Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Friday, April 08, 2011

SHAKESPEARE: Timon of Athens

Timon is a rich man. So rich that no one, not even Timon, knows for sure how much money he has. But Timon is not a miserly, stingy man. He gives money away freely; lots of money. But that’s ok. Timon considers it money well spent. His attitude is 'Tis not enough to help the feeble up, But to support him after. At the start of the play this seems like a very noble attitude. Don’t just help people get up off the ground, give them enough money to help them get started again. And Timon is very generous to his friends. He says what need we have any friends, if we should ne'er have need of 'em? …We are born to do benefits: and what better or properer can we call our own than the riches of our friends? O, what a precious comfort 'tis, to have so many, like brothers, commanding one another's fortunes! Wouldn’t you like to have a friend like Timon, who will come to your aid whenever you need to borrow money or get bailed out of jail? But hold on. There’s one man who knows exactly how much money Timon has. Timon’s business manager has a different picture of what Timon’s finances look like. FLAVIUS: What will this come to? He commands us to provide, and give great gifts, And all out of an empty coffer: Nor will he know his purse, or yield me this, To show him what a beggar his heart is, Being of no power to make his wishes good: His promises fly so beyond his state That what he speaks is all in debt; he owes For every word: he is so kind that he now Pays interest for 't; his land's put to their books. Well, would I were gently put out of office Before I were forced out! The fact is, Timon is spending money that he doesn’t have; and he’s promising all his friends that he’ll spend even more on them. Flavius has tried to tell Timon that he’s broke but Timon won’t listen. He just goes on talking about how much fun it is to be generous: I take all and your several visitations So kind to heart, 'tis not enough to give; Methinks, I could deal kingdoms to my friends, And ne'er be weary. Timon is kind-hearted but he’s also financially busted. He can’t even help himself, much less afford to help other people. So he runs his fortune right into the ditch. Flavius can see what’s happening but is powerless to stop it: No care, no stop! so senseless of expense, That he will neither know how to maintain it, Nor cease his flow of riot: takes no account How things go from him, nor resumes no care Of what is to continue: never mind Was to be so unwise, to be so kind. What shall be done? He will not hear, till feel. Timon does eventually feel the pinch of owing money. He has given away tons of money. But when he approaches his so-called “friends” for help, none of them even offers a loan. There’s a lesson to learn here. It’s a hard lesson but Timon learned it well. He should have read what Aristotle had to say about friendship in his book Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle says there are three kinds of friends: friendships of utility or “usefulness” (these would be people like your business partners), friendships of pleasure (these would be people like your drinking buddies), and friendships of the good (these would be the “true friends” who have your best interests in mind). Timon’s problem was thinking that all his acquaintances were friendships of the good. His acquaintances were all thinking that their friendship was one of usefulness or pleasure. When the money and the good times stopped flowing, so did the friendship. This was a hard lesson for Timon. A philosophical question arises: can a person be terrible at money management and still be good and wise? A more practical question would be: should a wise person try to be self-sufficient or develop financial partnerships with friends? To be fully human we all need friends. To be fully human we also need money. Shakespeare has his finger on the pulse where the concept of friendship and money intersect. In the modern world we often have to live most of our lives in that intersection. Friends come and go. People move into town, people move away. Money comes and goes too. The trick to success is simple: have more money coming in than going out; have true friends who care about your well-being. Timon’s tragedy was to fail on both counts.


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