I was looking for something to read while I take a break from slacking and I chanced upon some old stuff on Kwang Guan’s Blog. It was dated July so I guess it’s real old given the temporal contraction we are currently experiencing because of the A Levels. And apparently, it kind of interest me in the typical way – it made me feel like disagreeing with the mainstream interpretation. I shall quote the story here, directly (Ctrl+C, Ctrl-V)-ed from KG’s blog.
A saint was praying silently. A wealthy merchant, observing the saint’s devotion and sincerity, was deeply touched by him. The merchant offered the saint a bag of gold. “I know that you will use the money for God’s sake. Please take it.”
“Just a moment.” The saint replied. “I’m not sure if it is lawful for me to take your money. Are you a wealthy man? Do you have more money at home?”
“Oh yes. I have at least one thousand gold pieces at home,” claimed the merchant proudly.
“Do you want a thousand gold pieces more? Asked the saint.
“Why not, of course yes. Every day I work hard to earn more money.”
“And do you wish for yet a thousand gold pieces more beyond that?”
“Certainly. Every day I pray that I may earn more and more money.”
The saint pushed the bag of gold back to the merchant. “I am sorry, but I cannot take your gold,” he said. “A wealthy man cannot take money from a beggar.”
“How can you call yourself a wealthy man and me a beggar?” the merchant spluttered.
The saint replied, “I am a wealthy man because I am content with whatever God sends me. You are a beggar, because no matter how much you possess, you are always dissatisfied, and always begging God for more.”
Kwang Guan’s motivation for quoting the story will not be addressed here but I would to urge everyone to see beyond the surface of the story and think about the dynamics underlying the society that is being highlighted in the short story here. I agree with the saint that he’s wealthy (spiritual wealth) and that merchant is a beggar. But that is all the compliment I have for the saint in this story. I praise the merchant for the fact that he said “I know that you will use the money for God’s sake.” and that he also mentioned “Every day I work hard to earn more money.” While greed is not a virtue in itself, self-interest of individuals is the virtue of a society. Only the aim to serve thyself can provide a consistent justification for all actions. The merchant in the story is a devout as well, for he believes that his wealth can be put into use for God’s sake and is rightly so. He works hard for his money and I believe he prays only that God would guide him towards goodness in his desire to amass greater wealth.
From the merchant’s perspective, serving himself is the justification for everything and it presents a logical framework for us to look into the actions of the merchant. He loves God, and he hopes to show his love through contributing his wealth to God’s cause and he expresses his gratitude towards God’s blessings through his devotion to prayers and his attempt to give the saint a portion of his wealth. He is cultivating his soul and preparing for some sort of ascent to heaven for an eternal life may he be chosen by God to join Him someday. He believes wholeheartedly in the saint’s devotion and works hard to amass the wealth that he seeks. The merchant enjoys physical, mental and spiritual fulfillment.
The saint’s perspective, on the other hand, is highly inconsistent and narrow-minded. It is illogical and only allows people to concur with him from a single dimension and even so, with much reluctance. The saint questions “I’m not sure if it is lawful for me to take your money. Are you a wealthy man? Do you have more money at home?”, setting down the premise that the saint is attempting to gauge whether the wealth (taking the form of gold) that the merchant have would sustain the rich guy such that the saint is not raising his welfare in the expense of the merchant’s. This premise is violated at the moment when the saint exclaims that “I am a wealthy man because I am content with whatever God sends me. You are a beggar, because no matter how much you possess, you are always dissatisfied, and always begging God for more.” The double standards (different meanings) applied to ‘wealthy man’ and ‘beggar’ makes the stand of the saint extremely inconsistent and injects a sense of queasiness in me. The saint seems to imply that asking God for more is wrong, but he disregards the fact that the merchant asked for more, so that he can do more for God (as exemplified by the fact that he was trying to give the saint some money).
From an economic perspective, the saint is not achieving allocative efficiency as he’s sacrificing overall social welfare when he chose not to accept the gold from the merchant – he’s not behaving rationally (which is kind of expected). By accepting the gold, he gains wealth that can be translated further into devotion to God by renovating churches, traveling to more places to preach and helping the poor; at the same time the merchant attains satisfaction from expressing his devotion to God and probably spiritual enlightenment from the process of sharing the fruits of his labour. The only dimension we can take to agree with the saint’s act is his lack of desire for worldly possessions and his contentment with all that he possesses. I mentioned we agree with him reluctantly because of the curiosity he displayed when he was first presented with the offer, probing into the wealth that the merchant possesses rather than to reject the gold outright.
I am sorry I have rendered the story with such negative light that we don’t seem to be able to draw any moral conclusions from the story anymore because of the inconsistencies. I would also like to apologize for taking the opportunity to advance my free-market ideas, but I just can’t help it when I observe the inadequacies in logical reasoning that most possess in day to day affairs. Hope this entry has enlightened some.