Funny Money, Or: The Pleasures of Efficiency

Was Epicurus right? Are the best pleasures efficient ones?

Posted Jul 01, 2009

Some months back, PT bloggers were asked to comment on their relationship with money, with a special focus on any quirks we have. This is a more personal perspective than many of us take in our blogs, but still interesting and worthwhile. I hope you like it.

At the same time, costly indulgences were shameful, and well-off relatives who were prideful or possessive of their money were pariahs. There was no greater insult than to say of a relative, "They drank champagne through the Depression." It was a denunciation occasionally whispered with great seriousness at family gatherings, and it always meant that a wealthy family member had turned away a shamed relative who needed help. Wealth could be explained by luck; not sharing some small portion of it when asked (which was never done lightly) was an inexplicable and unforgiveable affront to good fortune.

The pleasures of efficiency shaped all of our activities. After a day of fishing at the Jersey shore, we would grill the catch and then fertilize our petunias and tomatoes by planting the fish heads beneath them. And in our modest neighborhood, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, and masons traded skills, converting everyone's carport into an additional room or two, for just the cost of materials.

I still want to trade skills but it is a lost norm. And though I have left behind the income bracket of my youth, when we use a dollar's worth of ingredients to feed our family a homemade black bean stew or pizza, I still think, happily, that this is how we will afford college for our children.

There is wisdom in cultivating inexpensive and functional tastes. As Epicurus held, such simple pleasures are not easily lost.

J.D. Trout is a professor of philosophy at the Loyola University of Chicago, and his book, The Empathy Gap: Building Bridges to the Good Life and the Good Society, recently appeared with Viking/Penguin.