The Spirit of the Age

"Money is human happiness in the abstract; he who can no longer enjoy
happiness in the concrete devotes himself entirely to money."


The Lewis Lapham story, as recounted in his earlier books, Fortune's Child and Money and Class in America, is that of a rich boy who, having been exposed as a reporter to the lot of the poor, renounces the "authority of wealth" and turns his trenchant wit to leveling all its pretenses and privileges. The latter book, published in 1988, carried the subtitle Notes and Observations on Our Civil Religion, his point being that in America the pursuit of money had acquired an almost sacramental character. "Never in the history of the world," he wrote, "have so many people been so rich; never in the history of the world have so many of those same people felt themselves so poor."

A noble observation, and no one reading his books will doubt the degree of conviction Mr. Lapham brings to the subject of wealth and poverty. Equally clear, however, is his responsibility to provide some sort of direction for those whose empty lives he is attempting to illuminate. When Mother Teresa offers similar reflections on the poverty of great wealth, we know her answer to the problem—charity, self-renunciation, poverty of spirit. But Mr. Lapham's insistently secular...

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