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Angels or Apes: The Spirituality of Commerce

All human activities can be located somewhere along a spectrum that is anchored at one end by spirituality, and at the other by physicality. Praying is near the spiritual end; reading and writing, composing music and making tools are its neighbors. As the source of both great sensual pleasure and also of all new life, sex might be somewhere near mid-spectrum, while eating and all other bodily functions belong over toward the physical end. Where do commercial transactions fit? When a man exchanges coins in his pocket for goods he desires, is he performing a physical act or a spiritual one?

One way of identifying a spiritual act is by determining whether a chimpanzee would understand the action. When I return home from work and slump into a comfortable armchair, my pet primate undoubtedly sympathizes. As I move to the dinner table and begin eating, he certainly knows what is going on. When I open a newspaper, however, and hold it motionless before my face for twenty minutes he becomes quite confused.

Another criterion for the spiritual is whether the action can be replicated by a machine. If a human soul is indispensable for a certain process, that process is at least partially spiritual. Only a human soul can compose music that inspires men to march to war or brings a lump to the throat. No machine exhibits loyalty or can even test whether an individual possesses that quality, therefore loyalty is another spiritual characteristic.

These tests suggest that a business transaction is more spiritual than physical. A chimpanzee would not have the slightest idea of what is transpiring between proprietor and customer at the counter of a store. Neither do machines exist that can independently effect transactions nor can they even predict whether a customer will buy something or for how much. Economic exchange takes place only after two thinking human beings will it. The process is spiritual.

It is important to analyze actions because we human beings are always slightly uneasy about pursuits so physical that they have no spiritual overtones at all. When necessary, we superimpose spirituality precisely to avoid being exclusively physical and thus animal-like. We apply ceremony and ritual to virtually all activities performed by both people and animals. Only people read a book or listen to music, hence these activities require no associated ritual. On the other hand, all living creatures eat, engage in sexual activity, give birth, and die. If we do not confer a uniquely human ritual upon these functions, we reduce the distinction between ourselves and the animal kingdom. Therefore, we celebrate the birth of a child, often by a naming ceremony; no animal does that. Even if our hands are quite clean, we wash them before eating rather than after, like a cat. We prefer to serve food in dishes on a tablecloth rather than straight out of the can, although the physical, nutritional qualities have not been enhanced. We even say a grace or a benediction. This is a human, spiritual way to eat; a dog is quite content to gobble his meal from the can. After encountering an attractive potential partner, people do not proceed directly to physical intimacy. An engagement announcement followed by a marriage ceremony serves that all important distinction; no animal announces its intention to mate and then defers gratification for three months while it calmly prepares its wedding and future home.

The more physical the activity, the more awkwardness and subconscious embarrassment surround it. Nudism is practiced with a certain bravado in order to conceal the underlying tension. Famous photographer Richard Avedon shattered a barrier by capturing images of people as they ate. Frozen in the act of chewing, humans resemble apes rather than angels. Our mothers, themselves raised in America’s Judeo-Christian tradition, taught us never to eat in public. Similarly, we express a normal and healthy reticence about bathroom activities. On the other hand, as purely spiritual occupations, reading and art evoke no discomfort. Neither should buying and selling. Economic activity is another way in which we satisfyingly distance ourselves from the animal kingdom and draw closer to God.

Revealing his own brand of genius in Paradise Lost, John Milton etched the Bible’s centrality in man’s literary consciousness. He reflected everyone’s subconscious awareness that the opening chapters of the Bible focus on the eternal tug-of-war for man’s soul between the angels and the apes. There is a Titanic struggle between the Divine aspirations of a person’s nobility and his basest indulgences. Whom would Adam obey, God or the serpent personification of the animal kingdom? After thousands of years of human history, the lingering memory of that tussle still resonates in the human soul. All heirs to the Judeo-Christian tradition feel the need to distinguish themselves from animals and to unequivocally demonstrate who won that primeval conflict. Seizing another’s property by force is animalistic and a victory for the serpent, purchasing it voluntarily for the price set by the seller finds favor in God’s eyes.

That relationship between currency and God’s favor springs from the Bible and the Hebrew language itself. In the language that William Bradford, second governor of the Plymouth Colony, described as “the holy tongue in which the Law and oracles of God were writ; and in which God and angels spake to the holy patriarchs of old time,” the word for God’s favor is “cheyn.” This world is not only the etymological origin for the English words “coin” and “gain” but also for the Chinese word for coin, “ch‘ien” and similar words in many other languages. That same word meaning God’s favor is also used as the root of the Hebrew word for store or shop as well as for a market based economy. A store or market is one of the few places in which people interact voluntarily, leaving each party happier than he was before. Even Ayn Rand observed that when extracting specific performance from people, the only alternative to a gun is money. No wonder then that God smiles upon the marketplace. Freedom from tyranny is a necessary precondition for both worship and trade.

One of the Hebrew words for a businessman is “ohmein” which means “man of faith” and shares the same root with the liturgical “amen.” With no verifiable information that he will be successful selling his wares, the merchant nonetheless purchases inventory. He then delights in selling out his entire inventory, even vital commodities like food or clothing, in exchange for little metal discs. Instead of despair at how he will now feed and clothe his children, he has complete faith that whenever he wishes, there will be someone who will gladly sell him food or anything else he may need for those very metal discs. It is that faith which converts metal discs and printed paper into money. Were he to trade on the basis of doubt and suspicion, he would contract no business at all. It is chiefly his faith that makes possible his profits.

It is therefore not surprising that economics used to be a field of study that belonged with religion and theology. Adam Smith, as well as many other 18th century economists, were religious philosophers before they were economists. Smith wrote Theory of Moral Sentiments before he wrote Wealth of Nations. When the great universities moved the study of economics from their religious departments to their science departments they were actually driving a wedge between capitalism and the moral arguments and spiritual dimensions that underpin its validity. Faith is the fuel that drives both commerce and religion.

It is difficult for a successful businessman to remain self-centered. It is precisely a preoccupation with the needs of others that characterizes the entrepreneur. Concern for customers is the hallmark of a business professional. His employees are his most valuable asset, and he needs to attend to their welfare. Recognizing them as spiritual beings with their own divine aspirations, he must not only endeavor to compensate them fairly, but also to help them find transcendent meaning in their work. Jewish law prohibits an employer from instructing his worker to perform meaningless work. For example, he may not hire the worker to dig a hole one day, fill it the next, and thereafter repeatedly dig and refill it. This prohibition applies no matter how generous the pay may be, because it leaves the worker with no sense of accomplishment and therefore, no sense of the value of his contribution. The businessman whose own selfish wants and needs constantly fill his mind is doomed. Thus, both business and religion discourage selfish and narcissistic behavior.

Establishing that a close relationship exists between God and the marketplace helps us in three crucial areas. Firstly it helps to explain why atheism and business are not natural allies. One would have supposed that a philosophy of secular humanism, recognizing no authority and sanctioning all behavior, would be naturally drawn to the world of money and power. One would have expected the political left to excuse what it calls the “greed” of capitalism and to recognize it as nothing other than Darwinian law applied to the life of modern man. Yet, this is not possible; something as truly spiritual as commerce simply cannot coexist with socialism. The atheist himself recognizes that to be true to his credo, he must reject the free market because of its godliness.

Secondly, it helps us integrate our career into our life instead of regarding those daily eight or ten hours as a faintly distasteful and isolated part of life.

“Business is business” cannot serve as a convenient explanation for moral departures in the marketplace, because business is really tied to life by overall spiritual awareness. Immorality in business is as repugnant as immorality in marriage. Business success is actually secondary to our private relationship with God. It is precisely that relationship that makes sense of everything else.

Finally, recognizing the congruence between work and spiritual reality, the business professional is all the better able to sell himself and his product. His work is creative and therefore a legitimate way of emulating God and his infinite creativity. Anyone with a sneaking conviction that socialism has a point–that man and his abilities are as finite as the economic pie and that he who brings that pie to the market and slices it for customers exploits both the baker and the public–is forever handicapped as a businessman. Nobody throws himself wholeheartedly into an endeavor he secretly considers demeaning and unworthy. The difference between the animal instinct of a squirrel gathering nuts and the inherent nobility of a human being earning a living becomes clear when you perceive economic enterprise in its correct position, at the spiritual end of the spectrum.