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Where Economics, Philosophy, and Literature Meet

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Greed. Excess. Exploitation of natural resources. These are among the timely topics covered in Money Matters, a new book by Richard Gray. Yet the book’s focus is not contemporary America. It’s Germany in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. 

Richard Gray, Lockwood Professor in the Department  of Germanics

Richard Gray, Lockwood Professor in the Department 
of Germanics.

“It was the time of economic transformation from an agricultural to an industrial society—a transformation that was particularly precipitous in Germany,” says Gray, Byron W. and Alice L. Lockwood Professor in the Department of Germanics. “At the same time, there was a cultural and philosophical boom in Germany. From the beginning, literature and philosophy absorbed and dealt with economic ideas. The book explores how literature and philosophy engaged with the economics of the time, and how they informed each other.”

Gray offers the example of a movement to unify the German states around a common currency. At the time, each German state had its own metallic coins, with more than 70 currencies in circulation. Philosopher Johann Fichte and political economist Adam Müller independently proposed creating a symbolic currency—that is, paper money—to be used within the German states as a binding currency, to promote nationalism. The idea stalled due to Germans’ distrust of paper currency, but the interplay between economics and philosophy was established. 

Literature of the period also engaged economic issues. Heinrich Jung-Stilling’s popular 18th century autobiography, Lebensgeschichte (Life Story), describes how he borrowed money to attend the University of Strasbourg and study medicine. Jung-Stilling later pursued a career as an economist. “He presented the idea of advancing your station in society by borrowing against your future, with the belief that you will make more money later,” says Gray. “His book and his own social climb changed people’s views on the possibility of rising socially in society. It was the inception of the bourgeois mentality of making one’s life better by borrowing against future possibilities.” 


Jung-Stilling does not explore the pitfalls of overextending one’s credit, a scenario that has become all too familiar in the 21st century. But another author of the period, Adelbert von Chamisso, warns of the dangers of excess wealth in his book, Peter Schlemihl, one of the most popular German romantic tales. The title character trades his shadow to the devil for a magic purse that provides an infinite supply of gold. 

“What he learns is that infinite money is meaningless,” says Gray. “Money becomes meaningful when you have to make choices between having it or spending it. It’s a great lesson for today. It parallels a lot of excesses in the last two decades.”

More parallels are evident in Die Judenbuche by Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, a book that criticizes the cutting of forests for short-term gain. “As early as the 1840s, German literature was warning that the drive toward economic gain undermines the natural environment,” says Gray. 

All these examples provide insight into the major changes that occurred in German society in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

“Germany needed to have economic transformation before it could have these issues,” explains Gray. “With the growth of the middle class, there was a transformation from a world view based on notions of scarcity and need to one where people were aware of infinite creation of wealth and excess. And the literature of the period reflects this.

“Great literature has its hand on the pulse of the time and can express that time in a way that lasts—engaging people in that time and in the future. It teaches us things we could not understand otherwise.”