Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

SIMMEL: Individual Freedom (excerpt from The Philosophy of Money)

Some Great Books authors are familiar to everyone: the Bible and Shakespeare.  Some Great Books authors are familiar to most people: Homer, Plato, Charles Darwin.  And some Great Books authors are familiar to a more limited audience.  Our last two readings, by David Hume and Alexis de Tocqueville fall into this category.  This time we discuss a selection by Georg Simmel.  Who?  Who is Georg Simmel and how did he find his way into the Great Books set?  Let’s examine one of his ideas and see if he qualifies to be in the Great Books.  Simmel believes that what we regard as freedom is often in fact only a change of obligations; as a new obligation replaces one that we have carried up until now, we sense that the old burden has been removed.  If I’m young and want to go to college I have to find a way to pay for it.  This is my burden, how to pay for college.  So I take out a student loan.  I found a way to pay my college tuition.  Problem solved; burden gone.  But as Simmel points out: Because we are free from the old burden, we seem at first to be completely free; until the reality of the new obligation sets in.  I feel like I’m free for a while but when I graduate I have to get a job and start repaying my loan.  This is my new obligation; freedom gone.  Simmel breaks down for us how personal obligations have traditionally been repayed.  Every obligation is generally resolved through some type of personal action: 1. Rights over a person (slavery, or forced labor such as a serf) 2. A specific product of a person’s work (beer, chickens, honey, etc.) or 3. Cash payment (the right to buy oneself out of a personal obligation by money).  Thus the development of money is a major contributor to the history of personal freedom; as Simmel describes it: The lord of the manor can demand beer or chickens or honey from a serf.  In this way the lord determines the activity of the serf.  But when the lord sets a monetary payment the serf can then decide how best to get the money to pay his debts and keep the beer and chickens and honey for himself. The historical connection between money and freedom is plain: the greatest step forward in the process of liberation and toward individual freedom is the development of a money payment system...  This process of liberation toward individual freedom is crucial for our development as human beings.  We may even view money as an important step in our human evolution.  Charles Darwin wrote that man is a social animal.  But Darwin’s emphasis was on mankind as an animal-being.  So Simmel looks at other interpretations of mankind: In view of the differences that exist in many respects between man and the lower animals, many people have tried to establish a specific difference that separates mankind from other animals.  Thus, man has been defined as the political animal, the tool-making animal, the purposeful animal, the hierarchical animal… maybe we should also add to the list that man is the trading animal.  After 2500 years of careful philosophical analysis we finally end up with a definition of man as “the business animal.”  This may seem bizarre at first but Simmel thinks money is a great step forward in our evolutionary process: Only money provides the technical possibility for an exact equivalence of exchange values.  Money is really nothing but the representation of the value of other objects; and there is virtually no limit to its divisibility or growth.  Consider this: let’s say you’re a shoemaker and I’m a shepherd.  Trading shoes for sheep is clunky.  How many shoes is one sheep worth?  That depends on the quality of your shoes and my sheep.  Plus, I only need one pair of shoes anyway.  What am I going to do with all those extra pairs of shoes?  It’s much easier for us both to carry around money.  That way we can be precise on what my sheep is worth and your pair of shoes is worth.  Simmel believes that business is the most basic (and in its simplicity a really wonderful) means for combining justice with changes in ownership.  Money is a great idea.  It gives us many more options about how we can live.  Simmel’s genius is to connect his ideas about money to our own notions of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.   


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