How Ancient Religions Can Help Us Transcend the Civilization of Greedy Money

Raphael's School of Athens

Aristotle warned about the dangerous illusions created by the accumulation of money, but he and other Greek philosophers also laid the groundwork for the reductionist rationality associated with capitalism. Aristotle and Plato appear at the heart of this painting, Raphael’s School of Athens. Credit: Creative Commons/Raphael.

We are facing a global crisis created by the climax of our capitalist money culture—a crisis that calls for a global answer. The world’s many religions are well suited to serve as resources in the face of this crisis because they emerged during the Axial Age: the same time period when money and private property began to penetrate everyday life in precapitalist societies across the globe.

The major religions and philosophies of the Axial Age, the historical period beginning in the eighth century BCE, emerged in direct confrontation with the new political economy of that era. For this reason, they all reach toward a life-enhancing culture that may have the potential to overcome the death-bound Western civilization. In addition, this means that in spite of all the differences in details, the messages and spiritualities of these systems of thought have a direct relation to our own context. This is why a sociohistorical analysis of antiquity is very important to understand modernity.

The Ancient Roots of Modern-Day Greed

The triumph of selfishness and materialism in the modern world causes huge amounts of pain. To understand how this triumph came about, it is important to look backward at how this way of thinking and organizing society emerged in precapitalist societies. This can be observed particularly in the fields of political economy, anthropology, psychology, and philosophy.

Starting in the eighth century BCE, money and private property began to remake everyday life in the context of very violent times, particularly in the ancient Near East and Greece, but also throughout Asia. Politically, this new economy merged with imperial structures and behaviors. Culturally, calculating rationality took over. Linked to this was a loss of solidarity in the affected societies as well as a shift in human self-understanding and praxis toward greed and egocentrism: “Profit is insatiable,” wrote Pittakos of Mytilene, one of the Seven Sages of Greece. This ancient shift toward greed has resulted in the intensified egocentrism that characterizes Western modernity. Since the Axial Age, the capitalist market has become more and more globalized, served by more and more violent global empires. Calculating individualism has become the mark of the current period.

Let us take a moment to consider the implications of an emerging new economy built on money and private property. The emerging markets lead to more and more exchange of goods and services. To facilitate this exchange, money takes on a central role as the “one in the many.” That is, people agree to use money as the accounting unit for the exchange of different goods and services. The fact that money also defines property rights causes calculating individuals to come to the fore, stimulating greed, which becomes institutionalized in the form of interest. This in turn leads to a social split between creditors and debtors who, if not able to service their debt, lose their land and fall into debt slavery. And all of that leads to a growing gap between rich and poor that causes harsh suffering for the latter.

Politically, the development of stark social inequalities links up with the structures of empire, which request tribute from subjected peoples and thereby increase the suffering of the people. The linkage of the money-property economy with slavery and imperial structures finds its first high point in the Hellenistic and Roman empires. Culturally, the solidarity relationships of tribal societies are dismantled, and systemic egoism wins the day.

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Ulrich Duchrow is a professor of systematic theology at the University of Heidelberg, Germany, specialized in ecumenical theology and theology-economy issues. The ideas presented in this article are more fully developed in his book Transcending Greedy Money: Interreligious Solidarity for Just Relations (Palgrave MacMillan, 2012), coauthored by liberation theologian Franz Hinkelammert, professor of economics at the University of Costa Rica in San José.

Source Citation

Duchrow, Ulrich. How Ancient Religions Can Help Us Transcend the Civilization of Greedy Money Tikkun28(2): 27.

tags: Democracy, Economy/Poverty/Wealth, Rethinking Religion   
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