Money and the Meaning of Life
By Jacob Needleman.
Doubleday: New York, 1991.
321 pp. $20.00 (hardcover).

“Tether your camel, then talk of God,” goes the old desert saying. Perhaps you know people who could use that advice—people who are afraid of the marketplace and find it distasteful. They are uneasy with its compromises and distracted by its excesses. They disparage their “day job,” and, as a result, they do not roll well with the punches of the material world. Other people, actively involved in the marketplace, have rip-roaring careers; they seem to make a living with their left hand while they have fun with their right. And then there are those who say there are only two things worth making—money and a soul.

What is the right balance between the material and the spiritual? And how can the effort of making money support a spiritual effort? Jacob Needleman doesn’t present practical answers to these questions in Money and the Meaning of Life. Nor is the book a course on esoteric economics. But by exploring these questions, he presents insights into living a life engaged in a spiritual search while at the same time giving Caesar his due.

Needleman’s thesis is that “the chief representative of ‘life on earth,’ the world of birth and death, the world we are born to, but not necessarily to die in—that chief representative is now money.” He says we are two-natured, one part “under the sun,” living in the material world, one part “over the sun,” potentially living in the world of the spirit, and points out that coins with religious symbols on one side and temporal symbols on the other have long been used to remind people of these two realms.

For Needleman, “Human life has meaning in so far as we consciously and intentionally occupy two worlds at the same time.” Since money touches all we do, a life without an understanding of money can be a life in hell, yet being in harmony with money can reinforce a spiritual effort. The task is to keep the satisfaction of these material needs in perspective. As Needleman reminds us, humans must render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s, no more and no less.

Needleman illustrates his points with the tale of King Solomon’s impoverishment and return to the throne. He interweaves this legend with a story drawn from his own experience: an accountant, Alyssa, whose blue eyes were “meant to reflect the summer sky, not endless columns of numbers on tax forms,” and William Cordell III, a naive inheritor of sixty-five million dollars, who attended one of the author’s classes. With Needleman, these two people explore the meaning of gold, of gifts and giving, of the way in life, John Law and the creation of wealth through credit, knowledge itself, credit cards, Moses, Maimonides, and Max Weber on the relationship between Protestantism and capitalism.

Many of the views expressed are substantial in their own right, and by assembling these different voices in one place, Needleman gives the discussion a rich context. There’s something for everyone—though I might recommend the book especially to people whose camels are running riot and to those who are very good at making money but are starting to wonder about the meaning of life.

The problem, however, is that the book doesn’t really investigate money and transactions on the day-to-day level where most of us live most of the time. Needleman has done a lot of research on money, but I wish he had spent less time reading and more time doing deals.

For Needleman, the world of commerce seems slightly suspect and, after all his study, still somewhat foreign. For “news from the front” he goes to talk to a businessman friend, who speaks with a real authority about money and the meaning of life. He says “It may be necessary to have mastered the money game before one can see with certainty that the power of money over the human mind is limited and that there are things money cannot buy.”

This businessman seems to know what Needleman can only theorize about. He knows that money is a force, one of many in our lives. To understand it you can and indeed must study it. Look at the effort we spend on understanding other forces: years studying T’ai Chi, philosophy, or physics. Can you understand money without study and experience?

Getting an MBA is one starting point, but there are many others. Learn how to play with the force we call money and examine the powerful pull it has on our emotions. Try buying pork belly futures as an exercise in detachment. Sell your car or your home yourself, and make the experience a path to enlightenment.

Studying and making money is intellectually rigorous. And like any sustained effort, the process can be immensely emotionally nourishing. Maybe Needleman knows this. In the midst of his scholarship are doses of good common sense: “Give me an out-and-out materialist haunted by a secret vision of God to all the fantasists, fanatics, dreamers, and overintellectualized vagrants.” In the end, however, he calls on his friend the businessman to say why one might study money at all:

“Outer life can support the inner work when the demands of life are taken as a challenge to one’s attention, as a reminder that one needs to cultivate the question of who I am and what in this moment is devouring my attention, taking more of me than I need to give it. In this world we live in, nothing brings that challenge more often and more dependably than the adventure of money.”

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