NL XXXVIII: Civilization and Wealth

Index to this series

To be richer than another person is to have economic power over that person (38. 61). The rich can force the poor to sell their labor for a lower price (38. 64) than if the poor were free (38. 65) of the emotional strain of poverty (38. 66).

Rembrandt, Esau Selling His Birthright, c. 1640–1, British Museum

The strain of poverty is indeed emotional; but one must be careful about what this means. It doesn’t mean the poor should be prescribed anti-depressants, or that they should just be left to their suffering, since it is their own problem. That the problem is emotional is precisely what makes it a problem for the rest of us, at least if we aim to be civilized. As in the previous post, being civilized means respecting oneself and others, and respecting others means encouraging their self-respect. Collingwood started investigating this back in Chapter XIII, “Choice”:

13. 64. This arousing of self-respect is extremely important in the practice of government and education. Persons thus engaged constantly find themselves meeting men who are incapable of decision. The rule for overcoming this state is: ‘Arouse his self-respect.’

Moreover, “There are no circumstances in which it can be to any man’s advantage that another man should become incapable of decision” (13. 66). One way this can happen is becoming poor.

As we understand from Chapter XX, “Society and Community,” force in politics refers to a difference in mental strength (20. 51). In Genesis 25, when Esau sells his birthright to his younger brother Jacob for food, the emotional strain of hunger makes him do it, as does the cleverness of Jacob:

29 And Jacob sod pottage: and Esau came from the field, and he was faint:

30 And Esau said to Jacob, Feed me, I pray thee, with that same red pottage; for I am faint: therefore was his name called Edom.

31 And Jacob said, Sell me this day thy birthright.

32 And Esau said, Behold, I am at the point to die: and what profit shall this birthright do to me?

33 And Jacob said, Swear to me this day; and he sware unto him: and he sold his birthright to Jacob.

34 Then Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage of lentiles; and he did eat and drink, and rose up, and went his way: thus Esau despised his birthright.

The strain of Esau’s hunger is emotional, in the sense that, in principle, he has a choice over how to respond to it. Esau himself sees this, when he explicitly chooses loss of birthright over death. He is surely not actually at the point of death; but he believes he is, and this is what determines him in his decision. Jacob forces the decision on him by withholding the generosity that even chimpanzees and bonobos may display.

Under Roman law, for a contract to be valid, all parties must stand to benefit (19. 54); otherwise contract is leonine and invalid. The allusion is apparently to a fable of Aesop; Collingwood refers to the lion and the ass, though perhaps the fox should be included. Finally, “emptio venditio is recognized, not only by Roman law, as a kind of contract” (38. 67).

The contract of Esau and Jacob would appear to be leonine. Nonetheless, there is probably no good legal way to prevent leonine contracts. If there are poor people, they will always have to sell their labor for less than a fair price.

38. 71. However men work to minimize that result, there will always be one law for the rich and another for the poor; for that is what being rich and being poor are.

Consequently, “The existence of the contrast between rich and poor is an offence against the ideal of civility” (38. 74). However, this constrast is not necessarily against a particular civilization (38. 75). On the contrary, the contrast may be judged by “Those responsible for the institutions of a particular civilization” to be compensated by the contribution of the rich to the communal wealth (38. 77).

Yüksel Arslan (1933–  ), Capitalist Production Process I (Private Property), 1972, mixed media on paper, Dr Nejat F. Eczacıbaşı Foundation Collection; from the book Past and Future

Collingwood does not discuss here the institutions of civilization. They could be legislatures; but then it seems a commonplace that their members will be under the power of the rich. Collingwood discusses institutions in a different sense in the essay “The Existence of God” in An Essay on Metaphysics (1940; pages 196–7):

The result of thinking systematically according to any given set of presuppositions is the creation of science; and this, like everything else that the human mind creates, grows for itself a body of institutions to keep it alive. In the case of science these are institutions for the pursuit of scientific research and for the education of young people in its methods and its fruits.

Such institutions might be strengthened, if the proposal of homeschooling in the previous chapter took hold, and universities received only students who really wanted to learn. Collingwood goes on to speak of the institutions of metaphysics,

which in modern Europe (where ‘theological colleges’ are more concerned with vocational training for the clerical profession than with theological or metaphysical instruction and research) have been almost squeezed out of existence between scientific institutions on the one hand and religious institutions on the other, but flourished once in Europe as they still flourish in the East…

I do not know specifically what institutions Collingwood is referring to here, unless he is referring to what are usually called monasteries.

Çağlayan Palace of Justice

Meanwhile, if one accumulates wealth for oneself, not in order “to pursue civilization” (38. 82), but just to be rich, then one is a barbarian (38. 83).

That is how the chapter ends. Collingwood has worked like Fowler in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926). When two words are similar in meaning, like replica and copy, forcible and forceful, or—for us now—wealth and riches, then we ought to get straight what their differences are, so that we may speak and write with precision. Fowler derides the opposite tendency, in articles such as “Elegant variation” and “Novelty hunting.” The former article is titled ironically; the latter is named for

the casting about for words of which one can feel not that they give one’s meaning more intelligibly or exactly than those the man in the street would have used in expressing the same thing, but that they are not the ones that would have occurred to him.

This casting about “is a confession of weakness.”

In Collingwood’s judgment, riches belong primarily to individuals (38. 36); wealth, to communities (38. 35). Being rich is relative: you are rich only in relation to others, who are poor (38. 53). Being wealthy is comparative (38. 38): it is assessed with reference to a standard (38. 39). Well off is a synonym of wealthy (38. 31), and thus:

38. 49. ‘Well off’ is a comparative term, the opposite of ‘ill off’; but the level of wealth prevailing in a community affords a standard by reference to which it is possible for every member of that community to be well off.

In such a community, “no one, perhaps, would have risen very much above [the standard of reference], but no one would have fallen below it” (38. 52). Such a community seems far from ours.

A publication of the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art

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  1. By Words « Polytropy on January 18, 2021 at 7:39 am

    […] are “greater today for more people on Earth than at any other time in human history.” Health, wealth, and security are goods, and we have ways of measuring them objectively; nonetheless, I would say, […]

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