Wealth with Virtue: the Height of Happiness

Rows of spools of colorful thread, each row another color, in a rainbow gradient.

Today’s guest post is pretty unlike anything I’ve published before, but it really indulges my love for literature, for looking at the historical context of social issues, and for re-examining old concepts in a new light. I think you’re going to enjoy it. I’ll let Violet introduce themselves. You can read part 2 of this “Wealth with Virtue” series here

CN: discussion of him as stole the US Presidency; mention in passing of r*pe

wealth without virtue is no harmless neighbor
but a mixture of both attains the height of happiness

—Fragment 148, Psapphō, tr. Anne Carson in If Not, Winter

Sappho uses the word ὰρέτας—aretē—where Anne Carson says Sappho said ‘virtue’. [1] Both words are astonishingly broad in meaning; the Greek word usually connotes ‘excellence’, but since it—like the English word—is often used regarding morality, it’s probably safe to assume Sappho meant something like ‘kindness’ or ‘good character’.

In my religious tradition—a flavor of Hellenic polytheism; that is, I worship the many Gods of ancient Greece—the objective of life is aretē. And, well, money doesn’t buy happiness, but it sure does buy a roof for over your head and food for on your table and art for your enjoyment, which is sort of the same thing.

My [pen] name is Violet Carson. I’m a textile artist, a fiber crafter, an essayist, and a queer solarpunk witch. And you better believe I want that height of happiness.

Thus: wealth with virtue.

—which presents an immediately obvious problem in the present era, where we hear ‘wealthy’ and think of Jeff Bezos of Amazon, or Agent Orange sitting pretty in the elliptical office he’s absconded with. Which, well, I imagine Sappho couldn’t imagine that much purchasing power in the world. And frankly, you can’t either, nor I. Bezos’s net worth is somewhere upwards of one hundred seventy billion dollars; to put that in perspective, one hundred seventy thousand seconds is forty-seven hours and change. One hundred seventy million seconds is five years and four months, give or take some days. One hundred seventy billion seconds? Sappho lived in Archaic Greece, okay, like “archaic” is literally the scholarly name for the half-millennium encompassing her sixty years of life—and from her circa-630-BCE date of birth to today, it has been less than half of one hundred seventy billion seconds.

When Sappho said πλοῦτος—ploutos, wealth—she was so not talking about the net worth of Jeff Bezos.

In economic terms, “wealth” means anything that’s at least one of useful and sellable. This laptop? Wealth. My copy of If Not, Winter? Wealth. Combined purchase price of about $312, but still, wealth. When Sappho said ‘ploutos’, she meant all those things money can buy, like roof, food, and art, that make life livable—potentially happily so.

And, you know, Betsy DeVos’s fleet of forty-million-dollar yachts.

A bird's eye view of a large expanse of turquoise-blue water and a white yacht in the center which seems to take ownership of the entire expanse of water.

In related news, I bet Betsy DeVos is not a particularly happy person. Certainly the kids going without school lunch, and the adults working three jobs so they can afford to make the interest payments (never mind paying the principal) on their college loans, aren’t very happy with her.

Wealth in itself, I imagine Sappho would argue, is not inherently a thing to be avoided. However, wealth without virtue—wealth attained without kindness, wealth preserved without compassion—is. And as T. Thorn Coyle recently observed, both money and markets existed before the capitalist system that has enabled Jeff Bezos, Betsy DeVos, and Agent Orange to leech so much value out of the economy into their own personal pockets, and both money and markets exist separately from capitalism as well as within it, and—one hopes, and Coyle implies—both money and markets will continue to exist long after capitalism is dead and dust.

Further, Αγοραια—Agoraia, or in the masculine gender, Αγοραιος, Agoraios—is an epithet of one Deity I serve (Athena), two Whom I’m trying to get to know (Artemis and Hermes), and one Whom I skate nervously but respectfully around because He intimidates me (Zeus—Who is also well known as a just, kind, generous, hospitable, and above all good God, just in case you were thinking of all the r*pey retellings of His mythology). Athena Agoraia is Athena of the agora. That is, Athena of the place that was the heart of the ancient Greek city, much as the family hearth was the heart of the ancient Greek home. The agora was the open space for athletic contests and artistic displays, for certain religious rites and many political speeches, and—crucially, here—for the markets where artisans sold their wares. There’s nothing objectionable in the earning of wealth—but, as was prominently inscribed in the Temple of Apollōn at Delphi, μηδὲν ὰ́γαν: mēden agan; nothing in excess.

It must be noted that in Book XI of the Odyssey (translated here by Samuel Butler in 1900), the ghost of Achilles says to Odysseus, “I would rather be a paid servant in a poor man’s house and be above ground than king of kings among the dead.” I can find no way to interpret this line as anything but Achilles saying the best possible scenario while being dead is less desirable than the worst possible scenario while being alive—and Achilles lived in a society where a nontrivial fraction of people were enslaved, okay, he could have made the same poetic point by saying ‘slave’, and he said ‘paid servant’? Goddamn, paid labor for someone else’s enrichment must suck!

(Slavery in ancient Greece was not, I must observe, a whole lot like slavery in antebellum United States. But the point holds.)

Looking up at several grey pillars at the corner of an ancient greek style building.

So. Earning wealth is not in conflict with achieving aretē. How can it be, when no fewer than four Gods are Gods of the marketplace? But earning excessive wealth is, and working for someone else may not be but it’s not desirable either.

Let’s rewind a bit. I mentioned I’m solarpunk. (I’m also lunarpunk, but it’s hard to include both solarpunk and lunarpunk in a short snappy bio.) Solarpunk, like every punk movement, is countercultural. Like ecologies, it’s non-hierarchical. It’s cooperative and participatory, diverse and decentralized, inclusive and united. It’s practical and compassionate and above all hopeful.

As you might guess, it’s not very capitalist.

But there’s nothing about solarpunk that’s particularly opposed to money and markets. (The practicalities alone, in a barter-only system, of trying to get a coder new clothes when the clothing makers aren’t looking for someone to modify their online presence’s code means that if solarpunk lacked the concept of money, someone would be obliged to invent it.) Solarpunk is emphatically not in favor of paid labor for someone else’s enrichment, nor of one’s enriching oneself unduly, but that isn’t the same thing as not wanting money or markets.

Sure sounds like it’s in keeping with both the religious objective of seeking aretē and the driving principles of solarpunk to gain wealth (in moderation) with money and markets, doesn’t it?

A banner ad for Kella's Etsy shop demonstrating social justice themed products: A brown apron covered in little baking illustrations and the words "Bake the world a better place," a sticker with five colorful intersecting circles and the words "The future is intersectional", a pink mug with a pair of ice cream cones making the shape of a heart and the text "you could never be ice cream you're too hot and a person."

—You know, I’m a textile artist and a fiber crafter. And I’m currently possessed of an awful lot of free time. (Bother that whole “employment” thing anyway.)

Why don’t I start a business?

Hi, I’m Violet Carson. This is the first post in my blog post series wealth without virtue, about confronting capitalism on what it considers its own ground. About my life as a textile artist and fibercrafter, disabled feminist and neurodivergent queer witch, and aspiring businessperson. About engaging in marketing, trade, and the exchange of money for goods and services, without violating ethical constraints or behaving in unsustainable ways, and with transferring power and resources from those who economically benefit from white supremacy to the Indigenous and African-diaspora people from whom white people have historically stolen power and resources for white economic benefit. About converting resources from capitalist use to use more in line with my understanding of aretē and with (more broadly held) solarpunk ideals. About how my life and these principles intersect and interplay in the arena of the agora.

Kella of Yopp! is kindly hosting the first two posts in this series as guest posts; they and subsequent posts shall be found on Lunisolarpunk Witch.

Thanks for joining me on this journey.

[1] Well, it’s aretē if allowing for the differences between Lesbian Aeolic genitive-case nouns and Attic nominative-case nouns; the latter are far more commonly used than the former when English-speaking writers who know a little ancient Greek want to be precise or pretentious.

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