December 9, 2022
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
As we enter the season of Scrooge, I couldn’t resist a comparison of Molière’s The Miser with David Hume’s musings on wealth. In A Treatise of Human Nature, published in 1740, David Hume explains that wealth provides humans with a unique sort of pleasure. He also notes that money involves both pleasure and power, an interaction which he then analyzes.
In Book Two, Part I, section X, “Of property and riches,” Hume explains that, in most cases, pleasure is derived from a direct correlation with usage. So, pleasure needs to be experienced. Pleasure depends more upon the self than whether or not it is mutually experienced. This is one difference between power and pleasure. Hume continues that, generally speaking, humans derive pleasure from something that is actual or enacted. On the other hand, if we enjoy power it is because we believe ourselves to be in the powerful position, often demonstrated by a public occurrence. He writes, “[T]hat power has always a reference to its exercise, either actual or probable, and that we consider a person as endow’d with any ability when we find from past experience, that ‘tis probable, or at least possible he may exert it.” In other words, power participates with belief, regardless of whether or not it is demonstrated, though it may require some element of a public nature. Pleasure, on the other hand, mostly derives from direct usage. The mere thought of pleasure rarely results in pleasure itself.
Hume notes that instances of money or property inspire a sense of both power and pleasure. As a result, wealth may bring thoughts of pleasure without any actual transaction. Hume clarifies, “A miser receives delight from his money; that is, from the power it affords him of procuring all the pleasures and conveniences of life, tho’ he knows he has enjoy’d his riches for forty years without ever employing them; and consequently cannot conclude by any species of reasoning, that the real existence of these pleasures is nearer, than if he were entirely depriv’d of all his possessions. But tho’ he cannot form any such conclusion in a way of reasoning concerning the nearer approach of the pleasure, ‘tis certain he imagines it to approach nearer, whenever all external obstacles are remov’d, along with the more powerful motives of interest and danger, which oppose it.” Hume makes it sound as if the pleasure that attends money in the hands of a miser is one of imaginary appeal. Since the miser has not spent any money and has gained no tangible change in status other than a pile of paper and coins, it is only in the imagination that the miser becomes happy. Their life has changed only in thought. If the expected pleasures that can be derived from money are purely imaginary, then wealth does not need to be demonstrated or experienced. The imagined money, however, allows for significant increases in power, comfort, and ease, though in the case of the miser, none of these change except thoughts of power, comfort, and ease.
Near the conclusion of this section, Hume writes: “The very essence of riches consists in the power of procuring the pleasures and conveniences of life. The very essence of this consists in the probability of its exercise, and in its causing us to anticipate, by a true or false reasoning, the real existence of the pleasure. This anticipation of pleasure is, in itself, a very considerable pleasure; and its cause is some possession or property, which we enjoy, and which is thereby related to us….” So, we imagine that our accruing wealth, whether it truly represents wealth or not, makes us more powerful. The thought of possession, while not necessarily public, causes pride and satisfaction in a unique way, different from other pleasures. Contrast the pleasure of hidden wealth with something like a delicious meal. One cannot gain satisfaction from food unless it is consumed. Pleasure exists in the experience.
The French playwright Molière found humor in the way that a miser gains pleasure without ever experiencing pleasure. First performed in 1669, The Miser depicts a father desperate to guard his treasure. In fact, he worries more about his money than his own children. In this slapstic, satiric demonstration of one of human nature’s many faults, the father, Harpagon, constantly interjects comments about his money, to the point of paranoia and absurdity. In the end of the play, Harpagon must choose between marrying a beautiful, young woman named Mariane, who he desires, and his money. When given the choice between marriage and his own money, his first response is to know whether any of his money is missing. In other words, money possesses his thoughts with far greater command than young, sweet Mariane.
In another instance, Harpagon speaks with an associate who offers to introduce him to Mariane. Harpagon eagerly agrees to meet her. Yet, when the associate asks for financial help, Harpagon turns a deaf ear. He literally only responds to the parts of the conversation which benefit him, ignoring all other comments. His self-serving, narcissistic behaviors, while funny, are also entirely rude. It is interesting to ponder why this character makes us laugh? Do we, at least in part, identify with his obsessions, desires, greed, or paranoia?
To cap it off, Molière creates an entire scene with one line, read by Harpagon. Act II, Scene Three, reads: “Wait a minute, I’ll be back to talk to you. [aside] It’s time for me to make a visit to my money.” Spoken directly to the audience, this line underscores his desperate need to verify his hidden accounts. Harpagon receives some kind of satisfaction from the thought of his money which he never spends. Throughout the play, everyone mentions his frugal nature. Harpagon prefers to covet money, which offers us a sarcastic portrayal of the complicated nature of riches as described by David Hume.
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