The Power of Gold | Peter L. Bernstein

Summary of: The Power of Gold: The History of an Obsession
By: Peter L. Bernstein


Welcome to the captivating world of gold and its powerful influence on humanity throughout history, as portrayed in ‘The Power of Gold: The History of an Obsession’ by Peter L. Bernstein. Journey through time as we probe the depths of society’s fascination with this precious metal, from King Ptolemy II’s golden phallus and the ancient Egyptians’ adoration of gold, to the infamous California Gold Rush and modern economies’ attachment to the shimmering element. Discover how gold inspired reverence, provoked wars, and changed the course of history, all while fueling our insatiable greed for wealth and power.

Gold: The Shining Temptation

Throughout history, humans have been enraptured by the lure of gold. Whether it’s King Ptolemy II’s phallus or the legend of the Golden Fleece, gold has controlled the fate of men. Nations have waged wars to gain control of it, but this precious metal has proved to be a double-edged sword. Though it promises ultimate happiness, it can also lead to greed and downfall. The California gold rush and the delusion of gold-based economies by modern leaders like Charles deGaulle are a testament to this. Even Columbus referred to it as a treasure that could help souls get to paradise. The chemical symbol of gold is AU, derived from the word aurora, which means shining dawn. But the question remains – do men possess gold, or does gold possess men with its dangerous light?

The Fascinating Tale of Gold

Gold, a metal full of mysteries, is extremely dense, almost as soft as putty, and can be manipulated as cleverly as the hands and minds that work it. Venetian glasses have been hammered to just five-millionths of an inch thick using gold, and an ounce of this precious metal can be stretched to form a 50-mile-long wire or be pounded into a hundred square feet sheet. If all the gold mined were to be put together, it could fit aboard today’s supertankers and weigh about 125,000 tons. In contrast, the United States produces the same amount of steel every few hours, which sells for merely two cents an ounce. Gold is chemically inert and resistant to oxidization, giving it its undying radiance. Due to its durability, gold has come to represent mankind’s quest for eternal life, security and desire to escape the worldly vicissitudes. As man shaped gold throughout history, his obsession for its illusory riches shaped him. The book narrates the story of what the two did to each other throughout the ages.

The Dark Side of Gold Mining

Gold has been an object of desire for centuries, and its special properties have driven people to extreme measures. However, the extraction of this precious metal has also involved immense human suffering, especially in ancient times. Gold mining in Nubia during biblical times meant a life of misery for slaves who would scratch the rock until they died from exhaustion or were crushed by the falling earth. To get the gold, the miners had to light underground fires, and arsenic fumes often resulted, leading to contorted deaths. Wars were waged constantly to replenish the supply of slaves. This summary highlights the ruthless pursuit of gold at a great human cost and begs the question, why is this metal so valuable that we are willing to betray our humanity in the pursuit of it?

The Rise and Fall of Croesus

Croesus, a wealthy king of Lydia, believed that wealth guaranteed happiness. He invited the Greek lawmaker Solon to his palace and showed off his treasury of gold, to which Solon replied that people were creatures of pure chance. Croesus established bi-metallic coinage and created a new form of money by minting gold coins and lower denomination silver coins, but eventually went to war with Cyrus, the Persian ruler. In the end, Croesus destroyed his own great empire and was about to be burned at the stake, wishing he could pay a fortune to have Solon speak to all the tyrants of the earth. The deluge of gold from the New World did not bring Spain the wealth and power they promised, and gold as an end in itself is meaningless.

Rome’s Greed Meets Parthian Wrath

Marcus Licinius Crassus, a follower of Julius Caesar, amassed great wealth in Rome by owning a fire brigade that purchased burning buildings. To prove his worth as a military leader, he led 44,000 troops into battle against the Parthians in Mesopotamia. However, his arrogance and greed led to his ultimate demise, as his troops were defeated, and the Parthians poured molten gold down his throat as a symbol of Rome’s monetary obsession. The Parthians’ brutal execution of Crassus proved that wealth cannot always buy power or respect.

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