Saturday, February 6, 2016

Money is like muck, not good unless it be spread

This aphorism is attributed to King James I of England / VI of Scotland.  The attribution may be false but it's contained in a collection described as a “Royal Chain of Golden Sentences” published in 1650 (25 years after James’s death). This was during the English civil war, which may be significant.

Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626)
The true originator may be the English philosopher and scientist Francis Bacon who in 1625 wrote a piece discussing statecraft titled “Of Seditions and Troubles”.

Above all things, good Policie is to be used, that the Treasure and Moneyes, in a State, be not gathered into few Hands. For otherwise, a State may have a great Stock, and yet starve. And Money is like Muck, not good except it be spread. This is done, chiefly, by suppressing, or at the least, keeping a strait Hand, upon the Devouring Trades of Usurie, Ingrossing, great Pasturages, and the like.

In the same year Bacon attributed a similar saying to a Mr. Bettenham, including the pleasing image of money stinking when kept in a heap instead of being spread. [1]

Mr. Bettenham vsed to say; That Riches were like Mucke: When it lay, vpon an heape, it gaue but a stench, and ill odour; but when it was spread vpon the ground, then it was cause of much fruit.

All this you can find in the Quote Investigator.

It started with someone writing in to ask for the origin of a saying of the British entrepreneur Richard Branson who used the image of money stinking when it's in a pile on his website: “If you let money pile up, it starts to stink. But if you spread it around then it can do a lot of good.”  

Francis Bacon by the bye was the first to make the cogent observation that the modern world was distinguished from the ancient one by the three key inventions of gunpowder, printing, and the magnetic compass. All of which, unbeknownst to him, came from China, a fact unearthed by Joseph Needham in the 20th century, see my essay The day I met a famous man.

My closing thought is to wonder if the Levellers used Bacon's saying that money stinks in a pile in their pamphlets, and if the attribution to James I (by a royalist, clearly) was intended to draw the sting out of it. Pure speculation on my part, I've googled in vain to find any connection. 

A pamphlet by Gerard Winstanley printed in 1649

[1] “Apophthegmes New and Old” (1625) (apophthegme being French for aphorism).