Friday, November 23, 2012

Income without work

I've been reading Hannah Arendt's introduction to Walter Benjamin's Illuminations, and while some of it is a little dry and academic for my taste, there is no doubt that Benjamin was a fascinating figure. Particularly interesting to me is his attitude towards money, which was one of almost aristocratic self-entitlement. Arendt traces this back to "the ancient Jewish believe that those who 'learn'...were the true elite of the people and should not be bothered with so vulgar an occupation as making money or working for it." Benjamin saw himself as a kind of "man of letters," one who, surrounded by books, was neither "obliged nor willing to write and read professionally, in order to earn a living. Unlike the class of the intellectuals, who offers their services either to the state as experts, specialists, and officials, or to society for diversion and instruction, the hommes de lettres always strove to keep aloof from both state and society. Their material existence was based on income without work, and their intellectual attitude rested upon their resolute refusal to be integrated politically or socially."

How antithetical to our age such an attitude would seem. It might appear conservative, too, the man of letters holding himself aloof from the rest of society. But Benjamin was not a conservative. He was, in fact, a deeply progressive and forward-looking thinker.

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