What do we owe the world?

The following passages are from DEBT: the First 5,000 Years by David Graeber.  

We owe our existence above all:

  • To the universe, cosmic forces, as we would put it now, to Nature.  The ground of our existence.  To be repaid through ritual: ritual becoming an act of respect and recognition to all that beside we are small.
  • To those who have created the knowledge and cultural accomplishments that we value most; that give our existence its form, its meaning, but also its shape.  Here we would include not only the philosophers and scientists who created our intellectual tradition but everyone from William Shakespeare to that long-since-forgotten woman, somewhere in the Middle East, who created leavened bread.  We repay them by becoming learned ourselves and contributing to human knowledge and human culture.
  • To our parents, and their parents—our ancestors.  We repay them by becoming ancestors.
  • To humanity as a whole.  We repay them by generosity to strangers, by maintaining that basic communistic ground of sociality that makes human relations, and hence human life, possible.

… … These are nothing like commercial debts.  After all, one might repay one’s parents by having children, but one is not generally thought to have repaid one’s creditors if one lends the cash to someone else.

Myself, I wonder:  Couldn’t that really be the point?  Perhaps what the authors of the Brahamanas were really demonstrating was that, in the final analysis, our relation with the cosmos is ultimately nothing like a commercial transaction, nor could it be.  That is because commercial transactions imply both equality and separation.  These examples are all about overcoming separation: you are free from your debt to your ancestors when you become an ancestor; you are free from your debt to the sages when you become a sage; you are free from your debt to humanity when you act with humanity.

All the more so if one is speaking of the universe.  If you cannot bargain with the gods because the gods already have everything, then you certainly cannot bargain with the universe because the universe already is everything—and that everything necessarily includes yourself. 

One could interpret this list as a subtle way of saying that the only way of “freeing oneself” from the debt was not literally repaying debts, but rather showing that these debts do not exist because one is not in fact separate to begin with, and hence the very notion of canceling the debt, and achieving a separate, autonomous existence, was ridiculous from the start.

§§§

Solitary pleasures will always exist, but for most human beings, the most pleasurable activities always involve sharing something: music, food, liquor, drugs, gossip, drama, beds.  There is a certain communism of the senses at the root of most things we consider fun.

§§§

… the Church had been … uncompromising in its attitude toward usury.  It was not just a philosophical question; it was a matter of moral rivalry.  

Money always has the potential to become a moral imperative unto itself.  Allow it to expand, and it can quickly become a morality so imperative that all others seem frivolous in comparison.  For the debtor, the world is reduced to a collection of potential dangers, potential tools, and potential merchandise.  Even human relations become a matter of cost-benefit calculation.

Exactly so!

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