“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.”
“SOCRATES: I asked Erasistratus whom he considered the wealthier,—he who was the possessor of a talent of silver or he who had a field worth two talents?
ERASISTRATUS: The owner of the field.
SOCRATES: And on the same principle he who had robes and bedding and such things which are of greater value to him than to a stranger would be richer than the stranger?
SOCRATES: And if any one gave you a choice, which of these would you prefer?
ERASISTRATUS: That which was most valuable.
SOCRATES: In which way do you think you would be the richer?
ERASISTRATUS: By choosing as I said.
SOCRATES: And he appears to you to be the richest who has goods of the greatest value?
ERASISTRATUS: He does.
SOCRATES: And are not the healthy richer than the sick, since health is a possession more valuable than riches to the sick? Surely there is no one who would not prefer to be poor and well, rather than to have all the King of Persia’s wealth and to be ill. And this proves that men set health above wealth, else they would never choose the one in preference to the other.
SOCRATES: And if anything appeared to be more valuable than health, he would be the richest who possessed it?
ERASISTRATUS: He would.
SOCRATES: Suppose that some one came to us at this moment and were to ask, Well, Socrates and Eryxias and Erasistratus, can you tell me what is of the greatest value to men? Is it not that of which the possession will best enable a man to advise how his own and his friend’s affairs should be administered?—What will be our reply?
ERASISTRATUS: I should say, Socrates, that happiness was the most precious of human possessions.
SOCRATES: Not a bad answer. But do we not deem those men who are most prosperous to be the happiest?
ERASISTRATUS: That is my opinion.
SOCRATES: And are they not most prosperous who commit the fewest errors in respect either of themselves or of other men?
SOCRATES: And they who know what is evil and what is good; what should be done and what should be left undone;—these behave the most wisely and make the fewest mistakes?
Erasistratus agreed to this.
SOCRATES: Then the wisest and those who do best and the most fortunate and the richest would appear to be all one and the same, if wisdom is really the most valuable of our possessions?
Plato, Eryxias 393b-394a
Can’t buy me love, love
Can’t buy me love
I’ll buy you a diamond ring my friend if it makes you feel alright
I’ll get you anything my friend if it makes you feel alright
‘Cause I don’t care too much for money, money can’t buy me love
I’ll give you all I got to give if you say you love me too
I may not have a lot to give but what I got I’ll give to you
I don’t care too much for money, money can’t buy me love
Can’t buy me love, everybody tells me so
Can’t buy me love, no no no, no
Say you don’t need no diamond ring and I’ll be satisfied
Tell me that you want the kind of thing that money just can’t buy
I don’t care too much for money, money can’t buy me love
“How many times have you heard someone say
“If I had his money, I could do things my way?”
Little they know that it’s so hard to find
One rich man in ten with a satisfied mind.
Once I was winning in fortune and fame
Everything that I dreamed for to get a start in life’s game
Suddenly it happened, I lost every dime
But I’m richer by far with a satisfied mind
Money can’t buy back your youth when you’re old
Or a friend when you’re lonely, or a love that’s grown cold
The wealthiest person is a pauper at times
Compared to the man with a satisfied mind
When my life is ended, my time has run out
My trials and my loved ones, I’ll leave them no doubt
But one thing’s for certain, when it comes my time
I’ll leave this old world with a satisfied mind
I’ll leave this old world with a satisfied mind.”
Jeff Buckley (original lyrics by Rhodes & Hayes)
“But in blindness they do not know
Where lies the good they seek:
That which is higher than the sky
On earth below they seek.
What can I wish you foolish men?
Wealth and fame pursue.
And when great toil wins false reward,
Then may you see the true.”
Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy
I said in mine heart, Go to now, I will prove thee with mirth, therefore enjoy pleasure: and, behold, this also is vanity. 2. I said of laughter, It is mad: and of mirth, What doeth it? 3. I sought in mine heart to give myself unto wine, yet acquainting mine heart with wisdom; and to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was that good for the sons of men, which they should do under the heaven all the days of their life. 4. I made me great works; I builded me houses; I planted me vineyards: 5. I made me gardens and orchards, and I planted trees in them of all kind of fruits: 6. I made me pools of water, to water therewith the wood that bringeth forth trees: 7. I got me servants and maidens, and had servants born in my house; also I had great possessions of great and small cattle above all that were in Jerusalem before me: 8. I gathered me also silver and gold, and the peculiar treasure of kings and of the provinces: I gat me men singers and women singers, and the delights of the sons of men, as musical instruments, and that of all sorts. 9. So I was great, and increased more than all that were before me in Jerusalem: also my wisdom remained with me. 10. And whatsoever mine eyes desired I kept not from them, I withheld not my heart from any joy; for my heart rejoiced in all my labour: and this was my portion of all my labour. 11. Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labour that I had laboured to do: and, behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun. 12. And I turned myself to behold wisdom, and madness, and folly: for what can the man do that cometh after the king? even that which hath been already done. 13. Then I saw that wisdom excelleth folly, as far as light excelleth darkness. 14. The wise man’s eyes are in his head; but the fool walketh in darkness: and I myself perceived also that one event happeneth to them all. 15. Then said I in my heart, As it happeneth to the fool, so it happeneth even to me; and why was I then more wise? Then I said in my heart, that this also is vanity. 16. For there is no remembrance of the wise more than of the fool for ever; seeing that which now is in the days to come shall all be forgotten. And how dieth the wise man? as the fool. 17. Therefore I hated life; because the work that is wrought under the sun is grievous unto me: for all is vanity and vexation of spirit. 18. Yea, I hated all my labour which I had taken under the sun: because I should leave it unto the man that shall be after me. 19. And who knoweth whether he shall be a wise man or a fool? yet shall he have rule over all my labour wherein I have laboured, and wherein I have shewed myself wise under the sun. This is also vanity. 20. Therefore I went about to cause my heart to despair of all the labour which I took under the sun. 21. For there is a man whose labour is in wisdom, and in knowledge, and in equity; yet to a man that hath not laboured therein shall he leave it for his portion. This also is vanity and a great evil. 22. For what hath man of all his labour, and of the vexation of his heart, wherein he hath laboured under the sun? 23. For all his days are sorrows, and his travail grief; yea, his heart taketh not rest in the night. This is also vanity. 24. There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour. This also I saw, that it was from the hand of God. 25. For who can eat, or who else can hasten hereunto, more than I? 26. For God giveth to a man that is good in his sight wisdom, and knowledge, and joy: but to the sinner he giveth travail, to gather and to heap up, that he may give to him that is good before God. This also is vanity and vexation of spirit.
So I returned, and considered all the oppressions that are done under the sun: and behold the tears of such as were oppressed, and they had no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors there was power; but they had no comforter. 2. Wherefore I praised the dead which are already dead more than the living which are yet alive. 3. Yea, better is he than both they, which hath not yet been, who hath not seen the evil work that is done under the sun. 4. Again, I considered all travail, and every right work, that for this a man is envied of his neighbour. This is also vanity and vexation of spirit. 5. The fool foldeth his hands together, and eateth his own flesh. 6. Better is an handful with quietness, than both the hands full with travail and vexation of spirit. 7. Then I returned, and I saw vanity under the sun. 8. There is one alone, and there is not a second; yea, he hath neither child nor brother: yet is there no end of all his labour; neither is his eye satisfied with riches; neither saith he, For whom do I labour, and bereave my soul of good? This is also vanity, yea, it is a sore travail. 9. Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour. 10. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up. 11. Again, if two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone? 12. And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken. 13. Better is a poor and a wise child than an old and foolish king, who will no more be admonished. 14. For out of prison he cometh to reign; whereas also he that is born in his kingdom becometh poor. 15. I considered all the living which walk under the sun, with the second child that shall stand up in his stead. 16. There is no end of all the people, even of all that have been before them: they also that come after shall not rejoice in him. Surely this also is vanity and vexation of spirit. Ecclesiastes 5 [Commentary]
1. Keep thy foot when thou goest to the house of God, and be more ready to hear, than to give the sacrifice of fools: for they consider not that they do evil. 2. Be not rash with thy mouth, and let not thine heart be hasty to utter any thing before God: for God is in heaven, and thou upon earth: therefore let thy words be few. 3. For a dream cometh through the multitude of business; and a fool’s voice is known by multitude of words. 4. When thou vowest a vow unto God, defer not to pay it; for he hath no pleasure in fools: pay that which thou hast vowed. 5. Better is it that thou shouldest not vow, than that thou shouldest vow and not pay. 6. Suffer not thy mouth to cause thy flesh to sin; neither say thou before the angel, that it was an error: wherefore should God be angry at thy voice, and destroy the work of thine hands? 7. For in the multitude of dreams and many words there are also divers vanities: but fear thou God. 8. If thou seest the oppression of the poor, and violent perverting of judgment and justice in a province, marvel not at the matter: for he that is higher than the highest regardeth; and there be higher than they. 9. Moreover the profit of the earth is for all: the king himself is served by the field. 10. He that loveth silver shall not be satisfied with silver; nor he that loveth abundance with increase: this is also vanity. 11. When goods increase, they are increased that eat them: and what good is there to the owners thereof, saving the beholding of them with their eyes? 12. The sleep of a labouring man is sweet, whether he eat little or much: but the abundance of the rich will not suffer him to sleep. 13. There is a sore evil which I have seen under the sun, namely, riches kept for the owners thereof to their hurt. 14. But those riches perish by evil travail: and he begetteth a son, and there is nothing in his hand. 15. As he came forth of his mother’s womb, naked shall he return to go as he came, and shall take nothing of his labour, which he may carry away in his hand. 16. And this also is a sore evil, that in all points as he came, so shall he go: and what profit hath he that hath laboured for the wind? 17. All his days also he eateth in darkness, and he hath much sorrow and wrath with his sickness. 18. Behold that which I have seen: it is good and comely for one to eat and to drink, and to enjoy the good of all his labour that he taketh under the sun all the days of his life, which God giveth him: for it is his portion. 19. Every man also to whom God hath given riches and wealth, and hath given him power to eat thereof, and to take his portion, and to rejoice in his labour; this is the gift of God. 20. For he shall not much remember the days of his life; because God answereth him in the joy of his heart. Ecclesiastes 6 [Commentary]
1. There is an evil which I have seen under the sun, and it is common among men: 2. A man to whom God hath given riches, wealth, and honour, so that he wanteth nothing for his soul of all that he desireth, yet God giveth him not power to eat thereof, but a stranger eateth it: this is vanity, and it is an evil disease. 3. If a man beget an hundred children, and live many years, so that the days of his years be many, and his soul be not filled with good, and also that he have no burial; I say, that an untimely birth is better than he. 4. For he cometh in with vanity, and departeth in darkness, and his name shall be covered with darkness. 5. Moreover he hath not seen the sun, nor known any thing: this hath more rest than the other. 6. Yea, though he live a thousand years twice told, yet hath he seen no good: do not all go to one place? 7. All the labour of man is for his mouth, and yet the appetite is not filled. 8. For what hath the wise more than the fool? what hath the poor, that knoweth to walk before the living? 9. Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the desire: this is also vanity and vexation of spirit. 10. That which hath been is named already, and it is known that it is man: neither may he contend with him that is mightier than he. 11. Seeing there be many things that increase vanity, what is man the better? 12. For who knoweth what is good for man in this life, all the days of his vain life which he spendeth as a shadow? for who can tell a man what shall be after him under the sun?
Ecclesiastes, 2, 5, 6,
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness! “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money. “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
Jesus Christ, Matthew 6: 19-34 (NIV)
To their shame I say that they should not be called learned, because they do not acquire learning for its own use but only insofar as through it they may gain money or honor; just as we should not call a lute-player someone who keeps a lute in his house for the purpose of renting it out, as opposed to playing on it.
Dante, Convivio, Book I, Chapter 9
It now remains simply to prove in what way riches are base and how they are distinct and remote from nobility, and this is proved in two brief sections of the text to which we presently must turn. After they have been explained, what I have said will become clear: that is, that riches are base and remote from nobility, and thereby the arguments already directed against riches will be completely proved.
I say then, It’s evident that riches are imperfect, And base as well. To make clear what is meant by these words, we must know that the baseness of each thing derives from its imperfection, and likewise its nobility from its perfection, so that the more a thing is perfect, the nobler is its nature; the more imperfect, the baser. Consequently if riches are imperfect, it is evident that there are base. That they are imperfect is briefly proved by the text when it says, for however great they are, They bring no peace, but rather grief. Here not only is their imperfection made evident but their state shown to be most imperfect, and therefore completely base. Lucan attests to this when he addresses them by saying, “Without a fight the laws have perished, and you riches, the basest part of things, have led the battle.”(40) Their imperfection may clearly be seen briefly in three things: first, in the lack of discretion attending their appropriation; second, in the danger that accompanies their increment; thirdly, in the ruin resulting from their possession. Before I demonstrate this, a doubt which seems to arise must be cleared up: for since gold, pearls, and property have in their essence a perfect form and actuality, it does not seem correct to claim that they are imperfect. Therefore it must be understood that insofar as they are considered in themselves, they are perfect things, and are not riches but gold or pearls; but insofar as they are conceived as a possession of man, they are riches, and in this sense they are full of imperfection. For it is not incongruous for one thing to be both perfect and imperfect when it is perceived from different perspectives.
I say that their imperfection may be observed first in the lack of discretion attending their appropriation, in which no distributive justice is present, while injustice, which is the effect characteristic of imperfection, almost always is. For if we consider the ways in which riches are acquired, they may all be summarized under three headings. They are acquired either purely by chance, as for example when they are acquired without design or unexpectedly by virtue of some unplanned event; or they are acquired by chance aided by reason, as for example by means of testaments and inheritance; or they are acquired by chance aiding reason, as in the case of acquiring lawful or unlawful gain. By lawful gain I mean gain deriving from a respectable craft, commerce, or service; by unlawful gain I mean gain deriving from theft or robbery. In each of these three ways the injustice of which I speak is evident, for buried wealth which is discovered or recovered presents itself more often to the bad than to the good; and this is so evident that it requires no proof.
Indeed I once saw the place, on the side of a mountain named Falterona, in Tuscany, where the basest peasant of the entire region found, while digging about, more than a bushel of Santelenas of the finest silver which had been waiting for him for perhaps 2000 years or more.(41) It was because he had observed this injustice that Aristotle remarked that “the more man is subject to intelligence, the less he is subject to fortune.”(42) I claim that inheritance by bequest or by succession comes more often to the bad than to the good, though I do not intend to submit any evidence for this. Rather, let everyone cast his eyes about to discover what it is that I pass over in silence in order to avoid accusing anyone in particular. Would that it had been God’s pleasure that what the Provençal requested had come to pass, namely that he who does not inherit goodness should forfeit the inheritance of possessions!(43) It is my claim that the recovery of wealth comes more often precisely to the bad than to the good, for unlawful gain never comes to the good, because they refuse it. What good man would ever seek gain by means of force or fraud? That would be an impossibility, for by the very choice of undertaking an unlawful act he would cease to be good. And lawful gain rarely comes to the good, because given the fact that it requires a great deal of attention and the good man’s attention is directed to more important matters, rarely does he devote sufficient attention to it.
Consequently it is evident that the appropriation of these riches in whatever way results in injustice, and therefore Our Lord called them unrighteous when he said, “Make to yourselves friends of the money of iniquity,” thereby inviting and encouraging men to render acts of liberality through benefactions, which engender friendships.(44) How fair an exchange does he make who gives of these most imperfect things in order to have and acquire things that are perfect, such as are the hearts of worthy men! This market is open every day. Indeed, this kind of commerce is different from all others, for when a man believes he is buying one person with a benefaction, thousands and thousands are bought with it. Who does not still keep a place in his heart for Alexander because of his royal acts of benevolence? Who does not keep a place for the good King of Castile, or Saladin, or the good Marquis of Monferrato, or the good Count of Toulouse, or Bertran de Born, or Galeazzo of Montefeltro?(45) When mention is made of their gifts, certainly not only those who would willingly do the same, but those as well who would sooner die than do the same, retain in their memory a love for these men.
The imperfection of riches, as has been said, may be observed not only by the fact of their appropriation but also in the danger that accompanies their increment; and since more of their defect may be perceived in the latter, the text makes mention of that alone, saying that for however great they are, they not only do not bring peace, they bring more thirst and make men more defective and less self-sufficient. Here we should understand that defective things may bear their defects in such a way that they do not appear on the surface, but are concealed beneath the guise of perfection; or they may bear them entirely exposed, so that the imperfection is recognized openly on the surface. Those things that do not reveal their defects at first are more dangerous, since we often cannot place ourselves on guard against them, as we see in the instance of a traitor who on the surface shows himself as a friend, so that he compels us to have faith in him, while beneath the guise of friendship he conceals the defect of enmity. In this way riches are dangerously imperfect in their increment, for by subverting what they promise they bring about the very opposite.(46)
These false traitresses always promise to bring complete satisfaction to the person who gathers them in sufficient quantity, and by this promise they lead the human will into the vice of avarice. For this reason Boethius in his book The Consolation of Philosophy calls them dangerous, saying, “Alas! who was it that first unearthed the masses of hidden gold and the gems, those precious perils, which sought to remain hidden?”(47) The false traitresses, if one looks closely, promise to take away all thirst and feeling of want and to supply complete satiety and a feeling of sufficiency. This is what they do at first for every man, by guaranteeing the fulfillment of this promise when they have increased to a certain amount; and then when they have been accumulated to this point, instead of satiety and refreshment they produce and instill an intolerable and burning thirst in the breast; and in place of sufficiency they set up a new goal: that is, a greater quantity to be desired, and once this has been realized, they instill a great fear and concern for what has been acquired.
Consequently they do not bring peace, but rather grief, which before, in their absence, was not present. Therefore Tully, in his book On Paradox, says in denouncing riches, “Never have I ever considered either the money of these men, or their magnificent mansions, or their riches, or their lordships, or the delights by which they are altogether captivated, to be found among things good and desirable, since I have certainly seen men who abound in these things covet the very things in which they abound. For never is the thirst of cupidity satisfied or satiated; and not only are they tormented by a desire to increase the quantity of those things which they possess, but they are also tormented by a fear of losing them.”(48) These are the very words of Tully, as they are put down in the book which has been mentioned. Evidence of even greater importance bearing on this imperfection is found in these words spoken by Boethius in his book The Consolation of Philosophy: “Even if the goddess of wealth were to lavish riches equal to the amount of sand tossed by the wind-driven sea or to the number of stars that shine, the human race would not cease their lament.”(49)
Since further evidence is required to establish proof on this point, let us summon up all that Solomon and his father cry out against them, all that Seneca, especially in his letters to Lucilius, all that Horace, all that Juvenal, and, in brief, all that every writer, every poet, and all that truthful Holy Scripture cries out against these false harlots who are steeped in every defect. In order that our belief may be supported by what we see, let us consider the lives of those who chase after them, and how securely they live when they have amassed them, how satisfied they are, how untroubled! And what imperils and destroys cities, territories, and individuals day by day more than the accumulation of wealth by some new person? Such an accumulation uncovers new desires which cannot be satiated without causing injury to someone. What else were the two categories of Law, namely Canon Law and Civil Law, intended to curb if not the surge of greed brought about by the amassing of wealth? Certainly both categories of Law make this quite evident if we read their beginnings (that is, the beginnings of their written record). O how evident it is, indeed how exceedingly evident, that riches are rendered fully imperfect through by their being increased, since nothing but imperfection can come from them, however great their quantity! This is what the text says.
Nevertheless a doubt arises here from a question which cannot be passed over without being brought up and answered. Someone bent on distorting the truth by splitting hairs might object that since riches are rendered imperfect and consequently base by virtue of the fact that their acquisition increases a desire for them, knowledge for the same reason is imperfect and base, since the desire for it always increases with its acquisition. Hence Seneca says, “If I had one foot in the grave I would still wish to go on learning.”(50) But it is not true that knowledge is made base by imperfection: therefore, by refuting the consequence of the premise, the increase of desire does not make riches base.(51) The fact that knowledge is something perfect is made evident by the Philosopher in the sixth book of the Ethics, which states that knowledge is the perfect record of things which are certain.
This question requires a brief answer, but first we must see whether desire is increased by the acquisition of knowledge, as is proposed in the question, and whether this is for a reason. And so I say that human desire is increased not only by the acquisition of knowledge and of riches, but by every kind of acquisition, although in different ways. The reason is this: that the supreme desire of each thing, and the one that is first given to it by nature, is to return to its first cause. Now since God is the cause of our souls and has created them like himself (as it is written, “Let us make man in our own image and likeness”), the soul desires above all else to return to him.(52) And just as the pilgrim who walks along a road on which he has never traveled before believes that every house which he sees from afar is an inn, and finding it not so fixes his expectations on the next one, and so moves from house to house until he comes to the inn, so our soul, as soon as it enters upon this new and never travelled road of life, fixes its eyes on the goal of its supreme good, and therefore believes that everything it sees which seems to possess some good in it is that supreme good.(53) Because its knowledge is at first imperfect through lack of experience and instruction, small goods appear great, and so from these it conceives its first desires. Thus we see little children setting their desire first of all on an apple, and then growing older desiring to possess a little bird, and then still later desiring to possess fine clothes, then a horse, and then a woman, and then modest wealth, then greater riches, and then still more. This comes about because in none of these things does one find what one is searching after, but hopes to find it further on. Consequently it may be seen that one object of desire stands in front of another before the eyes of our soul very much in the manner of a pyramid, where the smallest object at first covers them all and is, as it were, the apex of the ultimate object of desire, namely God, who is, as it were, the base of all the rest. And so the further we move from the apex toward the base, the greater the objects of desire appear; this is the reason why acquisition causes human desires to become progressively inflated.
We may, however, lose this path through error, just as we may the roads of the earth. For just as from one city to another there is only one road which is of necessity the best and most direct, and another which leads completely away (namely the one which goes in the opposite direction), and many others, some leading away from it and some moving toward it, so in human life there are different paths, among which only one is the truest way and another the falsest, and some less true and some less false. And just as we see that the path which leads most directly to the city fulfills desire and provides rest when work is finished, while the one which goes in the opposite direction never fulfills it nor provides rest, so it is with our life. A wise traveler reaches his goal and rests; the wanderer never reaches it, but with great lethargy of mind forever directs his hungry eyes before him. Thus although this explanation does not entirely answer the question raised above, it at least opens the way for an answer because it shows that our desires do not all increase in the same way. But since this chapter has become somewhat protracted, an answer to the question must be given in a new chapter, and here the entire argument which I presently intend to make against riches will be brought to a close.
In answer to this question, I affirm that the desire for knowledge cannot properly be said to increase, although, as has been said, it grows in a certain way. For whatever grows, properly speaking, is always one; the desire for knowledge, however, is not always one but many; and when one desire ends, another begins; so that, properly speaking, its increase is not a growth but a progression from small things to great things. For if I desire to know the principles of natural things, as soon as I know them this desire is fulfilled and brought to an end. If I then desire to know what each of these principles is and how each exists, this is a new and separate desire. Nor by the appearance of this desire am I dispossessed of the perfection to which I was brought by the other; and this growth is not the cause of imperfection but of greater perfection.
However, the desire for riches is, properly speaking, an increment, for it remains always one, so that no progression of goals reached or perfection attained is found here. If someone were to object that just as the desire to know the principles of natural objects is one thing and the desire to know what these principles are is another, so the desire for a hundred marks is one thing and the desire for a thousand another, I would reply that this is not true. For a hundred is part of a thousand and is related to it, just as a part of a line is to the whole line along which there is a single continuous motion, with no progression nor any movement brought to completion at any point. But knowing the principles of natural objects and knowing the nature of each individual principle are not parts of each other, but are related to each other as different lines along which there is no single continuous movement, so that when the motion of the one is completed, it is succeeded by the motion of the other. Thus it appears, as raised in the question, that knowledge may not be called imperfect because of the desire for knowledge, the way riches are imperfect because of the desire for them. For in the desire for knowledge desires are progressively satisfied and brought to completion, while in the desire for riches they are not. Hence the question is answered and has no ground for existence.
This person bent on splitting hairs might well still object by claiming that although many desires are satisfied by the acquisition of knowledge, yet the ultimate desire is never attained, which is almost like the imperfection of a desire which, though remaining one and the same, never comes to an end. Here again we reply that the objection is not true–that is, that the ultimate desire is never attained; for our natural desires, as has been shown above in the third book, are satisfied within a certain limit; and the desire for knowledge is a natural desire, so that a certain limit satisfies it, even though few, because they take the wrong path, complete the journey.(54) Anyone who understands the Commentator’s discussion of the third book of The Soul has learned this from him.(55) Therefore Aristotle in the tenth book of the Ethics, speaking against the poet Simonides, says that “A man should be drawn as far as possible to divine things,” by which he shows that our faculty contemplates a certain end.(56) Furthermore, in the first book of the Ethics he says that “the trained student seeks to know the certainty of things, to the degree that their nature admits of certainty.”(57) By this he shows that one must contemplate an end not only on the part of man who desires knowledge, but as well on the part of the object of knowledge which is desired. And therefore Paul says, “Do not seek to know more than is fitting, but to know in measure.”(58) So that in whatever way the desire for knowledge is understood, whether in general or in particular, it attains to perfection.(59) Therefore perfect knowledge is a noble perfection, and its perfection is not lost by the desire for it, as is the case with detestable riches.
It must now briefly be shown how the possession of riches makes them harmful, and this is the third sign of their imperfection. Their possession may be seen to be harmful for two reasons: first, that it is the cause of evil; second, that it is the privation of good. It is the cause of evil because it makes the possessor fearful and hateful by mere preoccupation with them. How great is the fear of one who is aware of having wealth about him, while either traveling or taking lodging, not only when waking but when sleeping, a fear not only of losing his possessions but his life because of his possessions. The contemptible merchants who travel about the world know this full well, for the leaves swept by the wind make them tremble when they are carrying riches with them; and when they are not, they shorten their journey with songs and conversation, being full of a sense of security. Therefore the Sage says, “If a traveler entered upon his journey empty-handed, he would sing in the face of the thieves.”(60) This is what Lucan means in the fifth book when he praises poverty for the security it offers with the words, “O secure ease of the poor man’s life! O constricted dwellings and furnishings! oh not yet understood riches of the Gods! In what temples, within what walls could this ever happen without their shaking with fear when the hand of Caesar knocks?”(61) This is said by Lucan when he tells how Caesar came by night to the cottage of the fisherman Amyclas in order to cross the Adriatic Sea. How great is the hatred that everyone bears the possessor of riches, whether out of envy or out of a desire to seize his possessions! So great is it that often a son, acting contrary to the love he owes, contrives to kill his father; indeed the Italians, both in the region of the Po and in the region of the Tiber, have witnessed the most striking and obvious examples of this behavior. Therefore Boethius says, in the second book of his Consolation, “Truly avarice makes men hateful.”(62)
The possession of riches is also the privation of good, for by their possession generosity, which is a virtue, cannot exist; and this virtue brings about good and makes men illustrious and beloved, which cannot come to pass through the possession of riches but only through their surrender. Thus Boethius says, in the same book, “Money, then, is good when, having been transferred to others through generosity, it is no longer possessed.” Consequently the baseness of riches is quite obvious from all of this evidence, and therefore a man of right desire and of true knowledge never loves them; and in not loving them he does not unite himself to them but always wishes to keep them at a distance, except insofar as they are used to perform some necessary service. This is reasonable, because what is perfect cannot be united with what is imerfect. Hence we see that a crooked line never joined with a straight line, and if there is any joining to speak of, it is not of line with line but of point with point. Therefore it follows that the mind which is upright (that is, in its appetite) and true (that is, in knowledge) is not undone by having lost riches, as the text states at the end of this section.(63) In reaching this conclusion the text seeks to prove that riches are a river flowing far away from the upright tower of reason, or nobility, and that for this reason riches cannot deprive anyone of the nobility he possesses. In this way the present canzone moves arguments and proofs against riches.
Dante, Convivio, Book 4, Chapter 11, 12, 13