The richest person in history — and speaking truth to power

Trying to identify the richest person in history is difficult, given a host of economic factors in different eras: the different levels of inflation, the fact that much wealth was held in land and precious metals, and varying currency values over time.

Oct 29, 2021


By Anil Netto

Trying to identify the richest person in history is difficult, given a host of economic factors in different eras: the different levels of inflation, the fact that much wealth was held in land and precious metals, and varying currency values over time.

And how do you separate personal wealth from the wealth of an empire — especially when the emperor or king is seen as a deified being or a son of God? In times past, the wealth of the empire or kingdom was merged with the emperor or king. So, such ancient leaders owned stupendous amounts of wealth, far overshadowing the world’s richest persons today.

Two leaders in particular stand out. There was Mansa Musa (Musa I), the leader of the Mali Empire in the 14th Century, who exploited his nation’s vast gold production. Contemporary sources suggest he owned more gold than was thought possible. It simply meant his wealth was immeasurable.

Going further back, others regard Augustus Caesar, who lived from 63 BC to AD 14, as the richest person of all time. Time magazine estimated his wealth at $4.6 trillion (that’s about RM19 trillion)! Augustus controlled many nation-states, and he was said to have personally owned all of Egypt. His personal wealth was estimated to be equivalent to a fifth of the Roman Empire’s economy. The empire itself accounted for 25 per cent to 30 per cent of the world’s economic output. In contrast, another website put King Solomon’s wealth at a ‘mere’ $2.2 trillion.

Today, it is just as difficult to measure an individual’s wealth. As the Pandora Papers show, a string of billionaires hide their wealth — whether legitimate or illegitimate — in secret bank accounts abroad or in offshore havens, away from the prying eyes of journalists and investigators.

In addition, Global Financial Integrity estimated that RM1.8 trillion in illicit funds flowed out of Malaysia in the decade from 2004.

Was it a coincidence that Jesus was born around 4 BC and grew up when Augustus Caesar, one of the richest persons in history — if not the richest — was still alive?

Unlike Augustus, who lived in the seat of power in Rome and regarded himself as a son of God, Jesus lived on the eastern margins of the empire — 2,300km away from the centre. From this distant outpost of the empire, Jesus mingled not with the well-heeled but with the poor and downtrodden, the outcast and the ‘unclean’.

Some people, activists especially, talk about the responsibility of “speaking truth to power”. They see it as a Christian duty to speak truth to power in the face of blatant injustice and gross wealth inequalities. After all, many Old Testament prophets did likewise in the face of gross injustice.

But a leading public intellectual, Noam Chomsky, offers a more nuanced take.

Chomsky said he found the notion of speaking truth to power “troubling”.

“The powerful typically know the truth quite well. They generally know what they are doing, and don’t need our instructions,” he said. “They also will not benefit from moral lessons, not because they are necessarily bad people, but because they play a certain institutional role, and if they abandon that role, somebody else will fill it as long as the institutions persist.” For example, the CEO of a polluting company already knows that the firm’s activities are damaging the environment.

But he or she also knows that if he or she causes the company to lose profitability by eschewing environmentally damaging practices, the shareholders will quickly seek a replacement CEO to carry on business as usual.

So, should we then speak truth to the powerless, the victims of the powerful? This may have its use. If the powerless are aware of the injustices in society, they might then start organising and educating themselves more effectively to reform the oppressive institutions in society that hinder their progress. This would provide more space for freedom and justice to grow.

But Chomsky still does not think this is the right approach. He offers a third way: “The task of a responsible person — anyone who wants to uphold intellectual and moral values — is not to speak what they regard as truth to anybody — the powerful or the powerless — but rather, to speak with the powerless and to try to learn their truth. That’s always a collective endeavour, and wisdom and understanding need not come from any particular turf.”

So, which of these three ways of speaking truth did Jesus employ when speaking the truth — speaking truth to power, to the powerless — or with the powerless?

From the Gospels, we can see that Jesus spent much of his ministry away from the centres of power of his time — Jerusalem in Judea, and the local establishment towns of Sepphoris and Tiberias in Galilee.

Jesus mingled with the powerless and learned from their daily suffering. Out of this immersive experience, he was able to discern the truth and then share it with those around him. They seemed to be more receptive to those truths as they recognised them as emerging from Jesus’ lived experience among them.

So, Jesus was not necessarily speaking to the powerful of his time, but to all who would listen, about the dangers of hoarding wealth and the importance of love of God, expressed through compassion for the poor and love for their neighbours and strangers among them.

When later, Pilate asked Jesus if he was a king, the man from Galilee replied that he had come into the world to “bear witness to the truth” and said that everyone who is on the side of truth would hear his voice (even down the ages).

Pilate could not fathom this. Or, did Jesus make him uncomfortable – for what other truth could there be compared to what he had grown up accustomed to in Rome? “What is truth?” he responded.

For Pilate, the representative of Caesar in Judea, truth was what the emperor decided – and it emanated from the seat of power in Rome, the centre of empire.

For Jesus, truth was discerned from the margins of power, from the periphery, from his incarnation and immersion among the suffering.

The latter is the direction the Bishop of Rome wants the Church to take, through a synodal experience of being Church today: listening to and discovering truths from the periphery of the Church, among the poor and the vulnerable on the margins of society, away from the centres of power and wealth.

Come, Holy Spirit, and guide us on this journey.

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