Letter from Daniel Shuchman on SAPIR’s ethics column
To the Editors:
In your Culture issue, Rabbi David Wolpe and Rabba Yaffa Epstein engage in a thoughtful dialogue about the ethics of philanthropic gifts that might be tainted by the bad character of a donor. They discuss what responsibilities charitable recipients may have to decline gifts from people suspected of having acquired their wealth through unethical or even criminal activity. In the course of the discussion, Rabbi Wolpe says: “According to Balzac, who knew something about human nature and money, ‘behind every great fortune is a great crime.’”
This quote, though widely and casually cited, is inaccurate and highly misleading. It omits qualifying language and context from Balzac’s novel Le Pere Goriot. Specifically, the quote refers to a great fortune “sans cause apparente,” which roughly translates to “where the source of the fortune is not clear.” The quote goes on–depending on the translation one prefers–to allude either to a source that has been forgotten or a crime that has not been discovered because of deft execution and secrecy. (Rabbi Wolpe separately refers to the recent FTX scandal; perhaps that is more what Balzac had in mind?)
It seems clear that Balzac’s character is not making a universal statement about the inherent nature of all business and wealth, as this (mis)quote is typically used to suggest. Rabbi Wolpe or others may believe that all wealth originates in a crime (even if the philosophical and empirical basis of such a claim is highly debatable), but Balzac’s quote is not an authority for it, even a novelistic one.