I have just finished Michel de Montaigne’s essay That the taste of good and evil depends in large part on the opinion we have of them. (clunky Google Books version here.) Montaigne sets out to show that “what we call evil is not evil in itself–or at least, whatever it is, that it depends on us to give it a different savor and a different complexion.” He examines three topics in the essay. The first is death. He notes that many people are willing accept death, writing, “Most philosophers have either deliberately anticipated or hastened and abetted their own death.” He also provides some examples of literally gallows humor, to show commoners are also capable of not fearing or respecting looming death. Next, he turns to pain and provides a similar list of people famously enduring pain. For example, he explains that “[a] simple Spartan boy, after stealing a fox and putting it under his cape, endured its gnawing his stomach rather that betray himself [as a thief].” After this we get what is the primary thesis, I think.
That our opinion gives value to things is seen by many things that we do not think about even to appraise them, preferring to think about ourselves instead. We consider neither their qualities nor their uses, but only the cost to us of getting them, as if it were some part of their substance; and we call value in them not what they bring, but what we bring to them. At which point I note that we are great economizers of our expenditure. According as it weights, it serves by the fact that it weighs. Our opinion never lets it run at a false valuation. Purchase gives value to the diamond, and difficulty to virtue, and pain to piety, and harshness to medicine.
Montaigne then concludes his point by examining should be a positive, wealth. Ironically, he explains, just as pain does not always lead to suffering, wealth does not always lead to pleasure. Or as he writes, “In truth, it is not want, but rather abundance, that breeds avarice.” Or as Paul writes in his letter to Timothy, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” 1 Tim. 6:10. Or as Jesus told his disciples after the rich man could not give up his wealth, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
Or, as Robert Reich explains in this video, greed is killing the American economy.