The Meaning of Money in the 21st Century
An Interview with JACOB NEEDLEMAN 

By Alexander M. Dake


Jacob Needleman, an internationally known writer on philosophy and religion, is the author of numerous books, including Money and the Meaning of Life. In addition, he is a professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University. Over a 30-year career, he has not only taught courses about the meaning of money but has counseled rich and successful people on how to deal with money in their life. Alexander Dake interviewed Needleman during a conference on Time and Money in Marion, Massachusetts during the height of the Internet boom, although he clearly saw its eventual collapse. Needleman believes that we need to make money more, not less, meaningful and reconnect its worldly dimensions to the sacred dimensions of our lives.

AD: What is so attractive and seductive about money?

JN: Money has the power of giving people the idea that they are powerful, happy and important. That’s where the danger lies, because it is a false sense of comfort. If you worry about little things when you are poor, you will continue worrying about bigger things when you are rich. Money will not change your inner being, and that’s where most people make a mistake. They think money will change their lives and it may, but not in the ways they expect. If you don’t know how you are toward money and understand that relationship, you don’t know yourself. A worrier will remain a worrier, a confident person will remain confident, irrespective of the state of wealth.

AD: You explain in your writings that the reason for the importance of money fundamentally increased due to Protestantism. Can you explain that a bit more?

JN: Let me first explain what it means when we say that money has become more important than ever. First of all money enters into everything in society, much more now than ever in any other civilization. Everything becomes monetized. There was a time when issues involving personal relationships, doctors and medicine, academic relationships, artistic life were considered out of the realm of monetary measures. An artist could be appreciated for who he was without being financially successful. A doctor was willing to perform a medical treatment without necessarily being paid right away or even at all if the patient could not afford to pay. Now, however, if people talk about disease often the healthcare cost is an important part of the current discussion. For example talking about the deaths caused by tobacco, the fact that the tobacco companies have to pay billions of dollars in damages seems more important than the deaths and diseases caused by tobacco. Everything is being priced nowadays. That is not necessarily bad, but shows how money has entered every corner of our lives. Part of this development has to do with the breakdown of values in our culture. Money has come in to fill this gap. Again, this may not be all bad: instead of killing each other, we sue each other. The power of money is that it has started quantifying life, but takes away the qualitative aspects of life. That coincides with another development in our culture, that we use our minds more and more and our heart less when making decisions. Anyway, it was the early twentieth century when sociologist Max Weber  said that Protestantism was the chief cause of capitalism. Capitalism also existed in other cultures but Protestant culture was the only one that gave a religious meaning to earning money.

AD: How do you explain the difference between the attitudes about money in protestant countries in Western Europe, such as Switzerland and Holland and the US, where the importance of money indeed seems to be all pervasive?

JN: When Weber was making his observations about Protestantism he was specifically referring to developments in the US, where money had almost assumed the role of religion. This had started in the early history of the US with leaders as Benjamin Franklin, who made money the measure of one’s relationship to God. This existed to a limited extent in Switzerland and also in Holland, but in the US, the Americans interpreted the spirit of Protestantism in their own way and increased the importance of money and its religious role.

AD: Having just established the pervasive influence of money in our society, you still claim that we need to make money more meaningful in our lives. Why?

JN: Man should respect money much more. Money in itself is not bad, only when it destroys or replaces what is precious in our lives does it become a bad influence. Money is a means by which human desire plays itself out in the world and human desire in itself is a great thing, which needs to be respected. So, people need to take money as a tool more seriously. Not serious in the sense of grabbing as much money as you can, but serious in the sense of acknowledging that money is a big piece of human life. In order to understand one owns life one needs to understand money’s role in one’s life.

AD: You advise many different people about how to deal with money in their lives. Where do you start when advising them? Do you look at their personal lives or do you look at how they actually deal with money in their lives?

JN: I start looking at an individual’s attitude towards money. People have all kinds of fears, delusions and self-deceptions about money. There exists a tremendous hypocrisy about money. The taboo that used to surround sex, now surrounds money. You really need the courage and honesty to look at how you deal with money, without judging yourself. In my experience these attitudes are often based on very primitive notions deep down in people’s psyche: the obvious examples are people who truly believe money is dirty, and then there are people who believe money is the most important thing in life. Especially the latter is engrained in American culture. And then there are many people who believe both and become even more hypocritical about money. You can’t get rid of these notions quickly.

AD: How do you explain the inherent admiration, especially in the US but also in other countries, for people with money, without often knowing anything else about that person?

JN: This is another example of the hypocrisy around money. When people in the US meet someone who turns out to be a billionaire, their whole attitude towards him suddenly changes. It is not a rational but a deeply emotional response. People respect people with money much more than anything else people do, overall. I once asked a billionaire, who had started his career with nothing, what was the most surprising thing he discovered when he got rich. He said that people treated him with immense respect and valued his opinions as if he was all knowledgeable. He then added that the only thing he knew was how to make money. People’s self-identity is based upon how much money they make. That is much stronger in the US than in Europe, although Europe is moving in that direction too. The flipside of this is that American businessmen can be much more direct and honest about being in the business of making money, while European businessmen appear to hide the importance of making a profit. Again, that is changing as well.

AD: How do you think future historians will look at this period of money ruling our culture?

JN: Future historians will look back at this period as an amazing period of wealth but also quite barbaric. We can’t survive if we just value money and power. I don’t believe any society or culture can exist without some spiritual values at its core. I think we are reaching a crisis situation, if we don’t change our current love for money.

AD: What is your experience with the new wealth gained and lost again in recent years by a lot of the Silicon Valley executives?

JN: Two years ago, I was invited by Microsoft to advise them how to keep their young 30-35 year old executives who were leaving because they had become independently wealthy. It was clear that money was not going to keep them. Meaningful work might have kept them. Silicon Valley was described as the largest legal accumulation of wealth in history. 

AD: What would be meaningful work?

JN: Well, clearly one result of the New Economy is the rise of knowledge workers, who have sensed the freedom to leave old jobs and start new jobs. That freedom has increased their appetite for meaningful work, which could be anything that is joyful, has challenges, and comes from the heart. Money can not buy that experience. Even with the current downturn, I think knowledge workers will continue to look for more meaningful work. This is definitely a culture of young workers.

AD: How do these knowledge workers define success?

JN: Surprisingly not just in monetary terms. These workers consider themselves successful when they do something cutting edge, something new and interesting, and hopefully good for mankind and society. They do share the delusion that if they are working on a faster computer or modem, that that will be by definition good for mankind. I call this the delusion of new technology. We as a society believe that new technology has given us all kinds of benefits, but one can wonder what in actuality it has achieved, besides speeding up people’s lives. Technology often solves one problem and creates two new problems, which in turn will need new technology to be solved. And this process goes on and on. Inventions were designed to save labor and time, but most Americans work longer hours and have less time than ever. 

AD: Why does our society seem not to value some very important professions, such as teaching, health- and child care, the arts and science, if measured in monetary terms?

JN: People who touch the weakest points of human nature are the ones who are making the most money. People are willing to pay most for services that satisfy the desire for excitement, self-deception, vanity, and pleasure. That’s when people feel most alive, not when listening to a thoughtful teacher or having a reliable nurse in the hospital. This may not sound just, but the question of money is not about justice. It’s about emotions and how we learn to deal with those underlying emotions.

AD: Is money then the right way of measuring work? For instance, a teacher in small town will never be able to increase the scale of his services or his audience and thus has an inherent cap on his income, while a pop star theoretically can broaden her audience to include the whole world with near limitless income.

JN: Using other means of rewarding people than money will not change the human nature behind these grotesque differences in pay. I don’t know whether we will ever value a teacher in terms of money the same way as we value a pop star. Maybe it is better if we don’t. Maybe a teacher will teach better if he is not getting two million dollars a year. Also people might come to realize not that a teacher should be paid more, but that he has a better life than a pop star. There are examples of people leaving highly paid jobs to do things they really enjoy, but at much less pay. 

AD: You have also written about time and the existence of time poverty. Are the problems associated with time comparable to money?

JN: Yes, time and money suffer from similar delusions. The proliferation of desire has been the basis for our capitalistic economy. It is not the satisfaction of desire, but the creation of artificial desire. People do not need 99% of the products that are offered in the market place. If the so-called “normal” desires would be satisfied, then the economy would collapse. The economy is based upon delusions and false desires. Who needs 20 kinds of orange juice in the supermarket? This is where the time problem comes in. Because of all these desires, we have to work harder and longer hours to afford these desires and then we have too little time to buy the products or services, let alone enjoy them. This, in turn, is a reflection of living in our heads and continuously being busy with our possible future desires. Time seems than to pass faster and faster. We just don’t have enough time to do what we think we need to do; we do not even have time to do what we really need to do. That is time poverty. Just as we have seen with money, with time we are also seeing the loss of values and the loss of the sense of what a human being is all about.

AD: This sounds like a sad situation at the beginning of the 21st century. 

JN: It is a very severe crisis, and it can not go on like this much longer.

Books by Needleman:
Money and the Meaning of Life 
Lost Christianity: a journey of rediscovery to the center of Christian experience  
A little book on Love 
Time and the Soul: where has all the Meaningful Time Gone
The new religions

Author's website

2001, A.M. Dake, can be contacted at


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