The ABC primer is called gratuitousness

The ABC primer is called gratuitousness

Roots of the future/10 - Collodi reminds us that money is a complex, delicate commodity, and not good for kids.

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 06/11/2022

Money is a delicate commodity, generally bad for kids. Collodi knows this, and reminds us of it in the splendid and eternal economic pages of Pinocchio.

Money and kids come from different worlds. Contacts between them are always risky and often harmful. The only good stock exchange for kids is mum and dad's stock exchange. Their law (nomos) of the house (oikos) is the gift, not the contract nor the incentive. When they need money, they ask their parents and it is within this non-economic relationship where the ABC of economy is learned. Economic dependence on their parents is excellent, because money known at the outset as a place of gratuitous love creates the ethical premises for giving the right value to contracts and work tomorrow. At home they learn that money comes from the work of their parents, who spend a lot of time away to earn that money with which to live well.

It is this first domestic gratuitousness that gives the right measure to money, to work, to the economy. Pocket money to be managed and administered independently, however, creates a commercial context similar to the "little trader" (Garoffi) in the book Cuore/Heart, more in keeping with Collodi's Gigino, "The little man before his time" (Happy stories/Storie allegre). In fact, when we start using money as an incentive at home, removing it from the concept of being a gift, thereby making it a means of motivating our children, we distort both the concept of family as well as that of money. The pocket money becomes the "why" a girl will do the dishes and maybe the cleaning. Money, furthermore, erodes that great law of education: good and right actions should be done merely because they are good and right, not for any monetary incentive. On the other hand, when we do not even learn the ethics of gratuity at home, one day it will be difficult to learn the different and complementary logic of a contract. Young people today are not developing a good relationship with the job market partly because the economic logic enters the home too soon, thanks to the Trojan horse of responsibility.

Pinocchio's troubles start with money. Geppetto has just sold his jacket to be able to buy him a primer – a parents' job is to stay in shirtsleeves in order to enable their children to study: I ​​have seen this and I see it in my family as well. Pinocchio (chap. IX) is enchanted by the call of the piper (it is interesting to note that "incentive" derives from the Latin word incentivus, the flute that tunes and enchants), het puts aside his intention to go to school and decides to join the "Puppet Theatre". He asks a boy: «How much does it cost to enter?» Even Pinocchio knows the fundamental law of life outside his home: if you want something from someone, you have to offer them something in return. He does not try to circumvent it; he accepts it and tries to get the «loose change» he needs. At first, he tries to make a barter: he offers the boy his flowered paper jacket in vain, then his shoes, and then his breadcrumb cap. Finally, he offers him his most precious possession: «Would you give me some money for this primer?». And here comes the boy's decisive answer: «I'm a kid, and I do not buy anything from other kids», a kid, as Collodi comments, who «had more sense than he did himself». Kids do not sign contracts, they do not have to make money trades. However, here is the turning point: «I'll get the primer for small change - shouted a second-hand clothes dealer». An adult, a trader, a professional dealing with money come into play, who act in an illegal way establishing a wrongful relationship with the boy. Children must be protected from "second-hand clothes dealers"; merchants need to be chased away from the temple of kids with walking sticks, because they have the right to a different kind of oikonomia where the only currency is gratuity.

Pinocchio enters the court of Mangiafuoco thanks to that bad small change. We already know the story. This one also ends with more money: the notorious «five gold pieces» (chapter XII), another source of many of Pinocchio's misadventures. However, this second monetary episode is different, seemingly the opposite. Mangiafuoco does not trade with the puppet; but gives him, or rather, gifts him with five gold pieces – regalo/gift is a word that comes from rex, regis: regalie/king, and signals its asymmetrical origin: the gift is given by (or to) the powerful. However, once more, money coming from an adult does not end up bringing any good results for the boy. A good motivation (as that of Mangiafuoco appears to be) is not enough to make money into something good for the kids. Not even a gift is a good thing, if done outside of a child’s primary relationships and therefore not mediated by his or her family. Money that reaches kids directly without the mediation of their parents tends to turn bad.

In fact, it is the possession of the golden pieces that end up exposing Pinocchio to being abused by the cat and the fox. Meeting them along the road, Pinocchio tells them: «I have become a real gentleman». Maybe he was exaggerating, but in Tuscany in the 19th century you could about five quintals of wheat with five gold pieces. He was not much of a rich man, but he certainly was handling too much money. The boy naively talks about it with two strangers, two adults. This sincerity and reliance on adults is part of the transitory and beautiful wonder of children and young people, and it is also their main vulnerability: «And he took out the coins he had received as a gift from Mangiafuoco». As a gift, indeed. This exploitation by the cat and the fox is so serious in Collodi’s eyes that in the first version of the story, it eventually leads Pinocchio to his death (chapter XV); telling us that making a mistake with money can be fatal for a kid, a matter of life and death.

«Give us your purse or die», the killers shout at him – a terrible thing to put kids in front of this dilemma, because they nearly always end up losing their. In order to create the manipulative dialogue of the cat and the fox Collodi resorts to a language of gifts and altruism: «I will give you the other five hundred pieces as a gift», says Pinocchio. «A gift for us? Shouted the fox, indignant and feeling offended – God save us…! We do not work for some vile interest: we work to enrich others» (chapter XII). Then Pinocchio says to the cat: «If all cats were like you, the mice would be very lucky indeed» (chapter XVIII). However, there is more. In the important episode of Pinocchio taking the place of the watchdog Melampo, the puppet realizes that there is something wrong in the corrupt proposal that the martens offer him (you be quiet, do not bark, and we'll give you a bribe, a «plucked hen, ready for tomorrow's breakfast», chap. XXII) and reports them to the farmer. However, the martens use a language of exchange and interest, and the puppet uncovers their crime. The cat and the fox, on the other hand, being much more cunning and real experts in humanity, use the language of gifts and a general disinterest: and "kill" him. There is nothing more serious for an adult than manipulating the language of gratuitousness to deceive a child (or indeed anyone).

Cats and foxes know that kids live in the world of gifts, it is their mother tongue, and so they utter words of death while using good words of home. Here, Collodi also proves that he is a real expert on the debate regarding the role of selfishness and altruism in modern economy, and perhaps he had Adam Smith's famous phrase in mind: «I have never seen anyone who claimed to be trading for the common good doing anything good» (The Wealth of Nations, 1776). More generally, a sign that often reveals the presence of a "killer" in an economic relationship is his declaration that he works only to enrich others, without any personal interest. Pinocchio could not have known that true and good economics thrive on mutual advantage, and that the absence of an advantage in one of the two parties is a sign of the presence of a vice, of a certain kind of cheating when thought out by the party that would have no interest in the exchange. However, we should be well aware of this.

It is interesting to note that the cat and the fox have already been introduced at an earlier stage, in an early novel by Carlo Lorenzini (not yet Collodi), The secrets of Florence. Chapter II, “Two birds of prey”, introduces us to Count Calami and Countess Floriani grappling with their victims: «“You have to pluck a quail with a little bit of humanity”, said the count. “All humanity consists in, is not making it screech”, said the countess, whose eyes shone ominously like those of a wild cat» (Carlo Lorenzini, The secrets of Florence/I misteri di Firenze, p. 33). The environment in which the two «big birds of pray» (an expression found in the town of Acchiappacitrulli, chap. XVIII) operate, is that of gambling. The Marquis Stanislao Teodori is captured by them in the gambling scene and proceeds to eventually ruin himself gambling: «I saw him come to the table with twenty paoli coins in his pocket and bet half a paoli coin at a time. Shall we play him on his word?» (p.34). Later, in Giannettino, Collodi's book for children that precedes Pinocchio by a few years, at its centre we find the scene of Giannettino gambling with the money his mother had given him to buy an atlas: «The toughest guy in the brigade said: "I have a suggestion, what if we bet and he who loses has to pay dinner for everyone?". "Yes, yes, get your dices", the others shout... "All right", says Giannettino, "let's gamble for five lire". He played and lost them» (Collodi, Giannettino, p. 238).

It is quite probable that Collodi was a "gambler". It seems that he resumed writing the second part of Pinocchio in order to pay this kind of debt: «The bets followed the ups and downs of his purse a little and when upon leaving the gambling den of Palazzo Davanzati at dawn, he heard some money jingling in his pockets, he shrugged his shoulders and there was no talk of even picking up his pen again, unless his pockets felt much lighter» (M. Parenti, Rassegna Lucchese publication 1952). In fact, when reading the chapters dedicated to the cat and the fox, we come to realize that the climate is more that of gambling than of the economy of his time: «Do you want to make five miserable gold pieces into a hundred, a thousand, two thousand» (chapter XII). The logic of earning a lot of money without making any real effort, as the big parrot reminds Pinocchio (chap. XIX), «to honestly put together a little money you have to know how to earn it either with the work of your hands or with the wit in your head», was and is the great illusion-disappointment of gambling. And today of certain financial systems that resemble it a bit too much, as well. There is a lot of Collodi in Pinocchio. Pinocchio is also the man Carlo Lorenzini who sought his own redemption by sublimating himself in a wonderful donated story. This is one of the things that art is capable of doing, transforming our dirt into beauty for others. Creating a masterpiece requires fragility, the fissure of the soul from which artists peek at paradise on certain brighter day.

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