The Money Virtue As American Rational Religion

A Church, A Tree, A School...Gravity

The most virtuous and honest character in Dickens’ Hard Times, Stephen Blackpool, often confronts the confusion, ambiguity, paradox, and unfairness of “interests” with an aggrieved and exasperated cry that “it’s all such a muddle.”  Even his virtuous acts of self-protection are disallowed by law, but the law is one that restricts the impoverished while it permits the wealthy to “buy” a legal remedy.  This “money virtue” is always set against the human community that operates through a face-to-face and in-kind morality as opposed to the “higher law” that operates “above” the basic realities of human communities.  The Money Virtue makes a conglomeration of distinct and distant singularities that sit atop the unwashed who subsist as they can by their collaborative acts.

Our “diversions,” or entertainments as you please, are crafted to promote the Money Virtue and to hold up for emulation those who are most “virtuous” within its code of conduct.  We yearn to be like those who do not concern themselves with debt worries, food insecurity, employment, and so on.  We want to be above all that as well.  The only way to “be” like that is to imagine you can be, or rather, to be force-fed that “dream” and have that idea on a continual loop connected to your eyes and ears.  We even mock and laugh at ourselves, at our own expense, as the entertainments often show people just like us as “we” try to “be” famous and “above” our “station.”  And oh how we love to watch the “us” on the screen fail miserably.  How we love to scorn their idiocy.  But then the next instant allows us to be visited with the miracle of “salvation”–a home makeover; a life makeover; a boob job can be ours too if the Powers deem it so.

Dear Miss Lonelyhearts–*

I am sixteen years old now and I dont know what to do and would appreciate it if you could tell me what to do. When I was a little girl it was not so bad because I got used to the kids on the block makeing fun of me, but now I would like to have boy friends like the other girls and go out on Saturday nites, but no boy will take me because I was born without a nose–although I am a good dancer and have a nice shape and my father buys me pretty clothes.

I sit and look at myself all day and cry. I have a big hole in the middle of my face that scares people even myself so I cant blame the boys for not wanting to take me out. My mother loves me, but she crys terrible when she looks at me.

What did I do to deserve such a terrible bad fate? Even if I did do some bad things I didnt do any before I was a year old and I was born this way. I asked Papa and he says he doesnt know, but that maybe I did something in the other world before I was born or that maybe I was being punished for his sins. I dont believe that because he is a very nice man. Ought I commit suicide?

Sincerely yours,


Should we put her on TV and give her a nose and a new life?  Or maybe we can promise her a nose and then surprise her with the “joke” that the nose provided is as bad as not having one?  Or perhaps we can have a show where our hero teaches her that God loves her as she is and that her situation is just…OR that her situation comes from the sins of the fathers and it is just as a genetic and inter-generational punishment for past sins.  Is Shelley’s description of Milton’s God (my emphasis below) America’s Funniest Home Divinity?

Milton’s Devil as a moral being is as far superior to his God, as one who perseveres in some purpose which he has conceived to be excellent in spite of adversity and torture, is to one who in the cold security of undoubted triumph inflicts the most horrible revenge upon his enemy, not from any mistaken notion of inducing him to repent of a perseverance in enmity, but with the alleged design of exasperating him to deserve new torments.  (Shelley, A Defence of Poetry)

We do privilege our torments.  America is peopled with souls lusting after torments.  They are the main events in life and leisure.  In Heaven (Hell) and on Earth.  Visited on the self or on the other, it makes no difference.  It’s fun to watch either way.  Even what you might consider the mildest of torture is a truth of our corruption; America’s Funniest Home Videos has for years preyed on this lust of ours to witness the pain of our neighbors.

The Money Virtue permits this voyage.  Wealth being our ultimate goal as transmitted to us through our cultural valuations we allow the pursuit of this wealth to permit all actions.  There is the final good in wealth and that good shines down on all that is rancid and horrible.  We believe the aim of wealth is the true alchemical principle.  In the Desire for Wealth all that we touch is holy and golden even as it rots us from the inside out.

Melville’s great novel (the great novel of America) on the butchery that is the commonplace of murdering whales for profit (its business)–offered here in an essay by the poet Anthony Hecht:

Since throughout this book whales are identified with men, the killing of whales is, by this metaphor, tantamount to murder, a word Melville explicitly uses more than once.  Ishmael describes entering the Spouter Inn and seeing a display of whaling instruments: ‘You shuddered as you gazed’ he says, ‘and wondered what monstrous cannibal and savage could ever have gone a death-harvesting with such a hacking, horrifying implement’ (21).  It is not long before, with decided pride, the same Ishmael is able to declare that ‘our vocation amounts to a butchering sort of business; …when actively engaged therein, we are surrounded by all manner of defilements.  Butchers we are, that is true.  But butchers, also, and butchers of the bloodiest badge have been all Martial Commanders whom the world invariably delights to honor’ (98)…

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The brutality of the whaling enterprise–not merely the initial killing, but the dismemberment and technological processing of the whale–is rendered in horrifying, in nothing less than stomach-turning, detail, and Melville was surely trying to shock us into a sense of our own savagery….

This novel is gleefully or sardonically subversive on…unrestrained American capitalism and the ideas and sanctions (some of these religious ones) that support it.  Whaling is a commercial enterprise, and though it would be fully seventy-five years before President Coolidge would proclaim that ‘the business of America is business,’ this was already an article of faith…Even earlier Tocqueville had written: ‘I know no country, indeed, where the love of money has taken a stronger hold upon the affections of men.’  (“Moby Dick,” Melodies Unheard)

There is something of an emptiness in the American heart which we desire to fill.  Our inherited Puritanical Calvinism eschews community and replaces our social living with an “elected” hierarchy.  In fact replaces God on high with Man on High.  This kind of Man is a “Governor” and will evolve into the managers of statecraft.  The man of statecraft success is the man of business success.  The man of wealth by any means is the man blessed by and with the Money Virtue.  The holiest good becomes worldly success measured by wealth and power (which are never separate).

No longer cleanliness next to Godliness (which surely is a blasphemy of idolatry in its very sentence construction) but wealthiness.  And this is logical.  God Almighty; Man Almighty.  To be Almighty Man you must be Almighty Powerful and Almighty Wealthy.

And the Calvinist Elect is offered only by God’s Grace–in other words, you don’t make your way to Heaven.  You cannot “be saved.”  You already are, or you aren’t, simply as God wills it.  This is the true religion of America.  If this lesson is inscribed in our very nature then the only life to strive after is one of self-aggrandizement.  That is, if you are a striving soul.  In this world the useful (or we like to say “pragmatic”) virtues are the two-faced ones.

And further, this Father has always instructed his creatures in the callousness of mass devastation and mass extermination…thy will be done.  What is famine, climate change, water shortages, exploitation, resource depletion, toxic industrial practices, criminal fraud, etc. ad nauseum, to this kind of Parent?  That apple ain’t falling far from the tree…ehem.


*from chapter one of Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West

photo credit: Sam Rae’s photostream


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