to do with religion? The title of Burke’s book, The Rhetoric of Religion, might have been rendered The Religion of Rhetoric, for the title is partly ironical where the subtitle, Studies in Logology is precisely descriptive of the contents and said to be broad enough to cover both religion’s rhetoric and rhetoric’s religion. The book shows how language embodies orders of desire, including the Idea of Order, which is, itself, a roundabout way of saying that language embodies The Word, or God (God being the highest Word or Idea of Order). The argument is furthered by Burke’s method of perspective by incongruity, whereby one can get at a symbol or substance by examining its opposite, or by juxtaposing seemingly unrelated symbols. As part of his argument intended to approach God by means of God’s opposite, Burke imagines The Lord and Satan in a conversation about money.
This dialogue touches on the symbolic power of money, but is also about temporality and its opposites.1 Implicating the idea that beginnings can be endings and endings beginnings we are asked to imagine a conversation taking place before the world was even though we literally read it after Burke’s Rhetoric of Religion is. We are asked to imagine the dialogue as taking place outside of human temporality, as if we could see at one moment “what has unfolded, is unfolding and is yet to unfold throughout the endless aeons of universal development.”2 The power of this perspective is itself an invitation to understand the mysteries of God, for only God could have the power of immediately perceiving past, present, and future. Yet as the conversation unfolds it becomes clear that Satan and humanity do not fully comprehend the works and designs of The Lord. But The Lord is a patient tutor.
Money fits naturally in this conversation about temporal realities. The word temporal is itself ambiguous, meaning both time and money or “involving merely the material interests of this world,” according to the OED. Money has a capacity to deceive us into believing it to be a pseudo-God, but Burke is careful not to depict money as a devil or devil-term in the dialogue. Instead, Burke tells us through The Lord that it’s more complicated than that (a phrase repeated nine times by The Lord). It is Satan who is constantly looking to oversimplify symbolic action. On the other hand, the Lord is highly tolerant of ambiguity and of his symbolically motivated human creatures. The power of symbolic action complicates their relations with one another and their relation to The Lord and Satan, but the Lord is ever lenient and amenable. As an epilogue to Burke’s arguments about how symbols shape our material, social, and spiritual realities, the “Prologue in Heaven” is about what symbols could mean in a meta-symbolic sense, or in a conversation before symbols assumed the meaning they now carry. Or rather, the "Prologue in Heaven" is a conversation in anticipation of symbolic action in a fallen world. Of course, as an epilogue to a discussion revealing how symbols bear the burdens they bear the work is a double entendre, at once about temporal and eternal, an epilogue as prologue. In short, Burke achieves a perspective of perspectives whereby, metaphorically and ironically, religion and rhetoric are synonymous, or are in the relationship of this for that, in the same way God and money are synonymous insofar as we put God’s name on our money “and call it an act of piety.”3
Burke arrives at money’s ambiguities by way of the fact that our symbolic action is rhetorical. Our exhortations to live in some way end up being exhortations to live in The Way, in a roundabout way, anyway, because language itself has assumed over long generations of time exhortatory powers toward Order. Burke is careful to point out that he has adopted the comic frame for this conversation, tilting the whole talk in The Lord’s favor. The Lord instructs Satan about the complexity of money’s redemptive powers, at times stealing his thunder, thus animating our conception of the money symbol in terms of the ambiguities of human life. So long seen as a devil-term in the academy and the church, to say nothing of the wider world, money, Burke insists, redeems as well as damns. What we need is a capacity to appreciate the symbolic power of money, meaning its power to captivate our attention and to operate on us in more ways than one. Seen symbolically, money is a perfect means for understanding how symbols operate on our minds and for seeing how symbols push us toward order and irony.
The “Epilogue: Prologue in Heaven” presumes familiarity with Christian doctrine relating to the fall of man, his redemption through the perfect sacrifice of the Son of God, and belief in a life after death. Christianity is presented as a triumphant use of human symbols to imagine and identify with redemption. Burke utilizes this triumphant use of symbols to show that there is a way to hell even from the gates of heaven, to paraphrase Bunyan. Complicating symbolic action is difficult among humans who so often tend to rely too heavily on their symbols, not appreciating the way symbols undermine the reliance. It is as if Burke is kicking away the staff upon which all of us lean to show us that we can stand up straight, but only if we will cultivate awareness of the fact that we need redemption from the complexity created by our symbols and words, that we need redemption through the Word.
The first thing Burke tells us about money is that it is a generalized form of wishing. On this point both Satan and The Lord agree. By its convertibility into everything, money is the symbol of symbols. From it we can go everywhere, for by it we can get to “Everything.”
S. But isn’t that too vague to keep them interested? After all, being animals, they will necessarily live by this particular thing and that particular thing. Far less than “everything” would be enough to choke them.
TL. No, they won’t have to gag at “everything.” For their very symbolicity will enable them to invent a particularized form of “everything,” the most ingenious symbol-system of all: money. Money is intrinsically universalistic, since everything can have its monetary equivalent, its counterpart in terms of “price.”
S. I see the pattern! What perfection! Money becomes a kind of generalized wishing. They won’t even directly reach for everything. They could even sincerely deny that they want everything. Yet they’ll get there roundabout, by wanting the universal medium into terms of which everything is convertible!
TL. Yes, once they arrive at money, they will have arrived at desire in the absolute. Their love of money is the nearest they will ever come to symbolistically transcending their animal nature. A man can even starve to death hoarding the symbols that would buy him more than he could eat in many lifetimes. And men will kill themselves trying to amass more and more of the monetary symbols that represent good living.4
Animal nature makes of us particular beings with particular needs. Money is a universal way of reaching our particular needs and thus acts as a go-between for all particulars, a symbol of everything, and thus a universal particular, or a particular universal. Its very convertibility invents the possibility of symbolically transcending animality, for by it we can convert to something else. And yet, only human animals want to transcend their nature. Aristotle was one of the first to write of political economy and to warn us about money’s sheer incapacity to move us beyond our animal nature.
The transcendence of our animal nature is achieved logos-logically, or symbolically, but is there no limit to such transcendence? Aristotle’s distinction between economics and chrematistics at the end of Book I of the Politics derives precisely from the concern that our animal nature cannot be transcended by the symbol of money, and may not be transcend-able at all. Aristotle’s economics is a subset of his politics, perhaps even a counterpart to his rhetoric, and develops with respect to physics. Economics is a hybrid science arising out of physics and politics, and could be rendered as the art of homemaking. From Aristotle’s politics we know, like Plato, that the constitution of individual character is a microcosm for the constitution of a city. But Aristotle is, rather unlike the character of Socrates, capable of talking about money in instrumental terms and purposes. If a community chooses the course of seeking money for its own sake it is in jeopardy of degenerating into an oligarchic constitution, which in turn serves money as its only master. Acquisition and money have an ultimate end in nature, and only by understanding this end in terms of habitual blossoming (or, by implication, an unnatural degeneracy) can we understand how physics and politics are related.
Because acquisition of goods is natural in animals (including political, symbol-using animals) acquisition is also natural in cities. The difficulty is that in the human barnyard Aristotle has abundant examples of unnatural acquisition, against which he directs his moral energy. In order to resolve this problem he resorts to a logical and common sense explanation of economy or household management. Sound economy must attend more to people than to property and more to virtue than to wealth.5 For political animals acquisition beyond the scope of nature is possible because of the invention of money, but it is still not desirable. The limits of acquisition in nature require the virtues of husbandry and self-restraint. This assumption about the existence of boundaries in nature – like the spoiling of fruit – necessitates restraints on acquisition, for if it is unnatural to acquire fruit only to let it spoil it is likewise unnatural to acquire the means of exchange and let it sit. A well functioning city must ensure that money, as the medium of exchange for acquiring goods, is made to respect limits set by nature. We want money, but we want it to circulate. The pursuit of the means of exchange for its own sake disrespects the bounds which nature has set on acquisition. To grow money from money, in short, is a violation of the purpose for which money was invented, extends from a defect in human character, and results in an ill for the city. Political economy is subject to physics in this way because money is invented to provide matter and should therefore be subject to the material constraints of its nature. The acquisition of money is an instrument for justice only when it fulfills its own telos. “For money was intended to be used in exchange” and whenever it fulfills this intention it lives up to its nature.6 It was not intended to be collected for its own sake. For political animals acquisition beyond the scope of nature is possible, but never desirable because it works against living well.
Natural acquisition pertains to household management – or economics – while unnatural acquisition pertains to chrematistics – the pursuit of wealth for its own sake. In the former acquisition provides goods “which may be stored up, as being necessary for providing a livelihood, or useful to household or state as associations. And it looks as if wealth in the true sense consists of property such as this.”7 Chrematistics, on the other hand, is wealth that does not contribute to livelihood or human associations, and its origins are related to speech that manipulates circumstances so as to seem advantageous to everyone. Chrematistic derives from the technique of exchange. The OED records the etymology of chrematistic χρημαΤισΤικδς is related to χρημαΤιζειν which means to deal, consult, or give response as an oracle. Chrematistics is not just money making for its own sake, but includes the simulation of sacred powers of speech relating to prophecy, presumably for the making of yet more money. Chrematistics is money-talk, specifically money-making through speculation. Its technique is that of money-making through speech, signifying that money-making for its own sake is in close proximity to foretelling, or acting and talking as if one can read the future. What is especially pernicious about this kind of money-making is that it depends on winning the trust and credulity of audiences in order to produce any value. Even value seems too generous a term to describe what is produced. Dare we even call it profit? Gain? Yes, gain, the hunt, the pursuit – and little else. Visions of oil speculators and young entrepreneurs talking widows out of their homes come to mind, and the concept reaches to the development of systems whereby talking becomes consulting, dealing, and oracular-izing in exchange for money. Chrematistics involves convincing large segments of the community to prefer policies that cut against their own interests in order to allow for the chrematist to gain at the expense of the whole. Chrematistics is the confluence of all the forces of human speech for good and ill – the sacred promise and power of prophecy, but only in simulation; the citizen’s voice, but in praise of only money; the audience’s acquiescence to arguments, but only for the sake of the bottom line. One cannot imagine money-making as a way of life without money-making as a way of speech.
Despite the excesses of chrematistics, acquisition and exchange are central to economy. Aristotle is concerned to show that even exchange value has a telos, an ultimate end, that of satisfying the needs of parties to the exchange. Whenever exchange moves beyond the satisfaction of natural needs and sufficiency into the realm of money-markets it works contrary to nature. Money markets are an attempt to circumvent animal necessity. Much confusion results from the fact that these two types of exchange, retail and financial, are so similar, Aristotle warns. People are too intent on living rather than living well. For this reason people think that getting wealth is the purpose of household management. To govern a house well requires a flow of goods and money, necessitating acquisition, but the flow always has a purpose beyond itself.
As soon as a state becomes interested in the production of money for its own sake it begins working contrary to the limits placed by nature on the proper use of naturally produced goods. The people who constitute such a community neglect their duties as husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, and sons and daughters.8 This may, at first blush, seem like a strange conclusion to draw from a community’s attitudes toward money, but the link extends from Aristotle’s sense that the private household is a microcosm of the state: “For these relationships are part of the household, and every household is part of a state; and the virtue of the part ought to be examined in relation to the virtue of the whole.”9 A mismanaged state is endemic to mismanaged households; mismanaged households are endemic to mismanaged states. An oligarchic state is only possible if citizens have given themselves over to the idea of oligarchy – an echo from Plato’s Republic. The unrestrained pursuit of chrematistics tends toward the neglect of social roles and the abandonment of social duties because money loses its purpose. When duties are forgotten, the vigor of the group diminishes and connections between the part and the whole weaken. “And it will often happen,” Aristotle writes, “that a man with wealth in the form of coined money will not have enough eat; and what a ridiculous kind of wealth is that which even in abundance will not save you from dying with hunger!”10 Burke echoes this point, as cited above, “A man can even starve to death hoarding the symbols that would buy him more than he could eat in many lifetimes.”11 This is the end Aristotle worries over when societies give themselves over to chrematistics. Burke seems to have shared the worry that our money symbols may overtake our animal necessities. To develop how a logological approach to money is best, Burke must get particular about money. Money has natural bounds, but it also has symbolic powers making it a source of association and a cause of dissociation.
For Aristotle, the end of money is excellence in living. For Burke, money exemplifies logological and theological perfection. In sketching the path to logological perfection, Burke borrows the symbols of Christian piety. It should be noted that although Burke is borrowing these symbols in the form of the prologue’s interlocutors, neither Satan nor The Lord differ enough in their respective perspectives to worry about which one accurately portrays Burke’s thoughts. In other words, the two interlocutors form a whole. Rather than portraying Satan and The Lord antagonistically, Burke gives them different parts to play in manifesting a unity. Satan plays the part of the fool, even dressing like one, while The Lord plays the part of the wise instructor. Burke’s Satan is wise enough to play the fool, while his Lord is just daft enough to suffer fools gladly – or to give them enough rope to work with, believing all the while they won’t hang themselves.
Thus, when Satan says that money “perfectly burlesques the godhead” we know that we are being treated to a critique of human theologies as well as a statement that reflects God’s own allowance for our misunderstandings of his ways and thoughts. “Out of its simplicity there emerges a great complexity,” Satan adds, echoing The Lord’s many statements about the relativity and complexity of human experience. Conspicuously absent from the “Epilogue: Prologue in Heaven” is St. Paul’s dictum, “the love of money is the root of all evil.” Instead, Burke’s Lord merely notes that the human love of money is the closest humans get to “symbolistically transcending their animal nature,” which is another way of saying money contains power to go beyond itself, even though it is, after all, the product of animals.12 “Money is intrinsically universalistic,” The Lord continues, “since everything can have its monetary equivalent, its counterpart in terms of ‘price.’”13 At the same time men kill themselves to amass more money they will find that money is a means to getting along. As well as being “intrinsically universalistic,” money is also “essentially communicative” and a “technical counterpart of love.”14 As a counterpart of love, money can “also serve as a surrogate for sexual potency.”15
By setting aside the love of money and seeing money as a way to love, Burke admonishes us toward symbolic production and away from symbolic overproduction and Empire. In all of this, we see the rounding out of the symbol-using animal by the clarification of his attitudes toward money. Elsewhere Burke praises Jeremy Bentham and the relationship between wealth and virtue.
There is a fundamental relationship between wealth and virtue which no “spiritual” scheme must be allowed to deny by fiat. Property and propriety are not etymologically so close by mere accident (and “clean” hands would in French be called propres). Morals and property are integrally related. They are obverse and reverse of the same coin. They both equip us for living.
. . . . When we learn that “industriousness has three graces for daughters – virtue, science, and wealth,” why plague ourselves further? Industry, virtue, science, and wealth are all clearly the instruments of good living. In a wider sense, they are all but the primitive need of food and shelter, culturally projected – and the sooner we unite them, the sooner we may prevent the ethicizing tendency from perpetuating evils while supposedly idealizing goods.
. . . . Give us a large dose of Bentham’s “pigsty philosophy” – for by such tests any country would be branded as gross until its last slums were removed and its paupers were given not merely sustenance, but the cultural equivalents of sustenance – activity, virtue, science, and wealth.16
Pigsties are gross, and so are slums, plagues, poverty, and dirty hands. If capitalism Jeremy Bentham style can deliver on its promise to rid us of these evils, let it try, remembering all the while that others have tried before and failed. But never lose sight of the symbolism of such strivings whereby even love and money can meet. Remember, too, that where love and money meet they may also diverge.
And around and around we go on the symbol system merry-go-round in which one symbol, the symbol of symbols, money, symbolically implicates another and another until we get to everything! Once everything has its counterpart in terms of price, including love, the love of money can be redeemed as the transcendence of our animal nature. In this gospel, even Bentham is redeemable. And as the only animals capable of inventing and then exchanging money, humans are thereby symbolically empowered to build a superstructure in which money contradicts itself. Christianity was once slave morality, but is now the moral yardstick of capitalism masquerading as, or better, burlesquing God’s will that a rising tide lifts all boats. Except, “that’s only true if you have a boat,” as one survivor of hurricane Katrina quipped. And thus we have comedy from out of the tragedy of inequality. What was deprivation and loss becomes part of the moral struggle for acquisition and profit inherent in the logic of capitalism.
TL. In the course of governance, many kinds of inequality will develop. For instance, some of the Earth-People will be able to accumulate more property than they could intelligently use in a myriad lifetimes, short as their life span is to be. And many others will starve. In brief, there’ll be much injustice.
S. It’s revolting!
TL. Hence, all the more need for “sanctions.” In the course of “proving” that such inequities are “right,” sanctions will pile up like bat dung in a cave. (And bat dung, by the way, will be quite fertile.)17
Out of the “venerable piles” of bat dung will grow the “treasuring” and “questioning” of the same. Symbols, by their very nature complicate our situation because they always implicate their opposite. The human barnyard is pure comedy in which every symbol can be seen in terms of every other symbol and in which even the actors don’t always know which meaning the symbol signifies. Money contradicts itself because it causes inequalities, which lead to sanctions, which both justify inequalities and lead to further inequalities signifying a bad joke.
By adopting the comic style Burke tells us at the outset that he is giving the advantage to The Lord. The relativity of the money symbol, of life itself, even, is a joke, but jokes by their nature have to end up well and in perfect time. The joke about money that Burke wants to tell is apparently about its ironic and self-contradictory nature – as symbol extraordinaire. Implicated in this joke is the way we can get from money to God. The contradictory nature of symbols, symbols like money, is often disheartening, but we can study these contradictions for reasons to reform our symbols and ourselves. In this respect, because money stands in for all other symbols, it has to be seen in this incongruous sense. Satan finds human contradictions enrapturing.
S. Milord, I swoon!
TL. Hold up, young one. And having seen already how their words will provide freedom in principle, by allowing for either the affirmation of affirmation, or the affirmation of negation, or the negation of affirmation, or the negation of negation, note further this sheer design, how it follows of necessity from the nature of the Word-Animal’s symbolicity: First, note that out of the negative, guilt will arise. For the negative makes the law; and in the possibility of saying no to the law, there is guilt.
S. And if guilt, then punishment?
TL. It’s more complicated than that. For money introduces the principle of redemption. That is, money will give them the idea of redemption by payment, which is to say, by substitution. For it would be a matter of substitution, if a man paid off an obligation by money whereas otherwise he might have been required to suffer actual physical torment.18
Where Satan swoons over human contradictions, The Lord gives allowances for the constraints of human symbol systems. Satan wants to destroy the dialectic by seeing money as all bad or all good. Where Satan sees the need for punishment, The Lord sees the need for redemption.
As a tool of exchange, money is indifferent about whether it goes to tithes or pornographers, but as a symbol of what we value money zealously signifies interests. Money stands beneath many motives, is an end quite often pursued for its own sake, and also a means to other ends. Money is a straightforward holder of value and a complex statement about what we value and how we can attain it. Money masks motives, but money also motivates and moves – as in the teenager who finally gets off the couch and gets a job. As a symbol, Burke is quick to note, money is a universal symbolic placeholder for everything. As such, it substitutes for God as easily as it does for the devil. Jesus recognized the symbolic power of money to generate and signify cooperation and non-cooperation, but he said there was a better way. Marx did not believe in that better way, and thought instead that capturing the means of production would be better than atonement through Christ. Because the redemption offered by capitalism and Marxism is thoroughly materialistic (and thus essentially moves away from Christianity and theology), Burke aimed to inject spirituality into the discussion about money by likening it to salvation by substitution.
By the dawning of the bourgeois age, Christianity was compromised by the fact that its notion of turn the other cheek no longer held sway in a society where one was to be respectable above all else.19 By the middle of the nineteenth century Marx could say that Christianity had lost its power for initiating social change – it had become the status quo, in short, and was no longer capable of eradicating the evils of the day, including bourgeois snobbery, class un-consciousness, and gross inequality. Marx’s attitudes toward religion can be seen as less hostile than often reported. Religion, Marx says, is “the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.”20 In other words, religion is the heart, spirit, and medicine of a heartless, dispiriting, and sick situation. For Marx this means that religion is a function of the material realities faced by societies, realities Marx sees as desperately in need of material redemption, a redemption that is solely material. The hope religion offers, of course, would not be needed if societies followed Marx’s arrangement of materiality, or so he thought, and Marx’s complaint about religion is that it does nothing, in his mind, to relieve the real oppressions of the here and now. In his mind, religion results from inequality and merely reifies power relations as they are, resulting in further economic injustices.
All of this has not stopped writers from putting Marxism and Christianity together to explain the symbol of money and its place in a just society.21 Indeed, modern writers tend to put Christianity together with many economic systems for the purposes of furthering an agenda. To understand Marx’s attitude toward religion and commerce, in other words, it might help to gain some perspective by incongruity. Indeed, Marx’s opposition to Christianity can be explained in part through the symbolic power of Jesus’ attitudes toward money, which Marx thinks Christian societies had completely forsaken. In other words, perhaps Jesus’ point of view regarding money, from Marx’s point of view, was more right than wrong. It was Christianity that had lost its way.
Using an econometric method of studying the Gospels and in an effort to discredit any association between Christianity and socialism, Deirdre McCloskey finds that Jesus often spoke in favor of prudence and therefore could not have possibly been against markets. Jesus preaches prudence, self-love, self-interest, whatever you choose to call it. Jesus also preaches against prudence – or in favor of “a holy foolishness hostile to the world’s reasons.”22 Jesus occasionally preaches “using the rhetoric of gain, but modestly, such as ‘Give us this day our daily bread.’”23 Most often, however, Jesus preaches in ways that have no reference whatsoever to interests or prudence.24 Still, McCloskey says, a reckoning of the parables for or against prudence yields a two to one count in favor of prudence.
One is not obligated, McCloskey claims, to buy into the notion that Jesus or his teachings were anti-market or imprudent. On the contrary, she is
. . . noting merely that Jesus the carpenter lived in a thoroughly market-oriented economy and did not ask all the fishermen to drop their nets and become fishers of people. He accepted that honest money changers were necessary to change denarii into ritually acceptable shekels. He offered salvation in the marketplace, not only at the high altar of the temple. He dined with tax gatherers, not only with the Pharisees and the hypocrites of sad countenance.25
Together with her criticism of the academic clerisy – which after 1848 held trade, commerce, religion, and political economy in contempt – McCloskey argues that socialism is not incumbent on faithful Christians, in part because Jesus lived in a market society.
Her point is well made, but counting the parables for and against prudence is hardly a rhetorical reading of the Gospels any more than it proves that Jesus did or did not support a particular economic system. Consider Jesus’ statement about rendering to Caesar that which is Caesar’s. When asked, “Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not?” Jesus asks for a penny and inquires, “Whose is this image and superscription? And they said unto him, Caesar’s. And Jesus answering said unto them, ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’” While Jesus is said to perceive hypocrisy in the inquirer, the answer he gives has a ring of ambivalence, as if the question is not a particularly interesting one to begin with, and, anyway, his kingdom is not of this world. Jesus reduces money to its face value – its image and superscription. By treating money as symbolic power and then shrugging his shoulders at such power, Jesus signifies that he will not be tempted by the question or by the image and superscription on the penny. He exposes money as a symbolic power to illustrate that there is a power greater still. Treating the coin by its mere monetary value would have lessened the effect of his command. God and money may be interchangeable, but Jesus refuses to allow the exchange. And they marvel.
Indeed, the early Christian interpreted the rendering to Caesar that which is Caesar’s as a way of “buying his way out; a sharp distinction was made between paying Caesar tax-money that was his (and there is no question of excessive taxation since what Caesar owns is nothing less than the orbis terrarum itself), and giving him the homage of a pinch of incense. That latter act was an acknowledgment of divinity, and a good Christian died sooner than make the concession, while the former was merely a recognition of ownership.”26 Rendering to Caesar, for the Christian, was “the best way to be rid of him, paying quickly and gladly whatever fees the masters of the earth imposed on them.”27 Rather than being taken in by purely earthy powers, the Christian pilgrim was to live free of such powers. By the time of Marx, his observation was that the Christian had become the ruling power and had given over to political and material powers, thus forsaking the Christian call to leave behind material things.
Jesus’ ambivalence manifests itself as a not so veiled opposition to the established order, the kind necessary, if Marx and Søren Kierkegaard are correct, to constitute Christians and Christianity in the first place. The opposition extends, if we might judge from other statements attributed to Jesus, from the idea that no earthly power, political, economic, or historical, can challenge the power of the Father, faith, hope, and charity. By emphasizing opposition to the status quo, to Caesar, to the greatest political and military might of the age, the rhetorical force of the exchange is palpable. I don’t care what you do with Caesar’s things, Jesus seems to say, only what you do with the things of God. By constituting the natural and social world in one fell, theological swoop, the rhetoric of this exchange illustrates an attitude that is incompatible with worldly worry over the payment of taxes or even the symbolism of wealth. Consider the lilies how they grow. Indeed, “rendering to Caesar” may have the rhetorical force of a thousand parables in favor of prudence to signify that the status quo ways of the world, which seem to circulate in new combinations are to be rejected by the faithful Christian.
Marx’s materiality is but an attempt at compensating for his perception that Christian immortality is not likely. If, in the long run, we’re all dead, then we’ll all be materialists – as, indeed, I think Marx and Keynes and other political economists mostly show themselves to be. The Christian is not renouncing materiality, merely the powers of permanent ownership of the earth. What the Christian renounces is sovereignty more than materiality, at least with respect to payment of taxes and withholding of incense. Instead of wanting a permanent dwelling place, the early Christian wanted freedom to move on to some happier home. Marx dismisses such freedom on the grounds that life after death is a sham. Burke, on the other hand, recognizes the Eternal Enigma of homemaking amidst interstellar infinity together with a deep respect for the fact that our symbol systems can hardly be otherwise. To be sure, Marx and Burke would have observed that the church has not succeeded in removing from the earth injustice, imprudence, and immorality. But in a way that is the point of what Burke said the Marxists failed to understand about their own mission to remake the world: Any such attempt to save the poor should learn humility from the lessons of Christian history. A history of materiality was late on the scene, as it were, but it could not afford to forget the shortfalls of earlier symbol systems. As such, Marxism knew, but seemed to have forgotten that Christianity’s history gave an example of the pressing need for humility with respect to what can be accomplished by transforming the symbols of materiality. Or, as Burke would say, both Christianity and Marxism need to remember the importance of matter’s recalcitrance.
That Marx seemed to understand the point that Jesus’ teachings were opposed to the status quo ways of political economy is apparent. But Marx did not want to preach an obvious truth. Instead, he wanted to show how capital was a false god, a Christian idol designed to oppress the world’s workers. There is enough in the story of Jesus’ posture toward Caesar’s coins for Marx or Burke to begin thinking symbolically about money. Marx indeed goes a step further by thinking about money in terms of consubstantiality, or money and capital as sharing the same substance. Thinking about money in symbolic ways is one thing, for Marx, but capital transcends money and comes even to the throne of God. Money, when it takes on the form of capital, goes from a thing of mere motion to a thing of sheer action, in Burkean terms. Its agency is subsumed in its purpose. As motion, money is a medium; as capital, money has quasi-divine (or, as it were, blasphemous) properties:
In simple circulation, the value of commodities attained at the most a form independent of their use-values, i.e. the form of money. But now, in the circulation M-C-M, value suddenly presents itself as a self-moving substance which passes through a process of its own, and for which commodities and money are both mere forms. But there is more to come: instead of simply representing the relations of commodities, it now enters into a private relationship with itself, as it were. It differentiates itself as original value from itself as surplus-value, just as God the Father differentiates himself from himself as God the Son, although both are of the same age and form, in fact one single person; for only by the surplus-value of £10 does the £100 originally advanced become capital, and as soon as this has happened, as soon as the son has been created and, through the son, the father, their difference vanishes again, and both become one, £110.
Capital is the ultimate symbol because it has the power, in Marx’s analysis, to generate motion out of itself, and in the process regenerate itself again. As a kind of fungible, resurrectable material capital has power to lay itself down and take itself up again. The attribution of such power to capital is what gives Marx’s entire philosophy its motive.
Of course, money qua money has no such power which is why every time you reach into your wallet the stock diminishes. But capital, that’s a different story. By harnessing the power of labor comes the added power of capital to generate itself anew, as if it was the very Son of God presented in the very substance of the Father. The original value, plus the surplus value is a difference like that between God the Father and God the Son. The sheer consubstantiality between money and surplus value, or capital – the possibility of their being two and one – is a key to their symbolic power in Marxian analysis. Only when, symbolically, we go from money to not money (capital) to surplus value (capital plus labor) and back again to money (which is now, of course, also a greater sum of “not money,” or capital) do we recognize the real problem of injustice to which Marx is smarting. He is angry about the sheer symbolic power of the capitalist, his ability to make money from money on the backs of those who work for an amount of money that is less than their contribution to the production of yet further symbolic power which is then harnessed for yet further alienated labor, and so forth.
The passage just cited from Marx develops out of Marx’s own treatment of Aristotle’s distinction between economics and chrematistics.29 We have come full circle from the separation of money for living from money for money’s sake. In the process, we have seen that money contains a peculiar power of regeneration by its sheer convertibility and universality. It is the means to inequality and the means to remedying inequality. It is the father of capital and its offspring. It is that which damns us to inequality and that which contains the seeds of a mythical redemption by sacrifice. We are damned when we see money as an end in itself. We are redeemed when we see that money can aid us in accomplishing important ends – and as a symbolic placeholder for the highest kind of redemption available to humans.
As a means of reckoning value, money becomes the means of conceiving of redemption by substitution. Money will damn those who see its value solely in terms of itself, but its excellence as a symbolic holder of value liberates us from purely material constraints and makes possible ransom by substitution. Of course, it is not finally money that brings about redemption, but the human power to see the need for redemption and to see in money, as the symbol of symbols, a way to God. This is what is meant when The Lord describes the sacrifice of the “only begotten Son” as “theological perfection” and “logological perfection.”30 Perfection by substitution is the only way to see a symbol system, “for all its imperfection,” as if it “contains in itself a principle of perfection by which the symbol-using animals are always being driven, or rather, towards which they are always striving, as with a lost man trying to answer a call in a stormy night.”31 Satan understands this, but he cannot be content with it because his “love of paradox” makes him prefer discordance to congruity.32 One should not love paradox for its own sake. The “confusing of God and money is regrettable,” The Lord says, but we must not judge it too harshly. Harsh judgment will deny humans “the resources of their own minds” and “in effect be demanding that they think without thought.”33 Instead, the only way to move forward with the idea of this vicarious sacrifice for salvation is to face it on its own terms by seeing, as The Lord does, “that the principle of perfection takes many forms.”34 “Thus, on earth the ‘logic of perfection,’ however insistent, can prevail but relatively.”35
The only possible way to appreciate “the close connection between the form of words and the form of The Word” is by approaching human “motivational problems through an architectonic that ma[kes] full allowance for the nature of human animality and human symbolicity.”36 Hence money, for in money we have an embodied symbol, useless by itself insofar as we need food, but exchangeable for food or anything else in the right circumstances. The right circumstances are those in which money has currency, or the capacity of circulating among people. When money achieves a state of global currency, or exchange value with everything in play, then the logic of money reaches its full force, nearly overcoming the rhetoric of money. This insistent tendency toward complete ascendancy often meets with great opposition, like the Great Depression. "The Prologue in Heaven," as the culmination of a great project begun in the midst of the Great Depression, is interested in re-appropriating money from the logic of capitalism and materialism. To achieve this, Burke shows how money contains the seeds of logological and theological perfection by weaving the symbolic meaning of money from its absolute corruption in the art of chrematistics to its symbolic meaning as a placeholder of what we ought to value most as developed by Aristotle, Marx, and Jesus.
Capitalism co-opted the symbol of money as it were, chrematistically, by forcing it into a new-found logic about pursuing money for its own sake. Kenneth Burke wants us to understand money in a more complex and ironic way – beyond its face-value – so that we can better understand the role of symbolic action – of giving and receiving – in human relationships. By subsuming money in the rhetoric of religion, Burke’s logology, he (re)claims the dollar’s logos-value rather than its purely or merely economic value. This reclamation follows a religious impulse because it sees the circulation of money in terms of redemptive ritual. As a dollar becomes a gallon of milk or a tithe or any other commodity it represents cooperation in the common cause of life. Such cooperation is the most we can hope for in our interactions with one another, whether seen from God’s perspective or that of a twentieth century rhetorician’s, and insofar as the dollar represents cooperation rather than self-interest it belongs to the realm of rhetoric and religion, not capitalism.
How does Burke re-appropriate money to religion? The overriding claim of capitalism is that human nature is active and inclines toward self-improvement. Adam Smith says we are spirited and desire to engage in effort toward “bettering our condition,” as exemplified by our willingness to save money:
But the principle which prompts to save, is the desire of bettering our condition, a desire which, though generally calm and dispassionate, comes with us from the womb, and never leaves us till we go into the grave. In the whole interval which separates those two moments, there is scarce perhaps a single instant in which any man is so perfectly and completely satisfied with his situation, as to be without any wish of alteration or improvement, of any kind. An augmentation of fortune is the means by which the greater part of men propose and wish to better their condition. It is the means the most vulgar and the most obvious; and the most likely way of augmenting their fortune, is to save and accumulate some part of what they acquire, either regularly and annually, or upon some extraordinary occasions.37
Smith observes or, indeed, sows the seeds of dissatisfaction and discontent with the present by remarking on the desire to “better our condition.” Our greatest preoccupation, he says, from birth to death is that of “augmenting [our] fortune.” The desire to better our condition is “the psychological linchpin” of the Wealth of Nations and is part of “the casual eclipse of other human ends by prosperity.”38 What Smith does under the auspices of his “system of liberty” is argue that the greatest advantages that come from living in a well-governed state are that the subjects are better lodged, clothed, and fed. In short, Smith’s concern is always with materiality as the objective means to gauge improvement in life. Smith is certain we can better our condition, especially if we think of such betterment solely in terms of our houses, clothes, and food.
Burke, on the other hand, is considerably more sanguine about our drive for self-improvement and the bettering of our condition. He wants a healthy dose of Bentham’s pigsty philosophy, to be sure, but Burke’s psychological linchpin sees our desire for improvement and prosperity in terms of a limitation. Instead of seeing humans as physically active, he sees them rather as symbolically active. The change in approach makes it possible to see the ways in which bettering our condition implicates us in a host of new ways that inevitably worsen our condition. Burke stresses the symbolic by-products, the oxymorons, ironies, and contradictions of our actions toward improvement and our drive toward perfection. Likewise, Burke never limits betterment to houses, clothes, and food, although he surely includes it. Betterment, for Burke, depends to a considerable degree on the quality of our attitudes and words. Any mortal conception of absolute perfection is rotten because it is not for us to achieve the realization of absolutes. A striving for perfection through the false god of self-interest, for example, is hardly the way to imagine transcending our nature, even though such suggestions help us see what money does for us. In this respect, capitalism aids us in the discovery of logology.
Re-appropriating money from Adam Smith’s theory of self-improvement necessitates an ironic and liberal perspective toward human existence (a perspective, to be fair, Smith often shares). We have certain necessities that require cooperation. Such cooperation depends on trust and communication, what Smith called “the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange.” Humans employ symbols in order to induce trust and cooperation. In this respect, the symbol of money is extraordinary because the trust it manufactures is universally valid – in the sense that money can answer any necessity and any preoccupation that enters the mind of the symbol-using animal. The universal validity of money is an idol with respect to eternity, but insofar as our needs are purely temporal – physical and time-bound – money often answers the call. But even this answering of necessity does not restore money to the realm of logology and theology.
In order to do this, Burke goes back to the origins of redemption by animal sacrifice. The substitutive redemption through animal sacrifice was, for an agrarian community, the same as burning money on an altar (think pecuniary as flock or herd). Of course, symbolically it never functioned this way because the sacrifice contained a yet higher meaning, the meaning of atonement. And this is precisely Burke’s point – the sacrificial lamb is a perfect substitute; so is the sacrifice of the son of God. Money, too, is a perfect substitute, symbolically speaking, because it can be exchanged for anything – even the idea of redemption by sacrifice, if we so choose to imagine it (and many have). The sacrifice of the son of God is a perfect substitute for our crimes, our money crimes as well as all others. Money therefore functions on the level of logological and theological perfection because it is a perfect substitute for anything, or as Burke puts it, Everything! Atonement by sacrifice is a substitute Burke implies had its origins in money. For the devout theologian believing in divine revelation the idea that the Atonement derives from money sounds blasphemous. More likely, from the orthodox perspective, money is a corruption of the signs and tokens of substitution by sacrifice rather than the other way around. For the sociologist, however, money came first and from it sprang the idea of redemption by sacrifice. Burke seems to adopt the latter attitude, and by the adoption secures his place as a theologian of logology, thus simultaneously redeeming the title of his work – for only by this perspective is religion a rhetoric of human origins.39 It should be noted that the two perspectives are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
In the way of the sacrificial ram, money stands in for a higher purpose and it thus becomes a way of transcending our animal nature. Or, put more clearly, our capacity to employ symbols separates us from all other animals. Insofar as we employ our symbols to overcome our animal nature we simply renew our need for redemption. Substitutive power – the sacrificial ram for sin – is replicated every time money stands in for another thing. Exchanging money is like the Atonement in microcosm – but only when money is viewed – appropriately – or, better said, logologically. From this perspective money, or indeed the use of symbols generally, contains the seeds of redemption by substitution. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The Logos is a substitute; money is a substitute. If I employ money to give me bread to sustain my life I can see a way in which money extends my mortality, thus redeeming me from death (at least for a time). If I see this transaction in purely economic terms I may miss its symbolic roots in what Burke calls theological and logological perfection. When viewed logologically, the transaction of money for bread is indicative of the way Jesus died for another’s sins, or, at least, in the roundabout way of logology it can be understood in this way. When viewed logologically, perfection takes on a new meaning by opening a door for a Lord who is sympathetic to our necessities. Complicated, logological attitudes toward money give great allowances to animal limitations as well as symbolic overproductions.
Burke’s attitudes toward money in the “Epilogue: Prologue in Heaven” are at once religious and indulgent toward humanity, sharing something with Aristotle, Jesus, and Marx. Seeing in our use of money and symbols an ever-present threat of destruction, these attitudes forgive a great deal. Simultaneously, and thank heavens, they seek the seeds of redeeming our existence. Our very tendency to need money when it is so devoid of intrinsic value is like our need for perfection despite an inherent inability in our natures to realize it.
Capitalism maintains two paramount attitudes toward money: Money is an end in itself and the means of self- and public improvement. Money, for the capitalist, is good for the soul and good for society. In motion, money enriches everyone. Marx says, eh, not so fast. And Burke says it is more complicated than even that. Indeed, by making his “Epilogue: Prologue in Heaven” tilt toward the comic, Burke necessarily leaves Marx behind. Not all labor is alienated, not all money is capital, and not all increase is for its own sake. There must remain some residue of the shepherd caring for his sheep in our attitudes toward money, even if some of the truths of capitalism and Marxism point in other directions. Burke counters capitalism’s attitude with logology, studies of the word, including the Word. In this system, the attitudes discount money as an end or even as a means of self-improvement. Money is an amusing symbol that we must not allow ourselves to become too invested in. On the other hand, if we despise money we risk erring into misanthropy.
In the "Prologue in Heaven" Satan is enamored of the way money contradicts itself and misleads humans. He is keen to point out how money leads to inequalities, forgetting that such inequalities can be redeemed. On the other hand, The Lord is generous toward money, considering it in light of the limitation of human motives. He is keen to point out how money often invites the conscience as in a customer who, when given too much change, corrects the clerk. These attitudes reinforce the fact that money is impersonal and de-personalizing, but also communicative and cooperative. Money is a source of inequality and the pressing reason for sanctions. The quest for money is like the human quest for absolute, and thus rotten perfection, but also a clue toward the realization of the symbolic power of redemption by substitution, and thus a perfection that will do. Money damns us to inequality, but redeems us by helping us work together more easily and providing us with an avenue for allowances, charity, and redemption by payment. Human debt is staggering, but the sheer size is quantifiable, and thus finite enough to be paid back. Our dual animal-symbol nature makes us prone to wander in pecuniary wastelands, like sheep which have gone astray, but, peculiarly, our animal-symbol nature also restrains us from wandering too far afield (or so we hope).
* David Gore was educated at the University of Wyoming and Texas A&M University. He is Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of Minnesota Duluth. He is currently completing a book manuscript on the sacred and secular dimensions of the rhetoric of economic inquiry.
"Attitudes Towards Money in Kenneth Burke's Dialog in Heaven Between The Lord and Satan; by David Gore is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0. Based on a work at www.kbjournal.org.