Ever since its first stage performance in 1673, ‘le Malade imaginaire’ (the imaginary invalid) has been one of the most popular plays in Paris’ Comédie Française. In Molière’s classic, the hypochondriac Argan lives his life surrounded by doctors and apothecaries, summoning them to examine and treat his imaginary illnesses, while at the same time getting consumed by worries about the mounting bills for medications.
For the last three hundred years, ‘le Malade imaginaire’ has been played and re-played in theaters around the world. The story has retained its popularity across cultures and generations, as it shares an essential ingredient with all other good stories: ‘le Malade’ contains a life lesson, a snippet of wisdom intricately woven into the story, inviting the audience to listen carefully and reflect on its meaning in their own daily life. Good stories mirror us, offer an insight into our own behaviour, and strengthen our inner compass.
So what can Molière and his story on physical and mental health teach us about today’s economic environment?
First of all, modern society shows some characteristics of very ill health. Over the last centuries we have developed a value-system (or economy) built on an exploitative relationship with the planet that we are part of. We value extraction from the living ecosystem, while conservation or living in symbiosis with our surroundings has no economic value. This serious illness is called unsustainability.
But equally important, society also suffers from an imaginary illness. Although imaginary, it soaks up most of the media air-time and consumes the minds of policy makers, business leaders and the general public. The imaginary illness is the implosion of value in the financial system, to many, better known as ‘The Crisis’. Today there is not one Malade imaginaire called Argan, but we collectively suffer from an unfaltering belief in the value of Argent, or money.
In order to fully grasp the imaginary nature of Argent, we need to understand that money as we know it has no intrinsic value. Bank notes, coins, cheques, numbers or digits on our bank statement, … their value exists solely by the grace of our perception of the value they express. A coin itself can not quench my thirst, a digit in itself can not fill your stomach or provide us warm clothing. None of Life’s needs are directly met by any form of money. Instead, all Life’s needs are met by another form of Life; water, fruits, grains, wool. Money can only enter the transaction as an intermediate, or as an expression of how much or little we value the other form of Life.
In other words, the value of money is a purely mental creation; made up by man and subject to our whims and fashions. Originating from our minds alone, the value of money is imaginaire. The fact that this mental construct of Argent has become the most widely shared and accepted social belief system does not make it less imaginary. The fact that monetary value has grown into an internationally adopted numerical reality, measurable and comparable, does not make it more real in the Grand Scheme of Things, where Life value – the health and well-being of the natural system – is the only value that counts.
Once we understand that the value of money depends on our cultural, human perception and hence resides between our ears, we see that the same is true for the collapse of, or the crisis in the financial belief system.
However, just as Moliere’s Argan gets consumed by the prices of the treatment of his imaginary ills, so do governments and central banks, international businesses and institutions behave like economic hypochondriacs, rushing to find cures for the disease that is destroying our mentally constructed value-system. Lost in the miss-perception that money is true value, billions and trillions have been spent on keeping the imaginary system (money, banks and the belief in the financial sector) alive, while the price of medication creates true costs for the Living system; pressure on natural resources affecting environmental health, pressure on humans affecting collective mental and social health.
After 300 years of listening to Molière, it is time that we learn the lesson of his story. Rather than behaving like Argan’s doctors – continuously confirming the patient’s imaginary maladies and so keeping the status quo alive – it is time to listen to the voice of reason brought by Argan’s brother Beralde. Beralde awakens Argan, and forces him to see that it is his imaginary disease, his belief system alone that does the damage; to the patient and to everybody around him.
Let us hope that today’s crises can be seen as a similar voice of reason; a waking up to a healthy value system and with that, the collapse of the old collective mental models. May it be that as a society, we increasingly recognize the confusion between the mind-made value of money and the true, intrinsic value of Life. That the voices that oppose those who apply cures without questioning the reality of the illness are a sign of this growing recognition. And that collectively questioning the imaginary illness is a sign of transcendence of the deeply rooted crisis of value-perception which has long separated economy and ecology.
The transition towards a beautiful economy, a system created from the worldview that health and vitality in social and ecosystems are the ultimate form of value creation, will allow us to cure the planet’s true illnesses without losing ourselves in the imaginary ones.