30 Aug To sell your soul—what does that mean? (ROLF DOBELLI)
The Alps. An enormous obstacle in the middle of Europe.
For centuries they’ve blocked the transport of people and goods between North and South, and those of an adventurous spirit have tried numerous times to cross them. The most promising path was the Gotthard Pass—it cuts through the middle of the Alps, between the Swiss cantons of Uri and Ticino. Yet in the middle was the wild, deep-set Schöllenen Gorge that leads to the pass from the north. How to cross this vast fissure? The answer, in the thirteenth century, was to build a bridge—the Devil’s Bridge.
The locals had tried and failed many times to build one. At last, the head of the regional assembly, the Landammann, cried in desperation: “Do sell der Tyfel e Brigg bue!” (Urner German dialect for “Then let the Devil build a bridge there!”). Hardly were the words spoken before the Devil appeared to the baffled locals and offered them a pact. He would be happy to build the bridge, on one condition: that the soul of the first creature to cross the finished structure would belong to him—to the Devil.
The wily locals accepted, and secretly came up with a plan. After the Devil built the bridge, they sent a goat to cross it first. The Devil, understandably annoyed, picked up a boulder the size of a house and was about to smash the bridge. Just then, however, he was confronted by a pious woman, who scratched a cross into the stone. Distracted, the Devil let the boulder drop. It thundered down into the gorge, narrowly missing the bridge, and didn’t stop until it had passed the village of Göschenen. You can still see it there today, a few meters from the Autobahn—it’s been called the “Devil’s stone” ever since.
The people of Uri had sold their souls but wriggled out of it without a scratch—and come away with a revolutionary transport bridge. Similar tales can be found in all cultures, though most of them are less mild. In Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, the hero sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for remaining permanently young and beautiful while his portrait ages instead. Gray spirals into debauchery as his portrait grows ever more hideous; eventually he can bear it no longer and destroys it—thereby killing himself. More famous still is the pact of Faustian legend, in which the alchemist Johann Georg Faust sold his soul to acquire all the world’s knowledge and indulge in all its possible and impossible pleasures. Goethe turned the story into a classic, and it’s now required reading at German schools.
To sell your soul—what does that mean? Evidently, in financial transactions, certain things are considered taboo across all ages and cultures. No deals. No trades. No money changing hands. These things are sacred—they are priceless.
For an economist, of course, nothing is priceless. Sacred things are just “massively overvalued,” the economist would say—offer enough money and the owner weakens. This is what makes narratives like Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit so compelling. In Dürrenmatt’s play, Claire Zachanassian offers the inhabitants of an impoverished town a billion Swiss francs if they kill her former lover—and she gets what she wants.
Ask yourself the following question: are there things you hold so sacred that you wouldn’t sell them for any price, even a billion dollars? Write down your answer in the margin.
What’s on your list? The obvious candidates are your life, the lives of your immediate and extended family, of your friends, perhaps any human life. What about your health? Would you accept being ill, say with leukemia or depression, for a billion pounds? What about your opinions? Do your opinions have a price? Some politicians are willing to sell their vote to whichever company has the biggest budget. Would you consider doing the same? Would you reconsider if you were living on the breadline? What about your time? Your attention? Your principles? Are there some you would never throw overboard, even to become a billionaire?
I’m sure you’re not short of offers in your own life. In his book What Money Can’t Buy, Harvard professor Michael Sandel reveals how the “deal” has increasingly infiltrated new areas of life over the last fifty years. Things that were formerly non-negotiable are now open to discussion. One woman in America, for instance, accepted $10,000 to get the name of an online casino tattooed on her forehead, so that she could finance her son’s education. This is a voluntary transaction, of course, but it involves something that was once sacrosanct: the human body, now degraded into a billboard. Meanwhile, banks routinely invest in pensioners’ life insurance. The earlier the pensioners die, the more money the banks earn. Hundreds of similar examples show that the monetary economy is expanding its assault on formerly sacred subjects. You can’t expect legislators to prevent the encroachment of financial logic. It’s up to you to repel these attacks on your own circle of dignity.
The upshot? Define your circle of dignity sharply. Don’t let yourself be infected when the financial virus tries to penetrate your values’ immune system. The things inside your circle of dignity are non-negotiable, always—no matter how much cash is offered in return. Anything else would be a devil’s bargain, and you’re not likely to escape as unscathed as the people of Uri.
The Art of the Good Life