Few people in our materialistic and avaricious age would consider making money a moral issue. Isn’t it merely one of the bare necessities of life? We speak of a “healthy profit” but nobody speaks about an unhealthy profit. To do so would be absurd, wouldn’t it?

Not if you listen to some of the great philosophers. Aristotle, for instance, differentiated between oikonomia and khrematisike.

Oikonomia (economics) is the useful and beneficial use of money as related to the natural process of producing and exchanging goods. Khrematisike (chrematistics) is the unnatural art of money begetting money including mechanisms such as speculation and debt.

Whereas, etymologically, oikonomia (economics) derives from oikos (house) and nomos (law), i.e. the laws of the house or home, or simply “housekeeping”, khrematisike (chrematistics), according to the pre-Socratic philosopher, Thales of Miletus, simply means the art of making money. Aristotle reserved particular scorn for usury, the aspect of chrematistics which was, he wrote, “the most hated [means of earning income], and with great reason”.  

French philosopher Jaques Derrida describes Aristotle’s distinction in the following terms: “For Aristotle, it is a matter of an ideal and desirable limit, a limit between the limited and the unlimited, between the true and finite good (the economic) and the illusory and indefinite good (the chrematistic).”

Another French thinker, Alexis de Tocqueville, upon journeying to America in the nineteenth century, hinted at the consequences of blurring the distinction between economics and chrematistics in his description of life in the United States: “The Americans cleave to the things of this world as if assured that they will never die, and yet are in such a rush to snatch any that come within their reach, as if expecting to stop living before they have relished them. They clutch everything but hold nothing fast, and so lose grip as they hurry after some new delight.”

Aristotle’s distinction is one which has always been at the heart of Christian social teaching and is most often expressed in the Church’s condemnation of usury, the unnatural breeding of barren metal (to borrow a phrase from Shakespeare). Aquinas discusses this and Shakespeare alludes to it in the powerful subplot of The Merchant of Venice, highlighting the tensions between Antonio’s and Shylock’s respective approach to economics, in which the former can be seen as a practitioner of healthy “economics”, whereas the latter indulges in the unhealthy art of chrematistics. (Those who reduce the relationship between Antonio and Shylock to the level of base racism have quite literally lost Shakespeare’s plot.)

The main legacy of usury/chrematistics is that we have a debt-laden economy which must continue to expand exponentially in order to service its debt. Clearly we cannot have continued and accelerating exponential growth with finite resources, which is a polite way of saying that we are accelerating towards an unsustainable future.

Returning to our original questions, we can answer that profit can most certainly be a loss. We can also say that when finance clashes with philosophy, it is better to listen to the good philosopher than the avaricious businessman who doesn’t know the difference between good housekeeping and destructive avarice. In the final analysis, money, like most things, is a moral issue.