Daily Archives: May 29, 2015


Is it wrong to want more money? To accumulate wealth? To use money to get money? To stand passing along wealth and, with each stack of bills you hand over, taking one as a transaction fee?

Different people have, and have had, different views on this. Aristotle opposed the accumulation of wealth for its own sake; he viewed usury, brokerage, and even retailing as reprehensible. The Catholic Church opposed it for a long time too (even during eras when it was notably good at it). But having more money is very appealing, and those who have found ways of making their pies higher can also find ways of justifying doing so. It is a sign of skill! It motivates! It helps stimulate the economy! It provides necessary services! Et cetera.

And it is a short step from that to the idea that accumulation of wealth is a sign of virtue, even evidence of blessing. If you have found a way to divert some of the stream of money to your own pocket, and you thereby rise to the top – of the heap, of the opportunity ladder, of the luxury availability scale – you must be the cream.

Which makes chrematistics the math and statistics of the crema, the crème, the cream. Chrematistics is the “art of getting rich” (per Thales of Miletus), and chrematistic means (per Oxford) “Of, pertaining to, or engaged in the acquisition of wealth.” James Frederick Ferrier, in Lectures on Greek Philosophy, wrote of “The chrematistic class, from χρήματα, the Greek for money or wealth, this being the end which they aim at.”

To be more exact, the term traces back to χρῆμα khréma, which my Pocket Oxford Classical Greek Dictionary defines as “a thing, matter, business; piece, copy; fact; enterprise; amount, money; pl [χρήματα] goods, money, power.” It in turn belongs to a set of verbs and nouns relating to necessity; χρή khré, for instance, means “it is necessary.”

So riches are needful things. Goods, money, power: all these are wealth. The necessities – bare or otherwise. It is necessarily so, in this view. You can’t butter your bread without cream to make the butter! (The word cream does not come from this, though – it comes, by way of French, from chrism, the oil that is used for anointing, which Latin took from Greek; it is a coincidence, happy or otherwise, that if you are chrematistically endowed or fortunate, you may seem to be among the anointed.)

We may wonder whether, in fact, it is necessarily so, and may protest that it ain’t – that diverting the flow of value into accumulated deposits is like building up fat. True, every body has some fat. But too great a buildup can have negative consequences, and at any rate it’s energy that’s not being used.

For most of us, though, the philosophy and ethics of chrematistics are matters of abstract argument but not likely to change much in real life. We really want to know how. How do you get more money, anyway? Will charm be the right match-maker? Connections? Luck, wiles, sociopathy? It can’t hurt to be charismatic. We know that it has at best a loose connection with level of effort; a person may slave away twelve hours a day at a menial and exhausting job and make in a year what another person makes in half a minute with a stroke of a pen. This contest seems to have unfair handicaps, and you can’t blame many people for wanting a rematch.

The outcomes of experiments in communism at various scales have indicated that you can’t eliminate chrematistics from society altogether. Anyway, nearly everyone has some chrematistic bent, because having money is a very agreeable thing. The question is more whether there isn’t some point at which is becomes truly disordered, even morbid – and, if so, where that point is and how to keep societal chrematistics within functional bounds.

At the very least, though, we could recognize chrematistic skill as a skill like many others (musical, intellectual, et cetera), not intrinsically more virtuous, just more remunerative. Your magnetism for chremata doesn’t make you crema. It just makes you richer in what we think of as the necessities – and the luxuries.