The way we were: The super-rich

Extracts from memoirs and diaries
June 18, 2014

© Rex/Courtesy Everett Collection

In Table Talk, published posthumously in 1566, Martin Luther observes:

“Where great wealth is, there are also all manner of sins; for through wealth comes great pride, through pride, dissension, through dissension, wars, through wars, poverty, through poverty, great distress and misery. Therefore, they that are rich, must yield a strict and great account; for to whom much is given, of him much will be required... Wealth is the smallest thing on Earth, the least gift that God has bestowed on mankind. What is it in comparison with God’s Word—what, in comparison with corporal gifts, as beauty, health, etc?—nay, what is it to the gifts of the mind, as understanding, wisdom, etc? Yet men are so eager after it, that no labour, pain, or risk is regarded in the acquisition of riches. Wealth has in it neither material, formal, efficient, nor final cause, nor anything else that is good; therefore our Lord God commonly gives riches to those from who he withholds spiritual good.”

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu writes to her husband in 1714:

“I need not enlarge upon the advantages of money. Everything we see and everything we hear puts us in remembrance of it. If it was possible to restore liberty to your country by reducing yourself to a garret, I should be pleased to share so glorious a poverty with you, but as the world is and will be, ’tis a sort of duty to be rich, that it may be in one’s power to do good...

“The first necessary qualification for riches is impudence, and the second is impudence and the third, still, impudence. No modest man ever did or ever will make his fortune. Your friend Robert Walpole and all other examples of quick advancement have been remarkably impudent.”

Adam Smith writes in The Wealth of Nations, 1776:

“With the greater part of rich people, the chief enjoyment of riches consists in the parade of riches, which in their eye is never so complete as when they appear to possess those decisive marks of opulence which nobody can possess but themselves.”

In 1824, Walter Savage Landor writes in Imaginary Conversations:

“Now wherever there is excessive wealth, there is also in the train of it excessive poverty; as where the sun is brightest the shade is deepest. Many republics have stood for ages, while no citizen of them was in very great affluence, and while on the contrary most were very poor: but none hath stood long after many, or indeed a few, have grown inordinately wealthy. Riches cause poverty, then irritate, then corrupt it; so throughout their whole progress and action they are dangerous to the state.”

John Ruskin concludes Unto This Last, his 1860 meditations on the use of riches:

“I desire in closing the series of introductory papers to leave this one great fact clearly stated. THERE IS NO WEALTH BUT LIFE. Life, including all its powers of love and joy, of admiration. That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest number of happy and noble human beings; that man is richest who, having perfected the functions of his own life to the utmost, has also the widest helpful influence... by means of his possessions, over the lives of others.”

Andrew Carnegie went to America at 13 and created the largest iron and steel firm in the world. In 1868, aged 33, he wrote a memo to himself about his plans:

“I propose to take an income no greater than $50,000 per annum! Beyond this I need never earn, make no effort to increase my fortune, but spend the surplus each year for benevolent purposes! Let us cast aside business forever, except for others. Let us settle in Oxford and I shall get a thorough education, making the acquaintance of literary men... Man must have no idol and the amassing of wealth is one of the worst species of idolatry! No idol is more debasing than the worship of money! Whatever I engage in I must push inordinately; therefore I should be careful to choose that life which will be the most elevating in its character. To continue much longer overwhelmed by business cares and with most of my thoughts wholly upon the way to make more money in the shortest time, must degrade me beyond hope of permanent recovery. I will resign business at 35.”

In his final years, Carnegie’s net worth was $475m, but by the time of his death in 1919 he had donated all but $30m.

Sigmund Freud writes in 1908:

“The connections between the complexes of interest in money and of defecation, which seem so dissimilar, appear to be the most extensive of all… Wherever archaic modes of thought have predominated or persist—in the ancient civilisations, in myths, fairy-tales, and superstitions, in unconscious thinking, in dreams and in neuroses—money is brought into the most intimate relationship with dirt. We know that the gold which the devil gives his paramours turns into excrement after his departure, and the devil is certainly nothing else than the personification of the repressed unconscious instinctual life... Even according to ancient Babylonian doctrine, gold is ‘the faeces of Hell.’”