Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Ultimate and Penultimate Currencies

Note: I started writing this in January 2010, and apparently put it away for some time. The basic theorem is an idea that has stayed with me and that I think on not infrequently. I actually thought I had published it here already. Oops.

In reading Cardinal Ratzinger's Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life on the evolution through salvation history of the notion of our reward from our Creator, a point that I've been mulling for some time struck me powerfully. As everyone knows and as is well attested in the pages of Sacred Scripture, the earlier conception of our reward was long life and worldly prosperity. Many are the Patriarchs given their farewell encomium by cataloging the preternatural number of their years before their passing, their great worldly wealth, and their long and lasting memory in their many descendants.

The Single Penultimate Currency Theorem

As I mentioned in my previous post, our concern for ourselves, our well being centers primarily on our bodily existence. All other wealth (jobs, money, possessions, children; even to some extent honor or reputation and education) is wealth to the extent that it succors our bodily existence. Hence, all good boils down to a single "currency"—our lives.

Yet it is also apparent to those who take the time to reflect on life and its meaning, that this life is not everything. The most evident manifestation of this truth is that this life ends. What payment does one receive at the end of life? It is all the same. And when one is dead, how does a happy memory profit the deceased? He is clearly beyond caring. And to top it off, this condition last far longer than one's life.

People can use whatever evil means they can to acquire the wealth that enhances and preserves life. But is a dishonest life truly worth living? People with integrity, who are truly worthy of respect, will say "no." But what good can we cite that would be worth living and dying without the goods of this life as long as one keeps one's honesty? One doesn't have to name it to recognize it must exist if justice is to prevail and goodness and happiness go together (NB: for many ancient philosophers, virtue was its own reward, so it needn't be eternal life). So, there must be another currency, one that is more ultimate than our corporeal existence.

Life is a currency, but it is thus only the penultimate currency.

Two Antepenultimate Currencies

But there are more immediate currencies (goods that humans work for) that become evident when we reflect on the sterotypical differences between what motivates men and women. Men tend to work for outward recognition, things like status, honor, and money. Women tend to work for love and personal connection. It's almost as if the “masculine” world of “achievement” and the caregiving world were two independent economies. (I think this is the reason caregiving is so poorly remunerated: the true currency here is not money.)

They aren’t truly independent of course. In truth these two economies are interlocking, two sides of support for human existence. Traditionally the masculine economy is seen as bigger and more important: naively it seems to provide the context for the caring economy, but really the two provide the context for each other. It’s been the Christian genius to reveal how the caring economy is in many fundamental ways more important; it is closer to the ultimate currency (according to Christian lights), without being identical to it of course.

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