Alan S. Kahan has cast new light on an ongoing conflict with origins in classical antiquity if not earlier. Kahan’s Mind vs. Money: The War Between Intellectuals and Capitalism is a learned and engaging account of the tension between the amorality of the marketplace and the moralism of would-be priestly authorities. Until the Enlightenment, merchants were forced to bow before the courtly classes of the aristocracy, which staffed the military, and the clergy, which surveilled the public morality of the peasantry. But the Enlightenment, in challenging the authority of the aristocracy and the priesthood, opened up space for unbowed commerce, and hence the merchant middle class, to thrive. There are those, once largely on the right, today largely on the left, who have never forgiven the Enlightenment for this sin against the would-be guardians of morality.
The book’s central themes were laid out in 1834 by the German poet Heinrich Heine. Heine, who had nothing but contempt for American money-making, spoke of the United States as “that big pig-pen of freedom/Inhabited by boors living in equality.” Heine’s romantic ambitions yearned to transcend mere material freedom. He saw the intellectuals as the basis for the new aristocracy of virtue. “It is no longer a matter of destroying the old church,” he explained, “but rather building a new one, and far from wanting to annihilate the clergy, today we want to make ourselves priests.” But while Heine hoped a clerisy would remake the world he also saw an abyss ahead. “A drama will be performed in Germany,” he prophesied, “in contrast with which the French Revolution will seem a mere peaceful idyll.”