The following is the synopsis of a short story called How Much Land Does a Man Need?, written by the famous Russian author Leo Tolstoy.
A peasant man called Pahom was complaining of how he did not possess enough land to satisfy him. He lamented: “If I had plenty of land, I should not fear the Devil himself”. The Devil, hiding behind the stove and listening to this, decided to have a tussle with Pahom to teach him a lesson.
The next day, a lady in the village sold her estate, which was bought up by the peasants. Pahom too tried to buy as much land as possible and by utilising the land he pays off his debts and he leads a happier life. But despite having his wish granted, he was still not satisfied and desired more land. His obsession with his land began to cause troubles with his neighbours and he eventually moved to a larger area of land at another village.
However, he was annoyed that he was growing crop on rented land and wanted more land for himself. He found out that the Bashkirs in the village were simple-minded people with large amounts of land. Pahom decided to exploit the Bashkirs and went to them to negotiate the lowest price possible for their land. The Bashkirs counteroffered with a very strange deal: for a thousand rubles, they would let Pahom take a spade to mark out an area of land and claim it for himself. The only condition was that he had to come back to where he started to close the loop by sunset. Pahom joyfully took up the offer, thinking how stupid these people were.
That night, Pahom had a surreal dream where he saw himself lying at the feet of the Devil. The Devil was laughing maniacally over Pahom’s cold, dead body. After jerking awake from this nightmare, Pahom sets out to start marking out as much land as possible. He decides to travel as far as he can to maximise his gain. However, he forgets to take into account the time needed to come back to where he started and hurries back. Although he manages to close the loop by sunset, the exhaustion causes him to drop dead on the spot. He is buried in a hole measuring 6 feet long.
How much more land does a man need than a place where he can rest in peace?
According to ancient Greek mythology, a person’s soul must cross five rivers to enter Hades’ underworld after death. Charon ferries souls across the first river, Acheron, also known as the river of pain. To use Charon’s services, one had to pay a silver coin (obolus). If one could not pay the fee, one could not cross the river and would circle the Earth for eternity. Thus, the ancient Greeks had a custom of putting a coin in the deceased’s mouth for their journey.
Even for something as unavoidable as death, Charon asks for money. This not only shows that the ancient Greeks had a good understanding of market economies, but also teaches us something important about capitalism.
Just as the reaper takes a fee, nothing in the world is free. A market is the most effective economy system that man has devised and no other system (especially communism) has overcome it. But we have a tendency to denounce corporations for only taking advantage of poor, helpless citizens. Although there is corruption in reality, corporations are still subject to the invisible hand and bound by the basic principle of capitalism, supply and demand.
We only see the negative sides of capitalism and decry Charon’s greed. “How could you ask a helpless soul for money? Is that not robbery?”, we cry. But such words can only be said by someone who has devised a better system than the market, or found a way to keep Charon well-fed. Instead of criticising the economy or policies, it is far more efficient to think of a way to improve the market system. Blindly criticising and trying to destroy capitalism like Karl Marx did will only result in splitting the world in two and cause everyone to starve to death.
The reason being, money is an invention as important as fire to mankind.