'Who is the rich man that is being saved?'

Men who offer laudatory speeches as presents to the rich may be rightly classed, in my opinion, not only as flatterers and servile, since in the hope of a large return they make a show of granting favors that are really no favors, but also as impious and insidious.

They are impious because, while neglecting to praise and glorify the only perfect and good God, from whom are all things and through whom are all things and to whom are all things, they invest with God’s prerogative men who are wallowing in a riotous and filthy life and, in short, are lying under the judgment of God.

They are insidious because, although mere abundance is by itself quite enough to puff up the souls of its possessors, and to corrupt them, and to turn them aside from the way by which salvation can be reached, these men bring fresh delusion to the minds of the rich by exciting them with the pleasures that come from their immoderate praises, and by rendering them contemptuous of absolutely everything in the world except the wealth which is the cause of their being admired. In the words of the proverb, they carry fire to fire, when they shower pride upon pride, and heap on wealth, heavy by its own nature, the heavier burden of arrogance.

Rather they ought to have diminished and curtailed wealth, as a perilous and deadly disease; for the man who exalts and magnifies himself is in danger of a complete reversal of fortune, namely, the change and fall into low estate, as the divine word teaches.

It seems to me an act far kinder than servile attention to the rich and praise that does them harm if we share the burden of their life and work out salvation for them by every possible means; first by begging them from God, who unfailingly and gladly accords such gifts to God’s own children, and then by healing their souls with reason, through the Savior’s grace, enlightening them and leading them on to the possession of the truth. For only those who have reached the truth and are distinguished in good works shall carry off the prize of eternal life.

That’s from “Who Is the Rich Man That Is Being Saved?” or “The Rich Man’s Salvation,” by Clement of Alexandria, who lived roughly 150-220 CE. (And, yeah, my paraphrase in the previous post was very loose.)

Clement’s book is often characterized as a watershed change in early Christian thinking about wealth and riches in that he made the radical suggestion that it might be possible for a rich man to be saved.

Clement further argued that possessions were not evil in and of themselves, but should be thought of as tools:

They lie at hand and are put at our disposal as a sort of material and as instruments to be well used by those who know. An instrument, if you use it with artistic skill, is a thing of art; but if you are lacking in skill, it reaps the benefit of your unmusical nature, though not itself responsible. Wealth too is an instrument of the same kind. You can use it rightly; it ministers to righteousness. But if one use it wrongly, it is found to be a minister of wrong. For its nature is to minister, not to rule. We must not therefore put the responsibility on that which, having in itself neither good nor evil, is not responsible, but on that which has the power of using things either well or badly, as a result of choice.

Clement also offered a series of other logical arguments — convincing ones, I think — for why wealth and possessions should not be thought of as intrinsically evil. We are commanded to share with one another, he said, yet how can we share if we don’t have anything to be shared? Jesus also told us to befriend the poor and to give them money and possessions. Jesus loved the poor, so why would he tell us to give to his beloved that which was intrinsically evil?

Because of his argument that wealth is a neutral “instrument,” Clement is often characterized as a sell-out. His treatise on “the rich man” has become notorious as the alleged spiritual grandfather of the far less nuanced idea — arising after Constantine, perfected in the Middle Ages, and very popular today — that all that matters is our “attitude” toward wealth and possessions. In its most un-Clementlike form, that has become the idea that superfluity and indulgence are gifts from God, requiring only our gratitude and luxurious enjoyment.

But Clement, like all the Ante-Nicene fathers, taught that “superfluity is theft.” (That phrase came later, from Augustine, but it captures the unanimous teaching of his predecessors.) In another book, a rather legalistic tract against legalism called “The Tutor,” Clement wrote that “it is monstrous for one to live in luxury while many are in want.” That book repeats his argument that wealth is not intrinsically evil, but he warns that it is dangerous, like a snake:

… which will twist round the hand and bite; unless one knows how to lay hold of it without danger by the point of the tail. And riches, wriggling either in an experienced or inexperienced grasp, are dexterous at adhering and biting; unless one, despising them, use them skillfully. …

Because of this grave and venomous danger, Clement ended “Who is the rich man …” by commanding the wealthy would-be Christians to subject themselves to the authority of a mentor who did not share their plenty and privilege. What he describes sounds almost like what Alcoholics Anonymous would call a “sponsor”:

It is therefore an absolute necessity that you who are haughty and powerful and rich should appoint for yourself some man of God as trainer and pilot. Let there be at all events one whom you respect, one whom you fear, one whom you accustom yourself to listen to when he is outspoken and severe, though all the while at your service. … Fear this man when he is angry, and be grieved when he groans; respect him when he stays in his anger, and be before him in begging release from punishment. …

It won’t be easy, Clement said, but “with God all things are possible,” and salvation might therefore be possible even for the wealthy. His message to “the rich man” himself was to devote his life to seeking out the poor and begging them to receive from him his riches:

Give the perishing things of the world and receive in exchange for them an eternal abode in heaven. Set sail, rich man, for this market, if you are wise. Compass the whole earth if need be. Spare not dangers or toils, that here you may buy a heavenly kingdom. Why so delighted with glittering stones and emeralds, with a house that is fuel for fire or a plaything for time or sport for an earthquake or the object of a tyrant’s obsolescence? Desire to live and reign in heaven with God.

This kingdom a man, imitating God, shall give you. Having taken little from you here, he will make you through all the ages a fellow-inhabitant there. Beg him to take it. Hasten, strive earnestly, fear lest he reject you. For he has not been commanded to take, but you to provide. Furthermore, the Lord did not say “give,” or “provide,” or “benefit,” or “help,” but “make a friend,” and a friend is made not from one gift, but from complete relief and long companionship. …

It is interesting that if any Christian these days were to take Clement or any of the other early Christians seriously on the subject of wealth and possessions, that person would be condemned by “conservative” Christians for being suspiciously “liberal.” That suggests to me that these words — “conservative” and “liberal” — are being used in a way that isn’t recognizably consistent with their usual definitions.

  • arc

    The thing is, Dongisselbeck, is that you are presuming society awards or is trying to award according to ability.  The argument for the free market (used by libertarians, but not only used by them) is that the marketplace rewards due to demand.

    Let’s imagine that you’re the next Mozart, a musical prodigy and one of the greatest composers who’s ever lived. (Mozart is definitely more than an order of magnitude more musically gifted than someone who is tone deaf, by the way.  Other extremely gifted composers (Beethoven, for example) felt he completely outstripped them – they probably felt he was an order of magnitude better than them…).  Let’s say you’ve excelled in not just one art music tradition, but three – western and indian classical, and jazz.  And let’s say you’ve synthesized them and begun a whole new kind of music, that all other composers in those fields take their hat of to you.

    You aren’t going to do as well as the next pop starlet.  Because there isn’t nearly the demand for innovative art music as there is for a four-chord tune about sex sung by a pretty girl (with an accompanying video, of course).  And free market defenders will say this is how it should be.  it means that resources will end up naturally where they’re most needed. This will mean (so the argument goes) that society will be better off as a whole than under any other arrangement.  That’s the argument from utility.

    There’s also an argument from fairness here, and that’s that who gets to decide whether you’re more deserving of reward other than the marketplace? The notion that amazingly gifted composers are somehow ‘better’ than pop startlets is fine for an individual to possess, but the decision of how much to reward such people should be made by the aggregate of such notions, i.e. the marketplace.  Anything else would be state-backed elitism.

    Finally, libertarians make an argument that other defenders of the free market don’t typically make, and that’s a rights-based argument.  Property is a right, and the only thing the government should do is securing rights for everyone.  Once that is done, we can trade amongst ourselves according to the rules, and anything I secure doing that is mine, and it would be wrong to take it off me.  That you’re naturally more gifted in every area than me doesn’t really come into it, except insofar as it might mean you can secure stuff for yourself more easily than i can.

    (I know internet libertarians tend to talk as though it’s all about being rewarded for your abilities. If they really believe that is what it is about, rather than sometimes the marketplace likes your abilities and sometimes it likes the story about how you shagged a football star, then they don’t understand the intellectual basis of their own movement)

  • arc

    Why should people with great abilities be rewarded anyway?

    They already have great abilities.  Isn’t that enough for them?

  • Erl

     Think of the remarkable progress of technology, medicine, etc and tell me where it came from.  These leaps and bounds generaly haven’t come from systems where forced disturbution of wealth and power are the norm.

    Which country was the first to put a man-made object into stable orbit? USSR
    Which country was the first to put a human being into orbit around the Earth? USSR
    Which country invented Tetris? USSR
    Which country invented the AK-47? USSR

    and so on. There are a lot of things that are bad about totalitarian societies. (Mostly the totalitarianism.) But when I see the argument that they stifled invention such that nothing really new was made in the USSR, I tend to see an argument from ignorance, or even denial. Yes, heavily bureaucratized societies make it harder to innovate. Nevertheless, the Soviet Union was quite good at inventing things it felt needed inventing–otherwise there would have been no Cold War. 

  • Anonymous

    Yep.  And China and the USSR beat the pants off most democratic countries when it came to mass *application* of technological innovations.  They started out a hundred years behind the US, industrially speaking, and caught up in a matter of decades.  (Lots and lots of people died along the way, of course.)

    Their record on pure scientific research was pretty crappy, but I’m not sure that’s an intrinsic defect of totalitarianism, more a mark of those particular societies’ exceptional hostility to the intellectual classes.  Modern China’s managed to remain fairly totalitarian while still opening up more space for effective R&D.

  • Anonymous

    Yep.  And China and the USSR beat the pants off most democratic countries when it came to mass *application* of technological innovations.  They started out a hundred years behind the US, industrially speaking, and caught up in a matter of decades.  (Lots and lots of people died along the way, of course.)

    Their record on pure scientific research was pretty crappy, but I’m not sure that’s an intrinsic defect of totalitarianism, more a mark of those particular societies’ exceptional hostility to the intellectual classes.  Modern China’s managed to remain fairly totalitarian while still opening up more space for effective R&D.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Patrick-McGraw/100001988854074 Patrick McGraw

    There are a lot of things that are bad about totalitarian societies. (Mostly the totalitarianism.)

    Which is also how such research occurred right alongside Lysenkoism.

    …which of course does not at all resemble the arguments of authoritarians in America when it comes to things like evolution or climate change. No sir.

  • Hawker40

    I’ll concede the first orbits, and plead no contest on Tetris…
    But the AK-47 has a older name, the Sig-44, and was built in Germany.  Like the American M-60 (based off the MG34), it’s a copy of a German design, modified for improved mass production and simpler operation.
    (Looking at Russian military designs into the 1960′s, you can see the German roots.  Airplanes like the MiG-15 and 17, the Zulu, Whiskey and Foxtrot class submarines…. Except for tanks.  Russians designed thier own tanks.)

  • Anonymous

    “Unfortunately you have to wade thru ‘Das Capital’ to find this out and most English speaking people never make it past ‘The Communist Manifesto’”

    The problem is that all who have read Das Capital (the entire work, not summaries) become crazy, and in worst cases they become economists

  • Anonymous

    “Unfortunately you have to wade thru ‘Das Capital’ to find this out and most English speaking people never make it past ‘The Communist Manifesto’”

    The problem is that all who have read Das Capital (the entire work, not summaries) become crazy, and in worst cases they become economists

  • Anonymous

    “Unfortunately you have to wade thru ‘Das Capital’ to find this out and most English speaking people never make it past ‘The Communist Manifesto’”

    The problem is that all who have read Das Capital (the entire work, not summaries) become crazy, and in worst cases they become economists

  • Anonymous

    Would you bust your tail when the fruits of your hard work don’t end up benefiting you or your family?

    Several things come to mind. First off, many people work very hard at things that bring them little or no money – hobbies, games, writing fan fiction, writing, period, art, etc.  Even if artists and writers may hope to make money, that’s mainly so they can quit their day job and have more time for writing or art.  If they lived in a communist paradise and didn’t have to work for a living, they’d still be merrily writing and arting.

    Then there’s the problem with rewarding people, as outlined quite nicely in Alfie Kohn’s Punished By Rewards.  If you reward people for doing something they do for fun, they often start doing it for the reward instead.  This doesn’t really support the idea that forcing people to do things for money makes them somehow more creative.  In fact (it’s been a bit since I read the book), I believe there was evidence that it made people less creative.

    Lastly, there’s this… thing… in the US around work.  You’re supposed to hate your job, but work hard at it.  It’s like some sort of weird purifying suffering or self flagellation.  Does that really serve anything except some sort of sick puritan sadism?

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_GVT7C7S6IP2OC44PFUZGAJ4OBM JohnK

    You can be a Christian and an atheist, so wha

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_GVT7C7S6IP2OC44PFUZGAJ4OBM JohnK

    You can be a Christian and an atheist, so wha

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_GVT7C7S6IP2OC44PFUZGAJ4OBM JohnK

    So, what, it’s like a nerdier version of the Necronomicon?

  • Daughter

    Slightly off-topic, but when I read Kohn’s book I didn’t buy a lot of it. It didn’t ring true in my experience (and although he cites research, I wonder if there is other research out there that comes to different conclusions). 

    I agree with your first point–that people often do things they enjoy for motivatioins other than money or rewards.  And I agree with Kohn that praising kids for everything is counterproductive.  (Most educators and researchers also agree, but stop short of Kohn’s conclusion that therefore all praise is bad. They support a middle ground, one of specific and selective praise that highlights efforts more than outcomes).

    What I don’t buy is that rewards suddenly make something you enjoy something you only do for the reward.  There are certain aspects of, say, doing something you enjoy in a job setting that make it less enjoyable–deadlines, for instance (and for some people.  Others thrive on the pressure).  But in those cases, it’s the stress, not the reward per se, that makes it less enjoyable. 

    Meanwhile, I know that sincere praise or appreciation for my efforts is very motivating for me.  I hardly think I’m unique in that respect.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t remember him being opposed to all praise, but praise and rewards aren’t necessarily the same thing.  (Though I do think that one can end up focused more on getting that praise again than on doing whatever it was one was doing.)

    I’d also say there’s a difference between doing something you enjoy in a job setting and doing something for a reward.  I realize this sounds odd, and I will try to explain.  I don’t know about you, but I spend next to no time at work thinking “I’m getting paid for this.”  I’m busy doing my job.  I did, briefly, work at a company that waved rewards all over the place.  To me it served as nothing but a constant reminder that I was selling my time (my life!) for money and I quickly decided it wasn’t worth it.

    I also find my current workplace’s yearly reward breakfast disgusting and would not accept any of my organizations awards if I were ever to be given one.  Which I won’t be, because like most work rewards, they’re popularity contests and dependent on having managers who are interested in participating in them – which means that people at one branch can get an award for doing the same damn thing people at another branch have been doing.  The few that aren’t reward people for going ridiculously above and beyond the call of duty.  I don’t believe organizations should ever encourage people to put in more than 40 hours a week or treat their job as their life.

    So, yeah, I already hated rewards before I ever read Kohn.  And his research matches how I feel. (Well, when it isn’t the opposite of how I react.)

  • Daughter

    @ depizan, when I thought more about it, I remembered that the Kohn book I read wasn’t Punished by Rewards, but Unconditional Parenting, a later book in which his philosophy might have become more extreme.  Because in UP, he clearly says that you shouldn’t ever praise your child.  As soon as you do, you’ve communicated that what you care about is the child’s performance, and you have ceased to love your child unconditionally.

    To be fair, he does say you should frequently say, “I love you,” and communicate other words of affection unconnected to the child’s behavior or deeds.

    In one chapter, he answers the question, “If I don’t praise my child, what do I say instead?” He has two answers: a) say nothing; or b) make observations and ask questions. So when your child runs over to you to show you a picture s/he has drawn, instead of gushing over it the way  parents are wont to do, you either just nod your head, or you say something like, “I see you colored the dog red.  Why did you choose that color?”

    I think the first one is terrible advice.  If you say nothing, your kid is going to think you don’t care about what s/he does at all–and it’s not much of a leap to thinking your parent doesn’t care about you, words of affection notwithstanding..  And while I think the observation/question is a good idea, if that’s all you ever say when your kid does something, I imagine that eventually your kid will interpret that as a form of criticism.  E.g., “why did you color the dog red?” is heard as “why didn’t you color it brown?” 

  • Anonymous

    Yeah, that does sound like a recipe for disaster. Oh dear.  Punished by Rewards was about schools and workplaces, which are vastly different animals than families.  Now, I do think that certain kinds of praise can be bad in families, but it’s less the praise itself* than that it’s coming from wanting your kids to do particular things rather than be themselves.  Parents should try to find a way to live their own dreams, not foist them on the next generation.

    *Unless we’re talking comparative praise. “Oh, you did so much better than your sister.”  No, just no.  Bad parent, no cookie.

  • Anonymous

    Yeah, that does sound like a recipe for disaster. Oh dear.  Punished by Rewards was about schools and workplaces, which are vastly different animals than families.  Now, I do think that certain kinds of praise can be bad in families, but it’s less the praise itself* than that it’s coming from wanting your kids to do particular things rather than be themselves.  Parents should try to find a way to live their own dreams, not foist them on the next generation.

    *Unless we’re talking comparative praise. “Oh, you did so much better than your sister.”  No, just no.  Bad parent, no cookie.

  • Barry

    Work is a means to an end, and that it.  There are good things and bad things about work, things that we hope to find in our work and things that we wish to avoid.  These are some simple are unprofound things in how I view work.

    Work is to keep us alive, and unless one is unable to perform some productive task in society there is no reason one should not work.  This means losing all bull crap excuses about some work not being fun or beneath my education level (I know there are exceptions to this).  I have a college degree but I’d clean toilets if it means my kids eat.

    Work should be enjoyable, but sometimes it’s not.  Life’s not fair, but don’t whine that your job sucks.  Find one you like or start your own business, it’s a benefit to living in a”free” society.

    Work isn’t the sum being of who we are, so those that are workaholics are missing the point of work as well, since work won’t fill the hole in your soul. 

    We often work for things we don’t need, and hence work harder than we need to.  Wealth corrupts but so does materialism and consumerism. 

  • Lori

      As soon as you do, you’ve communicated that what you care about is the child’s performance, and you have ceased to love your child unconditionally.  

    Bwah?

    This sounds like the worst stereotype of the kind of parenting that produces kids with bad behavior and no social skills. Praise and some form of lack thereof are generally the best ways to encourage good behavior and limit bad behavior. Even if you assume that unconditional parental love means having no opinion about your child’s behavior (which I think is ridiculous), the world isn’t going to love your kid unconditionally. 

    Also, responding to everything your kid does with questions seems both clinical and seriously annoying and saying “I love you” comes across as meaningless when it isn’t accompanied by other things that make the child feel loved. Like, say, telling them that their picture is cool. 

  • http://twitter.com/Chaltab Andy English

    Several things come to mind. First off, many people work very hard
    at things that bring them little or no money – hobbies, games, writing
    fan fiction, writing, period, art, etc.  Even if artists and writers may
    hope to make money, that’s mainly so they can quit their day
    job and have more time for writing or art.  If they lived in a communist
    paradise and didn’t have to work for a living, they’d still be merrily
    writing and arting.

    As a writer and gamer myself, I can attest that this is true to some degree. I will continue writing whether I ever make any money at it or not. At the same time, in such a supposed paradise, this hypothetical artist or writer might be producing works that nobody enjoys or wants, and thus becomes a freeloader, offering nothing to society and simply draining the resources that others have worked their asses off to provide. Even in a communist utopia, farm labor or running a public establishment like a restaurant would be hard and tiring work. Instead of resentment between the rich and the poor, you’d have a society full of resentment against those who are capable of working and don’t. In fact, that’s often the myth that working-and-middle-class Americans believe of people on welfare and thus the genesis of this resentment the far-right has stoked in so many otherwise decent people.


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