When Philosophers Are on the Money (guest post by Maks Sipowicz)
The following is a guest post* by Maks Sipowicz, a doctoral candidate in philosophy at Monash University (whom you can follow on Twitter: @m_sipowicz ). A version of the post first appeared on his blog, Philosophy After Dark (which you can follow on Facebook).
When Philosophers Are on the Money: Thinkers Commemorated on Currency
by Maks Sipowicz
I’ve always been somewhat fascinated by the sometimes odd choices for the historical figures that adorn the currencies we use every day. The design of our legal tender is usually taken to be one of the ways of asserting our national identity and acknowledging those who made key contributions to our nations. This is why the US has its presidents on its money and why dictatorships and monarchies put their sovereigns on theirs.
The other week I was having coffee with a friend who mentioned someone telling them about their list of philosophers who’ve made their way onto their national currencies, which made me curious to see who was deemed important enough.
I started with Wikipedia’s list of people on banknotes, and just searched for the term “philosopher”, which yielded some of the usual suspects (cough Descartes cough). It also presented me with a bit of a problem—the list didn’t count some philosophers as philosophers. The German political theorist Clara Zetkin (featured on East German marks from 1975 to 1990) is listed as a “Marxist theorist”, and not a philosopher. Philosophers Yi I and Yi Hwang are listed as “Confucian scholars”. There are more examples I could cite. The Wikipedia page is rather long, so there wasn’t a very good way of classifying these.
Besides the obvious issue with classifying who was a philosopher and who wasn’t, the second issue was my ignorance of so many of the people on the list. Thankfully, Twitter (shout-out to my friend Patrick for his help with some of these!) was a huge help.
One thing that is a mystery still is why these people were chosen. Descartes seems an obvious choice for France, given that he is without a doubt the most influential of her philosophers. But why Montesquieu as opposed to Émilie du Châtelet? (That’s a naïve question, I know—the only woman that is listed as appearing on the old French franc is Marie Curie—and she wasn’t even French, and she appears with her husband, Pierre; so there’s definitely a theme here…).
Putting the politics of choosing who gets to be on money aside, I find some of these portraits to be pretty interesting aesthetically. Some people are surrounded by some items relevant to their life. A good example is Juana Ines de la Cruz, whose portrait on the Mexican 200 peso note is set next to a book, an inkwell and part of the cloister where she lived. Are these objects the subject of the portrait would have chosen? De la Cruz was a nun—would she think any of these objects are fitting her memory?
The French 100 franc note featured a portrait of Descartes, and behind him was one of the muses holding a thick book and sitting next to an hourglass. Perhaps an allusion to his famous Olympica dreams, where he was presented with the book of knowledge. Really though, it seems an odd choice, given his other achievements are so much more prominent than his whacky story about how he had a bad dream and as a result became a philosopher.
I don’t feel it’s within my power to compile a full list of philosophers on national currencies, but it is nice knowing some have made the cut. If you know of others, please share them in the comments (with links to images, if possible).
I wonder if any contemporary philosophers would make it? I reckon Martha Nussbaum might be a good candidate—her work is wide ranging but at the same time accessible. Or maybe someone more niche would fit? It’s hard to see how any criteria proposed would be adequate. I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments. Who among philosophers, living or dead, do you think deserves to be put on a banknote? Which one, and why?
Related: Thoreau to be on US Postal Stamp.
A tourism company in Marx’s hometown of Trier has created a souvenir “zero-euro bill” with Karl Marx on it, in honor his bicentennial bash. Not real currency, but clever. Story here.
Actually, Marx used be on the 100 Mark bill of the GDR, and Engels on the 50 Mark bill. See here: http://www.sammler.com/mz/images/deutsche_geldscheine_ddr.jpg
Masaryk on the Czech 100 crown note, Rosa Mayreder on the Austrian 500 Schilling.Report
Schrödinger on the 1000 Schilling note too if you want to count him.Report
Spinoza used to be on the 1000 Dutch guilders note. A lot of the Dutch’s nostalgia for pre-euro times is derived from the aesthetic beauty of the designs for these notes.
Jewish philosopher Maimonides was on the 1000 old Israeli shekel note from 1983 to 1986 ) then on the 1 new Israeli shekel note from 1986 to 1995 ).
Also, on rare editions of the 1 shekel coin (which replaced the 1 shekel note) Maimonides appears on the back ).
Georg Henrik von Wright is on some €2 coins.
That’s not a very good likeness.Report
Von Wright was a pillar of the philosophy community for years. I think that’s what they were going for.Report
Adam Smith is on the current Bank of England £20 note.
He was also on the Clydesdale £50 note, though I think that’s out of print now. Some other interesting borderline cases of philosophers are shown at
Descartes also seems to be holding a compass, alluding to his work in geometry.Report
al-Farabi has been on a variety of Kazakhstan tenge (₸) notes since 1993, including the 1 tenge note and all the highest denominations (from 200 to 10,000) from 1993 to 2006.
Avicenna’s tomb (in Hamedan) is on the back of the 200 Rial Iranian banknote.
200 Lithuanian Litas (1997-2014)Report
Roger Joseph Boscovich, scientist and philosopher, was on some Croatian banknotes. http://www.kunalipa.com/katalog/hrvatski-dinar/
John Scottus Eriugena was on the old Irish £5 note:
And here I thought Snuggies to be a modern invention.Report
David Hume was on some Scottish banknotes: http://www.numismondo.net/pm/sco/sco_N.10_20_Pounds_Edinburg_16.9.2014MG.jpg
Queen Elizabeth I, even though it seems fair to suggest it wasn’t her translation of Boethius that got her on the coinsReport
Democritus has been featured on Greek banknotes and coins.Report